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Homeschooling Witt and Wisdom

My friend Maureen Wittmann, homeschooling expert, is now the homeschooling impresario of Catholic Exchange. Recently she posted on The Martyrs of Ancient Rome, with some great tips for teaching ancient Christianity — useful for classroom teachers, too.

Bishops martyred under Trajan, St. Ignatius fighting heresy in the early Church, the persecutions in Lyons, St. Justin using arguments of philosophy to persuade the Emperor Aurelius to validate Christianity — these are all events worth further study in our homeschools. The Saints impact history in a way that is still felt today and we would be remiss not to share their stories with our children.

Read the rest!

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Benedict Takes Us Cyrillously

Pope Benedict gets cooler every week. This Wednesday, in his continuing catechesis on the Church Fathers, he turned to St. Cyril of Alexandria — a man much maligned in the last century, but unjustly. He’s one of my faves, as regular readers know.

Choosy readers will want to read more. For instance: Fr. Thomas Weinandy’s The Theology of St. Cyril of Alexandria: A Critical Appreciation and R.L Wilken’s Judaism and the Early Christian Mind. I’ve reviewed J.A. McGuckin’s St. Cyril of Alexandria: The Christological Controversy for Touchstone.

Here follows the unofficial Zenit translation of Pope Benedict’s audience talk. (The Vatican has so far posted only a summary.)

Dear brothers and sisters!

Today, continuing our journey in the footsteps of the Fathers of the Church, we meet a great figure: St. Cyril of Alexandria. Linked to the Christological controversy that led to the Council of Ephesus in 431, and the last noteworthy representative of the Alexandrian tradition, Cyril was later defined in the East as the “custodian of accuracy” — in other words, a guardian of the true faith — and even the “seal of all the Fathers.”

These ancient expressions manifest something that is, in fact, characteristic of Cyril, that is, the constant references the bishop of Alexandria makes to preceding ecclesiastical authorities — including, above all, Athanasius — with the goal of showing the continuity of his own theology with tradition.

Cyril took care to ensure that his theology was firmly situated within the tradition of the Church, by which he sees the guarantee of continuity with the Apostles and with Christ himself.

Venerated as a saint in both the East and the West, in 1882 St. Cyril was proclaimed a doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XIII, who at that time also gave the same title to another important representative of Greek patristics, St. Cyril of Jerusalem. This shows that Pope’s attention and love for the Eastern Christian traditions; he would later proclaim St. John Damascene a doctor of the Church, showing how the Eastern and Western traditions express the doctrine of the one Church of Christ.

Information on the life of Cyril before his election to the important See of Alexandria is scarce. A nephew of Theophilus — who, as bishop from 385, upheld the Diocese of Alexandria with resolve and prestige — Cyril was most likely born in that same Egyptian city sometime between 370-380. He soon embraced the ecclesiastical life and received a good education, both in culture and theology. In 403, he was in Constantinople following his powerful uncle and, here, he participated in the so-called Synod of the Oak, which deposed the city’s bishop — John, later called Chrysostom. This indicated the triumph of the Alexandrian See over its traditional rival, the See of Constantinople, where the emperor resided.

Upon the death of his uncle Theophilus, though still young, Cyril was elected bishop of the influential Church of Alexandria in 412, which he governed with great energy for 32 years, working tirelessly to affirm its primacy in the East, strengthened by its traditional bonds with Rome.

Two or three years later, in 417 or 418, the bishop of Alexandria showed himself to be a realist and healed the rift in the communion with Constantinople, which had been going on since 406, in the wake of Chrysostom’s removal from office.

But the old conflict with the See of Constantinople was rekindled some 10 years later, when Nestorius was elected in 428, a prestigious but severe monk, educated in Antioch. The new bishop of Constantinople quickly brought much opposition because he preferred the title “Mother of Christ” (Christotòkos) for Mary, in place of “Mother of God” (Theotòkos), which was already beloved in popular devotion.

The reason for Bishop Nestorius’ choice was his adhesion to the Christology of the Antiochean tradition, which, to safeguard the importance of Christ’s humanity, ended up affirming its separation from his divinity. Thus, there was no longer an authentic union between God and the man Christ, and therefore, one could no longer speak of a “Mother of God.”

Cyril — the leading exponent of Alexandrian Christology at the time, one who emphatically underlined the unity of Christ’s person — reacted almost immediately, using every means possible beginning in 429, even writing letters to Nestorius himself.

In the second letter (PG 77, 44-49) which Cyril sent to him, in February 430, we read a clear affirmation of the pastor’s task to preserve the faith of God’s people. This was his criterion, which is still valid today: The faith of God’s people is an expression of tradition, a guarantee of sound doctrine. He wrote to Nestorius: “It is necessary to explain the teaching and interpretation of the faith to the people in an irreproachable way, and recall that he who scandalizes even one of these little ones who believes in Christ will suffer an intolerable punishment.”

In the same letter to Nestorius — which later, in 451, would be approved by the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon — Cyril describes his Christological faith with clarity: “The natures that have united in a true unity are different, but from both resulted one Christ and Son, not because, due to the unity, the differences of the human and divine natures have been eliminated, but rather because humanity and divinity united in an ineffable way have produced the one Lord, Christ, the Son of God.”

And this is important: The true humanity and the true divinity are really united in one person, our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, continues the bishop of Alexandria, “we profess only one Christ and Lord, not in the sense that we adore the man together with the Logos, so as not to insinuate the idea of separation by saying ‘together,’ but rather in the sense that we adore only one; his body is not something detached from the Logos, who sits at the Father’s side. There are not two sons sitting at his side, but one alone united with his own flesh.”

Soon the bishop of Alexandria, thanks to shrewd alliances, saw to it that Nestorius was repeatedly condemned: by the Roman See with a series of 12 anathemas Cyril himself composed and, in the end, by the council held in Ephesus in 431, the Third Ecumenical Council.

The assembly, which took place amid tumultuous and alternating incidents, concluded with the great triumph of devotion to Mary and with the exile of the bishop of Constantinople, who refused to recognize Mary under the title of “Mother of God,” because of a mistaken Christology, which claimed that Christ was divided in himself.

After prevailing in such a definitive way over his rival and his doctrine, Cyril was able to reach, as soon as 433, a theological formula of compromise and reconciliation with the people of Antioch. And this is also significant: On one hand there is clarity about the doctrine of faith, but on the other, there is the intense search for unity and reconciliation. In the years that followed, he dedicated himself in every way to defend and clarify his theological position until his death on June 27, 444.

Cyril’s writings — numerous and widespread in various Latin and Eastern traditions even during his life, which is a testament to their immediate success — are of the utmost importance for the history of Christianity. His commentaries on many of the books of the Old and New Testaments, including the Pentateuch, Isaiah, the Psalms and the Gospels of John and Luke, are important. Many of his doctrinal works are also greatly important, in which he continually defends the Trinitarian faith against the Arian theses and Nestorius.

The basis of Cyril’s teaching is the ecclesiastical tradition, and in particular, as I mentioned, the writings of Athanasius, his great predecessor in the Alexandrian See. Among Cyril’s other writings, we must recall the books “Against Julian,” the last great answer to anti-Christian polemics, dictated by the bishop of Alexandria most likely during the last years of his life as a response to “Against the Galileans,” written many years before, in 363, by the emperor who was called an apostate for having abandoned the Christianity in which he had been educated.

The Christian faith is above all a meeting with Jesus, “a person who gives life a new horizon” (encyclical “Deus Caritas Est,” No. 1). St. Cyril of Alexandria was an untiring and firm witness of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God, emphasizing his unity above all, as he repeats in his first letter in 433 to Bishop Succens: “One alone is the Son, one alone is the Lord Jesus Christ, before the incarnation and after the incarnation. In fact, it is not a question of a Son, the Logos, born of God the Father, and another, born of the holy Virgin; but we believe that he who is before all time was born according to the flesh of a woman.”

This affirmation, beyond its doctrinal significance, shows that faith in Jesus, the “Logos,” born of the Father, is also deeply rooted in history because, as St. Cyril says, this same Jesus came in time by being born of Mary, the “Theotòkos,” and will be, according to his promise, with us always. And this is important: God is eternal, he was born of a woman and remains with us every day. We live in this trust, in this trust we find the path of our life.

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Rod for Real

Dr. Rodney Whitacre’s A Patristic Greek Reader is now shipping from Amazon. In case you missed my advance review, a few months back, I’ll run the risk of repeating myself, since I think this is a useful and important book.

It’s more than a book, actually. It’s an opportunity to learn Greek from a superlative teacher and to learn Christianity from the greatest ancient masters. Says the publisher: “Passages that have played a major role in the history of Christian thought are included, as well as passages that contribute to matters of spirituality and pastoral care. Several passages are of more purely historical interest.” The book includes Greek texts, English translations, and abundant helpful notes. If you want to know more, visit the Library of Congress and view the table of contents.

Dr. Whitacre’s anthology is unique, a model of both pedagogy and mystagogy. The Spirit has been leading the churches to “return to the sources,” and A Patristic Greek Reader is a beautiful beginning for that journey. Very highly recommended.

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From Carthage to Calcutta

In a recent issue of the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, there appeared an essay by Father Sebastian Vazhakala, who co-founded, with Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the priestly division of the Missionaries of Charity. Googling around, I learned that the essay had appeared in a newsletter earlier this year, and here it is. Father Sebastian is obviously steeped in the doctrine of St. Augustine. I encourage you to read his essay, but I’ll reproduce the Augustine quotes here for your pondering. (The L’Osservatore Romano version includes citations.)

“There is no coming to unity without humility; there is no love without the openness of humble patience. Where humility reigns, there is love.”

“I would wish that you place yourself with all your love under Christ, and that you pave no other way in order to reach and to attain the truth that has already been paved by him who, as God, knows the weakness of our steps. This way is, in the first place, humility; in the second place, humility; in the third place humility…As often as you ask me about the Christian religion’s norms of conduct, I choose to give no other answer than: humility.”

“To the extent that we are freed from the malignant swelling, which is called pride, we are filled with love.”

“God’s hatred for pride is so strong that he would rather see humility in evil deeds than pride in good deeds.”

“It is much better to be married and humble than celibate and proud.”

“If you see Charity, you see Trinity.”

“Longing is always at prayer, even though the tongue is silent. If your yearning is constant, then you are always praying. When does our prayer sleep? Only when our desire cools.”

“In faith, hope and love we are always praying with uninterrupted longing. But at particular hours and times we entreat God also with words so that, through these verbal signs of the reality we may impel ourselves to greater effort, help ourselves become aware of how much progress we have made in this desire, and rouse ourselves to grow in it with greater vitality…Therefore at certain times, we call our spirit back to prayer from the other cares and activities, which in some way cloud our yearning.”

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Guardian Angels

Today, October 2, is the feast of the guardian angels. Everybody has one. The Scriptures say so (see Ps 34:7, Mt 18:10, Ac 12:15). And the Fathers say so. One of the most beautiful works in the field of patrology is Cardinal Jean Danielou’s Angels and Their Mission: According to the Fathers of the Church. I just finished reading it for the umpteenth time. More popular, but still intermittently patristic is My Angel Will Go Before You, another book by a 20th-century Frenchman, Georges Huber. Pascal Parente’s The Angels is solid, accessible, and grounded in the Fathers. Mortimer Adler, while still identifying himself as a pagan, produced an admirable philosophical study, The Angels and Us — though he manages somehow to botch the historical background on Augustine. (Guess he forgot to check the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which he edited back then!)

The great classic source on the angels is the fifth-century Celestial Hierarchy by Pseudo-Dionysius, which is a must-read.

Last year I posted a little catena of the Fathers’ teaching on guardian angels, which I reprint here:

HERMAS (150 A.D.): “There are two angels with a man — one of righteousness, and the other of iniquity … The angel of righteousness is gentle and modest, meek and peaceful. When he ascends into your heart, he speaks to you of righteousness, purity, chastity, contentment, and every other righteous deed and glorious virtue. When all of these things come into your heart, know that the angel of righteousness is with you.”

CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA (195 A.D.): “The Scripture says, ‘The angels of the little ones, and of the rest, see God.’ So he does not shrink from writing about the oversight … exercised by the guardian angels.”

ORIGEN (225 A.D.): “Every believer — although the humblest in the Church — is said to be attended by an angel, who the Savior declares always beholds the face of God the Father. Now, this angel has the purpose of being his guardian.”

ST. GREGORY THE WONDERWORKER (255 A.D.): “I mean that holy angel of God who fed me from my youth.”

ST. METHODIUS (290 A.D.): “We have learned from the inspired writings that all who are born … are committed to guardian angels.”

So there you go. The doctrine was around centuries — well, several weeks anyway — before anybody thought of printing a syrupy holy card. I culled the quotes from David W. Bercot’s Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, whose 704 pages are a real bargain at $19.95 new. The book is quite good, in spite of an intermittent Protestant bias (e.g., in his selection on the intercession of the saints). But in his abundant quotations on guardian angels, Bercot gives us ten from Origen alone!

Get to know your guardian angel. They’re there with us to light and guard, rule and guide. We, however, can choose to be more or less open to their influence. What a waste if we choose less of a pure and heavenly intelligence, to be absorbed instead in our own!

And speaking of angels: Last Saturday, September 29, was my name day on the Western Calendar, but I was so absorbed in my own less-pure and earthly intelligence — and so preoccupied with my impending speech to the St. John Chrysostom Society — that I neglected my heavenly patron, St. Michael the Archangel. I had wanted to write something about the fervent devotion to St. Michael in the ancient Roman and Alexandrian churches. There’s abundant evidence from before Nicea! I found some lovely Egyptian artworks in this just-published (and quite lovely) book: The Treasures of Coptic Art in the Coptic Museum and Churches of Old Cairo. It features St. Michael in sculpture and paintings.

As for my post on my great archangel, I’ll have to defer till next year.

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Great Books

My sometime co-author Chris Bailey has been posting some great reflections on Great Books education. As far as I’m concerned, you can take out “Great Books” and plug in “patristic.” But even the Fathers (OK, at least some of them) would have you do as they did, and read all the other greats, too. Clement, Basil, and Chrysostom committed quite a bit of Homer, Demosthenes, and Plato to memory. And we all know about Jerome and Cicero.

Chris’s rant starts here.

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Radio Days

Tomorrow — Tuesday, Oct. 2 — I’ll be live on KVSS radio 8-10 a.m. Eastern Time. Kris McGregor is visiting our fair town, and she brought a radio studio with her. You can listen via live feed from the KVSS website.

In the afternoon I’ll be on Relevant Radio‘s “Searching the Word,” with Chuck Neff. RR, too, offers you a live feed.

So you can listen to me all day tomorrow and free the population of a small country from Purgatory.