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The Fathers for Fun

Katie is not Just Another Catholic Mom — though that’s the name she blogs by. She’s a very astute reader  and reviewer of my books. She’s posted a review of The Fathers of the Church (Expanded Edition), and here’s a little excerpt:

Thorough enough that it’s used by clergy and seminarians, the books is also easy to read and accessible to lay Catholics, which was just what I was looking for. I’ve always been interested in learning more about the early Church, but have found other books to be entirely too academic and boring for me to get through. Aquilina’s book, in contrast, I actually thought was fun to read … This expanded version also includes a short chapter on “Mothers of the Church” that was fascinating.

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Letter to Levertov

While we’re on the subject of poets and patristics …

Last month I read This Great Unknowing, a collection of the last poems (posthumously published) by Denise Levertov. A British-born American poet, Levertov was the longtime poetry editor for The Nation. She converted to Roman Catholicism late in life. In her last notebook was a poem, “Translucence,” about Christians she knew. Her conclusion got me choked up:

They know of themselves nothing different

from anyone else. This great unknowing

is part of their holiness. They are always trying

to share out joy as if it were cake or water,

something ordinary, not rare at all.

“To share out joy as if it were cake or water, / something ordinary.” Sound familiar? I know those folks. You probably do, too. So did the anonymous author of the second-century Letter to Diognetus:
Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.
And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.
They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they, rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.
To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.
Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body’s hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven. As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself.
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A Lion of Verse

A few months ago I posted about modern poems about the Fathers. The commenters and I came up with at least enough to fill a chapbook — poems by Richard Wilbur (Chrysostom), Phyllis McGinley (Jerome), Percy Shelley (Polycarp), Bob Dylan (Augustine), John Henry Newman (Gregory Nazianzen), and Samuel Hazo (Tertullian).

My friend (and favorite living poet) Jane Greer has me reading Stevie Smith these days. In her Collected Poems I found this gem:

Sunt Leones

The lions who ate the Christians on the sands of the arena

By indulging native appetites played what has now been seen a

Not entirely negligible part

In consolidating at the very start

The position of the Early Christian Church.

Initiatory rights are always bloody

And the lions, it appears

From contemporary art, made a study

Of dyeing Coliseum sands a ruddy

Liturgically sacrificial hue

And if the Christians felt a little blue —

Well people being eaten often do.

Theirs was the death, and theirs the crown undying,

A state of things which must be satisfying.

My point which up to this has been obscured

Is that it was the lions who procured

By chewing up blood gristle flesh and bone

The martyrdoms on which the church has grown.

I only write this poem because I thought it rather looked

As if the part the lions played was being overlooked.

By lions’ jaws great benefits and blessings were begotten

And so our debt to Lionhood must never be forgotten.

And while we’re speaking of poets. Today the New York Times trotted out the ancient denials of Wallace Stevens’ conversion to Catholicism. Here’s the backstory of the final act of a mind “finding what will suffice.”
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Run of the Mills

If you’re within driving distance of Youngstown, Ohio, please do yourself a favor and mark your calendar — right now — for Tuesday, September 8, at 7 p.m. That’s when the great David Mills is speaking to the Society of St. John Chrysostom. His topic is Sharing Mary: How to Talk to Protestant and Secular Friends about the Mother of God.” The evening will also include a panel discussion.

In addition to being my godson, David is author of many books, most recently Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions about the Mother of God. This is a title you must own. (I mean that as only a truly Sicilian godfather can mean it.)

The event takes place at St. Edward Catholic Church, 240 Tod Lane, Youngstown, Ohio 44504. The sponsoring organization, SSJC, promotes ecumenical dialogue of the east-west variety. Most members belong to Orthodox or Catholic churches, but everyone’s welcome to the event, and admission is free.

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Father Ronald Lawler

I wrote about my late friend Father Ronald Lawler for Franciscan Way magazine. The text is up at the St. Paul Center’s blog. The child and the bunny in the photo are of my household.

It’s in honor of this great man that the St. Paul Center established the annual Lawler Lecture, which has showcased some of my favorite patrologists (and Father Ronald’s as well): e.g., Robert Louis Wilken and Father Thomas Weinandy.

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Sorry I’ve been so quiet. I was back in the studio with Scott Hahn to tape another 13-week series for EWTN. This one, our eighth, is based on Scott’s upcoming book Signs of Life: 40 Catholic Customs and Their Biblical Roots. I’ve now hosted more than a hundred shows for EWTN.

And, of course, by night I continue laboring at my painstaking reconstruction of the bylaws of the Q Community’s volunteer fire department. It takes its toll.

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Torrance on the Web

The T.F. Torrance Theological Fellowship has launched an online journal, Participatio. Volume 1, number 1 is up. Torrance, who died in 2007 at age 94, was a Reformed patristics scholar.

he obtained his doctorate for a dissertation published some years later as The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers (1948). Patristic theology, above all that of Athanasius and the Nicene Fathers, remained central for his work throughout his career…

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Am I Dreaming?

This is the kind of review an author dreams of. It’s by Kim, a 27-year-old geologist/anthropologist, no doubt wise beyond her years, and it’s on her very cool blog Transitus Tiber. She’s reviewing Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols.

Allow me to give a backstory to this review: I received this book by Mike Aquilina in the mail on Saturday. I started reading it at 9pm, and by 11am Mass today, I had finished it. And that includes time to sleep, eat, bathe, and so on.

I really had a hard time putting this book down. I’ve never read anything by Mr. Aquilina before, but I was surprisingly captivated by the book. Not surprisingly, it’s all about Christian symbols (the fish, the cross, the dolphin, etc) and how they came to be used in Christianity, and where there roots are, such as pagan and Jewish traditions. I learned an awful lot on the symbols I’m used to seeing, and I saw Mass in a different light because of it. Monsignor has a chi ro on the back of his vestments. There’s a chi ro with a crown flanked by two olive branches in the nave of our Church. I knew that the chi ro is for Our Lord of course, but they knowing the history really helped me see things differently. Interestingly enough, our Church has a TON of little Crosses that I never really opened my eyes to see.

The chapters range from short to medium in length, and I think Mr. Aquilina and the illustrator, Lea Marie Ravotti did enough justice to the symbols without overkill or Deep Overwhelming Theology. Each chapter discusses a symbol – the common ones like the cross, the fish to the more uncommon ones, like the peacock, the dolphin, the ankh. I was reading bits and pieces to Greg in the form of trivia and it’s really astonishing how little we both knew about the symbols around us.

If I had the money, I would buy multiple copies of this book and give it out to everyone I knew. It’s broad enough without being watered down, it is narrow enough without missing the point or giving Boring Details That Are Irrelevant. It would be perfect in an “Introduction to Christianity” type college course, or even a nice “welcome to the Church!” gift to converts and reverts. I highly recommend this book.