Posted on

The New Book Is Out!

A copy of my book The Grail Code is in my hands and so, I suppose, in the hands of Amazon and other booksellers as well. I hope you’ll have it in your kind hands before too long.

What does the Holy Grail have to do with the Church Fathers? I’m glad you asked. I’ll be blogging that over the next few days. My co-author Christopher Bailey, whom I’ve exalted in these pages before, is blogging on the Grail legends more specifically at, our website.

Chris and I wanted to rescue the Grail from its captivity by the wacko fringe. In our book, we track the history of the legends, their origins, and their ends. I hope you’ll join us for the Quest.

Posted on

Cassian Carry

Look at the ads in the daily papers and see the obsessions of the current generation. Pensions, IRAs, 401(k) plans — we live in chronic insecurity, worrying over years of tomorrows that may never come. Meanwhile, we make today miserable with our anxieties. St. John Cassian (c. 360-c. 435) saw these worries following monks even into the monastery, corrupting them, destroying their souls, and eventually destroying entire communities. In his “Institutes,” he analyzed eight vices and prescribed the cure for each. What follows is Cassian’s teaching on avarice, addressed to monks of the fifth century but full of wisdom for the pension-obsessed lay Christian in the twentieth. While the ancient monk may have shortchanged his monastic duties in order to shore up a cushy old age, the modern layperson might neglect charity to the poor or the blessing of additional children, just for the sake of fattening up a futures fund.

Our third struggle is against the demon of avarice, a demon clearly foreign to our nature, who only gains entry into a monk because he is lacking in faith. The other passions, such as anger and desire, seem to be occasioned by the body and in some sense implanted in us at birth. Hence, they are conquered only after a long time. The sickness of avarice, on the contrary, can with diligence and attention be cut off more readily, because it enters from outside. If neglected, however, it becomes even harder to get rid of and more destructive than the other passions, for according to the Apostle it is “the root of all evil” (1Tim 6:10) …

When this sickness finds the soul lukewarm and lacking in faith at the start of the ascetic path, it suggests to us various apparently justifiable and sensible reasons for keeping back something of what we possess. It conjures up in a monk’s mind a picture of a lengthy old age and bodily illness; and it persuades him that the necessities of life provided by the monastery are insufficient to sustain a healthy man, much less an ill one; that in the monastery the sick, instead of receiving proper attention, are hardly cared for at all; and that unless he has some money tucked away, he will die a miserable death. Finally, it convinces him that he will not be able to remain long in the monastery because of the load of his work and the strictness of the abbot. When with thoughts like these it has seduced his mind with the idea of concealing any sum, however trifling, it persuades him to learn unknown to the abbot, some handicraft through which he can increase his cherished hoardings. Then it deceives the wretched monk with secret expectations, making him imagine what he will earn from his handicraft, and the comfort and security which will result from it. Now completely given over to the thought of gain, he notices none of the evil passions which attack him: his raging fury when he happens to sustain a loss, his gloom and dejection when he falls short of the gain he hoped for. Just as for other people the belly is a god, so for him is money. That is why the Apostle, knowing this, calls avarice not only “the root of all evil” but “idolatry” as well (Col 3:5).

How is it that this sickness can so pervert a man that he ends up as an idolater? It is because he now fixes hi intellect on the love, not of God, but of the images of men stamped on gold. A monk darkened by such thoughts and launched on the downward path can no longer be obedient. He is irritable and resentful, and grumbles about every task. He answers back and, having lost his sense of respect, behaves like a stubborn, uncontrollable horse. He is not satisfied wit the day’s ration of food and complains that he cannot put up with such conditions forever. Neither God’s presence, he says, nor the possibility of his own salvation is confined to the monastery; and, he concludes, he will perish if he does not leave it. He is so excited and encouraged in these perverse thoughts by his secret hoardings that he even plans to quit the monastery. Then he replies proudly and harshly no matter what he is told to do, and pays no heed if he sees something in the monastery that needs to be set right, considering himself a stranger and outsider and finding fault with all that takes place. Then he seeks excuses for being angry or injured, so that he will not appear to be leaving the monastery frivolously and without cause. He does not even shrink from trying through gossip and idle talk to seduce someone else into leaving with him, wishing to have an accomplice in his sinful action.

Because the avaricious monk is so fired with desire for private wealth he will never be able to live at peace in a monastery or under a rule. When like a wolf the demon has snatched him from the fold and separated him from the flock, he makes ready to devour him; he sets him to work day and night in his cell on the very tasks which he complained of doing at fixed times in the monastery. But the demon does not allow him to keep regular prayers or norms of fasting or orders of vigil. Having bound him fast in the madness of avarice, he persuades him to devote all his effort to his handicraft.

There are three forms of this sickness, all of which are equally condemned by the holy Scriptures and the teachings of the Fathers. The first induces those who were poor to acquire and save the goods they lacked in the world. The second compels those who have renounced worldly goods by offering them to God, to have regrets and to seek after them again. A third infects a monk from the start with lack of faith and ardor, so preventing his complete detachment from worldly things, producing in him a fear of poverty and distrust in God’s providence and leading him to break the promises he made when he renounced the world.

Examples of these three forms of avarice are, as I have said, condemned in holy Scripture. Gehazi wanted to acquire property which he did not previously possess, and therefore never received the prophetic grace which his teacher had wished to leave him in the place of an inheritance. Because of the prophet’s curse he inherited incurable leprosy instead of a blessing (2 Kg 5:27). And Judas, who wished to acquire money which he had previously abandoned on following Christ, not only lapsed so far as to betray the Master and lose his place in the circle of the apostles; he also put an end to his life in the flesh through a violent death. Thirdly, Ananias and Sapphira were condemned to death by the Apostle’s word when they kept back something of what they had acquired (Ac 5:1-10). Again, in Deuteronomy Moses is indirectly exhorting those who promise to renounce the world, and who then retain their earthly possessions because of the fear that comes from lack of faith, when he says: “What man is there that is fearful and faint-hearted? He shall not go out to do battle; let him return to his house, lest his brethren’s heart faint as well as his heart” (Dt 20:8). Could anything be clearer or more certain than this testimony? …

With the fate of Ananias and Sapphira in mind, we should shudder at the thought of keeping to ourselves anything of our former possessions. Similarly, frightened by the example of Gehazi who was afflicted with incurable leprosy because of his avarice, let us guard against piling up money … Finally, recalling Judas’ death by hanging, let us beware of acquiring again any of the things which we have renounced. In all this we should remember how uncertain is the hour of our death, so that our Lord does not come unexpectedly and, finding our conscience soiled with avarice, say to us what God says to the rich man in the Gospel: “You fool, this night your soul will be required of you: who then will be the owner of what you have stored up?” (Lk 12:20).

Posted on

Dule-ly Noted, Clast Dismissed

It’s not often, at art exhibits, that you see passersby moved to tears, bowing in prayer, crossing themselves or whispering devotions.

Yet so it was at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, as thousands filed past the images of Christ and the Virgin, the saints and the angels, showing in “The Glory of Byzantium,” which I visited with my buddy David Scott back in 1997.

Though the exhibit included works of pottery, sculpture, tapestry and bookbinding, the dominant form, by far, was the icon, the traditional type of sacred image in Eastern Christianity.

Indeed, many of those who filed through, rapt in prayer, seem to be Eastern Christians — Orthodox or Catholics of the Eastern Rites. While a museum docent led groups through and spoke with erudition of a mosaic’s “evocation of the numinous,” her onlookers themselves appeared to be caught up in the numinous.

For icons are more than art. In the Eastern Church, they are central to the practice of the faith. One saint called them “open books that remind us of God.” Tradition refers to them as “windows on another world.”

The term “icon” properly refers to works produced by certain formal techniques, hallowed by almost 2,000 years of tradition in the East. The Middle Byzantine period, the time covered by the Met’s exhibit, is known as the golden age of icon production.

Icons range in style, though they share some common characteristics: a two-dimensional quality, symbolic use of color and shape, and surreal, slightly distorted bodily and facial features: elongated fingers, impossibly large eyes, long necks.

They are essentially different from Western religious art, which is almost always associated with an individual creative genius: Giotto, say, or Michelangelo or Rembrandt. Not so with iconography: Most Middle Byzantine iconographers remained anonymous. Their work is impersonal, adhering to strict forms that manifest the heavenly archetypes. In some monasteries, painters specialized — one monk for eyes, another for hands, another for hair — so that no single artist could claim a work for his own.

Still, such work required a high level of technical skill. Icons speak a rich, symbolic language. Every color, gesture, garment, shadow and prop is significant … The oversized eyes? They represent the beatific vision of God that a saint enjoys in heaven. A sideward gaze? The aloofness and peace of someone who has left behind the cares of the world. The bright gold background? The divine aura, the glorious atmosphere of heaven.

In any good library you’ll find thick volumes that explain how to “read” icons. But no one really needs a lexicon. For two millennia, icons have served as the theology textbook of the saints, the catechism of the unlettered, and the pauper’s psalter.

From the icon of the Pantocrator (Lord of the Universe), the faithful gain confidence to abandon themselves to a Will that is all-powerful and all-good. From the Eleousa (Virgin of Tenderness), they learn of humility, selflessness and the maternal care of the Mother of God. From the Man of Sorrows, they see the redemptive value of suffering.

The saints of the East bring up another important lesson taught by icons: that every man and woman is an icon of God — made in the divine image and likeness.

That’s the sort of radical doctrine that has made icons the target of puritan purges down through the ages. In the eighth and ninth centuries, the puritans were running the Byzantine Empire. They called themselves iconoclasts (“icon-smashers”), because they believed that the veneration of icons violated the first commandment’s prohibition of “graven images.” They accused their opponents of worshiping wood and pigment. And they had other items on their agenda: Some iconoclasts believed that all matter was contemptible and so doubted that Christ was truly human, as the Bible and the Church Fathers had taught.

A holy monk, St. John of Damascus (675-749) — the last of the eastern Fathers — wrote a devastating refutation of the iconoclasts’ position, showing that it opposed Scripture, tradition and good sense. A capsule of his hundred or so pages: “In former times, God, being without form or body, could in no way be represented. But today, since God has appeared in the flesh and lived among men, I can represent what is visible in God. I do not worship matter, but I worship the creator of matter who became matter for my sake . . . and who, through matter, accomplished my salvation. Never will I cease to honor the matter which brought about my salvation!”

With the Council of Nicea, in 787, the Church declared definitively in favor of icons: “Holy icons ought to be exposed to view, since the more Jesus Christ, His mother and the saints are seen in their likeness, the more will people be led to think of the originals and to love them. Honor is paid to icons, but not worship, which belongs to God alone. Honor paid to images is directed to the original which they represent.”

Yet the prohibition of images continued until the rise of the “iconodule” (image-loving) regent Theodora. Her proclamation restoring icons in 843 is today commemorated in the Eastern Church by a special feast day.

The Second-Nicene Fathers, like John of Damascus before them, were always careful to remind us that in icons we see “as through a glass, darkly.”

(Here’s a portal to more information on Byzantine art and history.)

Posted on

By George, He’s History

I live across the street from a beautiful Antiochene Orthodox Church that goes by the name of St. George’s. It used to have, front and center, a cool stained-glass window depicting a gigantic eye, which was underscored by the words “The Eye of God Is on You.” Alas, several years ago, the church replaced the eye with a nice cross. I keep a color photo of the old window above my desk, just to remind me.

April 23 is St. George’s feast day, so it’s good for us to remember him, even though he’s trumped this year, among us Romans, by Mercy Sunday. St. George was a soldier and a martyr, and he’s usually depicted making shish-kebab out of dragon meat. The old Catholic Encyclopedia has this to say about him:

Martyr, patron of England, suffered at or near Lydda, also known as Diospolis, in Palestine, probably before the time of Constantine. According to the very careful investigation of the whole question recently instituted by Father Delehaye, the Bollandist, … the above statement sums up all that can safely be affirmed about St. George, despite his early cultus and pre-eminent renown both in East and West … This, however, by no means implies that the martyr St. George never existed. An ancient cultus, going back to a very early epoch and connected with a definite locality, in itself constitutes a strong historical argument. Such we have in the case of St. George. The narratives of the early pilgrims … from the sixth to the eighth century, all speak of Lydda or Diospolis as the seat of the veneration of St. George, and as the resting-place of his remains. The early date of the dedications to the saint is attested by existing inscriptions of ruined churches in Syria, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, and the church of St. George at Thessalonica is also considered by some authorities to belong to the fourth century. Further the famous decree “De Libris recipiendis,” attributed to Pope Gelasius in 495, attests that certain apocryphal Acts of St. George were already in existence, but includes him among those saints “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose actions are only known to God.”

More here.

Posted on

If It’s All Greek to You…

The only thing cooler than struggling through the Fathers in Greek and Latin is struggling through the Scriptures in Greek or Latin. If you’re interested in learning these mother tongues, check out Textkit.

It’s a collection of good, clear PDF files of old (out-of-copyright) Latin and Greek textbooks and grammars. There are several introductory Greek books, along with keys to the exercises. (You have to register for the newsletter to get the keys.)

Posted on

Diognetus, Don’t Ya Get Us?

“Come, then, after you have freed yourself from all the prejudices possessing your mind.”

We can take that line, from the second-century “Letter to Diognetus,” as evidence that anti-Christian prejudice has been with the Church from Day One. In the Roman Empire of those days, pagans caricatured Christian morality as prudery and mocked its mysteries as nonsense. Christian religion was often confused and conflated, in Roman and Greek accounts, with Judaism and the myriad “mystery cults” thriving in Asia Minor at the time.

But amid the babble and bigotry came a group of early Church Fathers known as “the apologists.” Following St. Peter’s counsel, they sought always to “be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks for a reason for your hope” (1 Pt 3:15). Some, like Justin Martyr (c. 100-c.165), spoke the highly technical language of the Platonist philosophers, who were somewhat confused about the Christianity they sought to refute. Others spoke to Jews, and still others to the devotees of the mystery cults.

But one apologist offered a different method. He produced a documentary of sorts — a vivid, impressionistic account of how the earliest Christians REALLY behaved. In the face of hatred, he showed a community that lived in true love.

We don’t know his name, the author who wrote the stunning “Letter to Diognetus.” But he was addressing a high Roman official, and deferentially, assuming that the great Diognetus was intelligent and open-minded (and, certainly, that God’s grace was all-powerful).

“I see thee, most excellent Diognetus, exceedingly desirous to learn the mode of worshiping God prevalent among the Christians, and inquiring very carefully and earnestly concerning them, what God they trust in, and what form of religion they observe,”

Christianity was a curiosity then, when this author set his stylus to parchment. He refers to the Faith as “this new kind of practice [that] has only now entered into the world.” Most scholars say the “Letter to Diognetus” was composed in the first half of the second century in Athens, Greece.

The most venturesome scholars dare to attribute the letter to the first known Christian apologist, St. Quadratus (died c. 129), a bishop of Athens and a disciple of the Apostles. There is almost no documentary evidence for this claim, except that early Christian writers refer to a brilliant letter that St. Quadratus wrote to the Roman Emperor Hadrian around 124, in defense of the Faith.

And the “Letter to Diognetus” is nothing if not brilliant, in both style and substance.

The letter assumes that its reader has heard, and perhaps believes, many of the common rumors and misunderstandings about Christianity. So the author is careful to distinguish Christianity, first from the other pagan religions, then from Judaism.

One obvious belief that set Christians apart from ordinary Roman citizens was monotheism. Our first forebears in the Faith steadfastly refused to worship idols. Yet other citizens of the empire, the “Letter” points out were only too willing to bow down before gods of silver, gold, brass, wood and earthenware. In describing these idols, the writer goes into some detail about six shrines, perhaps describing specific temples in the city of Athens.

“Are they not all liable to rot?” he concludes. “Are they not all corruptible, these things you call gods?” The author points out that such polymorphous polytheism had become a cynical and even contemptuous practice for the Romans. Yet, he goes on, “you (Romans) hate the Christians because they do not deem as gods” the idols in the pagan shrines.

For their intransigent monotheism, and their reverence for the Hebrew Scriptures, Christians were often called a Jewish sect. The writer of the “Letter” acknowledges this and praises the Jews for resisting pagan temptations. Yet, he insists, Christians are NOT Jews. First, he says, the “blood and the smoke” of the Temple sacrifices has been surpassed by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Next, he points out that the prescriptions of the Law and the rabbinical tradition — regarding circumcision, diet and Sabbath observance — were considered obsolete by Christians.

Yet, if Christians were not pagans and not Jews, who were they? That is the subject of the final section of the epistle.

In this section the author overwhelms his reader, not so much with dogma, but with small glimpses of the everyday life of the Church’s founding families.

First of all, he says, you can’t tell a Christian just by looking. “For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. They neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity . . . [They follow] the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food and the rest of their ordinary conduct.”

Christians blend in, he says — to a point.

Where they are set apart is in their charity for each other and their upright moral behavior. Here, the “Letter” writer makes more important distinctions.

Christianity did not, as some rumors claimed, entail severe asceticism and universal celibacy. The “Letter” explains that Christians, like everyone else, “marry and beget children.” Yet they differ essentially from the merely worldly because Christians reject immoral pagan practices, such as abortion and infanticide. Christians “do not destroy their offspring,” the letter states. Nor did Christians sleep around, as the pagans did: “They have a common table, but not a common bed.”

Christians are good for the economy and the social order, the “Letter” claims. Believers, after all, “obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives . . . They are poor, yet make many rich.” And good Christians don’t make trouble for the pagans, the “Letter” writer seems to say, even though pagans often make trouble for Christians. “They love all men, and are persecuted by all. . . . they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour. . . . When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life.”

Our author follows this with his most remarkable statement: “To sum it up — what the soul is in the body, Christians are in the world.” According to this ancient Athenian, Christians, then, are the life-giving principle in the world. You can’t see them — but without them, the whole human enterprise is doomed.

“The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world. . . . The soul, when but ill-provided with food and drink, becomes better; in like manner, Christians, though subjected day by day to punishment, increase the more in number.”

What gives Christians strength to live this way? The “Letter” writer gives a brief, but breathless testimony to the divine origin of the Christian faith. Without this faith, he demonstrates, all humankind, through all history, has dwelt in misery.

Then the “Letter” ends in the only way such a Christian testimony can, with a plea to Diognetus (the debauched, homosexual Emperor Hadrian?) for personal conversion.

“With what joy do you think you will be filled? Or how will you love Him who has first so loved you? If you love Him, you will be an imitator of His kindness. And do not wonder that a man may become an imitator of God. He can, if he is willing. For it is not by ruling over his neighbours, . . . that happiness is found. . . . On the contrary he who takes upon himself the burden of his neighbour . . . by distributing to the needy, becomes a god to those who receive.”

If Diognetus or Hadrian were not convinced, many more would be. If not by a letter, then by the lives of so many anonymous Christians. Just a few centuries after the “Letter to Diognetus” was composed, the pagan West passed away. Yet the “Letter,” providentially, lived on till very recently.

Then, in 1870, the only surviving manuscript of the “Letter” was destroyed. Today, perhaps the pagan West is returning, and a billion invisible Catholics — the soul of the modern world — must write the letter anew, now as then, in the everyday details of their ordinary lives.

Posted on

But Syriously, Folks

I’m pleased to see, from comments and email, that folks are interested in — or at least curious about — the Fathers of the Syriac tradition. There’s been renewed interest in these men in recent years, and it’s long overdue. The old patristics manuals tended to divide the Fathers into Greek and Latin (meaning east and west) and then lump the Syriac, Coptic, and Armenian Fathers in, almost as an afterthought, with the Greeks. But they don’t quite fit there.

The Syriac Fathers were the founders of a different Christian culture with its own literary and theological style. They used neither Greek nor Latin, but rather Syriac, which is the dialect of Aramaic used in Edessa (modern Urfa in Turkey). They spoke the language of Jesus, and their earliest writers were in close conversation with the rabbis of Babylonian Judaism. Indeed, they engaged in controversy with the rabbis. The brilliant and prolific modern rabbi Jacob Neusner finds in St. Aphrahat, for example, a model — “remarkable and exemplary” — for Jewish-Christian dialogue. Aphrahat is, says Rabbi Neusner, “an enduring voice of civility and rationality amid the cacaphony of mutual disesteem.” The Syriac Fathers preserved a semitic style of Christianity that likely was similar in many ways to the Church’s founding generation.

With the Nestorian schism in the fifth century, many disaffected Christians took refuge in the Persian East, which was beyond the political influence of Byzantium. For centuries, the East Syrians went their way, having little contact with the West, but sending missions to China and India. Along the centuries, some of these churches returned to communion with the west. And, as if to prove my recurring point that “the Fathers are news”: Rome’s ecumenical dialogue with the Syriac churches has borne more fruit than any other. In 1994, Pope John Paul II signed a “Common Christological Declaration” with Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV, essentially resolving “the main dogmatic problem between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church” — in other words, clearing up the Nestorian troubles, once and for all. In 2001, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity went a step further and approved the sharing of Communion between the (Catholic) Chaldean Church and the (so-called Nestorian) Assyrian Church of the East.

It’s good to be breathing with both lungs again. For a couple of millennia, the churches of the far east have kept a lively devotion for the Syriac Fathers. It’s great that we in the west are beginning to recover this part of the Church’s common heritage. In fact, Hubertus Drobner’s massive manual of patrology — which is due out in English any day now — includes a respectable section on the Syriac Fathers. You’ll find well-stocked online libraries at The Syriac Studies Electronic Library and Saint Ephrem the Syrian Library.

If you’re even mildly interested in an encounter with these Fathers, please dig deep and read the superlative introduction to the field by Jesuit Father Robert Murray, Symbols of Church and Kingdom: A Study in Early Syriac Tradition. It’s frightfully expensive, but worth every penny, and just out in a new, updated edition (2004). An affordable and accessible introduction is Sebastian Brock’s Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life.

If you want to learn about the plight of the Christian remnant in the lands of Aphrahat and Ephrem, read William Dalrymple’s chilling From the Holy Mountain : A Journey among the Christians of the Middle East.

Posted on

“A Paradise of Delight”

Going through Tom Lawler’s files (see below), I found a great brochure from the 1950s advertising subscriptions to the fledgling Ancient Christian Writers series. The back panel featured these quotes from Newman:

“The vision of the Fathers was always, to my imagination, I may say, a paradise of delight” (Difficulties of Anglicans, Lect. XII).

“I follow the ancient Fathers … They are witnesses of the fact of … doctrines having been received, not here or there, but everywhere … We take them as honest informants” (The Patristic Idea of Antichrist).

“I … take my stand upon the Fathers, and do not mean to budge. The history of their times is not yet an old almanac to me … The Fathers made me a Catholic” (Letter to Pusey).

Reading Tom’s correspondence with Father Johannes Quasten is itself a paradise of delight. More to come, surely.

Posted on

Your Place of Origen

I’m fascinated by the way Origen — a brilliant thinker, but rather dull writer — can still arouse passions after, lo, these two millennia. When I wrote my first book on the Fathers, I was probably just a little too sympathetic to the guy, who did stray into some pretty weird thinking. But, on the other hand, he also willingly underwent the most severe tortures for the sake of the faith, and he died a confessor, if not a martyr. And, really, where would we be without his literary legacy, which is rather large even after the purges of the centuries. The problem boils down to this: Origen did stray into some doctrines that the Church later condemned; but he always insisted that he wanted only to hold the faith of the Catholic Church, and he urged his readers and listeners to have the same desire. Thus, sympathetic readers have judged some of his doctrine to be aberrant, but Origen himself to be “not guilty” of heresy. Giants of the twentieth century wrote studies on him, including Danielou, de Lubac, and von Balthasar. Pope John Paul II quoted him in his encyclicals, and the Church cites his authority in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The online literature on Origen is overwhelming. You’ll find, here and here, two good easy-to-read discussions of the particular problems presented by Origen. If you have an opinion, please do sound off.

Posted on

Tribute to a Great Man

Sorry for my long absence. I spent yesterday in the near presence of the Fathers. With my good friend and colleague, Rob Corzine, I trekked to Virginia to help sort out the literary estate of the great patrologist Thomas Comerford Lawler. A close associate of Johannes Quasten and a longtime (1964-1991) editor of the Ancient Christian Writers series, Tom himself produced new translations of Jerome and Augustine. And he did all this while serving as a top executive in the Central Intelligence Agency. Tom died peacefully Nov. 20, 2005, just weeks shy of his 85th birthday.

His widow donated his substantial library to the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, of which I am vice-president. Together we are also arranging for his papers to land at two research institutions. For those of us who knew Tom — and for the many more who have benefited from his work in patristics — it’s a joy to know that others will continue his work of studying and promoting the Church Fathers.

Catholic readers know Tom as the author of many books, most notably the bestselling catechism The Teaching of Christ (which he co-authored with his brother Father Ronald Lawler, O.F.M. Cap., and Bishop Donald Wuerl).

He retired from the CIA in 1977 with the United States’ Intelligence Medal of Merit.

Tom was widely acknowledged in his lifetime as one of the great scholars of the Church Fathers. Though he never finished an undergraduate degree, he received two honorary doctorates. He considered it his greatest achievement, however, to have received the award Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice from Pope John Paul II.

He and his wife Pat raised their children in Alexandria, Va. Sometimes when he identified himself on scholarly articles, he would drop the state of Virginia from his place of residence. He was Thomas of Alexandria. It had the ring of antiquity.

One of his last great projects was the fifth edition of The Teaching of Christ, completed in 2005. As he waved his final goodbye to a co-editor, he said: “It’s a wonderful life.”

His certainly was.

Posted on

Indeed He Is Risen! Alleluia!

The Easter Vigil always bowls me over. What a beautiful recovery we made by restoring that Mass in the twentieth century. I’m pleased, too, that the new missal mandates the use of all seven readings except in the case of “grave pastoral necessity.” It’s awesome to read the Fathers’ accounts of the Vigil. In Africa of Augustine’s time, it was an all-night affair, culminating at daybreak!

It struck me last night how much we lost when we (in the English- and German-speaking worlds) stopped calling our greatest feast day “Passover,” as Christians do in almost every other language (Pesach, Pascha, Pasqua, etc.). The Easter Vigil liturgy makes the connection so clear. It really is a Christian haggadah. “This is the night” of our deliverance from Egypt. If we don’t get to the Vigil Mass, though, it’s easy to miss it.

I hope that those who couldn’t get out on Saturday still had a chance to read St. Melito, who also makes the connections between the Old Testament and the New. Also, the profound study of the Christian Passover in the patristic era, by the great Italian patrologist Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap.: Easter in the Early Church: An Anthology of Jewish and Early Christian Texts.

Posted on

Station Keeping

The Way of the Cross is the inevitable way of a Christian’s heart.

Indeed, it is almost impossible to imagine the Catholic Church without the devotion that goes by that name.

It goes by other names, too: “The Stations of the Cross,” “Via Crucis,” “Via Dolorosa” — or just “the stations.”

The practice has settled, for several centuries now, into brief meditations on 14 scenes from the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.

Why are Christians drawn so strongly to this devotion? Because Jesus wanted us to be. “Then He said to all, ‘If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me’” (Lk 9:23).

When Jesus speaks the words “if” or “unless,” Christians listen carefully. For then Our Lord is laying down the conditions of our discipleship — the prerequisites of heaven.

• • • •

The Way of the Cross developed gradually in the life of the Church. In the Roman world, the cross was a “stumbling block” (Gal 5:11). Crucifixion was a most humiliating form of execution: a man was stripped naked and suspended in a public place; he was pelted with rocks and trash and left to suffocate slowly while passersby mocked his agony.

Crucifixion was still a common occurrence during the first three centuries of Christianity, so it was not easy for believers, like St. Paul, to “boast” (Gal 6:14) of the cross. For people who had seen criminals crucified, the cross could not have been an easy thing to love.

Yet love it they did. Devotion to the cross pervades the earliest Christian writings. And the earliest records of pilgrimage show us that Christians endured great hardships — traveling thousands of miles, from France and Spain to Jerusalem — so that they could walk the streets of Jesus’ suffering: the Way of the Cross.

The Jerusalem liturgy of Holy Week memorialized the events of Jesus’ Passion. On Holy Thursday, the bishop led the procession from the Garden of Gethsemane to Calvary. The fourth-century practice is well attested by St. Cyril of Jerusalem and by Egeria, the Bordeaux Pilgrim.

After Christianity was legalized in 313 A.D., pilgrims regularly thronged Jerusalem. The Way of the Cross became one of the standard routes for pilgrims and tourists. It wound its way through narrow streets, from the site of Pilate’s Praetorium to the summit of Calvary to the sepulcher where Jesus was laid to rest.

How did they know the sites of these events? One ancient story holds that the Virgin Mary continued to visit those places, every day for the rest of her life. Surely, the apostles and the first generation would hold dear the memories of Jesus’ passion and pass them on.

Very likely, the route emerged from the oral history of Palestinian Christians and from the ambitious archeological excavations of the devout empress Helena. Along the way, pilgrims and guides paused at several places traditionally associated with biblical scenes — such as Jesus’ conversation with the women of Jerusalem (Lk 23:27-31) — as well as some scenes not recorded in the Bible. These occasional pauses were known in Latin as stationes. By the eighth century, they were a standard part of the Jerusalem pilgrimage.

Such pilgrimages grew in popularity well into the age of the crusaders. Gradually, the stations became more developed. In fact, history records many different series, varying in number, content and form.

In 1342, the Church entrusted the Franciscan order with the care of the holy sites, and it was these friars who most ardently promoted the praying of the Way of the Cross. Around this time, the Popes began to grant indulgences to anyone who devoutly prayed the stations in Jerusalem. Also at this time, the Franciscans began to spread the Marian hymn that would eventually be most closely associated with the devotion: the Latin Stabat Mater, familiarly rendered in English beginning with the words:

At the cross, her station keeping,
Stood the mournful mother weeping,
Close to Jesus to the last.

The lyric is attributed to a Franciscan, Jacopone da Todi, who died in 1306.

European pilgrims were so impressed by the Jerusalem tour that they took the Way home with them. Around the fifteenth century, they began to build symbolic replicas of the stations, in the churches and monasteries of their homelands. Eight stations had been standard in Jerusalem, but these expanded to as many as 37 in Europe.

The practice became enormously popular. Now everyone — small children, the poor, the infirm — could make their spiritual pilgrimage to Jerusalem, to the Way of the Cross. In a tangible way, they could take up their cross — just as Jesus had commanded — and follow Him to the end.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Stations of the Cross, now settled at 14, were considered almost standard equipment in a church building. Some were elaborate — dramatic, life-sized wood carvings of the human figures. Others were mere roman numerals — I through XIV — carved into the church wall at intervals. The Popes extended the indulgences customary for Jerusalem pilgrims to Christians everywhere, if they prayed the stations in their own churches in the prescribed way.

The stations continued to be associated with the Franciscan order, and Church law often required that stations be installed (or at least blessed) by a Franciscan priest.

• • • • 

“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Jesus said this to “all,” to every Christian. In the earliest days of the Church, it was perhaps easier to know the gravity of His command. The cross was not yet a symbol. It was a horror that took place, with some frequency, at the edges of town. It was the worst death they could imagine, devised by people who possessed a certain genius for torture.

When Christianity became the official religion of the empire, crucifixion was outlawed. Over time, the most basic Christian devotion — devotion to the cross of Jesus — began to require an act of imagination.

Today, our need is greater still. For we have sanitized even ordinary death: shutting it up in hospitals, silencing its agonies with drugs. The shame, the gore, and the stench — the commonplaces of public executions — have become incomprehensible. This is the cost of our everyday sins, and yet it is a sum, like the national debt, that is so remote from us that we cannot get worked up over it.

If we pray the Way of the cross, we cannot help but get worked up. Through the stations, we draw near, in our hearts and minds, our intellect and will and imagination, to the scenes beheld by our ancestors. We see a a young man scourged with coarse leather whips studded with shards of pottery. His bleeding shoulders, with every nerve raw and exposed, receive a rough wooden beam, heavy enough to hold a man’s dead weight. He totters under the weight amid a jeering crowd. Delirious, He weaves along the cobblestones and stumbles, now crushed downward by the wood on His shoulders. His fall gives him no rest, as the crowd mocks Him by kicking Him, stepping on His raw wounds, spitting in His face. He will fall again and again. When at last He reaches His destination, His torturers pierce the nerves in His hands with nails, affixing Him to the crossbeam, and then raise Him up, placing the beam atop another, thicker beam set perpendicular to the ground. His weakened torso slumps forward, compressing His diaphragm, making it impossible for Him to breathe. To take a breath, He must push up on the nail in His feet or pull up on the nails that pierce His arms. Every breath will cost Him an extremity of pain, until He succumbs to shock or suffocation or blood loss.

This is the hard part of Christianity: our faith cannot exist apart from devotion to the cross. Our ancestors longed to touch the relics of the true cross. Even our separated brethren love to survey the the old rugged cross.

It all seems unbearable. But Christ has borne it, and He insisted that we must, too. We cannot be lifted up to heaven except by way of the cross. Tradition has mapped out the way for us.

• • • • 

The Stations of the Cross
in their most popular form

1. Jesus is condemned to death;
2. the cross is laid upon him;
3. Jesus’ first fall;
4. Jesus meets His Mother, Mary;
5. Simon of Cyrene is made to bear the cross;
6. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus;
7. Jesus’ second fall;
8. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem;
9. Jesus’ third fall;
10. Jesus is stripped of His garments;
11. the crucifixion;
12. Jesus dies on the cross;
13. His body is taken down from the cross;
14. Jesus is laid in the tomb.

Among English-speakers, the vocal prayers take this or some similar shape:

1. Recitation of the name and number of the station, for example: “The third station, Jesus falls for the first time.”

2. “We adore You, O Christ, and we praise You!
Because by Your holy cross You have redeemed the world.”

3. Reading of a brief meditation.

4. Recitation of an Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be.

5. Singing of a verse of the Stabat Mater.

Meditations on the Stations
Many great Catholics have written meditations on the Way of the Cross. I recommend those by the following authors. All can be fairly easily found on the Web:

St. Alphonsus Liguori
Ven. John Henry Newman
Father Romano Guardini
St. Josemaria Escriva
Mother Angelica
Pope John Paul II

Posted on

Who Knows Rome?

I’m trying to track down the earliest literary reference to the “miracle of the spring” attributed to St. Peter during his stay in the Tullianum, the dungeon of what’s now known as the Mamertine. I can’t find anything earlier than the Middle Ages. But the scene appears often in early-Christian art. Anyone out there know a text in the Fathers or the Christian apocrypha?

Posted on

For Your Easter Basket

St. Melito of Sardis is a Father worth getting to know during Holy Week. It’s a particular privilege of our time that we can get to know him. Most of his words were lost for most of Christian history. Only in the mid-twentieth century was an almost-complete text of Melito found. The rediscovered text was titled Peri Pascha — which means both “On Passover” and “On Easter,” since in the ancient languages both holidays share the same name. Melito shows us the Old Testament foreshadowing of the Christian Easter in Israel’s exodus from Egypt.

Preached around 175 A.D., Peri Pascha is the work of a man steeped in the history of Israel. Some modern readers have misunderstood and condemned Melito as anti-Jewish. One scholar I revere even referred to him as the “first poet of deicide.” But surely these accusations would have stunned and horrified Melito himself. For it is likely that he was himself a convert from Judaism. He was, in any event, a profound student of the Hebrew Scriptures, and even traveled to Palestine to study them on their home turf.

He lived in a time when rabbinic Judaism and nascent Christianity presented two different, newly emerging responses to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 A.D. It was a time of crisis. Both the ancient rabbis and the Church Fathers saw their respective traditions as a continuation of the tradition and history of Israel. Both the rabbis and the Fathers recognized that the old order was giving way to something new. Where Christians and Jews differed was on the nature and form of the new order.

Judge for yourself. Read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, numbers 128 and 130 (online here). Then go on to read Melito’s Peri Pascha. You might also read Todd Russell Hanneken’s provocative essay “A Completely Different Reading of Melito’s Peri Pascha.”