Tag Archives: Aquinas

Reading the Fine Print

Sentimentality, as was mentioned in a recent post, is a great enemy to the spiritual life.  The solution proposed was to read Scripture with an absolute literalism.  In particular, when St. Paul tells the Romans that we are God’s children now and have a right to an inheritance as sons, we should understand the magnitude of such a high calling and live accordingly.  We would, however, fail in our quest for living in the truth if we did not also realize that, while this gift is free, it is not cheap.  If we are to live like sons, then we will act like the Son.  All too often we interpret this to mean “being nice to other people,” “love your neighbor”, “defend the teachings of the Church” or any other one of a variety of (usually)comfortable outward manifestations of the Christian life.  But we should read the fine print of St. Paul’s great promise: “if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him” (Romans 8:17, emphasis added).

When reading fine print, it is always the preposition that matters.  We might be tempted to read the contingency as suffering for Christ, but St. Paul says we must suffer with Him.  That one word, with instead of for makes all the difference.  It makes all the difference because it forces us to move from the abstract to the real.  This move may feel like a gut punch from reality, but in reality, it is a liberation from fear.  Fear, as we talked about in a recent podcast, is always future- directed and thus fertile ground for anxiety or avoidance.  Suffering for Christ has an abstract quality about it in that causes our minds to wander, sometimes to the great sufferings of the martyrs or losing our jobs because of our faith or any other number of ways we might have to painfully witness to our faith.  We begin to wonder whether we will have what it takes when the moment comes or whether it is really all worth that. This causes on to hold back from God, but based only a hypothetical way, because, in truth, He isn’t asking for that thing.

Suffering with Christ has a now quality about it.  To suffer with someone implies that they are suffering currently and that what is required of me is to engage.  There may be fear of engagement, but I have come to a decision point.  There is nothing abstract about it, because it is real in the here and now.

An illustration might help make this clear.  When I consider the sufferings of someone close to me, I would do almost anything, endure almost anything, in order to participate in that suffering.  Tell me, as a parent, that I will have to suffer with my children, my mind goes everywhere.  Well not exactly, it usually goes to the “worst” thing I can possibly imagine.  In short, fear carves out its space and there is really no way to deal with it because there is always a chance that thing might happen.  It begins to affect how I act—I might be overly protective or draw back—but in order to manage the fear of the abstract, I must change my behavior.

Now tell me that my son has autism and no longer am I handcuffed by fear.  There is sorrow for sure, but once the decision is made to suffer with him the fear of suffering for him is gone.  In other words, once I am suffering with him, I am now willing to suffer for him as well.  His suffering becomes mine and I am on the constant quest to alleviate it.

Just as the both the duty and love of a father drives him to be willing to suffer with his son, St. Paul is really telling us that we must be willing to suffer with Christ in the same way.  Just as I feared suffering in the abstract for a loved one (and acted upon it), so too will I fear suffering for Christ in the abstract.  But give me a specific scenario and I will enter in.

Suffering With Christ

We should rightly question how is it that we can suffer with Christ, right here and now.  The days of His Passion are over.  He is both God and glorified man, incapable of suffering.  Sure, He can suffer in His Mystical Body, but that is to change the mode of St. Paul’s address.  He is speaking from our perspective not from Christ’s.  He is speaking about the sufferings of His Passion that we must enter into.  The key is to rightly see His Passion, not as some abstract event in the past, but as concrete and specific in the here and now.  To do this we will need to turn to the “abstract” St. Thomas Aquinas in order to lay the groundwork for this key spiritual practice.

When St. Thomas examines the sufferings of Our Lord during His Passion, he asks what at first seems to be a stupid question, that turns out to have great practical import.  He asks whether Christ endured all suffering during the Passion.  It is a relevant question because in order for Our Lord to give suffering redemptive value, He must first experience it.  And he must experience not in the abstract, but in the particular.  So how, for example, if Our Lord did not suffer burning, could burning have redemptive value?

St. Thomas points out that it would be impossible to experience all possible sufferings, especially since some are contraries.  One cannot both suffer having his ears removed and the cries of his loved ones for example.  Instead Our Lord suffered all classes of suffering.  First, He suffered at the hands of all kinds of people; men and women, rulers and commoners, His fellow Jews and seculars, His friends and His enemies.  Second, He suffered “from friends abandoning Him; in His reputation, from the blasphemies hurled at Him; in His honor and glory, from the mockeries and the insults heaped upon Him; in things, for He was despoiled of His garments; in His soul, from sadness, weariness, and fear; in His body, from wounds and scourgings.”  Finally, “ in His head He suffered from the crown of piercing thorns; in His hands and feet, from the fastening of the nails; on His face from the blows and spittle; and from the lashes over His entire body. Moreover, He suffered in all His bodily senses: in touch, by being scourged and nailed; in taste, by being given vinegar and gall to drink; in smell, by being fastened to the gibbet in a place reeking with the stench of corpses, ‘which is called Calvary’; in hearing, by being tormented with the cries of blasphemers and scorners; in sight, by beholding the tears of His Mother and of the disciple whom He loved” (ST III, q. 46, art. 5).

Why the Details Matter

This level of detail is important for two reasons.  First, because it should move us to love, realizing that Our Lord planned out His sufferings in a very specific manner.  There was no mere chance in even the slightest of His sufferings.  He knew each one of our very specific sufferings and sought to redeem them.  Secondly, and more relevant to the discussion at hand, is that by enumerating the categories we see how exactly we enter into Our Lord’s Passion right here and now.

Look at St. Thomas’ list again and think about your own personal sufferings in the past or presently.  Are there any that don’t fall into one of those categories?  This means that each of these is a personal gateway into His Passion here and now.  When we willingly embrace them as such, we are suffering with Christ.  He anticipated what you are going through and sanctified it and all that remains is to enter fully into it to receive the fruit of the Passion—sonship.  Big sufferings, little annoyances, all belong as long as we lovingly accept them as Christ did His Passion.   Where there is a will, there is the Way.

Do this enough and you know what happens?  The fear of suffering for Christ goes away.  We become like the Beloved Disciple at the foot of the Cross.  We have endured so much with Him, realized so much of the fruit of suffering that we trust His plan, grown to love Him so deeply, that we will suffer whatever comes.  He does not ask us to be masochists, but we will habitually choose those things which have more of the Cross in them because we know it brings us closer to Him.  Think of Simon of Cyrene and how close he was to Christ when he helped Him carry the cross.  That is us.

Now the wisdom of all the saints and their habit of meditating deeply on the Passion comes to light.  Each time we enter into the Passion in our prayer, we are in a very real sense anticipating our own role in it.  This Lent then let us resolve to meditate upon the Passion as one of our spiritual practices.  If the witness of the saints is any indication, then it will be a most fruitful Lent.

On True Friendships

For those who approach Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics for the first time, they are often surprised by the fact that he devotes more pages, two whole books in fact, to the topic of friendship than to any other.  From the modern viewpoint, this seems to be an unnecessary tangent that has little to do with ethics.  That is, until we realize that for Aristotle and most Christian Philosophers up until the Middle Ages, ethics was not an abstract set of rules, but practical principles for living a full and happy life.  So when Aristotle apportions such a large percentage of his book on ethics to friendship we realize that he sees it as one of the most important components of a life well lived.  In fact he ranks it among one of the greatest of life’s goods saying that “friendship is especially necessary for living, to the extent that no one, even though he had all other goods would choose to live without friends.”

First, a disclaimer of sorts.  Because Aristotle struck out in his physics and his views on women and slaves, he has fallen out of favor in modern times.  But there is a certain timelessness to his writings, especially in his ethics, because he roots them in unchanging human nature.  Therefore we ought to take what he says seriously, even if we find good reasons to disagree with him.  In a culture undergoing a crisis in friendship his writings on the topic are like a hidden treasure whose mining promises to enrich our lives greatly.

Because everyone needs friends, everyone wants friends.  This natural desire for friendship can lead us into unhealthy friendships.  This is what makes his study of friendship so important—it enables us to see our relationships more clearly and to have the right expectations.  There is not a single person among us who has not at some point experienced betrayal in one of their friendships.  Like all the loves, friendship requires a certain level of vulnerability, but much pain can be avoided through a proper understanding of friendship in general and Aristotle’s three levels of friendship in particular.

For Aristotle, there are two factors of friendship.  There is the good will that the two friends bear towards each other and there is the common good that brings them together.  As a form of love, friendship is first and foremost about willing the good for another person.  Friendship is not just a relationship, but a mutual relationship in which both parties actively will some good for the other person.  Without this, no real friendship can be found.

CS Lewis in his book The Four Loves captures the second aspect well when he compares friendship with erotic love.  He says that erotic lovers stand face to face while friends stand side by side looking at the thing that brings them together.  He says that “friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”  This is what Aristotle means by the common good that brings them together.  Friendships are always based upon not just willing the good but willing a particular good.  These goods fall into three broad categories, each one corresponding to the different levels of friendship.

The Categories of Friendship

His first category is friendship of pleasure.  Because it is the lowest level of friendship, it is the most common, especially among younger people.  This is based upon two people “having a good time together.”  It might two “golfing buddies” who enjoy playing golf together simply for the pleasure of the game itself.  What makes this friendship rather than simply mutual use is that they each will that the other plays well and has a good time, not so they will have someone to play with again, but because they truly desire that pleasure for them.  They desire the particular good of pleasure for them, although not at the expense of their own pleasure.  These types of friendships tend to dissolve when the pleasure that united the parties ceases.  One of the golfers might stop playing golf for whatever reason and the two eventually lose touch with each other.

Aristotle’s second category is a friendship of utility.  In these types of friendships there is a certain tradeoff between the two parties in which they somehow supply each other’s needs.  They are brought together primarily for the love of the good they get from the other person.  This type of friendship is most common in the adult years when “working your contacts” has become an art form.  It is a mutual coincidence of wants that brings the two parties together, a transaction of sorts.  The notion of mutual service or sacrifice is likely not a part of this type of this friendship.  Once they cease being useful to each other, the friendship usually dies.

There is always a certain amount of use in these two types of friendships because the parties love the thing that unites them more than they love the person.  This does not make them wrong per se, just incomplete.  St. Thomas says they are not friendships essentially but incidentally because the person is loved more for what they can give than in themselves.  This is why Aristotle thought only the third category of friendship, that is a friendship of virtue, was the only true friendship.

A virtuous friendship is one in which, to borrow from CS Lewis’ definition, the two parties are both looking at virtue.  They desire true happiness for each other.  Aristotle thought this the only true friendship because only a virtuous person is capable of loving the other for their own sake and because only a virtuous person can actually help another person be happy.  It is not so much that the two people are perfect, but that they are both striving for perfection.

As a true friendship, it includes the other two friendships but in an authentic way.  Rather than a friendship of pleasure, one derives pleasure simply from pleasure his friend receives in doing something.  Rather than a friendship of utility, one receives payment simply by serving the other person.  True friends look upon each other as an “other self.”

The Work of Friendship

These categories are important for two reasons.  First because many of us lack true friendships.  This lack may be simply because we lack the capacity, that is virtue, for true friendships.  We prefer the superficial to the hard work of growing in virtue.  It may also be that we are trying to form authentic friendships with people who are not capable of it because they lack the virtue or, at least, the desire for virtue that is always necessary. Remember Lewis’ definition—we will not find true friends until we decide virtue is important.

The second reason is that we often fail to properly “categorize” our friends, leaving us with unreal expectations.   A person whom we only have a friendship of pleasure with is not someone we should be going to for personal advice in a time of crisis.  We may develop a friendship of utility with our mailman, but this does not mean we should have him sit down with us to open our mail.  Those types of friendship cannot bear the weight—either because one of the parties lacks the necessary virtue to truly will the good for the other person or because there is a lack of intimacy.  True friendships are rare not only because virtue is rare, but because we simply do not have the time and emotional energy to maintain authentic friendships with that may people.  Overcommitting ourselves to too many true friendships can be a mortal pitfall for our overall well-being.

Many people in today’s culture view friendship as an unnecessary luxury rather than an integral part of a truly happy life.  By reflecting on friendship in the works of Aristotle, we can come to enjoy what the book of Sirach calls “the elixir of life” (Sir 6:16).

Sacramental Momentum

At the beginning of his extended treatise on the Eucharist in the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas draws a parallel between our corporeal lives and our spiritual lives that helps explain the inner logic of the Sacraments.  Specifically he says “the spiritual life is analogous to the corporeal, since corporeal things bear a resemblance to spiritual. Now it is clear that just as generation is required for corporeal life, since thereby man receives life; and growth, whereby man is brought to maturity: so likewise food is required for the preservation of life. Consequently, just as for the spiritual life there had to be Baptism, which is spiritual generation; and Confirmation, which is spiritual growth: so there needed to be the sacrament of the Eucharist, which is spiritual food” (ST III, q.73, a.1).  While it is certainly a clever way to teach about the need for the Sacraments, to see it as only that would be to miss an important analogical corollary; one that has practical applications for our apostolic approach to those in various stages of conversion.

In mitigating the factions that had arisen within the Corinthian community, St. Paul reminds them of his (and our) role in the conversion of others.  It is by way of cooperation that we participate in the conversion of another, but it is ultimately God Who provides the growth (c.f. 1Cor 3:6-7).  We all intuitively grasp this and realize that our role is secondary (at best) and that only through grace does another person “grow to the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4:13).  Nothing new has been said so far.  But how that growth is provided is not at all intuitive.  In fact we might be tempted to think it is a mystery and only according to God’s good pleasure.  As Catholics we do know that there is one sure way that God causes growth—through the Sacraments.


Sacramental Inertia

This is where St. Thomas’ analogy between our corporeal lives and our spiritual lives fits in.  The analogy is not just about the inner logic of the Sacraments themselves but also represent a progression in our Spiritual lives.  Just as a living person has a natural drive toward food, the person who has been born again in Baptism has a supernatural drive to feed on the Bread of Life.  Just as the child who has been born and has nourished his life with food desires to grow up, so too in the Spiritual life there is a supernatural desire for Confirmation.  What St. Thomas doesn’t say, but which is implied, is that this supernatural desire is contained as a grace within the Sacraments.  Baptism leads to a desire for the Eucharist.  Baptism and the Eucharist lead to a desire for Confirmation.  Baptism and Confirmation lead to an increased desire for the Eucharist.  Each reception of the Eucharist leads to a more fervent desire for the Eucharist itself.  And so, through this analogy we see that within the Sacraments there are graces pushing the recipient towards the other Sacraments, most especially towards the “source and summit” in the Eucharist.  It is like Newton’s first law applied to the Spiritual life—that which is set in motion in Baptism stays in motion through the other Sacraments.

Like all theological truths, this (super)natural progression also has practical consequences, one which we ought to make profit of in our apostolic endeavors.  If we know that an infallible means of growth is the Sacraments and follow St. Paul’s model then we ought to push others towards the Sacraments.  When we meet someone who does not know God at all and is unbaptized, our focus ought to be to lead them to the Baptismal font.  Why?  Because the grace of conversion contains within itself a desire to be baptized.  If the person is Baptized, then our focus ought to be on pushing them towards Confession and the Eucharist.  Why?  Because the Baptized person is already being inwardly pushed towards those Sacraments.  They may not be able to identify the specific impulses, but they will know them when they see them.    Lukewarm Catholic already in communion with the Church?  Push them towards Jesus in the Eucharist Who is the fire that will set ablaze the most lukewarm of hearts.

I knew of a man who did nothing else but invite his Protestant friends to Eucharistic Adoration.  He reasoned that if his Protestant friends really knew Jesus, they would recognize Him when they met Him in the monstrance.  It might not happen immediately, but in many of the cases they kept going with him until it did.  If Jesus is really there, and He is, then it is hard to find a flaw in this approach.

Applying the Law Sacramental Inertia

Our apostolic endeavors are only effective insofar as we cooperate with grace already working interiorly in the person.  By making use of this principle of Sacramental Inertia we are assured that we are on the same page as the Holy Spirit.  The Sacraments become a sort of apostolic blueprint that represent a goal.  In Latin, the Mass ends with Ite Missa Est, literally “she is sent,” meaning that we are sent out into the world to bring others back with us.  Like John the Baptist our goal is simply to point out and bring others to Jesus.  If we really believe the Sacraments are what the Church teaches they are, we will make them our apostolic goals.

One last point merits our attention as well, especially if it seems that the picture I have painted is overly simplistic.  It is no coincidence that the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist (and Confession), as next steps are also the biggest obstacles.  The principle of Sacramental Inertia is not foreign to mankind’s greatest spiritual foe.  They are either mocked by direct attack, counterfeited or else indirectly attacked by attacking the Sacrament of Holy Orders.  We should be constantly aware that the last thing the Devil wants is for a non-Catholic to begin a Sacramental life and he will do all that he can to impede that.  Our approach, when not leavened with prayer and sacrifice, will always become mere apologetics.  The Sacraments are the greatest treasure of the Church and we must always recognize that sharing these gifts is our apostolic goal.

Catholics and the Seder Meal

In recent years, one of the more popular Lenten practices of Catholics has become to participate in Seder Meals.  Their popularity is driven mostly by a desire to express a solidarity with the Jewish people and to understand the Jewish roots of our Faith.  While it may seem harmless to participate in them, there are some serious reasons why Catholics might want to avoid them all together.

In an age where the morality of a given act is mainly subject to our intention, it is important to begin any discussion on whether Catholics should participate in Seder Meals with a fundamental principle.  St. Thomas puts the principle this way—“external worship should be in proportion to the internal worship” (ST I-II q.103, a.3).  What the Angelic Doctor means by this is that our external acts of worship must always reflect our internal beliefs.  If our act of worship does not reflect our internal beliefs then we are guilty of superstition, that is giving worship to God in, what St. Thomas calls, an “undue mode” or in giving worship to a false god.

Trapped in a dualistic mindset, many of us would think that our external acts are just that—external—and there is no harm done if you do not really mean them.  But intuitively we all seem to think otherwise, especially when we reflect on the witness of the Martyrs.  Many martyrs refused to offer a pinch of incense to the pagan gods because they knew this would be an act of worship, even if they may not have believed in what they were doing.  Likewise there are those who have been tempted to desecrate an image of Christ in order to avoid martyrdom.  All too often the tempters would simply say, “It’s just an image.  All that matters to you is what you believe.”  Those who desecrated the image were considered apostates regardless of what they may have believed.  Not having our exterior acts reflecting our interior beliefs is a form of lying.

The Seder Meal and What it Means to Participate

Returning to the topic at hand, namely Seder Meals, it is without a doubt a religious act.  Many of these are sponsored by different Jewish Synagogues or, when done “do it yourself” follow the existing Seder liturgy.  A Seder Meal is one of the primary means by which the Jewish people hand on their faith.  It also reflects an act in faith in the coming of the Messiah.

For a Christian, that is, one who has faith that the Messiah has come, to participate in a Seder Meal is a false declaration of faith.  It is, as St. Thomas said, an act of worship of God in an “undue mode.”  While our faith in the Christ with the Jewish people may be the same, that faith must be expressed in different ways.  The Jews reflect the faith of Abraham, that is the Messiah to come, through circumcision.  The Christian expresses his faith in the Messiah who has come when they share in His life and death in Baptism.

St. Thomas says that all of the legal ceremonies of the Old Law, including the Passover meal, have passed away because each found their fulfillment with the coming of Christ.  Each of the ceremonies of the Old Law expressed the expectation of the coming Messiah, those of the New Law reflect His having already come.  In the mind of Aquinas, to continue to participate in these ceremonies is a lie and constitutes, at least objectively speaking, a grave sin.  Regardless of what one believes, by participating in a Seder Meal, the Christian is professing through his actions that Christ is yet to come.

The ceremonies of the Old Law were mere “shadows” (Col 2:17) of the Sacraments to come.  The Seder is but a foreshadowing of the Mass.  Why would one participate in shadow when the real thing is available?  Catholics are already participating the True Seder Meal, the Mass.

What if I Just Want to Learn More About Our Roots?

What about those who only do so out of curiosity or as a learning exercise to help them better understand the Mass?  Certainly their intentions do not change the fact that it is objectively wrong to participate, but still it may change their culpability.  This approach is worth unpacking further for a different reason as well.

The problem with this approach is that it denies an important historical fact.  Those who have studied the Passover meal that Our Lord celebrated with the Apostles are quick to point out that it differs from the first Passover as described in the Book of Exodus and not just because Our Lord added the elements of fulfillment.  At the time of Our Lord only the Levitical priesthood existed and thus all sacrifices occurred within the Temple.  What did not change however was that the Passover was not just a meal but also a sacrifice.

Once the Temple was destroyed, Judaism underwent a profound change.  Prior to 70 AD, Judaism was much like Catholicism in that they had priests who lead the worship which was centered upon sacrifice.  After 70 AD it became much like Protestantism in that the emphasis was placed on worship without sacrifice.  Judaism today is not the same Judaism of Our Lord and the Apostles.

In short, the Seder Meal that Jesus participated in the first 32 years of His life is profoundly different from the Seder Meal as it is celebrated within Judaism today.  The key element, the sacrifice of the Lamb, is missing.  With the sacrificial character removed it now bears little resemblance to the Mass which retains its sacrificial meaning.  A Seder Meal, as it is celebrated today, has little value for the Christian for learning the roots of the faith.

Certainly studying (without participating) the Seder Meal as it was during the time of Our Lord has value for us as Christians.  Studying the type or the sign helps us to better understand the archetype or thing signified.  Rather than spending your time organizing or attending a Seder Meal, you would be better off studying Dr. Brant Pitre’s Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist or listen to Scott Hahn’s Fourth Cup.  Although there are more, I have found these two resources invaluable for deepening our understanding of the meaning of the Mass and its relation to the Jewish Passover Meal.