Idea of a University Discourse 1 Part 2

Most recent installment in my reflections on education via John Henry Newman’s Idea of a University discourses:

IDEA OF A UNIVERSITY DISCOURSE 1 PART 2: THE SEE OF ST. PETER, CATHOLICITY, AND EDUCATION

John Henry Newman seeks, in his first Idea of a University discourse, an appeal to common sense. This is in part to defend against what he found to be a common objection, that Catholic education is religiously exclusive. However, in Discourse 1, he concludes with a lengthy reflection on the absolute necessity, historical fact, and ultimate triumph of the Roman Catholic Church. Since the fullness of Divine Revelation is entrusted to the Church, she performs in the world an oracular office, guiding the faithful, and all humans, into the fullness of truth, of which she is the “pillar and bulwark” (cf. 1 Timothy 3:15). He makes this abundantly clear: “Ecclesiastical authority, not argument, is the supreme rule and the appropriate guide for Catholics in matters of religion.” Therefore, any sound education system that strives for Catholicity, as his does, will ultimately need to seek guidance from the Church if it hopes to steer its course aright. In the highest sense, Newman conceives of a Catholic University as employing secular means toward a sacred end: cultivating the seeds of faith into a civilization founded on truth. In this sense, the University is within the stream of the Church’s Apostolic mission, although it may employ methods and practices derived from the surrounding cultural landscape.

 

Newman responds to fears of religious exclusivity on the one hand, and on the other fears that a Catholic University that appealed to secular principles and reason would be “chimerical.” He insists that Catholicity is the fundamental principle, under whose purview is the fullness of truth as dictated conjointly by Reason and Revelation. Hence, Newman asserts both the intellectual freedom of the University, and its dependence on the Divine Revelation entrusted to the Church. Given the specific challenges of time and place, the University is in the world, as it devotes to perfecting human knowledge and reason, but not of the world, as it is truly Catholic, truly submissive to the aegis and prerogatives of the Vicar of Christ, the See of St. Peter, whose guidance of the faithful is definitive and heavenly, not prevailed upon by the gates of hell (cf. Mt. 16:17-19).

 

Then, without qualification, Newman reminds that St. Peter, speaking through the Holy See, “… for eighteen hundred years has lived in the world… seen all fortunes… encountered all adversaries… shaped himself for all emergencies.” And he clarifies that formulations of the spiritual authority of the “Chair of the Apostles, the Vicar of Christ, and the Doctor of [Christ’s] Church” are not “words of rhetoric… but of history.” As a simple matter of historical fact, all those “… who take part with the Apostle, are on the winning side.”

 

Therefore, the Church does not shy away from matters of expedience and practicality when attempting to root Catholicity in a given culture. Newman locates his own project in Ireland within the entire Apostolic history of the Church’s mission, recounting a hall of fame of zealous saints on a mission to the ancient Celts and Saxons. Catholic university education is within the same stream of Apostolic mission that brought the Church from the ancient evangelization of Sts. Patrick, Wilfrid, and Cuthbert to the high medieval cultivation of learning and rule in Alcuin and Charlemagne. Newman sees himself on the same mission, in which “ … the See of Peter [gives] first faith, then civilization,” binding “ … them together in one by the seal of a joint commission to convert and illuminate in their turn the pagan continent.”  The Church aims to educate the nations in the fullness of truth–to give them first faith, then civilization. The Church’s … “zeal, charity, mission, [and] gifts … ” are always the same. All nations share in “ … the joint work of teaching … ” given by the Church,  and this mission continues into the present and future, when “ … we shall become one again, while we zealously and lovingly fulfill [her mission].” Behind all human education is a greater Divine Education. God gives to the Body of his Son, the Church, the mission to beckon, cultivate, and teach all nations His truth. In Him they realize in themselves the fullness of charity, the image of Christ, by the power of our supreme Teacher, the Holy Spirit. Newman leaves no doubt, in Discourse 1, that this fundamental reality undergirds his search for sound principles and practices with which to found and sustain his University.

 

 

Is Christ the only one who intercedes for us in heaven?

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Some Protestants object to the notion that a believer might ask Mary or other saints in heaven to pray for us. They might insist that Jesus Christ is the only one whose role is described as “interceding” for us in heaven, appealing to Romans 8:27, 8:34, 11:22, or Hebrews 7:25, which use the verb “intercede” or the noun “intercession” in order to describe Jesus Christ’s particular post-ascension role in Heaven before the Father. Such an objection might go something like this: “Nowhere in Scripture does it describe the intercession of the Saints, therefore we should not ask them for prayers, but rely solely on the preeminence of Christ as our only intercessor before the Father in heaven.”

In what follows, I hope to 1) tease out a hidden erroneous premise in the notion presented above, 2) build a case that the intercession of the saints is indeed biblical, and 3) build a case that requesting prayers of the saints in heaven is not an ancillary aspect of the Gospel, but is an integral component of the Christian’s life in Christ.

First, the hidden premise is that a doctrine must be explicitly stated in Scripture, and that doctrines may not be formed unless found explicitly in Scripture. As will be seen, I do see the intercession of the saints in Scripture.

However, for the sake of the argument, lets say there is no explicit biblical evidence for the intercession of the saints. Even so, it does not necessarily follow that it is not a true doctrine, because there are many doctrines developed within Christendom that are formed by tradition, and are not explicitly found in Scripture. Nowhere does Scripture say that God is Triune, in the sense that he is One being and three persons; and yet, through a complicated series of inferences from the whole of biblical data, and because Scripture describes God variously as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Church in her earliest centuries used her authority to define the Trinity as a doctrine binding upon the faithful for belief. That God is one and three persons is a dogmatic truth necessary for full Christian faith because Scripture witnesses to it, and because the Holy Spirit has inspired the Church to authoritatively decree it.

In addition, early Church councils borrowed non-biblical, philosophical Greek and Latin language in order to form the orthodox creeds that Christians still hold to: homoousion is a technical philosophical term that the fathers of the Council of Nicea used to describe the depth of unity between the Father and Son, who share “one substance,” and in the coming centuries the word hypostasis would be used to describe the unity of Christ’s human and divine natures in his single person, or hypostasis. These words are not found explicitly in Scripture, yet the biblical data lends itself toward them, and the Church’s authoritative teaching, and creative use of non-biblical language, clarifies what the biblical record indeed unfolds.

The Church’s authority to guard, defend, and teach doctrine–to clarify the teaching of Scripture–is itself a biblical idea. Christ grants high authority to his Apostles in Luke 22:29-30. He says, “I will confer on you a kingdom, just as my father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” Also, Christ gives St. Peter the “keys of the kingdom,” tells him to “feed his sheep,” and he tells his Apostles that they will “bind and loose” things on earth, and those same things will be bound and loosed in heaven, speaking specifically about stewarding the forgiveness of sins (Mt. 16:19). The Apostles are the executors of Christ’s authority, and they pass this authority down to future Church leaders. They exercise this authority in Acts 10, where they adjudicate a decision at the first Jerusalem council, stemming from St. Peter’s dream of the sheet with many animals, that the Gentiles are welcome members of the New Covenant community given a few certain stipulations that root out pagan practices. This decision was authoritatively handed down to the fledgling churches to abide by, and St. Paul reinforces its teaching in his epistles (cf. Acts 15:29, Romans 3, 1 Cor. 8-11). St. Paul himself emphasizes the dual role of Scripture and Tradition as authoritative in 2 Thessalonians 2:15: “stand firm and hold fast to everything we have taught you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.” Tradition–teaching by word of mouth–and letter–Scripture–are equally authoritative in St. Paul’s formula. Both Tradition and Scripture are necessary in order to hear and heed the Word of God, Christ’s teaching.

St. Peter also affirms Apostolic authority when, speaking of the Apostolic college in Jerusalem, he says, “We have the prophetic word made more sure. You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation,  because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (1 Peter 1:19-20). The clear description is that St. Peter and the Apostles–the Twelve and their successors–hold the prophetic words, given to them authoritatively by Christ, which contain the key and lamp for unlocking and illuminating, authoritatively interpreting, the Revelation of Christ and Scripture.

Furthermore, the notion that only Scripture is authoritative–or sola Scriptura–is itself an erroneous Protestant tradition. This idea is not found in Scripture, and is thus unfounded, circular, and illogical. One can not say that only Scripture is authoritative, because this very idea that is stated as if authoritative, is not actually in Scripture. The attempted biblical justifications for this Protestant tradition are flimsy and inaccurate readings. Nowhere in Scripture does it say that Scripture is the sole authority. Rather, Scripture itself depicts Christ as the sole authority who delegates authority to his Apostles and the Church through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, which is the origin of the New Testament Scriptures in the first place.

Now, let us see what Scripture does say about intercession. It is an obvious fact that Christians are called to pray for each other. Writing in 1 Timothy 2:1, St. Paul says, “I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people…” Christians are called to intercede for others. If this is our Christ-like role to play on earth, why would we stop doing it once in heaven, where, by definition, we will be made perfectly Christ-like, perfectly righteous, perfectly saintly; “when Christ appears, we will be like Him, because we will see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Christ is an intercessor–we are called to be like Him, but we will be completely like him in heaven. Therefore, by sheer force, does it not make sense that Christians are called to be intercessors in heaven? And who would be those in need of prayer? Not the perfected already in heaven, but the yet-to-be perfected who still toil on earth.

But if this is not convincing, a deeper biblical analysis yields the same conclusion. Interestingly, the idea of interceding is found in reference to both Christ and other humans throughout Scripture. In the context of comparing Christ to previous high priests, who were chosen from among the people to offer sacrifice to God, the letter to the Hebrews describes Christ as the great high priest who is both priest and victim, who paradoxically offers himself in his “permanent priesthood,” not temporal like the old covenant, but eternal, before the father offering the sacrifice of himself for us, always “living to intercede” for us (Hebrews 7:25). Romans 8:34 says that Christ is interceding for us at the right hand of God. 1 John 2:1 admonishes us to not sin, but comforts that Christ is our advocate to the Father in the case that we do sin.

The word for intercession is interesting. Various derivatives to the Greek entychanein mean to entreat, supplicate, encounter, call upon, or make suit. Its stricter etymology suggests an intensive (en) + obtain or hit the mark (tygxano). Thus, to intercede means to perfectly and completely “hit the mark,” make a bull’s-eye of righteousness, the complete opposite of sin, hamartia, which means to miss the mark. So, to be an intercessor is to be perfectly righteous.

And yet this language is not exclusive to Christ. The same verb is used in Acts 25:24, when Festus says that the Jews “petitioned” him. In 1 Timothy 2:1, St. Paul urges that “petitions, prayers, intercessions, thanksgivings be made for all people.” And, after describing the need to confess sins to each other and pray for each other’s sins, the epistle of James suggests that these prayers for each other’s venial sins actually work, because “the prayer of a righteous man is powerful in its effects” (James 5:16). The phrase “righteous man” clearly refers to human beings other than Christ.

Furthermore, the Old Testament holds out a host of examples of righteous human beings who intercede for other human beings before God. Abraham prays that God would spare Sodom and Gomorrah, and God sends an angel to rescue Lot. Once King Abimelech discovers that he has taken Abraham’s wife on the assumption that they are siblings, God says that he will be cursed unless he return the wife and ask Abraham to pray for him and heal him (Genesis 20:7). He does so, and Genesis 20 records that Abraham prayed for Abimelech, and that Abraham’s prayer healed them and cured Abimelech’s wife’s barrenness. After the Israelites create an idol of a Golden Calf at the foot of Mt. Horeb, Moses intercedes for Israel, begging that God not kill them all and start his covenant project over, and God listens to Moses and alters his plans based on Moses’ plea (Exodus 32). At the end of the story of Job, 42:7-10, God says he will not judge Job’s friend’s for their folly if they bring sacrificial victims to Job, who will sacrifice for them and pray for them. They do so, and Job prays for them, and Job’s fortunes are restored. Here, Job is intercessor and priest on behalf of his friends, foreshadowing the description of Christ in Hebrews 7:25 as a perpetual, eternal intercessor in the sense of always offering the perfect high priestly sacrifice of himself. Finally, Queen Esther is often seen as a foreshadowing of the Virgin Mary, who intercedes on behalf of the Jews–Esther successfully entreats Ahasuerus and foils the wicked plans of Haman, saving the Jews from slaughter. In an analogous way, it is at the Virgin’s request, at the Wedding of Cana, that Christ performs his first miracle and begins his public ministry (John 4). And it is Mary who, at the foot of the cross, joining her heart to her Son’s sufferings, she becomes the Mother of all the faithful, given to St. John as a Mother, thus given to the Church as a Mother, whose special spiritual participation in her Son’s sacrifice makes her a powerfully righteous intercessor (John 19).

We could go on with biblical precedents. But the simple and obvious conclusion is this: the prayers of humans actually work to bring about good things. They are powerful and effective.

It is hard to imagine that a follower of Christ would all of a sudden give up such a critical practice as intercessory prayer upon death and entrance into Heaven. Indeed, prayer is more about relating to God than about getting what we want, and so in the highest sense Heaven is one big unbroken prayer. Why would the saints in heaven–with whom those still striving on earth are mystically unified in the Body of Christ–cease to pray for the members who are still striving toward heaven on earth? And why would their prayers cease to be powerful?

Which brings me to my final point: asking the saints for intercession is not some strange medieval relic or ancillary add-on to a more essential Gospel. It is built into the fabric of discipleship. It is a necessary part of following Christ, who wants us to both love him and love each other. Loving each other means praying for each other, and our prayers  for each other are effective. In this way, we are called to be like Christ, who is an intercessor by virtue of his human nature. When Christ prays to the father before raising Lazarus, he thanks the Father for hearing him, prays out loud for all to hear: “I know that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me” (John 11:42). As God, Christ has no need to pray, since he is God, and need not ask himself for things or intercede for himself based on the utter, perfect, and eternal unity that he enjoys in his Triune being. As Man, Christ prays for us so that we might learn how to believe in and pray to the Father just as he does. In other words, insofar as we are called to be like Christ in his human nature, to be “conformed to the image of [God’s] son” (Romans 8:29), we are called to be intercessors. To clarify again the argument: Christ is an intercessor by virtue of his human nature. We are called to conform ourselves and imitate his human nature, thus, we are called to be intercessors like Christ, praying for others and offering ourselves as “living sacrifices” for the sake of God’s glory and the benefit of others (Romans 12:1-2). And this vocation is fully consummated in heaven while we await the fullness of Christ’s Kingdom to come on earth, a reality witnessed in Revelation 6:10 as the white-robed martyrs before the throne in heaven lament, “how long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”

Furthermore, this process is not an individual, but a corporate process. We can look to others who have been perfectly conformed to the image of Christ and not only model our lives on them, but ask for their efficacious prayers in keeping with James 5:16. To seek to become like Christ and to be conformed to his image means that we must embrace the corporate reality of the heavenly body of his Saints, those who have been perfected and who share in Christ’s authority as free sons and daughters, who are given gifts to administer to the faithful in the Holy Spirit, who share in the divinity of Christ in unity with the Trinity and extend the grace of Christ through their very persons. The good news of the Gospel is that we can be perfectly righteous by the grace of Christ, and have his power so deeply within us that we become powerful intercessors before the Father with him, sharing in his life, his power, his way of being. How can this good and glorious news possibly be something we might want to reject?

 

Is it biblical to pray to Mary and the Saints?

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The communion of saints–or perhaps rendered better in English as the saintly community–is an idea that dates clear back to Apostolic times. It is as old as the Church herself, and is clearly woven into Scripture’s depiction of Christ’s redemptive and saving work. When James is encouraging his audience to confess sins to each other, and to pray for one another in order to find healing, he says “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.” (James 5:16). So, it is possible in this life for a human being to be so conformed to Christ, to be righteous, to be a saint, that his or her prayers are powerful and effective. Why should this cease to be case after they die and are with God eternally? In Ephesians Paul describes how Christians are mystically and visibly woven together as one as the Body of Christ, and he describes this Body as something that exists now but also exists eternally. There is a Church Militant (the Church still struggling through this life) and a Church triumphant (believers who have passed onto the next life and are eternally present with God, waiting for the final advent of the new heavens and new earth. And both of these dimensions of the Church–militant and triumphant–are described by Scripture as, mysteriously, still being one. So, we are still united in Christ to those who have passed on to the next life. If we ask each other to pray for us in this life, why should be stop doing so when one passes on to the next life?

In Hebrews 4-10, Christ is described as our “high priest” who “lives always to make intercession” for us (Heb. 7:25). The author of Hebrews is describing how Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of Jewish high priests who was “taken from among men… appointed for men in the thing pertaining to God, that he may offer gifts and sacrifices for sins” (Heb 5:1). Moses is an example–a priest of priests to Israel who interceded for the Israelites before God by, as a member of the Levite tribe, performing sacrifices on behalf of all of Israel.  And, on one occasion, Moses even interceded between God and Israel by begging God to spare them after they worshiped the Golden Calf. Thus, while Christ is now our ultimate and eternal high priest, who offers himself to God as victim, but in the offering is himself the high priest, the Old Testament also offers the possibility of human beings besides Christ who intercede for others before God, while relying ultimately on Christ for the ground and ability to do such a thing in the first place–they intercede to Christ for others, but ultimately depend on Christ, and Christ himself is the one who grants the grace or answer to prayer. Who better to do this than the Mother of God herself? Who can be closer to Jesus, more conformed to his likeness, than her, who was “full of grace,” and who St. Elizabeth called “the mother of my Lord?” (cf. Luke 1). It is clearly she who is the “woman clothed with the sun” in Revelation 12, with the “moon under her feet. and upon her head a crown of twelve stars. And being with child, she cried out in her travail and was in the anguish of delivery…” and she is taken into hiding in the wilderness for protection from a great dragon, which has many symbolic resonances, including the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt during Herod’s slaughter of the Innocents (rf. Rev. 12.1-6). Indeed, theologians look to Mary as the “Mother of all believers,” symbolized in Christ giving Mary to be the mother of John, and John the son of Mary, at the foot of the cross, implying that Mary is the Mother of the Church itself, not just John individually. 

There are, clearly, other doctrines derived from Scripture that are not necessarily stated explicitly. The Trinity is an example. We cannot point to an explicit passage where the bible teaches the reality of the Trinity. Nonetheless, we puzzle through data from the whole of the Bible, make inferences, and draw conclusions that help us form a doctrine, or a dogma, that is binding for faith and morals on the part of believers. We engage in what Benedict XVI, in his preface to Jesus of Nazareth, calls “canonical exegesis,” or consulting the whole of the Bible when posing questions about doctrine, faith, and morals. Indeed, it is interesting that Christ himself never wrote anything down–he taught his disciples orally, and gave them spiritual authority to teach orally, spread the gospel, and start the Church. His Great commission makes this clear: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you” [emphasis added]. St. Paul himself instructs the Thessalonians to “stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we have passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). In John 16-17, during Christ’s high priestly prayer, he implies that he will not be around long enough to teach them everything, but that the Holy Spirit will “guide” them into “all truth;” and John ends his Gospel by saying it would take a whole world of books to write down everything Christ said and did, implying that not everything Christ taught or did is recording in the Gospels (John 21.25). It is here, and in numerous other New Testament passages, that we must begin to construct a biblical doctrine of the Church, which Christ has invested with teaching authority via the Apostles and their successors, who safeguard the depositum fidei, or deposit of the faith, of the Gospel, and extend it to the world. The Church is described as the “pillar and bulwark of the Church” (1 Tim. 3:15), and Peter, in 2 Peter 1, makes this clear: “We have the word of prophecy, surer still, to which you do well to attend, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. This, then, you must understand first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is made by private interpretation” (2 Peter 1:19-21). Speaking on behalf of himself and the other Apostles as specifically ordained delegates of Christ’s teachings, the Gospel, Peter clarifies that the Church itself is an authoritative dispenser of truth to the fledgling Churches, and that Christians are not permitted to form their own private interpretation of God’s Word. The recent Vatican II document Dei Verbum describes this beautifully by calling Scripture and Tradition “mirrors” that reflect each other (see paragraph 3)–both offer us grace, since both flow from and are authorized by the will of Christ, the authority of Christ’s doctrine, which he himself said is not his own, but comes from the Father (John 7:16). Indeed, he wrote this letter as a way to follow-up about in-person, oral teaching that had already been delivered, and this letter and other New Testament writings did not come to be recognized, formally, as canonical inspired writings until Church councils decided upon an official list of Scripture’s table of contents initially at the Council of Nicea in 325, and more finally and formally at the Council of Carthage in 397, ratified and affirmed again in the wake of the Protestant rebellion, which sought to alter the Bible’s table of contents and the authoritative tradition of inspired books, at the Council of Trent (1545-1563; see Session 4).

The teaching authority of the Church, the communion of saints, Mary, the sacraments, the Scriptures, are all gifts, are all graces, that Christ holds out to us as the means by which we may come to fully experience, embody, and live out his redemptive work on Calvary. In a word, I am Catholic because the Roman Catholic Church is most fully and truly “Christ-centered.” It all flows from Christ, and all leads to him, because the slain lamb “in the midst of the throne” is truly within her, and he is truly Her Shepherd (cf. Rev. 5.6, 7.17).

In a follow-up post, I will attempt to more thoroughly treat the idea of “intercession” in Scripture, what it means for Christ to be intercessor, and what it means for Mary, the Saints, and all believers, in Christ, to likewise become intercessors as we join ourselves to Christ’s human nature, and thus share in his divine nature.

JH Newman’s Sermon, “The Self-Wise Inquirer”

This month, I’ve taken a break from writing about education Fr. Juan Velez at cardinaljohnhenrynewman.com, and have contributed a meditation on Advent through reflections from Blessed John Henry Newman’s sermon “The Self-Wise Inquirer.” I hope it is a blessing. Be sure to follow the site if you’d like to receive regular email updates of recent posts.

“The Self-Wise Inquirer” and True Wisdom, True Greatness

Links: Introductions to Blessed John Henry Newman’s Idea of a University

I have contributed three posts to Fr. Juan Velez’ blog devoted to Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman. They focus on unpacking the prologue of The Idea of a University with a mind toward the insights he has to offer us about education today. The posts are meant to prepare one for forthcoming posts about the rest of the book. The posts can be found at the links below:

1) Introduction to Idea of a University Part 1: The Essence of a University

2) Introduction to the Idea of a University Part 2: The Practice of a University

3) Introduction to the Idea of a University Part 3: The Fruit of a University

The Rosary, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and my Catholic Conversion

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In December of 2015, our first child, at 12 weeks gestation, was in danger. We had no idea what the future would hold as we rushed to the ER, my wife heavily bleeding. However, we did leave the ER that night with two consoling things: my wife held our daughter, safe, alive, and healthy, still in her womb–and would continue to do so for 16 more weeks until her premature birth–and I held in my hands our first rosary. A kind woman was there with her son, who had the flu. She saw how distraught and scared we were, prayed for us, and gave us a rosary. She later gave us her contact information to keep in touch. The moment she handed me that rosary, I formed a conviction  no doubt forged in me by divine grace, that I have not wavered from since: to pray the rosary every day for my family. In such a difficult time, and on such an inauspicious occasion, what was it that moved me to form such a lasting resolve?

I had attempted to pray the rosary before. In fact, I had been experiencing a growing desire to be Roman Catholic for about two years, beginning in May 2014 when I had an odd but profound experience visiting adoration of the blessed sacrament with a Catholic friend (see previous post for this story). Through my readings about Catholicism, I had been drawn toward Catholic thinking about Mary, and knew that, as with all things related to the faith, it had to be something that was not a mere matter of intellect, but also a matter of true, heartfelt desire, and true, concerted action in prayer. In other words, as I discerned toward Catholic conversion, I knew deep down that whatever I learned about in relation to the Catholic faith should always be tested in application to prayer, devotion, and worship. So, I felt compelled to try praying the Rosary. I ordered the cheapest rosary I could find on a Catholic website–which wound up being a pack of 10 string and wood rosaries that fell apart quickly in my clumsy hands. I learned the prayers, and always kept a rosary in a pocket for rainy days or dull moments.

There were no immediate fireworks. In fact, it took months for me to feel comfortable saying the same Hail Mary prayer over and over and feel like I was actually praying from the heart. I was not sure how all this worked. My only experience of prayer had been with my Protestant family and communities, in which our prayers usually involved spontaneous and extemporaneous expressions of our emotions, feelings, or requests at that given time. While these experiences had taught me the import of direct one’s desires and intentions to God, they left little room for training the soul to throw itself upon God’s Revealed Truth in prayer; I had no concept of how to pray from the heart using repeated, liturgical, or biblical language, or how to allow that repetitious prayer to raise into contemplation. Over time, learning to pray in this way helped me to accept that God really did know all of my requests, and there was no use reciting them over and over; in fact, doing so tended toward narcissistic self-focused prayer, not truly God-centered prayer. The rosary taught me to quickly make my requests known, and move on to mediate God’s truth, and contemplate his love for me, simply enjoying his presence. Learning to pray in this way was like a first date–exciting, but awkward.

The rosary begins with a recitation of the Creed, reminding us of what the life of a baptized Christian fully constitutes. An introductory Our Father and three Hail Mary’s are said, followed by a Glory Be. Then begins the first of five decades–five series of ten Hail Mary prayers: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” Each decade begins with an Our Father, and ends with a Glory Be. On each decade, a new mystery is contemplated–one spiritually chews on a scene from Christ’s life while reciting the ten Hail Mary’s. While the last sentence of the Hail Mary is derived from Catholic tradition–requesting Mary to pray for us sinners, especially as death approaches. However, the first two clauses are straight from Scripture, which was my first contact with those phrases. I had loved the Scriptures from a young age.

Since I loved Scripture, literature, and poetry, my first encounter with the Rosary had been in the Bible, where the prayers stem from: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee” are the words spoken by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary announcing her conception of Jesus Christ, known as the Angelic Salutation or the Annunciation (Luke 1:28). It seemed exciting to me to, in prayer, take on the role of an angel–to give an angelic address to a fellow believer, a fellow Christian, who was so highly favored as to bear my Lord and my Savior in her womb. I can think of no more fitting words with which to say hello to the Mother of God, the Mother of my Savior, the Mother of all mothers.

A close reading of the Greek reveals that the angel is not, as some opponents of Catholic teaching about Mary suggest, implying that Mary is somehow receiving grace or receiving the Lord’s presence with her only now at the moment of the salutation. Rather, it implies that she has always been full of grace, and has walked with the Lord continually for the entirety of her life–as the Catholic Church teaches as authentic Revelation, she is the Immaculata, the Immaculate Conception, without sin from her own conception, given a special and serious grace to be prevented from Original Sin so as to be a pure and holy vessel, a pure and spotless bride, for the Incarnation of our Lord (2 Corinthians 11:2, Ephesians 5:27, Revelation 19:7). The two parallel phrases take on the flavor of titles, not mere descriptors, in the Greek: Χαῖρε, κεχαριτωμένη, ὁ κύριος μετὰ σοῦ [Chaire, kekaritomene, ho kyrios meta sou]. The first phrase is a past perfect participle, grammatically, suggesting that Mary has been and continues to be “full of grace.” Modern Protestant bibles that translate this phrase “highly favored” are intentionally side-stepping the full force of this word and its obvious implications toward Catholic doctrine. In reality, there is no way to translate the word with a root charis in any other way than “full of grace,” since the word charis is the same word translated elsewhere as “grace” in both Catholic and Protestant bibles. Mary is, and has been, so full of grace, that it is spilling over into this very moment, it is bearing the fruit of allowing her to be a new Ark of the Covenant, bearing the real and true, body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, the true presence of God come among humanity.

Furthermore, the second phrase takes on a similar character of a title–the Greek would sound almost like “Lord-with-you,” as if one of her nicknames. Indeed, this resonates with St. Elizabeth’s reaction when the pregnant virgin Mary visits her: “Why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43). Many scholars, including Edward Sri in his book Queen Mother, note how a Jewish audience would hear clear overtones related to the Ancient Near Eastern figure of a “Queen Mother,” or gebirah in Hebrew, who possessed even more power, dignity, and honor than the wife of a King (rf. 2 Jeremiah 13:18, 2 Kings 10:13). The mother of a King, for Israelites and ancient peoples, was the true Queen, and possessed massive power and influence. This was in part because of the tradition of polygamy, which God was slowly attempting to weed out of Israel–since a King would have many wives, no single one of them possessed distinction, but the distinction fell upon the mother. Queen Esther is in many ways the model of a holy Queen mother; Jezebel, Sidonian wife of King Ahab, is in many ways the archetype of an evil Queen mother. In any case, the Queen’s power and influence included interceding on behalf of subjects who had a request for the King. This is seen most powerfully in 1 Kings 2:13-21, when Adonijah asks Bathsheeba, wife of David and mother of Solomon, to intercede on his behalf to King Solomon, asking for Abishag the Shunamite as a wife. Indeed, this image of Mary as the Queen Mother of Christ the King is reinforced by the angel’s salutation, Elizabeth’s humbling question, and Mary’s words at the Wedding of Cana when she asks Christ to do something about the wine that runs out; he appears to show no interest, but then Mary turns to the servants and says, “Do whatever he tells you,” and he proceeds to request water that he turns into wine (John 2:5). If Mary is the Queen-Mother of Christ the King, and the Queen Mother, the gebirah, was known to have an especially potent influence in interceding to the King on behalf of the King’s subjects, then the Gospels are cluing us into a powerful spiritual reality: we, the subjects of the King, can request particularly powerful intercessions from the Queen Mother, Mary, and can thus obtain a special granting of our desires–Christ, in his love for his Queen Mother, wills that she play a special role of powerful intercessor on our behalf; Christ himself desires that we should approach him through Mary, just as he came to be Immanuel, God-with-us as one of us, through Mary.

Indeed, with all of these overtones of Queen Motherhood surrounding Mary, it would do one well to slowly and thoughtfully re-read the accounts of the Nativity and the Holy Family in the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke, and notice how, despite the humble and quiet setting, the birth of our Lord is indeed described as a heavenly throne room, a royal spiritual event. Both St. Joseph and the Blessed Virgin Mary are, as the genealogies in St. Matthew’s Gospel and St. Luke’s Gospel clarify, descendants of David, successors of the royal line of the Household of God, Jewish royalty–and their son (Joseph’s adopted son) is the true promised King, Messiah, anointed one. Christmas is a holiday redolent of royalty, kingship, and noble lineage. The cave in Bethlehem–which literally means “House of Bread,” the true bread from heaven, Jesus Christ–becomes the House of God, becomes a heavenly palace, a royal temple, where we may meet the true fulfillment of the royal Davidic line, the Queen Mother of Queen mothers, her loyal virginal spouse, and Christ the King of Kings.

The second part of the Hail Mary prayer- “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb” – is uttered by St. Elizabeth just before she wonders why she is so blessed as to receive a visit from the Queen of her Lord (Luke 1:42). She goes on to report that the miraculous child in her own womb–St. John the Baptist, the one appointed to “prepare a way in the wilderness (Is. 40:3)–lept for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice, and concludes her greeting by saying, “and blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk. 1:45). Mary enjoys a status of distinction among all other women by virtue of her faith in the proclamation of her calling, securing a blessing for herself that offers grace to the whole world. This most truly fulfills Protestant German theologian Deitrich Bonhoeffer’s critique of “cheap grace,” a grace that makes no demands of us–rather, it is the grace of God’s real, intimate presence in, with, and for mankind, a new creation conceived in Mary’s virginal womb. St. Elizabeth describes how the blessing is by virtue of Mary’s faith, or belief – in Greek, the same word, pistis, which suggests not mere intellectual acknowledgment, but faithfulness, fidelity, or trust–a complete devotion of the totality of one’s life to someone. In Luke 1:45, the word for belief is used similarly to the verb kecharitomene in that it is also a past perfect participle – pisteusasa  – suggesting that her act of believing originates in the past and is complete or perfected or on-going in the present. Mary’s total surrender of her life to God–her total belief–has put her in a place similar to that of Abraham, who by his faithful trust in God’s calling embarked on a courageous journey that would result in blessing all nations and the propagation of a new multitude, the nation of God’s people, Israel. Just so, Mary’s faithful trust in God’s calling allowed her to become a blessing to all humanity through the founding of a new spiritual community, the Church, bought by the precious blood of her Son, Jesus Christ. Abraham is the Patriarch of God’s Old Covenant, Jewish community by the flesh; Mary is the Matriarch of God’s New Covenant, heavenly community, the Church, by the Spirit.

These biblical dimensions of Mary’s significance in the economy of salvation could be extended and deepened with attention to many other texts in Scripture–for instance, the appearance of a star-crowned woman with child in Revelation 12, who goes into hiding in the wilderness due to the threats of a great serpent. But for now it is sufficient to say that the role that Mary plays in Scripture worked powerfully, but slowly on my imagination, such that it eventually trickled into my prayer life, into a highly personal awareness of Mary’s love for me as her spiritual son bought by the precious blood of Jesus Christ. In addition, as a lover of poetry, I was excited and enthralled by G.K. Chesterton’s poem Lepanto, recounting the epochal naval battle between Muslim and Christian forces at Lepanto in 1571. This battle decisively dictated the future of Europe as Christian, not Islamic. Pope Pius V instructed many Catholics of the time to pray the rosary for victory, and the Christian league he established credited victory to their own intercessions to Mary through praying the rosary. Pope Pius V instituted a new feast day in gratitude to the Virgin, Our Lady of Victory, which is now called Our Lady of the Rosary (October 7). I was further intrigued to learn about the origins of the rosary: Our Lady revealed it to St. Dominic, founder of the Dominicans, or the Order of Preachers, who worked tirelessly to battle the Albigensian heresy. Apparently he was struggling to convert souls, but praying the rosary proved a powerful weapon in that battle. The rosary includes 5 decades of beads–50 beads total, which came to replace the 50 psalms that many monastic orders recited weekly, sometimes daily. The rosary was even referred to as the psalm-book of Our Lady, and extended contemplative practice to lay-people. Indeed, the rosary itself is not meant to merely be repeating Hail Mary’s – for each decade, a single “mystery” is contemplated, or meditatively explored. These mysteries include moments from Christ’s life and Mary’s life, and are an excellent way to explore a personal spiritual connection to the life of Christ and the life of his Holy Family, which we are all called to be a part of in his Church.

So, these were all of the biblical, historical, and poetical impressions swimming through my mind on that night in the ER when a kind woman offered us a rosary. Our 15-week old en utero baby daughter was in danger, and would remain in danger until her birth at 28 weeks. But she was kept completely safe, and was completely healthy before and after birth”. She was born premature, but has remained as healthy as she could possibly be for what have now been her 2 ½ years of life outside of the womb.

However, after we went home from the hospital that night, we had more scares, and more bad news. The doctors told us that our daughter had a less than one percent chance of surviving, and we should “abort and start over.” We rejected this offensive advice, as if the life gifted to us in my wife’s womb and consecrated with a soul by God could be discarded and “start over” at the whims of merely human invention and power. Nonetheless, we were told to go home and wait for our child to die. So we went home, and I prayed the rosary every night. We went in to the high-risk doctor for weekly scans, which showed that our daughter had almost no amniotic fluid around her. If she did survive, we were told, our daughter would have major deformities of limbs and internal organs. But each week, our daughter kept growing normally. We would go home, and I would pray the rosary every day.

My wife’s water broke for a second time at 24 weeks, and we were admitted to a large hospital about an hour and a half away, where my wife stayed on bed-rest for a month. I commuted to work and back and slept in the hospital room. Each night in that hospital room, by my wife’s bedside, I prayed the rosary. Our daughter was born at 28 weeks via an emergency C-section, surviving a potentially lethal infection in my wife’s womb. She was completely healthy, had no abnormalities, and was doing so well that she was transferred to a hospital closer to our home after one week. And each day, I prayed the rosary.

Our daughter grew and grew in the NICU at Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz, CA for 71 days; every day, I would go home and pray the rosary in her nursery she would one day come home to. And she did–she came home, and has been a healthy and wonderful blessing to us for 2 ½ years since, during which time I have prayed the rosary every day. And now, before bed-times, I still pray the rosary daily–now, with my precious daughter, who in her own childish, innocent, and inchoate way, is learning to pray the rosary with me. Medical professionals had classified my daughter, because of an extremely low prognosis, as unfit to live, as worthy of death. She continued to grow and thrive despite the prognosis, and with very little amniotic fluid. She grew in a complicated and abnormally shaped uterus. She remained strong as my wife’s body was failing. She survived a potentially lethal uterine infection. And my wife survived the same potentially lethal infection. I believe that the life of my daughter and the life of my child are favors granted to me by the powerful intercession by our spiritual mother, our heavenly Queen, the Virgin Mary, who knows our frailties, weaknesses, needs, and desires, and implores the King, her son, to help. We are part of a grand, royal, holy family indeed.

I will never forget the first time I tried praying the rosary, two summers before our daughter was born. On vacation in Tahoe, I went for a long walk by myself early in the morning with the rosary in my pocket. I had just learned about how to pray the rosary while contemplating the mysteries, and wanted to try it for myself. While on the walk, I prayed through each decade while contemplating the sorrowful mysteries–holding in my heart, mind, and soul, 5 major scenes from the passion of Christ: his agony in the garden, his scourging at the pillar, his crowning in thorns, his carrying of the cross, and his crucifixion. When I arrived at the crucifixion, by myself in the mountains around Lake Tahoe, I burst into tears. After 25 years of being a Christian, the immensity, profundity, and utter generosity of the sufferings of our Lord hit me afresh like a tidal wave, and I was overcome with sorrow, joy, sadness, delight, gratitude, and penitence all at the same time. It was a fresh invigoration of my faith like I had never experienced before–a deeper identification with the sorrows and sufferings of our savior, imploring his mother to pray for us that we may be more like him in our own sufferings. 

Praying the rosary for my own faith, my own salvation, for my family, for my friends, and for my world has gradually been teaching me how to suffer like Christ, how to have faith like Mary, and how to always trust in God’s providence. I dare you to pray the rosary daily–not merely to recite the words, but to contemplate the mysteries. You have no idea what exciting spiritual adventures God will take you on and prepare you for if you do–like Abraham being called to father a new nation, like Mary called to mother the Son of God, like Pope St. Pius V called to defend the Christian faith in Europe from hostile take-over, like St. Dominic called to convert an entire generation of heretics–and even like me, called to devote to his wife, raise a precious daughter, and  defend both of their lives. Just like all of these stories, you may receive an exciting and noble call through praying the rosary. The rosary is the spiritual weapon of choice. The journey it takes you on will require much courage, but has as its consolation and goal the fountain of all true delights, the glory of heaven, which the Blessed Virgin now enjoys, and to which she beckons us, pointing us the way to her Son.

All of this happened before I was formally received into the Catholic Church. Our daughter was born on April 11, 2016; it was not until the Easter Vigil, March 31, 2018, that my wife and I were confirmed, received first Eucharist, and were welcomed home to the Roman Catholic Church. Even before being received into the Catholic Church, the rosary powerfully opened us up to receive greater and greater grace and life from God; what even more marvelous things can praying the rosary do for those already within the Catholic fold, already within the stream of the authentic Apostolic tradition flowing from Christ! This is devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary: asking for her intercessions to Christ and the Father in the Holy Spirit. Such devotion not only presents us with a model for discipleship, but also grants us effective, actual grace. The Virgin is the ultimate disciple of Christ, and her prayers are powerful, since the prayer of the righteous “hath great power in its effects” (James 5:16). The Virgin’s total surrender to God, her utter humility, teaches us humility in form and content, in model and in power, in word and in deed, beautifully expressed in perhaps the greatest poem ever written, the Magnificat, Mary’s prayer of praise after hearing St. Elizabeth’s greeting:

My soul doth magnify the Lord,
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.
For he hath regarded
the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold from henceforth
all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me,
and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him
throughout all generations.
He hath showed strength with his arm;
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat,
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel,
as he promised to our forefathers,
Abraham and his seed for ever. (Lk. 1:47-55)

You can read more about our daughter’s story here: https://www.liveaction.org/news/premature-baby-thriving-1-percent/

You can review basic instructions for praying the rosary here:

https://www.marian.org/mary/rosary/howto.php

The Eucharist and My Catholic Conversion

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Below is a two-part story I wrote for a professor from Guadalajara, Mexico, which she translated into Spanish for her blog. Here it is in English.

Part 1: The Perpetual Availability of Jesus Christ

I was not raised to believe in the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist, nor was I raised Catholic. However, as an evangelical Protestant, I always had a serious desire to truly experience God through prayer, Scripture, and worship. I would wake up in the middle of the night to pray, spend long hours reading Scripture, attend Bible studies, and play music for church services. When I was four years old my parents helped me pray a prayer that some Protestants teach guarantees salvation: to accept Jesus into my heart. When I was seven years old my father baptized me, a memory I will always cherish. When I was ten years old, I was so afraid that my prayer to accept Jesus had not worked, or that I had sinned since then, or that I did not take it seriously enough, that I knelt in my bedroom in the middle of the night on at least one occasion, and asked Jesus to come into my heart again if it had not worked properly the last time, or in case I had fallen away through some unknown sin or error. If my memory serves, I did this on multiple occasions—I was struggling with what, as I was taught, was a purely subjective grounding for my experience of grace and salvation, and it was not satisfying me. As a young man, I was devoted as best I knew how to experiencing the true presence of Christ in my life, but was perhaps led into over-scrupulosity given this purely subjective grounding: focus on salvation by a single prayer, which lacks the objective grounding of salvation by which God saves us not by any merit of our own, but by his gracious merging of human and divine wills in the work of the Holy Spirit through reception of the Sacraments, by the blood of the God-Man, Jesus Christ, who we are mystically incorporated into.

[The idea that salvation is exclusively tied to praying a prayer to receive Jesus into one’s heart is not only a relatively recent innovation in Church history, but also stems from taking a single verse in Romans out of context, chapter 10 verse 9: “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Besides ignoring other biblical passages that make salvation more complicated (for instance, 1 Peter 3:21: “…baptism now saves you;” or James 2:24: “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone;” or Galatians 5:6, “For in Christ neither circumcision nor uncircumcision availeth, but only faith working through love”), it also misses the context of Romans wherein St. Paul is describing the “obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5, 16:26) that is now ours in Jesus Christ, contrasted with the “obedience of the law” under Moses (cf. Deuteronomy 30:14). In Romans 10, Paul is contrasting these two forms of obedience, and focuses on the importance of hearing and obeying the call to have faith in Jesus Christ, which includes obeying his commandments, such as being baptized. Finally, St. Paul’s use of the word ‘salvation’ throughout his letters is complex, and often refers to making it safely through the coming judgment as much as it does the initial acceptance of faith on the part of a believer.]

In late high school and early college, I was increasingly dissatisfied by my experience in churches, especially in worship. My father was a pastor, and imparted to me a love of the Scriptures, theology, and prayer. I was especially interested in the idea of the Incarnation, that great mystery of God become man. However, something felt unsettling to me about the churches I was a part of. In response to such a great mystery as the Incarnation, simply singing songs and listening to a sermon felt cheap. Deep down, I felt that something was missing. If God truly became man, it seemed to me that the deep profundity of this reality should be reflected more potently during church services, especially in worship. But I did not really know what this meant.

In college, I went through what I would call, in St. John of the Cross’ language, a “dark night of the soul.” As a young man, I had enjoyed a richly vivid relationship with Christ. When alone, or on walks, I would have a vivid, comforting, and lasting sense that Christ was with me, was supporting me, was speaking to me in the depths of my soul. But in college that sense was stripped away, and in its place, especially in my daily time of quiet prayer, was what felt like a blank and looming wall of icy silence. It seemed that God had withdrawn his presence from me, and I could do nothing but go through the motions of my daily habits of prayer and devotion meaninglessly, emptied of presence.

A few years later, after graduation and marriage, things began to slowly shift. My studies of church history, theology, and Scripture were deepening into a greater awareness of orthodox Christian belief, as well as the Apostolic and Catholic heritage, begun in Christ, that extended even to our own age. I was especially attracted by the works of the Desert Fathers and monastic spirituality, and was finding myself increasingly drawn to Catholic poets, novelists, and theologians. I continued to experience inexplicable frustration at the Protestant church I was attending, but was developing a better theological vocabulary with which to describe my unease: I began to think that the logic of the Incarnation, and the thrust of the Biblical story, should impact the form of worship more deeply, and should radically alter the way that, as a Protestant, I was trained to view the Church. In other words, I longed for a deeper vision of salvation history—that the Old Testament, New Testament, and the Church represented a single unbroken narrative of God’s work in and with and through humanity. But I had a troubling sense that what I experienced week to week at churches was not meaningfully tied to that whole narrative. I vividly remember a particular conversation I had with a worship leader who I played music with at a church in Los Angeles, CA. He was frustrated that, the previous Sunday, the congregation did not break into more passionate, excited worship when he had reached a dramatic and emotional climax in the chorus of a particular song. He said he was trying to think of a better way to both challenge and comfort people—to call them to more fervent worship without offending them by suggesting that they weren’t worshipping hard enough. Basically, he was just frustrated that more people were not spontaneously raising their hands during the song, or acting more emotionally responsive. I remember that what I said to him surprised even me. I responded, “I’m uncomfortable with the notion that we should use music to manipulate people into worship, and should interpret whether or not they are worshipping well simply by their external mannerisms. In fact, I find that whatever I might need on a given Sunday—to be challenged or to be comforted—happens for me from Christ when I receive communion.” My comment was returned with blank stares, and the conversation quickly diverted into other matters. But I think that comment was really God speaking through me to only one person: myself. God was drawing me into a deeper awareness that communion—the Eucharist—is the true center of Christian worship and Christian life.

In May of 2014 things shifted dramatically. I had what I will call my St. Paul on the Road to Damascus experience with the Eucharist. I continued to seek God’s presence in prayer, study, and Scripture, and continued to feel frustrated by my experience at Protestant churches. My long-time friend, James, who was the best man in my wedding, invited me to stay with him in Pittsburgh, where he was working on his doctoral degree. I enjoyed seeing the city and the university, and meeting his friends. But I could never have expected that a simple, humble, and faithful act that James performed that week would change my life. James, a practicing cradle-Catholic, took me with him to the Pittsburgh Oratory of St. Philip Neri so he could receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He attended Mass at this oratory regularly, and also took me to Mass there the following day. However, something significant happened to me while I sat in the chapel waiting for him to enter the confessional booth. I found myself awkwardly imagining all of the people going into the small, dark wooden cubicle and whispering sins privately to a priest. I wondered how anxious they all must have been feeling while waiting in line. The doors opened and shut as each absolved penitent exited, and a fresh penitent entered. I watched one person come out of the confessional booth, and noticed that she immediately went to a pew, knelt, crossed herself, and began praying. I realized that this was something I could do too—this chapel was meant for prayer.

So, I directed my gaze forward and began to pray. I do not recall anything I prayed about; all I recall is that my eyes were suddenly drawn to a golden sun-burst sitting on the altar, a baroque metal monstrance with gold and white rays emanating from a single point, held up by a stand, sitting on the altar. I thought how beautiful the sun-burst was, and looked closer. I noticed that a white communion wafer rested inside a central circle in the middle of the golden sun-burst. In that moment, many of my studies about Catholic doctrine, readings of Catholic theology, and literature, and especially my life-long struggle to form an intimate prayer-life with God came rushing into a single phrase that, inaudibly but obviously in the depths of my soul, impressed upon me these words that I believe were given to me by Jesus Christ as a gift: “I am always available to you here.” For some reason, those were the words that I needed—expressive of the perpetual availability of God to man in the Blessed Sacrament, the Eucharist. And, of course, by “here,” I understood that he did not mean only in the Pittsburgh Oratory, but everywhere that his true presence resided in a consecrated Host. In that moment, it was as if the last piece of a puzzle, which made the rest of the puzzle make sense, was inserted in my soul, and I immediately sensed that all other Catholic teachings must be true in light of the supreme and sublime teaching of the real and substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist: sacraments, holy orders, the Magisterium, the communion of saints, the Queenship, Motherhood, and co-redemptive role of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and other doctrines appeared to me as necessary and integrally connected realities stemming from the single reality that Christ himself, truly present in the Host, is the literal center of Christian worship.

My life-long fascination with the Incarnation found its fulfillment: the true body and true blood of the incarnate Lord was, in a sense, re-incarnate in every validly consecrated host during every Catholic Mass on planet earth. God has always been pleased to work through material reality in salvation history, through Noah, Abraham, Israel, King Solomon and David (especially in the Temple and the Ark of the Covenant), and ultimately in the Incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ–why should he have stopped there? The Incarnation of the Son of God, and his sacrifice on Mount Calvary, casts a shadow across all of human time and space, extending even to the present day, through the Catholic Mass. God still works through material creation to enact our salvation–through his Body, the Church, through the waters of Baptism, through the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist, through the ministry of ordained priests. In receiving the Eucharist, each communicant is substantially and mystically incorporated into the saving events of Christ’s life, and I, a poor sinner, was blessed and grateful to have received a simple invitation. I did not understand all these things in their full depth, and it took years of more study, prayer, and conversation to fully understand what happened to me. But in that moment—in what I did not know at the time was Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament—I intuited the truth of the Catholic Church, was inescapably drawn to commune with the Eucharistic Lord in my heart, and knew that becoming Catholic was an unquestionable part of my future. After that day, my heart would beat faster when I passed or entered a Catholic Church, knowing that the Lord was reposing in the tabernacle. My heart leapt for joy at the truth of the Eucharist, but it took a few more years for my mind, my will, and my wife to follow. I still spent another 3-4 years in Protestant Churches; but, whenever I found myself disconnected from the Sunday worship or bored by another rambling sermon, I would bring before my mind’s eye the Monstrance bearing the Eucharistic Lord, and would find myself worshiping “in spirit and in truth.” I had truly found what I had sensed missing in Christian worship my whole life: the Real Presence of Christ, to which the faithful respond with reverence, service, and obedience.

Many people discuss worship as if its meaning were merely a matter of emotional stimulation (especially in songs) on the one hand or intellectual inquiry (especially in sermons) on the other. However, both of these needs are more truly met in the Eucharist, which Romano Guardini, in his book Meditations Before Mass, calls a “sacred act:”

God ratified what Jesus instituted. Man has here no call to create or determine; his task is to obey and act. Moreover, the institution [of the Eucharist] itself is entrusted to a special authority for protection and guidance.[1]

Especially in worship, our response to Christ’s true presence as king, high priest, and Lord entails, as of primary importance, action and obedience. The sign of our submission to the proscribed action and true obedience to Christ our king and high priest is our joyful, fervent, correct, obedient, and humble participation in the Mass where he promises to come again into our midst.

Part 2: ‘What the Truth hath spoken, that for truth I hold’

Above is the story of my recognition of the truth of the Eucharist; another exciting story is the one that Scripture tells about how Jesus Christ came to fulfill the old system of worship, enshrined in Israel’s sacrificial system, by instituting the New Covenant form of worship in the New Temple of his Body. Indeed, it is worthwhile to read the whole story of Scripture with fresh eyes in light of the fact that the manner in which Christians worship, and the gift that Christ gave us to worship his Body and Blood in a very specific way, is an essential component of the Gospel. The question, “how should Christians worship” is not of secondary importance to some more primary question about the essence of the Gospel—rather, the question “how should Christians worship” is entirely central to what the Gospel is, since it is all about how our King and High Priest, Jesus Christ, desires to conduct and order worship in his Kingdom, the Church, and ultimately draw us into eternal heavenly worship, of which our present worship is a foretaste.

When considering the reality of the Lord’s true, miraculous presence in the Eucharist, it is important to start with a simple, child-like trust that the words that Jesus Christ says are true, and are “full of Spirit and life” (John 6:63). Jesus Christ said many things that are strange, obscure, and mysterious. Some of these were parables which he did not explain; others were parables that he did explain. But, many things he said were also authoritative acts, divine pronouncements, definitive decrees: for instance, giving his Apostles the Holy Spirit, predicting St. Peter’s denial, foretelling Judas’ betrayal, predicting his own death and Resurrection, describing the last days and the final judgment. Christ is the Word of God; he is the Logos, Eternal Creative Reason itself, and the words he speaks as a human being carry the weight of his divine glory, especially since he came to establish the New Covenant, fulfilling the Old Covenant with the Israelites, and since he asserted himself as bearing authority over this New Covenant directly from the Father. However, there is one specific thing that Christ taught which, since he first uttered it, has divided his followers and caused many to fall away. In John chapter 6, Christ gives the “bread of life” discourse, including one of the many “I am” statements in this Gospel. But unlike some of the others, he ends it with an unambiguously literal explanation: “Amen, amen I say to you: Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall have no life in you. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath everlasting life: and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed: and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, abideth in me, and I in him” (John 6:53-57). Christ uses superlative, repeated language that takes on the character of a vow: “amen,” “indeed,” “eateth,” “life.” There is absolutely no textual warrant that he is speaking a parable or a metaphor. The Greek word for “eat” he uses here refers not to gestation broadly, but to the physical act of chewing: phagein. And what could Christ possibly be referring to except the Institution of the Eucharist, the Last Supper, at which he said of bread, “This is my body,” and said of wine, “this is my blood,” and gave it to his Apostles to eat and drink, commanding them, as often as they would do this, to perform this ritual meal in his remembrance (Luke 22:19, 1 Cor. 11:24)? The word “remembrance” in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin does not suggest a mere cognitive act of calling something to mind; for instance, the Hebrew word, zikaron, used to refer to the Passover, suggested a real reenactment of the event of the Exodus, suggesting that the participants in the ritual meal were somehow actually experiencing that event again in a new, substantial way. The Greek word used in the description of the Last Supper, anamnesis, and the Latin word, memoria, bear the same connotation—a substantial re-calling of a past event, a participation of partakers in a past event that now bears significant and substantial present reality. Just so, Christ’s loaded language here is a command to regularly perform a memorial ritual, an act in which the participants are enabled to join into the once for all, saving event of Christ’s Passion, death, and Resurrection.

So, real participation in the sacrifice of Christ, reenacted in the Eucharist, is the center of Christian worship. Good music is good; good sermons are good; but they are not the center of Christian worship. Christ, the very, very good new creation, by whose miraculous and substantial work as the Eternal Creative Wisdom of God has given us his true body and true blood in the Eucharist—He is the literal center of our worship, the Eucharistic Lord. God does not just want to save man from sin, but also wants to bring him back into right relationship with him, which looks like worship, praise, and adoration in its fullest degree. That’s why the sacrificial system of elaborately offering an animal, sprinkling blood, and consuming the remains was so important to Israel. But Christ came to fulfill that, and to give a new and perfect offering to be the center of our worship: himself, his body and blood. His sacrifice on the cross is made available, is mystically entered into, whenever his Body and Blood are offered as sacrifice at any Mass on planet earth. The Eucharist is the form of Christian worship that Christ gave us. Indeed, it is interesting that the only place in the Gospels when Christ uses the phrase “New Covenant” is when he is blessing the cup of wine as his blood at the last supper: “this cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you and for many” (Luke 22:20, 1 Cor. 11:25).

In light of all of these details, it is becoming for us, minimally, to trust Christ’s words that it is his body, and that such a difficult teaching would be something real and definitive, especially if he gave us no other explanation after such incredibly strong language. This is the theme of the second stanza of a famous hymn by St. Thomas Aquinas, Adoro te Devote:

 Visus, tactus, gustus in te fallitur,

Sed auditu solo tuto creditur.

Credo quidquid dixit Dei Filius;

Nil hoc verbo Veritátis verius.

[Taste and touch and vision to discern thee fail,

But the hearing only well may here prevail

I believe whate’er the Son of God hath told;

What the Truth hath spoken, that for truth I hold.]

After Christ says in John 6 that one must eat his body and drink his blood to have life, about half of his disciples leave in light of what they think is a ridiculous cannibalistic teaching. He turns to his Apostles, and asks if they will leave too; Simon Peter responds, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Christ, the Word, speaks words to us that are life, aimed at bringing us to the highest form of speech, the highest form of worship: receiving his true body and true blood on our tongues. In the mystery of incorporation into his Bride, the Church, we also become what we receive. We become Christ, and bear his presence to the world in our very bodies, each communicant like a little monstrance bearing the peace and the presence of the Lord to the world. Our simple trust of Christ’s words—that the bread is his Body, and that the wine is his blood—can generate immense spiritual power, can overcome much darkness and evil, and can open us to a present life of blessing, and to an eternal journey “from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18). This journey has the final destination of full union between God and his bride, the Church: true, perfected incorporation of humanity into the Most Blessed Trinity, by the Blood of Christ, through the Holy Spirit, to the Father.

But these heights of glory cannot be reached without, first, the humble and simple recognition of Christ’s body as bread, his blood as wine. Christ appeared humbly as a child born of a poor virgin in a cave; and he still comes to us humbly, quietly, as a lowly wafer meant to be consumed. He is the most fragile, most humble member who shows up at our Sunday Mass—meant to be handled, passed out, eaten. In this manner, Christ longs to be, through the correct form of the priest’s prayers, following the instructions given by Christ at the Last Supper, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, the literal center of our worship, appearing to us in a miracle just as glorious as the creation of the world, just as glorious as the Incarnation itself. The piece of Christian worship that non-Catholics are missing is a recognition that God’s miraculous action to seek out relationship with man in the Incarnation did not stop with Christ’s death, as if that somehow is automatically applied to anyone who expressed intellectual assent. God continues to seek out man—and to seek him out by actually perfecting him, by actually, substantially coming into his body, into his person—in the Church, in the Eucharist. St. Justin Martyr, as early as the 150s A.D. (just one or two generations after the Apostle’s ministry!), compared this teaching on the Eucharist with the Incarnation in his work The First Apology, Chapter 66:

And this food is called among us Eucharistia [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood or our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.

The transubstantiation of the bread and wine into Christ’s flesh and blood is analogous to the Incarnation of God in that same flesh and blood; Christ’s real incarnate body and blood are made available to Christian worshipers in the Eucharist. God longs to incarnate himself into us, his Body, through being consumed in bread and wine.

As we see in John 6, this is a difficult teaching. But Christ leaves us no shortage of biblical and historical warrant for it. For those who are curious or skeptical, I would encourage a slow and prayerful reading of John 6, 1 Corinthians 10-11, and the differing accounts of the Last Supper, to start. One could also look to the First Apology of St. Justin Martyr, cited above, written around 155 AD, for evidence of the historical development of the Eucharist in Christian worship. In Chapter 66-67, St. Justin offers a clear description of what the earliest Christian worship looked like; it is basically a description of a Catholic Mass, with a central focus on the Eucharist. Before and after reading these things, go to Mass and mediate on the Eucharist, the “source and summit of our Christian life,” (CCC 1324) the truest “sacrifice of praise” (Psalm 49:14-16, Hebrews 13:5) in which Christ, our spotless lamb, is offered again to the Father for us and is fully available to us, as expressed in the beautiful words of the Catechism:

In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist “the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.” “This presence is called ‘real’ – by which is not intended to exclude the other types of presences as if they could not be ‘real’ too, but because it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present.” (CCC 1374)

Why does God do this? Why does he go to such lengths to make himself wholly and entirely present? Because of his voracious desire to save us, to be with us, to perfect us, to give us life, to redeem the world; to consume us in his love, to allow us to consume Him in order to learn his love.

[1] Romano Guardini, “The Mass as Institution,” in Meditations Before Mass, Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press (1939), 111.

The Song of the Great-Tailed Grackle

The Song of the Great-Tailed Grackle

A viva voce poem

These if you notice are migrants all,

no one sticks around–in transit like geese flying forth

In the shadow of morning, they seek out a rest.

 

Wingless they fly, flock with no gaggle,

On pinions furled and dry, most absurd in the air,

A rollicking ramble of rash-throat rips ear to ear.

 

Like in the air a flurry of northward wings wind,

So in the aether the cackle migrates to song,

Where heavenly harmonies somehow belong:

 

Land, lake, cloud, and man under the arch-aegis

Of sybillant swings and oracular orbits

Pause in their pleasure–all peckish, they feed.

Great-tailed_Grackle_b57-5-137_l_1