Joyeux Noël

A holiday film not for the whole family: Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas) (2005/2006, French & German & English with subtitles), a great film about the WWI Christmas truce.

German film really picked it up over the past 15 years, I think; still artistic but also (how else to put it?) watchable, and indeed entertaining, whether we’re talking about The Edukators or Sophie Scholl: The Final Days or Good Bye Lenin!  Seems to be to case with European and international film more generally; Joyeux Noël is French-produced but features German actors Diane Kruger (who’s been popular in the US as well, of course), Benno Fürmann, and Daniel Brühl, and is a strong film.

Two reasons to watch it, in lieu of a formal review:

(1) The Stille Nacht/Adeste Fidelis sequence (grainy YouTube here). Haunting. That’s part of the broader theme of…

(2) …the religious concerns of the film, primarily the implicit lament of the loss of Christian Europe thanks to the rise of nationalism. In the midst of the truce, the film envisions the Scottish priest celebrating Mass for all the soldiers of the three nationalities (Scots, French, German) there present (which unfortunately I can’t find on YouTube). He begins, Dominus vobiscum, and all respond, et cum spiritu tuo.

It’s in Latin, of course. My own reaction (whatever the film’s intent) was that this signified a lost time when Europe was united in a common faith, a common rite, a common language. Catholic faith and the Catholic Mass make for unity and peace, whereas the rejection of that faith and Mass with the rise of nationalism in the late middle ages and early modern period leads to bloodshed. The blood of our tribes may be thicker than the waters of baptism, but it sure seems to spill easier…

By contrast, later in the show a different chaplain preaches to fresh Scottish recruits, encouraging them to kill and kill some more for God and Country–every last German, young or old. The scene ends with The Lord be with you / and also with you, and a Trinitarian blessing. In English. In the vernacular. To be honest, I’m not sure if this second chaplain is Catholic, or Church of England, or Presbyterian, or what, given the visuals of the scene.

I haven’t been able to find commentary on this, but it seems to me the film invites the viewer to consider a contrast between a Europe united in faith, rite, and language, and a Europe divided by nations, confessions, and languages.

We can’t go back, and nostalgia is a soft form of the deadly sin of sloth. But we lament, and repent, and learn. And remember this holiday season that Christ, the everlasting man in whom all men and women of whatever nation find themselves, who is indeed the ruler of all nations, is the One who gives peace, and not as the world gives, not any temporary truce or armistice, but Peace.

(streaming here at Amazon)


On Measure 1

Measure 1  would amend North Dakota’s constitution to include the following: “The inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected.” North Dakotans will vote on this measure this coming Tuesday in the general election.

The lay of the land looks like this: Pro-lifers will vote for it, while those who describe themselves as pro-choice are probably not going to. The real question concerns those who would like to vote for it, but who are genuinely concerned about the wisdom of making changes to our state constitutional by initiated measure (which in my thinking should not be done lightly) and who are concerned about the law of unintended consequences.

It is this last that Planned Parenthood and other pro-abortion groups bankrolling “North Dakotans Against Measure 1” has exploited powerfully with a terrible parade of horribles. Supposedly Measure 1 could lead to the banning of in-vitro fertilization, legal problems surrounding miscarriage, and the overriding of advanced directives pertaining to end-of-life care.

This move is a red herring. It would be nice if the organized opponents of Measure 1 would just come clean and say, “Y’know, we think abortion is great, and we want to promote it, even among your minor children apart from your knowledge.” But seeking truthfulness from Big Abortion is futile, as we shouldn’t expect plain talk from those who engage in crimes against humanity. Hence the head-fakes.

The truth is Measure 1 is needed to protect pro-life laws we already have on the books, laws passed with bipartisan majorities (and over bi-partisan opposition). The legislature is responsible for placing Measure 1 on the ballot, to prevent judges like Wickham Corwin (who was disciplined thanks to his sexual harassment of a female employee) from inventing a right to abortion in the ND constitution (see here and here).

The choice Tuesday is between lies spread by the abortion industry, or life, deception or decency, corruption or common sense.

I append here something a friend without a blog has written in hopes of achieving its wider dissemination, as I agree with his thoughts:


Dear Friends and Families of North Dakota, I would like to explain why we should vote yes on Measure 1 on November 4th. We have a tremendous opportunity before us this upcoming election.  There are a number of measures that are signs of the coming times both in our state and in our country. The measures deal with civil rights, education, taxes, representation, environmental conservation, parental rights, and medical care. They reveal the scope of change taking place. Nevertheless, I think one of the most important is the first. I find it very critical simply because it points to who we are as a nation and as a state.  Why? Two familiar documents will answer this question— the Declaration of Independence and the North Dakota State Constitution. All of us are familiar with the following line from the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This line has continued to change our history as a nation. Its ideals created a magnetism that drew many of our ancestors and relatives to this country.

Now for the North Dakota State Constitution. Article one, section one, reads:

Section 1. All individuals are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inalienable rights, among which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty; acquiring, possessing and protecting property and reputation; pursuing and obtaining safety and happiness; and to keep and bear arms for the defense of their person, family, property, and the state, and for lawful hunting, recreational, and other lawful purposes, which shall not be infringed.

Notice that both the Declaration and the ND Constitution speak of inalienable rights. Both speak of life.

In measure 1, you find similar language.  In fact, it does not aspire to the full magnitude of the original Declaration of Independence, but it nevertheless moves to incorporate part of the Declaration of Independence into our own constitution as a state.  Here is Measure 1 and what you will see on the ballot:

Constitutional Measure No. 1

(Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 4009, 2013 Session Laws, Ch. 519)

This constitutional measure would create and enact a new section to Article I of the North Dakota Constitution stating,

“The inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected.”

YES – means you approve the measure stated above.

NO – means you reject the measure stated above. Notice the quote being proposed. I would like to break it into three parts.

First – “Inalienable right to life of every human being” Measure 1 speaks of the values articulated at the foundation of the United States of American in the Declaration of Independence. It uses the word “inalienable” and means the same thing.  It refers to “life” and means the same thing. Adding the phrase “of every human being” uses some of the language that we are familiar with today, hence it adds clarity. The word “life” in both the Declaration and in our state Constitution clearly refers to any human life, and not the life of a tree or a mouse. Even the focus on life is the same in the measure and the Declaration of Independence. Both refer to existence itself. In the ND constitution there is a slight difference of focus, since it points to the right to enjoy and protect life. Notice, however, that the focus of the ND constitution does not contradict the Declaration and the measure. An inalienable right to enjoy and protect life presumes the right to have it. Measure 1 introduces the contents of our Declaration of Independence directly into our Constitution. It adds clarity when you examine it in the location where it will be placed in our constitution.

Second – “at any stage of development.” This phase highlights the universal aspect of this inalienable right at any age. That is all. We all know that our ND Constitution and our Declaration applies the inalienable right to any human being. It does not matter whether our skin is black or white, whether we are a man or a woman, whether we are from the northern or from the southern hemisphere. And it does not matter what stage of life we are at. If we are a human being we have this inalienable right.

Third – “recognized and protected” The word “recognized” emphasizes something already implied in both the Declaration of Independence and in our ND Constitution. To “enjoy and defend life” presumes that we recognize it. Just a point of clarity is added, that is all. As for “protected,” how is that different than “defend?” No real difference there. So why add these two words, simply because what holds for enjoying and defending life also applies to the right to have that life as well. It adds clarity.

Perhaps as time goes on we could say more about liberty and the pursuit of happiness as well!

Why the fears?

Many have talked about the consequences of this measure. I would simply point out that speaking of inalienable rights and human life has no further consequences than does the Declaration of Independence and the ND Constitution. If the Declaration of Independence and the North Dakota Constitution do not have ramifications for IVF and end of life issues, then neither does Measure 1.

Please, I beg you to add this small but important clarification to our constitution. Vote yes on it. Human life is certainly an inalienable right, and it does not matter what our race might be, where we have grown up, or how old or young we are. And that is a good point to clarify. Being a better communicator is always a good thing, especially when it comes to a constitution, an immensely consequential document. Introducing something from our Declaration of Independence more directly into our state constitution is a good thing to do.

With kind regards to all of you,

David Fleischacker


C.S. Lewis, Learning in War-Time

A sermon preached in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford, Autumn, 1939

A University is a society for the pursuit of learning. As students, you will be expected to make yourselves, or to start making yourselves, in to what the Middle Ages called clerks: into philosophers, scientists, scholars, critics, or historians. And at first sight this seems to be an odd thing to do during a great war. What is the use of beginning a task which we have so little chance of finishing? Or, even if we ourselves should happen not to be interrupted by death or military service, why should we — indeed how can we — continue to take an interest in these placid occupations when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?

Now it seems to me that we shall not be able to answer these questions until we have put them by the side of certain other questions which every Christian ought to have asked himself in peace-time. I spoke just now of fiddling while Rome burns. But to a Christian the true tragedy of Nero must be not that he fiddles while the city was on fire but that he fiddles on the brink of hell. You must forgive me for the crude monosyllable. I know that many wiser and better Christians than I in these days do not like to mention heaven and hell even in a pulpit. I know, too, that nearly all the references to this subject in the New Testament come from a single source. But then that source is Our Lord Himself. People will tell you it is St. Paul, but that is untrue. These overwhelming doctrines are dominical. They are not really removable from the teaching of Christ or of His Church. If we do not believe them, our presence in this church is great tomfoolery. If we do, we must sometime overcome our spiritual prudery and mention them. The moment we do so we can see that every Christian who comes to a university must at all times face a question compared with which the questions raised by the war are relatively unimportant. He must ask himself how it is right, or even psychologically possible,for creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or to hell, to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology. If human culture can stand up to that, it can stand up to anything. To admit that we can retain our interest in learning under the shadow of these eternal issues, but not under the shadow of a European war, would be to admit that our ears are closed to the voice of reason and very wide open to the voice of our nerves and our mass emotions.

This indeed is the case with most of us: certainly with me. For that reason I think it important to try to see the present calamity in a true perspective, The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life”. Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil, like the nineteenth century, turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of cries, alarms, difficulties, emergencies. Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never come. Periclean Athens leaves us not only the Parthenon but, significantly, the Funeral Oration. The insects have chosen a different line: they have sought first the material welfare and security of the hive, and presumable they have their reward. Men are different.They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffold, discuss, the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is our nature.

But since we are fallen creatures the fact that this is now our nature would not, by itself, prove that it is rational or right. We have to inquire whether there is really any legitimate place for the activities of the scholar in a world such as this. That is, we have always to answer the question: “How can you be so frivolous and selfish as to think about anything but the salvation of human souls?” and we have, at the moment, to answer the additional question, “How can you be so frivolous and selfish as to think of anything but the war?” Now part of our answer will be the same for both questions. The one implies that our life can, and ought, to become exclusively and explicitly religious: the other, that it can and ought to become exclusively national. I believe that our whole life can, and indeed must, become religious in a sense to be explained later. But if it is meant that all our activities are to be of the kind that can be recognized as “sacred” and ties are to be of the kind that can be recognized as “sacred” and opposed to “secular” then I would give a single reply to both my imaginary assailants. I would say, “Whether it ought to happen or not, the thing you are recommending is not going to happen.” Before I became a Christian I do not think I fully realized that one’s life, after conversion, would inevitable consist in doing most of the same things one had been doing before: one hopes, in a new spirit, but still the same things. Before I went to the last war I certainly expected that my life in the trenches would, in some mysterious sense, be all war. In fact, I found that the nearer you got to the front line the less everyone spoke and thought of the allied cause and the progress of the campaign; and I am pleased to find that Tolstoy, in the greatest war book ever written, records the same thing — and so, in its own way, does the Iliad. Neither conversion nor enlistment in the army is really going to obliterate our human life. Christians and solders are still men: the infidel’s idea of a religious life, and the civilian’s idea of active service, are fantastic. If you attempted, in either case, to suspend your whole intellectual and aesthetic activity, you would only succeed in substituting a worse cultural life for a better. You are not, in fact, going to read nothing, either in the Church or in the line: if you don’t read good books you will read bad ones. If you don’t go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally. If you reject aesthetic satisfactions you will fall into sensual satisfactions. There is therefore this analogy between the claims of our religion and the claims of the war: neither of them for most of us, will simply cancel or remove from the slate the merely human life which we were leading before we entered them. But they will operate in this way for different reasons. The war will fail to absorb our whole attention because it is a finite object, and therefore intrinsically unfitted to support the whole attention of a human soul. In order to avoid misunderstanding I must here make a few distinctions. I believe our cause to be, as human causes go, very righteous, and I therefore believe it to be a duty to participate in this war. And every duty is a religious duty, and our obligation to perform every duty is therefore absolute. Thus we may have a duty to rescue a drowning man, and perhaps, if we live on a dangerous coast, to learn life-saving so as to be ready for any drowning man when he turns up. It may be our duty to lose our own lives in saving him. But if anyone devoted himself to life-saving in the sense of giving it his total attention –so that he thought and spoke of nothing else and demanded the cessation of all other human activities until everyone had learned to swim — he would be a monomaniac. The rescue of drowning men is, then a duty worth dying for, but not worth living for. It seems to me that all political duties (among which I include military duties) are of this kind. A man may have to die for our country: but no man must, in any exclusive sense, live for his country. He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God: himself. It is for a very different reason that religion cannot occupy the whole of life in the sense of excluding all our natural activities. For, of course, in some sense, it must occupy the whole of life. There is no question of a compromise between the claims of God and the claims of culture, or politics, or anything else. God’s claim is infinite and inexorable. You can refuse it: or you can begin to try to grant it. There is no middle way. Yet in spite of this it is clear that Christianity does not exclude any of the ordinary human activities. St. Paul tells people to get on with their jobs. He even assumes that Christians may go to dinner parties, and, what is more, dinner parties given by pagans. Our Lord attends a wedding and provides miraculous wine. Under the aegis of His Church, and in the most Christian ages, learning and the arts flourish. The solution of this paradox is, of course, well know to you. “Whether ye eat or drink or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.” All our merely natural activities will be accepted, if they are offered to God, even the humblest: and all of them, even the noblest, will be sinful if they are not. Christianity does not simply replace our natural life and substitute a new one: it is rather a new organization which exploits, to its own supernatural ends, these natural materials. No doubt, in a given situation, it demands the surrender of some, or al all, our merely human pursuits: it is better to be saved with one eye, than, having two, to be cast into Gehenna. But it does this, in a sense, per accidens — because, in those special circumstances, it has ceased to be possible to practice this or that activity to the glory of God. There is no essential quarrel between the spiritual life and the human activities as such. Thus the omnipresence of obedience to God in a Christian’s life is, in a way, analogous to the omnipresence of God in space. God does not fill space as a body fills it, in the sense that parts of Him are in different parts of space, excluding other object from them. Yet He is everywhere — totally present at every point of space –according to good theologians.

We are now in a position to answer the view that human culture is an inexcusable frivolity on the part of creatures loaded with such awful responsibilities as we. I reject at once an idea which lingers in the mind of some modern people that cultural activities are in their own right spiritual and meritorious — as though scholars and poets were intrinsically more pleasing to God than scavengers and bootblacks. I think it was Matthew Arnold who first used the English word spiritual in the sense of the German geistlich, and so inaugurated this most dangerous and most anti-Christian error. Let us clear it forever from our minds. The work of a Beethoven, and the work of a charwoman, become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly “as to the Lord”. This does not, of course, mean that it is for anyone a mere toss-up whether he should sweep rooms or compose symphonies. A mole must dig to the glory of God and a cock must crow. We are members of one body, but differentiated members, each with his own vocation. A man’s upbringing, his talents, his circumstances, are usually a tolerable index of his vocation. If our parents have sent us to Oxford, if our country allows us to remain there, this is prima facie evidence that the life which we, at any rate, can best lead to the glory of God at present is the learned life.

By leading that life to the glory of God I do not, of course, mean any at tempt to make our intellectual inquiries work out to edifying conclusions. That would be, as Bacon says, to offer to the author of truth the unclean sacrifice of a lie. I mean the pursuit of knowledge and beauty, in a sense, for their own sake, but in a sense which does not exclude their being for God’s sake. An appetite for these things exists in the human mind, and God makes no appetite in vain. We can therefore pursue knowledge as such, and beauty, as such, in the sure confidence that by so doing we are either advancing to the vision of God ourselves or indirectly helping others to do so. Humility, no less than the appetite, encourages us to concentrate simply on the knowledge or the beauty, not too much concerning ourselves with their ultimate relevance to the vision of God. That relevance may not be intended for us but for our betters — for men who come after and find the spiritual significance of what we dug out in blind and humble obedience to our vocation. This is the teleological argument that the existence of the impulse and the faculty prove that they must have a proper function in God’s scheme — the argument by which Thomas Aquinas probes that sexuality would have existed even without the Fall. The soundness of the argument, as regards culture, is proved by experience. The intellectual life is not the only road to God, nor the safest, but we find it to be a road, and it may be the appointed road for us. Of course it will be so only so long as we keep the impulse pure and disinterested. That is the great difficulty. As the author of the Theologia Germanicai says, we may come to love knowledge — our knowing — more than the thing known: to delight not in the exercise of our talents but in the fact that they are ours, or even in the reputation they bring us. Every success in the scholar’s life increases this danger. If it becomes irresistible, he must give up his scholarly work. The time for plucking our the right eye has arrived.

That is the essential nature of the learned life as I see it. But it has indirect values which are especially important to-day. If all the world were Christian, it might not matter if all the world were uneducated. But, as it is, a cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now — not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground — would be to throw down our weapons, and the betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defense but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered. The cool intellect must work not only against cool intellect on the other side, but against the muddy heathen mysticisms which deny intellect altogether.

Most of all, perhaps we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many place is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune form the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.

The learned life then is, for some, a duty, At the moment it looks as if it were your duty. I am well aware that there may seem to be an almost comic discrepancy between the high issues we have been considering and the immediate task you may be set down to, such as Anglo-Saxon sound laws or chemical formulae. But there is a similar shock awaiting us in every vocation — a young priest finds himself involved in choir treats and a young subaltern in accounting for pots of jam. It is well that it should be so. It weeds out the vain, windy people and keeps in those who are both humble and tough. On that kind of difficulty we need waste no sympathy.

But the peculiar difficulty imposed on you by the war is another matter: and of it I would again repeat, what I have been saying in one form or another ever since I started — do not let your nerves and emotions lead you into thinking your present predicament more abnormal than it really is. Perhaps it may be useful to mention the three mental exercises which may serve as defenses against the three enemies which war raises up against the scholar. The first enemy is excitement — the tendency to think and feel about the war when we had intended to think about our work. The best defense is a recognition that in this, as in everything else, the war has not really raised up a new enemy but only aggravated an old one. There are always plenty of rivals to our work. We are always falling in love or quarreling, looking for jobs or fearing to lose them, getting ill and recovering, following public affairs. If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable. Favourable conditions never come. There are, of course, moments when the pressure of the excitement is so great that any superhuman self-control could not resist it. They come both in war and peace. We must do the best we can.

The second enemy is frustration — the feeling that we shall not have time to finish. If I say to you that no one has time to finish, that the longest human life leaves a man, in any branch of learning, a beginner, I shall seem to you to be saying something quite academic and theoretical. You would be surprised if you knew how soon one begins to feel the shortness of the tether: of how many things, even in middle life, we lave to say “No time for that”, “Too late now”, and “Not for me”. But Nature herself forbids you to share that experience. A more Christian attitude, which can be attained at any age in that of leaving futurity in God’s hands. We may as well, for God will certainly retain it whether we leave it to Him or not. Never, in peace or war, commit your virtue or your happiness to the future. Happy work is best done by the man who take his long-term plans somewhat lightly and woks from moment to moment “as to the Lord”. It is only our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for. The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received.

The third enemy is fear. War threatens us with death and pain. No man — and specially no Christian who remember Gethsemane — need try to attain a stoic indifference about these things: but we can guard against the illusions of the imagination. We think of the streets of Warsaw and contrast the deaths there suffered with an abstraction called Life. But there is no question of death or life for any of us; only a question of this death or of that — of a machine gun bullet now or a cancer forty years later. What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent; 100 per cent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased. It puts several  deaths earlier; but I hardly suppose that that is what we fear. Certainly when the moment comes, it will make little difference how many years we have behind us. Does it increase our chance of a painful death? I doubt it. As far as I can find out, what we call natural death is usually preceded by suffering; and a battlefield is one of the very few places where one has a reasonable prospect of dying with no pain at all. Does it decrease our chances of dying at peace with God? I cannot believe it. If active service does not persuade a man to prepare for death, what conceivable concatenation of circumstance would? Yet war does do something to death. It forces us to remember it. The only reason why the cancer at sixty or the paralysis at seventy-five do not bother us is that we forget them. War makes death real to us: and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right.

All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centered in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realize it. Now the stupidest of us know. We see unmistakable the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it. If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon. But if we thought that for some souls, and at some times, the life of learning, humbly offered to God, was, in its own small way, one of the appointed approaches to the Divine reality and the Divine beauty which we hope to enjoy hereafter, we can think so still.

St. Irenaeus of Lyons

irenaeus_lyonsToday is the feast of St. Irenaeus of Lyons, whom I chose as my confirmation saint when I was reconciled with the Church and confirmed Easter 2011. The father of Roman Catholic theology and a dedicated opponent of Gnostic hatred of the material order, I found him to be a saint for our times. I can do no better than Pope Benedict, so I reprint here his catechesis on St. Irenaeus from 2007.

Saint Irenaeus of Lyons

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In the Catechesis on the prominent figures of the early Church, today we come to the eminent personality of St Irenaeus of Lyons. The biographical information on him comes from his own testimony, handed down to us by Eusebius in his fifth book onChurch History.

Irenaeus was in all probability born in Smyrna (today, Izmir in Turkey) in about 135-140, where in his youth, he attended the school of Bishop Polycarp, a disciple in his turn of the Apostle John. We do not know when he moved from Asia Minor to Gaul, but his move must have coincided with the first development of the Christian community in Lyons: here, in 177, we find Irenaeus listed in the college of presbyters. In that very year, he was sent to Rome bearing a letter from the community in Lyons to Pope Eleutherius. His mission to Rome saved Irenaeus from the persecution of Marcus Aurelius which took a toll of at least 48 martyrs, including the 90-year old Bishop Pontinus of Lyons, who died from ill-treatment in prison. Thus, on his return Irenaeus was appointed Bishop of the city. The new Pastor devoted himself without reserve to his episcopal ministry which ended in about 202-203, perhaps with martyrdom.

Irenaeus was first and foremost a man of faith and a Pastor. Like a good Pastor, he had a good sense of proportion, of the riches of doctrine and missionary enthusiasm. As a writer, he pursued a twofold aim: to defend true doctrine from the attacks of heretics, and to explain the truth of the faith clearly. His two extant works — the five books of The Detection and Overthrow of the False Gnosis and Demonstration of the Apostolic Teaching (which can also be called the oldest “catechism of Christian doctrine”) — exactly corresponded with these aims. In short, Irenaeus can be defined as the champion in the fight against heresies. The second-century Church was threatened by the so-called Gnosis, a doctrine which affirmed that the faith taught in the Church was merely a symbolism for the simple who were unable to grasp difficult concepts; instead, the initiates, the intellectuals —Gnostics, they were called — claimed to understand what was behind these symbols and thus formed an elitist and intellectualist Christianity. Obviously, this intellectual Christianity became increasingly fragmented, splitting into different currents with ideas that were often bizarre and extravagant, yet attractive to many. One element these different currents had in common was “dualism”: they denied faith in the one God and Father of all, Creator and Saviour of man and of the world. To explain evil in the world, they affirmed the existence, besides the Good God, of a negative principle. This negative principle was supposed to have produced material things, matter.

Firmly rooted in the biblical doctrine of creation, Irenaeus refuted the Gnostic dualism and pessimism which debased corporeal realities. He decisively claimed the original holiness of matter, of the body, of the flesh no less than of the spirit. But his work went far beyond the confutation of heresy: in fact, one can say that he emerges as the first great Church theologian who created systematic theology; he himself speaks of the system of theology, that is, of the internal coherence of all faith. At the heart of his doctrine is the question of the “rule of faith” and its transmission. For Irenaeus, the “rule of faith” coincided in practice with the Apostles’ Creed, which gives us the key for interpreting the Gospel, for interpreting the Creed in light of the Gospel. The Creed, which is a sort of Gospel synthesis, helps us understand what it means and how we should read the Gospel itself.

In fact, the Gospel preached by Irenaeus is the one he was taught by Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, and Polycarp’s Gospel dates back to the Apostle John, whose disciple Polycarp was.

The true teaching, therefore, is not that invented by intellectuals which goes beyond the Church’s simple faith. The true Gospel is the one imparted by the Bishops who received it in an uninterrupted line from the Apostles. They taught nothing except this simple faith, which is also the true depth of God’s revelation. Thus, Irenaeus tells us, there is no secret doctrine concealed in the Church’s common Creed. There is no superior Christianity for intellectuals. The faith publicly confessed by the Church is the common faith of all. This faith alone is apostolic, it is handed down from the Apostles, that is, from Jesus and from God. In adhering to this faith, publicly transmitted by the Apostles to their successors, Christians must observe what their Bishops say and must give special consideration to the teaching of the Church of Rome, pre-eminent and very ancient. It is because of her antiquity that this Church has the greatest apostolicity; in fact, she originated in Peter and Paul, pillars of the Apostolic College. All Churches must agree with the Church of Rome, recognizing in her the measure of the true Apostolic Tradition, the Church’s one common faith. With these arguments, summed up very briefly here, Irenaeus refuted the claims of these Gnostics, these intellectuals, from the start. First of all, they possessed no truth superior to that of the ordinary faith, because what they said was not of apostolic origin, it was invented by them. Secondly, truth and salvation are not the privilege or monopoly of the few, but are available to all through the preaching of the Successors of the Apostles, especially of the Bishop of Rome. In particular — once again disputing the “secret” character of the Gnostic tradition and noting its multiple and contradictory results — Irenaeus was concerned to describe the genuine concept of the Apostolic Tradition which we can sum up here in three points.

a) Apostolic Tradition is “public”, not private or secret. Irenaeus did not doubt that the content of the faith transmitted by the Church is that received from the Apostles and from Jesus, the Son of God. There is no other teaching than this. Therefore, for anyone who wishes to know true doctrine, it suffices to know “the Tradition passed down by the Apostles and the faith proclaimed to men”: a tradition and faith that “have come down to us through the succession of Bishops” (Adversus Haereses, 3, 3, 3-4). Hence, the succession of Bishops, the personal principle, and Apostolic Tradition, the doctrinal principle, coincide.

b) Apostolic Tradition is “one”. Indeed, whereas Gnosticism was divided into multiple sects, Church Tradition is one in its fundamental content, which – as we have seen – Irenaeus calls precisely regula fidei or veritatis: and thus, because it is one, it creates unity through the peoples, through the different cultures, through the different peoples; it is a common content like the truth, despite the diversity of languages and cultures. A very precious saying of St Irenaeus is found in his book Adversus Haereses: “The Church, though dispersed throughout the world… having received [this faith from the Apostles]… as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them and hands them down with perfect harmony as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world” (1, 10, 1-2). Already at that time — we are in the year 200 — it was possible to perceive the Church’s universality, her catholicity and the unifying power of the truth that unites these very different realities, from Germany, to Spain, to Italy, to Egypt, to Libya, in the common truth revealed to us by Christ.

c) Lastly, the Apostolic Tradition, as he says in the Greek language in which he wrote his book, is “pneumatic”, in other words, spiritual, guided by the Holy Spirit: in Greek, the word for “spirit” is“pneuma”. Indeed, it is not a question of a transmission entrusted to the ability of more or less learned people, but to God’s Spirit who guarantees fidelity to the transmission of the faith.

This is the “life” of the Church, what makes the Church ever young and fresh, fruitful with multiple charisms.

For Irenaeus, Church and Spirit were inseparable: “This faith”, we read again in the third book ofAdversus Haereses, “which, having been received from the Church, we do preserve, and which always, by the Spirit of God, renewing its youth as if it were some precious deposit in an excellent vessel, causes the vessel itself containing it to renew its youth also…. For where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and every kind of grace” (3, 24, 1). As can be seen, Irenaeus did not stop at defining the concept of Tradition. His tradition, uninterrupted Tradition, is not traditionalism, because this Tradition is always enlivened from within by the Holy Spirit, who makes it live anew, causes it to be interpreted and understood in the vitality of the Church. Adhering to her teaching, the Church should transmit the faith in such a way that it must be what it appears, that is, “public”, “one”, “pneumatic”, “spiritual”. Starting with each one of these characteristics, a fruitful discernment can be made of the authentic transmission of the faith in the today of the Church. More generally, in Irenaeus’ teaching, the dignity of man, body and soul, is firmly anchored in divine creation, in the image of Christ and in the Spirit’s permanent work of sanctification. This doctrine is like a “high road” in order to discern together with all people of good will the object and boundaries of the dialogue of values, and to give an ever new impetus to the Church’s missionary action, to the force of the truth which is the source of all true values in the world.

(Borrowed from

The Road to Emmaus

My reflections on today’s Gospel, the story of the two disciples encountering the Risen Jesus on the Road to Emmaus in Luke 24:13ff, taken from my piece on allegory in Letter & Spirit 8:

The most important passage for biblical allegory, however, is Luke 24:13–35, the story of the two disciples who encounter the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus. After Jesus’ passion, two disciples are walking to Emmaus discussing “the things that have happened.” The risen Jesus draws near and walks with them, but “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Luke employs the divine passive here: God is keeping them from recognizing the risen Jesus, and will reveal him to them at a moment of particular significance. Jesus inquires about the substance of their discussion, and in an instance of intense irony they proceed to relate to the risen Jesus much of what has just happened to Jesus. What they relate lacks coherence; they tell of events—Jesus’ mighty prophetic ministry, his unjust execution, reports of visions of angels and the empty tomb—and their dashed hopes that he might have been “the one to redeem Israel”, but they can make no sense of the data.

But the risen Jesus can and does make sense of it for them, and here Luke’s story teaches both that the Old Testament is the necessary matrix for understanding Jesus while it takes the risen Jesus to bring coherence to the Old Testament: “And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” Here lies the root of the fundamental Christian claim that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ provides the hermeneutical key to the Scriptures, that he is the lens that brings them into focus.

But Luke is not finished, as if Scriptural interpretation were merely a matter of drawing the proper connections between Old Testament types and New Testament antitypes on an intellectual level. The two disciples compel Jesus to remain with them, for it is “evening.” They sit down for supper, and the risen Jesus—still unknown to them—“took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them.” Luke’s language is patently eucharistic, recalling the institution of the Lord’s Supper in Luke 22:14–23. And it is precisely when the risen Jesus begins to celebrate the Eucharist that “their eyes were opened and they recognized him” and he then “vanished out of their sight.” If it takes the risen Jesus to reveal the ultimate coherence if the Scriptures, it then takes the Eucharist to reveal Jesus (something Luke reinforces in Luke 24:35 as the two disciples relate “how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread”). Further, his vanishing suggests he has not departed, but that going forward he remains present in the Eucharist. And here, then, we see that Scriptural interpretation goes beyond intellectual construals; Scriptural interpretation comes to full fruition in the liturgy, at the center of which stands the Eucharist; Emmaus implies mystagogy, to which we must later return. […]

Let us return to Emmaus, in which the risen Jesus provides dominical warrant and example for the practice of allegory consummated in mystagogy. But given that we are dealing here with the risen Jesus, who is soon to ascend into heaven, allegory in this strict sense it not merely one salutary practice among many or simply a good idea. Much more than that, Luke’s Christology of the risen and ascended Jesus suggests allegory is inherent in the structure and function of Scripture, and indeed not just Scripture but the entire cosmos, since, as Paul puts it, “in him all things hold together,” the same Risen One who was revealed to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. We encounter this risen Jesus supremely in the liturgy, which the Second Vatican Council taught is “the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows.” The Mass is indeed heaven breaking into earth, with architecture, art, music, and ars celebrandi all ideally functioning to point us to the eschatological moment which even now breaks in, as it did on the road to Emmaus. As Scott Hahn writes, “[E]very eucharistic liturgy conforms to the pattern established at Emmaus: the opening of the scriptures followed by the breaking of the bread, the liturgy of the word followed by the liturgy of the eucharist. The Mass, then, is the place par excellence of the scriptures’ faithful reception.”

The linking of Scriptural word and liturgical eucharistic sacrament in the Emmaus story points to a truth largely forgotten. In our individualistic, post-Gutenberg age, in which Bibles are readily available and literacy widespread, most Christians read Scripture as individuals and as members of small groups. For this reason, many are unaware that both historically and theologically the Bible’s natural habitat is the liturgy. Indeed, in the biblical story itself what would become the original Scriptures of Israel—the Ten Commandments and the broader Torah—were given to Moses in the midst of an encounter with the Lord God on Sinai, and the covenant with Israel is sealed with sacrificial liturgy, after which Moses receives many detailed instructions concerning Israel’s sacred sacrificial liturgy going forward. From the outset, the first Scriptures were received in and with liturgy, concerned liturgy, and were handed down in liturgy. Later Christian questions concerning the contents of the canon of the New Testament were also driven by liturgical concerns. The question was, Which documents could be read, chanted, and proclaimed in liturgy, and which were forbidden? For early Christians and Jews before them, then, the Bible was learned and experienced in the context of the liturgy: The Scriptures were read or chanted and preached in synagogues and churches. Most of the young learned the Jewish or Christian faith not by reading scrolls or codices they did not possess, given their great expense, and could not read, given near-universal illiteracy, but from their parents and in liturgy.

But the liturgical habitat of Scripture is not merely a function of ancient social conditions in which scrolls were scarce, codices uncommon, and readers rare. Rather, Scripture’s home in the liturgy is a function of theology. In fact, it is more than that, more than an intellectual datum; it is a function of Catholic culture (which in fact the Catholic liturgical cultus cultivates). As the Pontifical Biblical Commission put it:

From the earliest days of the Church, the reading of Scripture has been an integral part of the Christian liturgy, and inheritance to some extent from the liturgy of the synagogue. Today, too, it is above all through the liturgy that Christians come into contact with Scripture, particularly during the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist. In principle, the liturgy, and especially the sacramental liturgy, the high point of which is the Eucharistic celebration, brings about the most perfect actualization of the biblical texts, for the liturgy places the proclamation in the midst of the community of believers, gathered around Christ so as to draw near to God. Christ is then “present in his word, because it is he himself who speaks when sacred Scripture is read in the Church (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7). Written text thus becomes living word.

Reworking the website

As you’ve noticed, things are once again under construction here. I’m moving hosting and changing themes, now using Vantage, which has an inexpensive (as in donate what you want) premium version. Most stuff on the menu bar should be up and running.

I had thought about letting the site expire and doing away with it, being ambivalent about social media and the internet in an age of information overload, surveillance, and blacklisting, but ultimately decided it’s important to have a stable internet presence for professional purposes, as I write a lot online, get a good number of speaking requests, and receive more invitations to write than I can handle.

Have a blessed Triduum, and thanks for your patience.

RIP, Dad

His birthday was today, November 17. He died of cancer 28 July 2008. This photo is circa 1952. He was with the 3d Armored, stationed in Heilbronn, Germany, for a while.

Meeting Cardinal Dolan

At the THIRST conference this weekend—the Bismarck Diocese’s eucharistic congress and evangelism event closing out our events for the Year of Faith—I got to meet with Cardinal Dolan briefly. I had actually met him at a papal audience in Rome in July 2009, shaking his hand as I was waiting in line way early in the morning and he was escorting some seminarians, but I wouldn’t expect him to remember. A good brief conversation about our work at U-Mary in Theology and Philosophy. A major honor, not so much for me (I actually wasn’t trying to get introduced to him—I happened to be backstage trying to get someone else together with someone else) but for U-Mary, the Diocese, and the State of ND, as Cardinal Dolan was gracious enough to come and join us, receive a Doctor of Leadership degree honoris causa, and give a wonderful talk on the papacies of John Paul II, Benedict, and Francis. (Order form for DVDs of the talks available here, by the way.)

Cardinal Dolan meets with Dr. Leroy Huizenga, Chair of the University of Mary's Theology department, with the University's President, Msgr. James P. Shea

Cardinal Dolan meets with Dr. Leroy Huizenga, Chair of the University of Mary’s Theology department, with the University’s President, Msgr. James P. Shea

UPDATE: Video of Cardinal Dolan’s address is now on YouTube:

Upping My Game

I use Grammarly for proofreading because left to my own devices, I’m a guide to my own literary self-destruction. It’s one of several tools and books I’ve been exploring for the sake of upping my game as a writer.

Writing is hard. One of my mentors in graduate school, a man everyone esteems as an academic who can write well—that rarest of birds—once confided to me that writing was a real struggle for him. I was somewhat flummoxed, as he was someone whose writing was flawless: never a wasted word, and every word chosen perfectly. He engineered his writing like a fine-tuned precision engine.

I’m reminded of what Dorothy Parker once said: “I hate writing. I love having written.” Many people think that writers, or artists, or musicians operate as geniuses, creating their works effortlessly as if carried away by divine inspiration. There are moments like that, in writing, art, and music, where one finds oneself inspired to the point that one’s fingers can’t move fast enough to capture the activity of the imagination as it fires idea after insight. But creative activity—which includes academic writing, in my book—is mostly hard work: carving out time, collecting and evaluating sources, discovering the facts of the matter, organizing one’s thoughts, writing them down, and rewriting over and over again. And there is that existential reward at the end of the process when one sees something in print after untold hours over months or years of work. Until one finds typos which one should have caught in the several rounds of proofreading…

The good thing about writing not being a matter of pure genius and inspiration is that it can be improved. We can work on it. One of the worst best things I ever did was take the GRE exam as part of my applications to graduate school. I loathe standardized testing in general, but neither ETS nor the grad schools to which I was applying would have cared about my whining. A necessary hurdle, I got Barron’s GRE guide, which had about 4000 vocabulary words. I went through the list, scratching the ones I knew well enough, and made a master list of the other words, roughly 2000 of them, and spent the summer learning them. That simple exercise has paid all sorts of dividends. To this day, I still work to build my vocabulary. I have a Word document with about 350 English entries, as well as foreign language words and phrases, a list which is also growing. (Most of the English words I’ve needed to learn have come from reading David Bentley Hart, who, I’m convinced, spent his adolescence memorizing the unabridged OED.)

Since writing can be improved, I’ve always been interested in resources on becoming a better writer. Some people don’t like it, but Strunk and White’s Elements of Style was a great help to me once I discovered it in graduate school. (Yes, I know that’s late.) I was always a decent writer, but it got me thinking about the craft of writing, whatever the merits or demerits of particular pieces of advice therein. I also enjoyed Stephen King’s On Writing, which talks about his work as a writer of popular horror fiction. More inspiring than technical, getting inside his head as an author was fascinating, and one learns why King’s works are they way they are: He begins with characters, not plot, letting the characters he creates write the plot for him. Recently my friends at First Things have pointed me to a couple other heftier resources. The first is Clear and Simple as the Truth, which advocates “classic style”: “The writer adopts the pose that the motive is truth, the purpose is presentation, the reader is an intellectual equal, and the occasion is informal. Classic style is at home in everything from business memos to personal letters, from magazine articles to university writing.” The second is The Reader over Your Shoulder, a basic but substantive handbook for cultivating clearer written communication.

There’s many more, of course, but these have proven helpful to me. Why does good writing matter, however? Why work on it to point of consuming and consulting big books about it? Because the truth matters, and words present claims to truth; because audiences comprise persons, who deserve our best; and because we work too hard to come up short and be found wanting. Form and content cannot be finally separated, even if one doesn’t wish to go so far to say form is content, and so we shouldn’t let bad prose limit us.

And what about tools, like Grammarly? They contacted me and asked me to try it, and so I’ve used it on this post. Good writers are generally wary of computer-generated critiques of one’s work, for good reason; I’d love to see a website entitled “D*** You Spellcheck” just like “D*** You Autocorrect,” as I see spellcheck fouling up student writing almost every day, and we all know how foolish MS Word’s grammar checking feature is. And every so often someone runs some classic piece of writing like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address through some software to point out how using software in writing leads to prosaic prose.

Grammarly is different, it seems. It lets you select the type of writing you are doing—academic, general, casual, etc., and so you can set it to evaluate your writing a certain way. It caught about two dozen things it regards as issues, some which I think are good suggestions, while others I haven’t felt the need to correct. (For instance, it found a problem with subject-verb agreement with “Elements of Style was…”; it didn’t recognize the plural noun as part of the title of a singular book.) It’s like having a good TA who catches errors and makes style suggestions proof your work, whose ideas may or may not be helpful. I’d recommend it as a tool, but like all computer tools, the writer should feel free to ignore certain suggestions and consider others.

St. Hildegard of Bingen, Doctor of the Church

Today is the feast day of St. Hildegard of Bingen, whom Pope Benedict made a Doctor of Church on October 7, 2012. I’ve a special interest in Hildegard, which is evolving into something of a devotion. I’ve written a couple things online about her, and also delivered a paper at an SBL annual meeting on her appropriation of Paul entitled “St. Hildegard of Bingen’s Premodern and Postmodern Paul”. I’ve also discussed St. Hildegard on The Sacred Page podcast.

First, “Hildegard of Bingen: Sibyl of the Rhine, Singing Still” (First Things’ On the Square, 16 September 2011). Excerpts:

It’s an age of widespread cultural and ecclesial malaise: the State encroaches ever more into the affairs of the church; the clergy is indolent and ineffective, oft corrupt and unchaste; the laity is poorly catechized; and Gnosticism advances. It’s the twelfth century, into which a Teutonic prophetess stepped, prepared to confront the spirits of the age with visions from on high. Nihil sub sole novum, and thus it’s worth considering on the occasion of St. Hildegard of Bingen’s feast day (tomorrow, Saturday, September 17) how her sauce for medieval geese might go well with our modern ganders. […]
Even if her knowledge of nature is not a matter of revelation, for Hildegard nature is not separate from the divine…Indeed, nihil sub sole novum, save the Incarnation, the only truly new thing in the world, in which we see the most extreme union of grace and nature, around which Hildegard’s entire theology revolves. The Creator is the incarnate Word who became man, and the form of man stands at the center of the cosmos as microcosm.
Her theology coupled with her iron personality made her an implacable enemy of the dualistic and gnostic Cathars. Their descendants are with us today, for the modernity in which we live and move and have our being is a Gnostic flight from any constraints of nature, a secularized version of grace destroying nature (and thus all too often human persons) by means of technology, an insanity running headlong into death that will heed no warnings from the Church, preferring the antipope in its belly; being Gnostic, our age cannot even conceive of the possibility of a visible Church. In contrast, Hildegard’s incarnational, sacramental vision takes seriously the concept of a visible, authoritative Church speaking truth about the goodness and harmony of God, nature and man as its microcosm.

Second, “St. Hildegard of Bingen: Doctor of the Church” (First Things’ On the Square, 4 October 2012)

One overlooked aspect of her work of which Benedict is certainly aware concerns her activity as an interpreter of Sacred Scripture. The oversight is as curious as it is lamentable. The reason for this neglect, I suspect, concerns her received status as a medieval “visionary” and modern conceptions of exegesis as a disciplined, purely rational historical exercise. St. Hildegard’s most popular work is the Scivias, her record of her divine intellectual visions, and it is easy to subtly write St. Hildegard off, I think, if we regard her only as a visionary (especially if we reduce her visions to neural epiphenomena generated by migraines).
St. Hildegard did much more with the Bible than impose her visions upon it: She prayed it as a Benedictine, exegeted it for her sisters as well as others, including monks and other males, and preached it in the chief cathedrals of Europe, such as those of Mainz, Cologne, and Trier. St. Hildegard models an approach to the theological exegesis of the Bible as sacred Scripture, not merely a historical artificact, having her nose in the details of the text with her mind and spirit fully engaged in the task while she reads in accord with the Church’s rule of faith.
For those interested in post-critical retrieval of the tradition, Hildegard models theological interpretation that assumes the harmony of faith and reason. Indeed, in this she is both medieval and modern, as the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, insists that “the study of the sacred page is, as it were, the soul of sacred theology.”

Third, a bit from my unpublished paper on Hildegard, delivered 19 November 2012 in the “Recovering Female Interpreters of the Bible” section at the SBL annual meeting:
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