Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Annunciation -- What's your name of grace?

The Gospel of the Annunciation is full of names--7 in the first sentence alone. The angel Gabriel gives Mary a new name: "full of grace." The word translated as "hail" (kaire) literally means "rejoice." The new name God gives Mary is a reason for her to rejoice, because God has gifted her with so much grace.
Later in that Gospel, Gabriel says of Elizabeth that "she who was called barren is now in her sixth month." In those days, for a woman to be called "barren" was a sign of disgrace. But because "nothing is impossible with God," God changed that disgrace into a gift. The barren woman was now a mother.

All of us have been called names in our lives, some of them bad ones. But those names that others call us don't have the power to define us. Still, they can sting. God offers us a remedy, however, so that we can find our true identity in the name God bestows on us with love.

The Book of Revelation says, "To the victor . . . I shall also give a white stone upon which is inscribed a new name, which no one knows except the one who receives it" (2:17). Just as God gave Mary and Elizabeth new names, he gives us our own special names of grace. White stones were used in the ancient world in elections, to vote for someone, to show confidence in a person. We can ask in prayer for God to show us what our special name of grace is. And the name carries a power; we can do what we are named. If anyone calls you a bad name, don't accept it but instead recall that name of grace, the name from God, who loves you and calls you to greatness.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Baptismal character is a spiritual power

In article 2 of question 63 (part 3 of the Summa), Thomas investigates what the baptismal character actually is. He relates it to our ability to participate in divine worship. "Divine worship consists either in receiving some divine things or in handing them on to others. And a certain power is needed for both of these activities...this is why character connotes a certain spiritual power ordered to those things which pertain to divine worship."

He goes on to specify that the power is a certain type of instrumental power. By that he is referring to the idea of instrumental causality. For example, if I write with a pen, the pen is the instrument I use, so it is an instrumental cause of my writing. This principle of instrumental causality is an important one in Thomas' theology of the sacraments. He sees the divinity of Christ working through the humanity of Christ as the cause of the power of the sacraments. The sacraments themselves are an instrumental cause, but one that is separate, not conjoined, to Christ.

So the character is a kind of spiritual power. Baptism is the doorway to the other sacraments because it enables us to receive them, through the baptismal character.

We could also note that the character in itself, like any power, can be used well or badly. It is used well by those of the baptized who take seriously their Christian commitment. It is used badly by those who, instead, lead a sinful life, a life apart from God. But once we have the baptismal character, we can never lose it, not even by the gravest sin, not even by renouncing faith.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Sacramental character: St Thomas' view

I'd like to explore more what St Thomas means by character in reference to the sacraments. This is from part III of the Summa, q. 63, a. 1.

First he says that the sacraments have two purposes:
1. They are a remedy for sin
2. They "bring the soul to its fullness in things pertaining to the worship of God in terms of the Christian life as a ritual expression of this."

He uses a comparison, saying that soldiers are marked off by some physical sign  when they are deputed for a certain function. Similarly, "Since by the sacraments men are deputed to a spiritual service pertaining to the worship of God, it follows that by their means the faithful receive a certain spiritual character."

"God imprints his own character on us" through the sacraments, through this spiritual sign.

In this first article Thomas is simply saying that some sacraments imprint a character. He cites St. Paul: "He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come" (2 Cor 1:22). 

Here I would just like to note the interesting reference to the second purpose of the sacraments. It has to do with offering worship of God. It seems that Thomas is thinking primarily of worship in the sense of liturgy. It might be possible, though, to extend that meaning a little in terms of how the baptized live their lives in the world.  

"You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." (1 Pet 2:5). These spiritual sacrifices can be anything in our life, all that we do and suffer for God. The traditional prayer of the morning offering expresses that reality. Our whole lives, offered to God in all their details, form a sort of liturgy of life. In that sense, life becomes liturgy, and I think it can be said that the character of baptism is very much involved with this.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Religious consecration and baptism

In thinking about some questions related to the nature of religious life, I started to ask myself how religious consecration is specifically related to the character of baptism.

A couple preliminary points:

1. Religious consecration is a deepening of one's baptismal consecration. It is not a new sacrament but is a flowering of baptismal grace.

2. What is the character imprinted by baptism?  St Thomas explains that this character is a certain configuration to Christ the High Priest, which enables us to take part in Christian worship. Further, this character is indelible; nothing can ever take it away.

3. St. Thomas also says that the religious life itself is ordered to a deeper, fuller worship of God, so much so that one's whole life becomes an act of worship:
"Religion is a virtue whereby a man offers something to the service and worship of God. Therefore, those are called religious by antonomasia, who consecrate themselves totally to the divine service, as offering a holocaust to God" (Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 186, a. 1).

      Baptism imprints a character,
      The character is ordered to Christian worship,
      Religious consecration is a deepening of baptism,
      And it makes one's whole life an act of worship.

This may be speculation on my part, but it looks like it would be a pretty solid conclusion to say that in some way, religious profession has to be involved specifically with the baptismal character.  Does it intensify the character in some way?

Most of us probably don't think a lot about the baptismal character, but it's important. Thomas says:

Each of the faithful is deputed to receive, or to bestow on others, things pertaining to the worship of God. And this, properly speaking, is the purpose of the sacramental character. Now the whole rite of the Christian religion is derived from Christ's priesthood. Consequently, it is clear that the sacramental character is specially the character of Christ, to Whose character the faithful are likened by reason of the sacramental characters, which are nothing else than certain participations of Christ's Priesthood, flowing from Christ Himself

 This character is where the priesthood of the laity flows from (which differs not only in degree but in essence from the priesthood conferred by Orders). 

So: to bestow on others things pertaining to the worship of God.
In some way, religious act like a leaven in the world, taking the things of the world that they deal in, day in and day out, and making an offering of them to God. This is something to explore a bit more. 

What prompted this is John Paul's statement that continence "for the sake of the kingdom" imprints a certain likeness to Christ. In what way exactly?

Happy feast of Saint Thomas!

Happy feast of Saint Thomas! A thought for the day, on kindness:

"Kindness is the fruit of love.... since the love of charity reaches out to embrace everybody, kindness, too, must go out to everybody, given, of course, the right place and the right time, for acts of the virtues must all be subject to the limits set by due circumstances." (Summa, II-II, q. 31, a. 2)

Sunday, January 26, 2014

St. Edith Stein on her vocation

Edith Stein was a Jewish convert to Catholicism. Raised in a devout Jewish home, she became an atheist for quite a few years. In her quest for faith, a decisive moment came when she stayed with friends and found the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila in their library. She stayed up that night to read it, and when she finished, she said, "This is truth!" She became a Catholic not long after that.

In an essay "How I Came to the Cologne Carmel"* she describes the events leading up to her actual entrance into Carmel. However she doesn't say a lot about her interior experience. I don't know if there are other places in her writings where she goes into it more. But this is what she says:
"For almost 12 years, Carmel had been my goal; since summer 1921, when the Life  of our Holy Mother Teresa had happened to fall into my hands and had put an end to my long search for the true Faith."

Then she narrates the external difficulties that prevented her from entering earlier.  A lot of it had to do with not wanting to make things too painful for her ailing and elderly mother. It was hard enough for Frau Stein to accept that her daughter became a Catholic. For her, to see Edith enter Carmel was a great suffering.
Finally Edith felt God moving her to take the step. She narrates the painful talk with her mother. Edith reflected on the tearful scene as she rode on the train: "I could not feel any wild joy. The scene I had just left behind was too terrible for that. But I felt a deep peace, in the harbor of the divine will." Finally she arrived at the door of Carmel. "At last it opened, and in deep peace I crossed the threshold into the House of the Lord."

Her vocation to the religious life seems to have been born at the same time as her conversion to the Catholic faith. She simply states it had been her goal. Yet she also makes clear that she believed this was God's will for her.

It doesn't seem that she had any thought of entering the religious life simply because it was difficult, or because she thought it was a higher calling. She entered out of love for God, a search for the truth, and the desire to be deeply united to God by doing his will.

In his homily for her canonization, Pope John Paul said:
Aware of what her Jewish origins implied, Edith Stein spoke eloquently about them: “Beneath the Cross I understood the destiny of God’s People.... Indeed, today I know far better what it means to be the Lord’s bride under the sign of the Cross. But since it is a mystery, it can never be understood by reason alone.”

So it seems that Saint Edith Stein can especially shed light on the religious life insofar as it means being the bride of Christ standing at the foot of the Cross. This certainly has a Marian connection, for Mary actually stood there and saw Jesus die.
Mary, our Mother, Teacher, and Queen, obtain for us the grace to understand and better live the vocation God has called us to, just as you lived yours.

* In Edith Stein: Selected Writings, Springfield, IL: Templegate Publishers, 1990.

Friday, January 24, 2014

St Catherine of Bologna

Pope Benedict gave a catechesis on this saint; she wasn't familiar to me. She lived in the 1400's and was a Poor Clare. Catherine wrote a treatise called The Seven Spiritual Weapons. It was something she had written to help in the formation of the novices of her community. So far I haven't found information about her own experience of being drawn to religious life, but the work starts out like this:
In the name of the eternal Father and of his only begotten Son Christ Jesus,
of the splendor of the Father’s glory, for love of whom,
with jubilation of heart, I cry, saying to his most refined servants and spouses:
    Let every lover who loves the Lord 
    Come to the dance singing of love, 
    Let her come dancing all afire 
    Desiring only him who created her 
    And separated her from the dangerous worldly state. 
This is intriguing; I must admit that when I come across hymns about dancing, etc.,
I usually roll my eyes and sigh. They remind me of those occasions I had to endure
being at some conference or meeting that had plenty of bad liturgical music. 
I  can't imagine St. Thomas writing hymns about dancing.
His Eucharistic hymns are more my style. 
But this poetic beginning of St. Catherine's work is so evocative and beautiful--dancing all afire. 
This Catherine is another saint worth getting to know.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Saints on the religious life: Louise de Marillac

St Louise de Marillac (1591-1660) is an interesting case. She had family troubles (born out of wedlock, she never knew her mother. Her father acknowledged her but not as his legal heir, and she suffered from rejection by her father's second wife.)
When she was young she applied to the Capuchin nuns but was not accepted. This disturbed her greatly but she accepted it and went on to get married. Still, her heart always had a desire for the religious life. When she was 32 she wrote:

On the feast of Pentecost during Holy Mass or while I was praying in the church, my mind was completely freed of all doubt. I was advised that I should remain with my husband and that the time would come when I would be in the position to make vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and that I would be in a small community where others would do the same. . . . I felt that it was God who was teaching me these things and that, believing there is a God; I should not doubt the rest.

She had guidance because up to about that time she had St Francis de Sales as her spiritual director. She made a vow that she would not remarry if her husband died before her. Three years later, he did die. They loved each other and Louise grieved his loss. Meanwhile Louise had met St Vincent de Paul and began to assist with some of his charitable works. In 1630 as she was thinking about what to do with her life, she records this incident:

I left on St Agatha's day, the 5th of February, to go to Saint-Cloud. At Holy Communion it seemed to me that Our Lord gave me the thought to receive him as the Spouse of my soul, and more, that this would be for me a form of espousal; and I felt myself most strongly united to God in this consideration which struck me as extraordinary, and I had the thought to leave everything to follow my Spouse, henceforth to consisder him such, and to support the difficulties I would encounter as receiving them out of the community of his goods.*

This is quite interesting because of several points.
1. She specifically says that the thought of espousal came from Jesus himself.
2. It was connected with her receiving Holy Communion.
3. She felt very strongly united to God.
4. It struck her as something extraordinary.
5. She knew that difficulties would come, but she looked on them almost as if they were gifts.

Louise continued to collaborate with St Vincent and together they founded the Sisters of Charity.

My point in looking at the spiritual experiences of these saints as they were drawn to religious life, is to examine what it meant to them. The idea of espousal is very clear here with Louise de Marillac. She was drawn to Jesus as her Spouse, and according to her testimony here, it came to her most clearly in a prayer experience at Mass and Communion. This is how the Holy Spirit has worked in the lives of the saints. Any theoretical treatment of religious life needs to take this data into account.

*p. 55, Louise de Marillac, by Joseph I. Dirvin, C.M., New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970.