Ite ad Patres

St. Benedict, at the end of Chapter LXXIII, humbly (rhetorically?) calls his Rule a “little rule”, or “rule for beginners” and, as one standing on the shoulder of giants, advises that the observance of the teachings of the Holy Fathers leads one to the heights of perfection. After the Holy Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church, St. Benedict mentions “the collations of the Fathers, and their institutes and lives, and the rule of our holy Father, Basil”. This final reference is, apart from the mention of St. Basil, about the Desert Fathers. Indeed, earlier in the Rule, in Chapter XLII, he had already alluded to the Conferences of St. Cassian as well as the Lives of the Fathers.

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Winds of change

For some time now this blog has been drifting away from its original purpose – reflections on living a Christian life as a husband and father in light of the Holy Rule of St. Benedict. For better or for worse, I have decided to “go with the flow”, leaving that original goal behind, and will be taking the blog in a different, yet related, direction. Posts from now on will tend to be a bit more of a personal and/or speculative nature, in the vein of more recent ones. As I continue to explore the greater Christian monastic tradition (of which the Holy Rule will always have a special place in my heart) and how it relates to my own living out of the Faith, I hope you, oh faithful reader, will continue on this journey with me.

Ego sum Pastor Bonus

Today I’ve decided to write something different. The focus will not be on my own experiences or thoughts, but rather on someone else – a saint whom I have grown to love greatly since discovering him over two years ago.

The saint in question is Bartomoleu dos Mártires O.P. (or, as he is known outside of Portugal, Bartholomew of Braga), a 16th century Portuguese Dominican who, for 20+ years of his life, was archbishop of the primatial see of Braga, Primate of the Spains, much against his will. But more on that in just a bit; for now I would just like to give a brief account of how I came upon him.

About two years ago our parish priest was assigned elsewhere and left his personal library to the parishioners. There were a good portion of books in Portuguese, and as we were the only Portuguese parishioners I decided to take most of them with me. Among these books were 3 works by the saint: a Commentary on the Psalms; a Catechism; an Exhortation to Pastors. After reading his Catechism, we went on to reading his Commentary on the Psalms. His writing was so edifying that I wanted to know more about him. Even in Portugal he is not that well-known, so it took some digging around to find a biography. In the end I found a hagiography, written perhaps half a century after his death, the chronicler being a fellow Dominican who had been given the task of setting in order all of the documentation he had received concerning the life of this most holy archbishop.

Faithful depiction of the St. Bartolomeu dos Martires
“a large head, long and skinny face, wide and high forehead; […] his eyes were crooked; […] a wide mouth with the chin and bottom lip protruding a bit, like one sees in the portraits of the princes of the house of Austria.”

Bartolomeu Fernandes, later known as dos Mártires, was born in 1514 in Lisbon, in the parish of Mártires. He entered the Dominican order in 1527, and after completing his own studies in 1538 taught philosophy and theology for roughly the next 20 years. He was for some time prior of a friary in Benfica (Lisbon). At one time, he was summoned to be the religious tutor for one of the king’s grandsons, who was to enter the religious life. For all this time he lived as a normal, devout Dominican friar. He loved nothing better than to keep the rule, devoting himself especially to recollection and prayer in his cell. However, God had, much to Bartolomeu’s distress, other plans in mind.

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We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard

Something I recently read on an acquaintance’s social media was the occasion for this post.

I remember the priest at the parish my wife and I attended after we were married was quite keen on evangelising, about proclaiming the Gospel, even going so far as to set up groups that would go from door to door to tell people about Jesus. He talked much about witness, and wanting his parishioners to give witness. The question I asked a decade ago and still ask myself is – witness to what? “Of our faith in Jesus,” he might well say (for his conversations were very much in this vein), “of the joy of believing in Him and feeling His presence in our life.”
Now, all this is very well and true. However, doesn’t it need some qualification?

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The Calling

Continuing my reflections on what it means to be a Christian/Catholic, my attention recently fell upon the Evangelical Counsels, also known as Counsels of Perfection – chastity, charity and obedience. We have from Jesus’ own mouth: Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt. 5:48) Our Lord is not asking for something new; in fact, He is simply reiterating what His heavenly Father requested in the Old Testament, not only to the Israelites at Sinai – Be ye holy, because I the Lord your God am holy (Lev 19:2) – but even as far back as our father Abraham (albeit implicitly) – I am the Almighty God: walk before me, and be perfect. (Gen 17:1).

What does Jesus mean by perfect? From an etymological point of view, “perfect” comes from the Latin perfectus, which can mean “whole”, “complete”, “accomplished”. In the Greek text the word used is τέλειός (teleios), which also implies “completeness”, “finality”. The Hebrew word used in the Old Testament texts would be תָּמִים (tamim), again conveying the same meaning of “wholeness”, “without blemish”, “complete”.
Our Lord is exhorting us to be whole. On a deeper level, Jesus wants us to reclaim our sonship. We are the children of Adam, God’s first son in the created order. Just as Adam was, we are made in the image and likeness of God. While the Fall has disfigured that image, it is still there, awaiting Our Lord’s healing presence to restore it to what it was meant to be (and now, it is more than it originally was due to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within us). God is goodness itself; in Him there is no deceit. And as His sons, we are to mirror that goodness, that wholeness, that completeness. He wants our yes to be yes and our no to be no.

I only learned about the Evangelical Counsels some time after my return to the Church. I was told (and this seems to be the accepted Latin teaching) that they are “supererogatory”, i.e., they are beyond what is expected of your run-of-the-mill Catholic and have, perhaps for that reason, become associated/synonymous with religious vows.

Amen, amen I say to you in the religious life: be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect. As for the rest of you guys, just clock in and out of Mass, prattle a few prayers and keep your noses clean and you should have your bases covered.

Lately, however, I have begun to wonder if that isn’t a somewhat myopic view. While religious life is supposed to be a glimpse of the heavenly life – an icon, if you will – with its extreme (in the sense of “highest”, “greatest”) application of the counsels, aren’t our own lives, of those living in the world but not of it, supposed to reflect something of the heavenly as well? If they are, then said counsels are applicable to us as well.

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Contending with God

There are times in one’s life when, out of the blue, things don’t seem to make sense any more. The certainties of old give way to the doubts which were either ignored or held at bay. Perhaps “ignored” isn’t the correct way to phrase it. There are things about the Faith which one takes as true on faith; that while it might not seem to make sense, one accepts it as true because it is what the Church has always taught and that is enough. One can live like this for years, perhaps even a lifetime, not batting an eye for not being able to find a satisfactory explanation for an article of the Faith.

And suddenly, like a thief in the night, that confidence is gone, that certainty is shaken. What brought about that loss? Each person will perhaps know what brought it about; or perhaps it will forever remain a mystery. Belief becomes a struggle. The answers that once satisfied suddenly seem empty, like platitudes.

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Musings on faith

Lately the question of faith – especially the loss thereof – has been on my mind. I recently received news that another fellow Catholic I was acquainted with has “lost his faith”. While I do not know the details (I was told by a third party that spoke with them), this fellow is just another on the list of what I have come recently to call “Catholic online paladins”. Now, I don’t use this as a derogatory name; it is just something that came to me and seemed appropriate. These were people (curiously, all males) who knew the Faith inside and out, who were ready to come to the defence of the Church, of her doctrines, of her disciplines and her rites, especially on the internet. My memory sometimes flashes back to being on the receiving end of one of these fellows’ crosshairs when I once dared to cite a “modernist” (who had actually said something true and profound).
They were, by all outward appearances, steadfast in faith; they could give an account of their belief. Not a few were pious young men. They prayed their rosary daily, went on retreats, had a sacramental life, etc.; some went so far as to even attend seminary for a time.

Where do you think you’re going?
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An elaborate way to a simple faith?

Today this will be a somewhat more personal post, written more as a way to sort out my own thoughts than for the edification of any (regular) readers that I might have. That being said, I hope you’ll forgive me if it seems a bit clunky and disconnected.

These past two years – especially the last one – have seen a reduction in blog posts, not because I didn’t feel I had anything to say, but rather because I have been digesting ideas and events in my life. With all that has happened I have been put in a position where I have had to re-evaluate what it means to be a Catholic: things and people that one needed to agree with; things one needed to do; ways one needed to act; opinions one needed to hold; etc.

I believe reducing my Catholic blog reading some years ago to almost nil helped me to start down the path to some clarity. While initially I wished to be “up-to-date” with all that was happening in Rome, to keep abreast of the internal struggles, I found that this took away a lot of my inner peace. I took a step back and began to ask myself: “Do I really need to know these things? Are these bloggers in possession of all the facts? Is there anything that I can do in my state of life that can actually make a difference?” As I became more critical of the things I read, the more it seemed to me that most of the blogs were not informative, but just a form of gossip. And so, I snipped these off.

On another front, digging into history and actual parish registers and local ecclesial documents, I found a much “messier” and complex world than the nice and tidy narrative I heard from the pulpit. There were no good old days (which should have been obvious given saints and preachers of old have always been denouncing their own generation as the worst of all). To think that we live in some unprecedented time of crisis is to have historical blinders on. There really is nothing new under the sun. I began to have little patience for the facile narratives spread in certain circles. When I presented historical facts and documents to counter these narratives, I was normally met with confused silence or I was simply brushed off, especially the latter when I was dealing with clergy. No; there has never been a clean and tidy, “academic”, Catholicism.

This past year has seen an even greater polarisation of people everywhere. This polarisation has led to the most outlandish conspiracy theories. I have heard things from fellow Catholics and wondered “can you not hear how absurd and far-fetched these things you are saying sound; can you not hear your own words?” These things are then treated as dogma. “If you are a good, devout Catholic, you MUST believe this.” To this I would simply ask “Does being Catholic mean I must leave reason at the door? Does it mean I must be gullible and credulous? Because last I checked, that was not the case.” I sometimes wonder if a non-believer walked in off the street and heard certain conversations (or checked Catholic social media) would they be convinced of the truth of the Catholic faith, or would they immediately do an about face and run off? Still on the polarisation theme, I noticed people (even previously moderate people) entrenching themselves in the “us vs. them” mentality. Again, facile narratives, historical ignorance and pride have not helped this at all. I began to find ecclesial parochialism – focusing solely on Rome and forgetting that the Church is much greater than just the Latin church – or the downright disregard for non-Latin Catholics to be quite taxing.

I have tired of all kinds of monikers for Catholics – conservative, liberal, traditionalist, progressive, modernist, etc. They are useful, but only to a certain extent, and I often wonder if they actually haven’t lost their use, the way people bandy them about. We tend to categorise, to stick things into nicely classified, hermetically sealed boxes, to help make sense of the complex world we live in. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The problem is when we forget that this is just a prop and mistake the model for reality. There is not one of us that fits into these nicely defined categories I mentioned. If there is someone, then they will be the exception that proves the rule. Conflating model and reality seems, to me at least, to then take one down some very strange rabbit holes in attempts to explain the “inconsistencies”.

These, and a few other issues, are what I have/had been grappling with. They made me realise the amount of things which I had assumed were part and parcel of Catholicism, of what it meant to be a “good Catholic” are actually not. They are not essentials. They are not dogmas. Many aren’t even doctrine. I dare say, a good portion is just ideology, in the pejorative sense.
So what then, you may ask, does it mean to me to be Catholic? I have come to the conclusion that, among other things, it means that one has to accept life in all its complexity and the uncertainty which that brings.
I am dogmatic about dogma (pardon the pun), but little more besides. In matters where there the Church allows for a diversity of opinion, I do not hold my own as the correct one.
Accepting life in its complexity has meant that my apparent foundations have washed away. The “absolute certainties” I had about certain things are gone.

Does that mean, however, that I am losing my faith? Have I stopped believing? How has this affected my living out my faith? As I mentioned above, much pruning has been in order. I have tried to refocus on the basics. I have redoubled my commitment to study the Fathers and the Scriptures. I have tried especially to keep my mouth shut, to speak only when asked to and only about those things which I have knowledge of. I have tried to “explain away” as much as possible the sins of others, reminding myself all the while that “there, but for the grace of God, go I”. I have reminded myself that many times much of the wrong in the world is due to ignorance and stupidity than rather pure malice. I have reminded myself that the world is Our Lord’s creation, and that He has left seeds of truth here and there for those who have not yet heard His Bride, so that when they do hear her they well recognise the Truth of which she speaks. I have realised that I don’t have to evangelise everyone I meet. I have my circumstances and station in life; first and foremost I am a husband and a father. That is where my main focus of evangelization lies currently – to ensure that I pass on the Faith to those closest to me. I remind myself of the need of conversion of life.

As the foundations of familiar and easy narratives wash away, you would think the edifice would come tumbling down. And yet, it has not. For as the sand is removed and the edifice totters, a rock foundation appears beneath, holding it from collapsing completely. As false certainties erode, the only true certainty makes itself known in a peculiar way. As unknowing looms large, He looms even larger. As one steps into the unknown, one clings to Him with all one’s might.

Can I make sense of all that is going on around me? Maybe not. But perhaps He does not ask me to make sense of it. He has never made my salvation dependent upon my understanding the world. Rather, he has made it childishly simple – to seek Him and to trust Him, as a child seeks its parents in the face of the strange world around it. As certainties slip away and I reach out to Him more and more, I have to ask – have the complexities of life put me on the path to a simple faith?

Kicking against the goads

Sometimes I am tempted to think that the path to sainthood would be so much easier if conditions X, Y and Z were met. If only I had a larger house, then I wouldn’t have the kids getting on my nerves and I could be a more patient man. If only I had that job, and I would have the pay that would allow my family a decent life. But perhaps where this line of reasoning is most prevalent is when it comes to other people. If only I didn’t have to deal with Such-and such, then I wouldn’t have these uncharitable thoughts about them; if I didn’t have to put up with So-and-so, then I’d be a much more patient person. This is especially true when it comes to those closest to us, to our own kin. Is it perhaps because “familiarity breeds contempt”? Is it because those that are the closest to us are so close that we, with our tendency to focus on negative, begin to notice all the small flaws? We come to see them no longer as a brother in Christ, with their own struggles, but as a problem that needs fixing – especially when it comes to the children. They are “broken” and somehow it falls on me to fix that apparent brokenness. We snip here, we tighten there, loosen a bit here and then we come up against a brick wall. We repeat, and yet again we bash our head upon that wall. And we repeat, and repeat, and repeat, until finally we rend our clothes and pull out our beard, throwing our hands up in despair saying “Oy vey! Why have I been cursed with this person? Why have I been given this thorn in my side?” Our view of that person ends up becoming vitiated, and we come to resent them; they can do no good in our sight.

Need a reminder?

But perhaps the perspective is all wrong. Perhaps that person is not broken; perhaps they are in fact a goad. No, that person is not a problem in need of fixing – not from me at least; rather the one who is in need of “fixing” is myself. That person is there for a reason – a reason I may not like, but which is vital to my salvation. That person is there to show me my own shortcomings, to show me how pride has given me a deluded sense of importance. My uncharitable reactions towards them, my little patience, my rolling eyes, my murmuring – is not all that kicking against the goad? Has the Lord not been long suffering in dealing with me? Has He not forgiven me time and time again – and will continue to forgive me – without the slightest resentment? Has He ever regretted creating me in light of all my infidelities?
Like a little child I know the rules, yet I still break them, sometimes knowingly, sometimes out of habit. I act petulantly. I mistreat His creatures. I forget that he has “remembered me in my low estate, and redeemed me from my enemies”; that He has “made me to pass through the midst of the Red Sea”; that “His mercy endureth forever”. He has done that not only for me, but as well for those I consider myself to be “burdened with”.

These proddings, I believe, are meant to illicit a question – Has the grace of God towards me been in vain?

And again a little while and you shall see Me

In my previous post I had mentioned how our recent reading of the Book of Leviticus – specifically the final curses – seemed to be quite apposite in our current situation. I ended that post by saying that there was one curse in particular that jumped out at me, especially as it seems to bear upon the present ecclesiastical situation. This curse, however, could be a blessing in disguise. That is the topic of today’s post.

[A]nd I will make your sanctuaries desolate, and will receive no more your sweet odours.

All over the world churches are closed to the lay faithful. The administration of the sacraments has been reduced to a bare minimum in many places, while in others it has ceased altogether.

How did we get here? While I previously stated that part of the problem is that nations have turned away from God, I believe that the greater part of the burden rests upon the shoulders of us Christians. I recall a friend back home making a similar comment after parliament approved the decriminalization of euthanasia. One of his acquaintances said that was impossible as practising Catholics are no longer the majority of the population. Yet while that may be true on a natural, statistical level, on the supernatural numbers have very little to do with it. As a Russian saint is supposed to have once said: acquire the Holy Spirit and thousands around you shall be converted.
Even now in this time of testing, I hear stories of people touting the “my-church-is-better-than-yours” line, trying to show the moral superiority of “their side” on either holding out the longest celebrating Mass publicly or stopping it the earliest as a precaution. As I have said many times previously, for the most part we do not live as a believing people. We do not act as a priestly nation. All to often we publicly deny the Lord (be it in word, deed, or omission). Are we surprised then that He should deny us?

By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you despise one another. Oh wait, I’m pretty sure that wasn’t it at all…

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