November 2013

Br. Pius Youn, O.P.'s picture

Understanding Who We Are Through Thomistic Anthropology

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Truth escorts us to freedom. In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells the Jews who believe in him, “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will come to know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 32:14-15). Christ strengthens us with his promise in these verses. In our daily lives, however, false notions of truth lead us away from the promises of Christ. For instance, there is the drive for success in the American culture. We often hear success stories that promote "positive thinking" influenced by pop psychology, or a well-packaged six-step program for achieving perfect happiness. Can “Just Do It,” a motto by Nike Corporation, set us free? Jesus, of course, has something to say about truth performing that function. Amidst the smorgasbord of conflicting principles our society proposes for our attention, have any freed us? Truth that is revealed to us through Christ is evident in the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas.

The Catholic Church does not dogmatically ascribe to one specific philosophy, but she holds up Thomistic philosophy as the model to be taught in Catholic seminaries and institutions (see Leo XIII's Aeterni Patris; John Paul II's Fides et Ratio, 43-44; and the Code of Canon Law, 252.3). Thomas's "perennial philosophy" had fallen into widespread disuse by the 1800s in Catholic theological circles. Leo XIII penned Aeterni Patris to revive it. But in spite of this, a dominant stream working from modernity's presuppositions has continued to react against Thomas throughout the 20th century and down to today. One way of putting the animus against the Angelic Doctor is that many feel his scholastic technical language, and immense rational systemization of theology, is too abstract and disconnected from the "real world." 

For a number of years, I also felt that Thomistic philosophy was dull and perhaps irrevocably constrained within scholastic categories which did not apply to today. Since then, and having become a Dominican, I have discovered not only immense riches in Aquinas, but discerned a positive and pressing need for Thomistic philosophy in the world: it leads people to truth and freedom. Freedom, in this context, derives from knowing ourselves in a way not bounded by the "status quo," or by whatever particular job or surrounding environment we find ourselves in at a given time. The fact that someone is a well-read professor, a rich businessman, or a rocking pop artist, does not reveal the essence of one's identity. What we do is always subordinate to who we are, our actions rooted in our being.  Christian freedom, then, blossoms when we are more deeply rooted in the truth that God has placed within us.  


There are many disparate, often conflicting, ways to understand man. Thomistic philosophical anthropology proposes that man becomes more himself as he grows in moral virtue, producing a harmony between reason and emotion within his soul. Thomas, following the Aristotelian tradition, states that human beings have higher cognitive faculties than plants and animals. Due to man's cognitive power, his emotional life is likewise more sophisticated. Through the power of imagination and memory, emotions can be unpredictably triggered from a past sequence of events. But Thomas asserts that reason and will are distinct faculties and that we can choose to use reason to influence our emotions.


There are two mistakes we can make when it comes to the relation of reason and emotion. One is to let emotions fly loose and our passions govern us—this only leads to unstable behavior and unhappiness, since our lives will not be rooted in the truth. If we simply follow our passions as they lead, we will find ourselves more and more unable to make lasting commitments based in the truth. The other mistake is the opposite: to employ our reason as a tyrant over our emotions, trying to suppress them altogether at any hint of their operation. Aquinas offers a different way.


Harmony between reason and will leads to a healthy emotional life, which is essential to knowing who we are as persons. Disorder between them may be the leading cause of why commitments are so often not made in today’s world. The philosophy of "voluntarism" is one way of pinpointing the problem. While a Thomistic approach looks at reason as the supreme faculty that guides will and emotion, voluntaristic philosophy holds up the will as more superior to reason and emotion. Voluntaristic philosophy encourages a person to will the good with self-control and effort, even if a person dislikes doing it. The moral act of willing without the proper use of reason sets one up for irrational decisions. If a person is constantly willing without the guidance of reason, he or she may eventually be bombarded with unstable emotions --- depression, feelings of guilt, obsessive compulsion, etc.  


What saddens me is how much voluntaristic philosophy has influenced our society. I sense that actions based on this philosophy lead a person away from living an authentic moral life. The reasons for high divorce rates, low number of vocations to the priesthood and the religious life, and lack of commitments made in our daily lives may derive, in many ways, from this philosophy. 


While false notions of truth have influenced our society, St. Thomas Aquinas and the teachings of the Church give us hope. For people who have been living with disharmony of reason, will, and emotion, the Thomistic view of man can powerfully re-order a dysfunctional state of life into a one that is meaningful. Reason that guides the will and emotions, rather than the reverse, frees people from a gloomy life filled with emotional disturbances. Christ himself experienced emotions such as desire and aversion to despair and fear, but he had virtuous responses to these appetites. For Thomas, continual perfection of the virtues results in stronger passions --- through our striving for a virtuous life, we begin to be more Christ-like. The reason for studying the scriptures, philosophy, and theology is that our faith becomes intelligible (fides et ratio, "faith and reason"—both are important), and that our contemplation of the truth guides our will and emotions. 


Popular principles and philosophies have misguided us. Many philosophies, especially the voluntaristic philosophy, have influenced our society with unreliable truths and defense mechanisms in dealing with ourselves. But have these given us truth about man? Have these philosophies and the principles given us the “truth” and the “freedom” that Jesus talks about in the Gospel of John? The Thomistic understanding of man sets us free, for it teaches the truth of man. If you desire to live a virtuous life that is guided by reason, Thomas’ inspired philosophy will lead you to fulfillment. Let us live by the truth and do all we can to show others this path, which leads to freedom. Showing others this path of truth, reaching out to people facing any number of personal and situation problems, can help salvage their genuine commitments, as reason guides the will and emotion into a genuine human freedom.

Br. Chris Brannan, O.P.'s picture

"A Holy and Pious Thought"

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Dante's Purgatorio 13 by Gustave Doré [courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]On Saturday, November 2, we celebrated the feast of All Souls, that special feast in the church calendar in which we commemorate and pray for all of the holy souls in Purgatory. This Catholic feast and the beliefs which undergird it can be repugnant to many non-Catholics, and even ignored or denied by modern day Catholics. (I once heard a Catholic parish catechist claim, “Oh, Purgatory? Well...we just don't really talk about that any more...”). I suppose the idea of Purgatory strikes many contemporary people as some rather quaint, if not terribly misguided, idea that generally does more harm than good: a belief that induces fear and an obsession with working hard, following all the rules. After all, isn't an idea couched in language about law and punishment, about sin and pain, only a symptom of a rather morbid mind? And didn't Martin Luther and the whole Protestant Reformation rather expose this medieval farce and break the shackles of such a terrifying and toxic mentality? Isn't the church just so old and slow that it has not yet caught up with the times and realized the foolishness of such legalistic preoccupations as “purgatory”?

Perhaps very few have not had one or more of the above objections to Purgatory. I, for one, used to think them all. And yet the Catholic Church continues to affirm, notwithstanding some of her naïve and misguided catechists, that Purgatory is real, and that we must concern ourselves with it; that is why she celebrates the Solemnity of all Souls every November 2.

So what is this feast, which can so confuse or upset others, all about? It might be best to quote from one Scripture reading—one that is sometimes read at Mass on this feast—which is actually Jewish, not Christian, in origin:

Judas [Maccabeus] and his men went to take up the bodies of the fallen…under the tunic of every one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear...and they turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out...[Judas] also took up a collection… And sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. ... [Since] he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who follow godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin (2 Maccabees 12:39-45).

In this Jewish text, which is revered by Catholics as inspired Scripture,1 we see a Jewish belief and practice, narrated and extolled by a Jewish writer, claiming that it is “a holy and pious thought” to pray and offer sacrifice for the dead, that their sins might be forgiven. It is this basic thought and practice which is picked up later by the Christian church, and continues today in various Apostolic Churches, who continue to offer prayers, above all the sacrifice of the Eucharist, for their beloved dead. While the text from second Maccabees may not give a full-blown and well-developed Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, it does highlight something that is central to the Catholic position: that we can stand in need of further purification and forgiveness even after our own death, and that those left on earth can aid us in this “purgation.” And, furthermore, this text and the Catholic belief in purgatory are rooted in a strong sense of hope: that in spite of our imperfections, God is quite capable of preparing and perfecting us for heaven, even if He needs to do this after we die.

C.S. Lewis (who believed in a form of purgatory), in his classic Mere Christianity, says the same, when he puts the following words on the lips of Jesus Christ:

“Make no mistake...if you let me, I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in my hands, that is what you are in for. Nothing less, or other, than that.… If you do not push me away, understand that I'm going to see this job through. Whatever suffering it may cost you in your earthly life, whatever inconceivable purification it may cost you after death, whatever it costs me, I will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfect… This I can do and will do. But I will not do anything less.”2

Purgatory, indeed, testifies to this conviction: God wants nothing else for us, but to unite us with Him in Heaven, and He will do what it takes, provided we do not obstinately resist His grace while on earth. It may involve painful forms of purification in this life, and it may, and often does, involve some form of purification after death. And it can offer us comfort when we see, today, our own weaknesses and sinful tendencies: "Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own" (Phil 3:12). That is, our perfection in Christ takes time, and just because we have not yet "arrived" does not mean we never will. Provided we are in His grace, even if we die "unfinished," God is not done with us: He can still work on our souls—a sort of spiritual surgery, if you will, without much anesthetic.

And much like Judas Maccabeus, today we too can assist those undergoing such purification, by our prayers and sacrifices—especially by offering ourselves to God in the one sacrifice of Christ present in every Eucharistic celebration. To do so, paradoxically, may also end up helping us in our purification and growth in holiness on earth: offering such prayer moves us outward, beyond ourselves toward the good of another, and away from vain and fleeting distractions—away from the very sorts of attachments which necessitate Purgatory. To pray and offer sacrifice for the dead, then, truly is "a holy and pious thought."

1. There are six others books in Catholic bibles (and those of Eastern Christianity) that are not in Protestant bibles. See the article "Protestant and Catholic Bibles" by Father William Saunders. [Back to article]

2. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Touchstone, 1996; originally published by Macmillan publishing Company, 1943), Book IV, chapter 9, p. 174. [Back to article]


Stay Alert

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A reflection on the Lord's warning to the complacent in the Book of the Prophet Amos, most fitting as we approach the end of the liturgical year and are called upon to think about our standing before the Lord.

Br. Clement Lepak, OP's picture

Harmony in the Sanctuary

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"What role does music play in the Church?" St. Albert's OrganTwo events last month brought this question into focus as the brothers of St. Albert's Priory celebrated Solemn Vespers and the blessing of our new Paul Fritts Opus 36 pipe organ. The Saturday Solemn Vespers was followed on Sunday afternoon by an Organ Dedication Concert given by the impressive Prof. Craig Cramer, DMA, of the University of Notre Dame. One could become entranced by the dance of Prof. Cramer’s feet tapping out peals of bass from the pedals, and not yet ask the question in the title; or one might hear the full range of timbre, resonance and overtones of the organ, unmatched by any other single acoustic instrument, and still be excused from delving into the relation of music to liturgy, of tune to text, and of song to sanctification. But the excuse could only last so long.

As exciting, moving and tremendous the experience of music might be, we tend not be satisfied until we have answered the questions, "why?,"  and "for what reason?" do we use and listen to music in church. Until this mystery is explored and comprehended, it will continue to elude our grasp, like a clever thief who leaves us exhilarated from the chase, but finally exhausted from tapping our toes and wagging our tongues, clutching at a few seams of his fleeing cloak. Opening a treasure chest requires a key—as does music.

In our musical and religious culture the organ concert is a well-established event, and it is certainly right to display the heights of musical art in churches and chapels at appropriate times, for example between liturgical hours. Just as we love story and art, we love music, and it is a wholesome thing to use the arts to delight in the world God has created for our use. But what is the true purpose of commissioning such a glorious instrument? What is the goal of our singing, chanting, and hymning, whether accompanied or a cappella? As well, how are we affected by music, especially sacred music?

It is no small thing to lift our voices to God in praise. Scripture declares, “Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD, oh my soul! I will praise the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God, while I have my being” (Psalm 146:1-2). It is a very great thing indeed to offer Sacred Music to Our Savior.

It is so great that the Catechism, in the section on singing and music, teaches that "The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as a combination of sacred music and words, it forms a necessary or integral part of solemn liturgy" (CCC, 1156).

Our musical tradition is of inestimable value! It has the goal of giving glory to God and sanctifying His people. With the highest object of goodness, beauty and praise in our mind and hearts, we lift our voices united in song, bringing alive texts that conform to Catholic doctrine, drawn principally from Sacred Scripture and approved liturgical sources. As the liturgical action takes place, the beauty of musical prayer is matched to the text in a fitting and integral manner, so that the faithful may display a unanimous participation in conferring a sacred character on the solemn rites. We perceive in liturgical music, as with all aspects of the life we have been given, that our ultimate goal is nothing short of the All Good, the Summum Bonum, the worship and glory of our Loving God, whom we will one day embrace face-to-face as He has promised. If any activity on earth is worthy of the word, then it is this liturgical worship before the Most Holy Eucharist that is surely awe-some, in the fullest and proper sense of the word!

Hence "religious singing by the faithful is to be intelligently fostered so that in devotions and sacred exercises as well as in liturgical services," in conformity with the Church's norms, "the voices of the faithful may be heard" (CCC, 1158).

Whether you join us here at St. Albert’s Priory for daily hours of worship and liturgy, or worship at your own local parish, we pray that your sacramental life will be directed with right knowledge, devotion, and love, to Him who is above all most knowable, most loving and most lovable. Many thanks to all who attended the Solemn Vespers and Organ Dedication Concert with us!

Now, from the Book of Blessings of the Roman Ritual, I leave you with the majestic words that were prayed over our pipe organ: Lord God, your beauty is ancient yet ever new, your wisdom guides the world in right order, and your goodness gives the world its variety and splendor. The choirs of angels join together to offer their praise by obeying your commands. The galaxies sing your praises by the pattern of their movement that follows your laws. The voices of the redeemed join in a chorus of praise to your holiness as they sing to you in mind and heart. We your people, joyously gathered in this church, wish to join our voices to the universal hymn of praise. So that our sound may rise more worthily to your majesty, we present this organ for your blessing: grant that its music may lead us to express our prayer and praise in melodies that are pleasing to you. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Br. Clement Lepak, OP's picture

A Mirror Among the Stars: Science is Ordered by Wisdom

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A reflection on Feast of St. Albert the Great, Patron Saint of Scientists.

Image de la galaxie spirale, NGC 4414,, NASA (available through Wikimedia Commons)

A white hole is thought to be a source of light and matter that is radiating into our universe from an unknown and unapproachable source. Unlike a black hole, which pulls in unceasingly all that approaches it, a white hole is thought to have such a thrust that nothing can enter into it. This speculative model describes an event which spews out energy, light and matter, but which may be highly unstable, collapsing upon itself and then exploding. Some theorists posit a "cosmic counterpoint" to black holes, so that there would be a cosmic balancing, a supernal yin-yang of light, matter and energy. There is no firm evidence that they actually exist, but the concept of a white hole, an unceasing font of waves, vibration and spectra, makes for a marvelous model of contemplation.

As created beings, we can identify the subsistence of all substances at any moment, and reflect that all created things are unceasingly supported and upheld by Being. Unlike the concept of the white hole for which we have found no positive confirmation, when it comes to the source of being, we do stand on evidence: it’s called reality. You’re touching it now. And yes, it’s really real.

Adding another level of intelligibility to this vital sustaining process, we could speak of the other transcendentals such as the good and the true, as well as the related realities of beauty, communicability and love. The leap that allows one to move from the basic physical speculative model of the white hole to the awareness of the font-of-life as emanating from within us, is grounded in the principle that all creation may serve as the springboard towards contemplation. It is wisdom that allows us to order our experience and reason thus, from effects to their cause. Through creation, God ceaselessly offers endless paths for contemplating Him. Man-made artifacts show their wear and begin to age as soon as they are constructed. The table I am writing at shows its age by the exposure of the composite material underneath the varnished surface, which has been rubbed away by constant use over the years. In the brickwork opposite me, visible through the window, I see white lines of more recent mortar that has been used to fill in cracks caused by tremors, weather, shifting. From these artifacts and all others we can come to the conclusion that ‘stuff’ doesn’t last: it wears away, it deteriorates, and if it is living, it dies.

Even great stellar events, such as white holes, stars, and galaxies are limited and in a state of transition but their vastness and abundance of years gives them a fabled, quasi-infinite authority. Yet beyond them, not in size and age, but in mode of being, in perfection, and in goodness, shines the source of all, who even now is in our presence and closer to us than our very self. It has been said that, “The wise man will dominate the stars.” The truth of that statement does not rest in warp drives, time travel or harnessing the energy potential of stars. It rather lies in this: that we will be lords of the stars to the extent that we are lords of our own hearts ordered to the praise of God. In the wondrous signs of creation, and the speculative thought of the sciences, we are afforded manifold opportunities to contemplate the depths and the riches and the knowledge of God. May devotion and knowledge increase hand-in-hand, as God's holy people walk through the darkness of this world into the light with joy, understanding and song.

O, Font of Life and Wisdom, Holy Trinity, God beyond all praise! Amen.