Monday, November 28, 2016

Grow in Holiness this Advent, the Three Advents of Christ

Yesterday, the Church's liturgical year began anew with the first Sunday of Advent. This is a time of preparation, though not penance, for the coming of the great feast of the Nativity of Our Lord. Just as Lent precedes Easter, so too does Advent precede Christmas.

We can all understand the power a good Lent has to make Easter truly celebratory. But many Catholics have lost a real sense of Advent as it has been trampled under the shopping frenzy that is the secular build-up to the feast.

What is Advent Anyhow?
As a refresher for those who might not be sure what exactly Advent is and what we are supposed to be doing, I direct you to the Catholic Encyclopedia:
with Advent the ecclesiastical year begins in the Western churches. During this time the faithful are admonished 
to prepare themselves worthily to celebrate the anniversary of the coming into the world as the God of love,
thus to make their souls fitting abodes for the coming in Holy Communion and through grace, and
thereby to make themselves ready for His final coming as, at death and at the end of the world.
Advent, then, is a time to focus on the coming of Jesus. This is made clear in the name itself. "Advent" comes from the Latin "ad-venio" meaning "come to" or "coming."

What Are We to Dwell on During Advent?
With Christmas on the horizon it is easy enough to look back on the first coming of Christ, His birth into our sinful world on the first Christmas.

With the Feast of Christ the King behind us, hopefully, it is easy to keep in mind the final coming of Christ, that as the just judge at the world's end.

How different these advents are!

Perhaps no one has laid bare just what Christ's first advent really was better than C.S. Lewis,
Enemy-occupied territory - that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. When you go to church you are really listening-in to the secret wireless from our friends: that is why the enemy is so anxious to prevent us from going. (Mere Christianity).
Compare that to Christ the All Powerful King, best presented, perhaps, by Michelangelo Buonarroti,

Not exactly landing "in disguise" this time is He?

There is, however, a third advent of Christ that we all would do well to ponder over the next four weeks. If the Nativity is the First Advent and the Last Judgement is the Final Advent, this other advent is one that occurs not once in the past or in the future, but each and every day in the heart of all believers and thus is the most important advent of all to dwell on during this season.

With that teaser, I'll direct you to: 
a post I wrote on St. Bernard of Clairvaux's description of the Three Advent's of Christ and, once you've digested Bernard, 
And I will encourage you to: 
use Dante' Divine Comedy as an Advent mediation on the Three Advents of Christ, each of which is "hidden" in the poem (don't worry you won't have to find them, I lay them all out HERE). 
How is this Supposed to Make me Holier this Advent?
In a word, meditation. While the word "meditation" frequently brings to mind certain "mind-clearing" techniques used in eastern religions, there is an authentic and very important form of meditation in our Christian tradition stretching back to the first centuries after Christ. This is laid out by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in a 1989 letter to bishops (under the signature of then Cardinal Ratzinger, our present Pope Emeritus).
The meditation of the Christian in prayer seeks to grasp the depths of the divine in the salvific works of God in Christ, the Incarnate Word, and in the gift of his Spirit. These divine depths are always revealed to him through the human-earthly dimension. Similar methods of meditation, on the other hand, including those which have their starting-point in the words and deeds of Jesus, try as far as possible to put aside everything that is worldly, sense perceptible or conceptually limited. It is thus an attempt to ascend to or immerse oneself in the sphere of the divine, which, as such, is neither terrestrial, sense-perceptible nor capable of conceptualization. (Letter on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation).
Advent, being a time a quiet reflection and prayer, is the perfect time to delve into this tradition. As stated by the CDF, Christian meditation differentiates itself from eastern meditation in that the Christian is meditating on some aspect of his faith while the eastern mystic is clearing his mind of everything. GK Chesterton brings out this difference,
No two ideals could be more opposite than a Christian saint in a Gothic cathedral and a Buddhist saint in a Chinese temple. The opposition exists at every point; but perhaps the shortest statement of it is that the Buddhist saint always has his eyes shut, while the Christian saint always has them very wide open. The Buddhist saint has a sleek and harmonious body, but his eyes are heavy and sealed with sleep. The medieval saint’s body is wasted to its crazy bones, but his eyes are frightfully alive. There cannot be any real continuity between forces that produce symbols so different as that. Granted that both images are extravagances, are perversions of the pure creed, it must be a real divergence which could produce such opposite extravagances. The Buddhist is looking with a peculiar intentness inwards. The Christian is staring with a frantic intentness outwards. (Orthodoxy, p. 194)
By meditating on this great mystery, the coming of God-in-the-Flesh, you can grow closer to Jesus, the perfect preparation to celebrate His Nativity.

And isn't growing closer to Jesus - i.e. growing in holiness - the real "reason for the season?"

Have a Holy Advent!

For a detailed look at the Three Advents of Christ in Dante's Comedy, I highly recommend Mark Musa's Advent at the Gates.

For a deep meditation of the Nativity of Christ, I highly recommend Pope Benedict XVI's Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives.

Books Mentioned or Recommended in this Post:

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Monday, November 21, 2016

Book Review - Dante: The Story of His Life by Marco Santagata

Dante Alighieri. Poet. Politican. Philosopher. Exile.

Dante lived this multifaceted life while producing the greatest poetry in world literature. He definitely wasn't an Essentialist.

His life has been the topic of countless biographies, essays, talks, and lectures over the last seven centuries. The latest, Marco Santagata's Dante: The Story of His Life, translated by Richard Dixon, continues in this tradition.

Santagata brings a wealth of erudition and study to the task of writing an interesting biography of Dante. Indeed, he manages to break into new ground, which is always impressive when writing about a man written about as frequently and for so long as Dante.  His mastery and clear elucidation of the complex political history engulfing Dante's Florence and Italy is the highlight of the book and alone makes it worth the money.

Not only does he vividly describe the troubled times our poet navigated, but he contemplates into under-explored possibilities. Nothing less would be expected of Santagata, professor of Italian Literature at the University of Pisa.

Some of these theories are more compelling than others. Let us, briefly, examine a few.

Corso Donati
One interesting possibility explored by Santagata is an alleged attempt by Dante to return to Florence, something dear to the poet's heart, through the means of Corso Donati.

Anyone who has spent anytime studying Dante knows that Corso, condemned to Hell according to the prediction of his brother Forese in Purgatorio was one of Dante's prime enemies.
I see him... dragged behind a beast toward the valley where there is no absolution. The beast goes faster with each step, and faster, until it hurls him to the ground and leaves his body horribly disfigured. (24.82-87)
It was Corso Donati, leader of the Black Guelfs, whose ascendancy would prove the proximate cause of Dante's lifelong exile. It would seem odd, then, that Dante would pin his hopes for return on the very man who led the party that exiled and sentence him to death. Santagata sees Dante's marriage to a distant relative of Corso's, Gemma Donati, as a possible bridge between the two.
In my view, Dante and his supporters would first have played the family card. Gemma was a Donati, a third cousin of Corso, and her readmission to the city would have done no harm to the family prestige: indeed, if anything, it would have increased it. By allowing considerations of kinship to prevail, Corso would have shown himself to be the true man of strength in Florence. (p. 191)
This might be too tenuous and hard to swallow. Corso would have "shown himself to be the true man of strength in Florence" without calling back a man he helped exile. In fact, that just as likely would have shown Corso to be a man of great weakness. It could even have contaminated him to association. The time in which Santagata thinks Dante could have used Corso's help was when Corso was losing influence in the Black Party to Rosso della Tosa. While highly unlikely this is an interesting possibility to contemplate.

Another interesting theory explored in the book is the possibility of Dante having been an epileptic. Santagata admits his debt here to Cesare Lombroso and his school of psychiatry's diagnosis of Dante, a disgnosis Santagata readily admits "has never been accepted by Dante scholars." (p. 31)

Despite this, reading Dante's poems has helped Santagata 'rediscover' Dante's illness. He points to the poem E' m'incresce di me sì duramente as evidence. In the poem, Dante relates an experience from the first few months of his life.
"so suddenly... I fell to the ground" as if struck by lightning." (p. 30)
Dante's Amor, da che convien pur ch'io mi doglia is another exhibit as Dante tells us the mere sight of his lady caused him to fall "lifeless" to the ground.

This is certainly a literalist interpretation of these poems, which sounds a bit odd coming from a man who questions whether Beatrice really inspired Dante's writings. Admittedly, Santagata avoids the common error of reading Beatrice as only an allegory of "Theology" to the point where her name could be dropped for the subject, but his suspicion here could call into question his reading into these poems a disease. If Dante attributed inspiration to Beatrice as a poetic device, why ought he not to have used fainting poetically as well?

Nonetheless, Santagata is right on the money when he says this is
an hypothesis to explore with caution, but nevertheless (is) preferable to the idea suggested by one scholar that (Dante) used stimulants or narcotics. (p. 33)
I couldn't agree more.

Dante's Sense of Self
Santagata contends that Dante had a very unique sense of himself and his life.
The most remarkable aspect of Dante's personality is, in fact, his feeling of being different and predestined. In whatever he saw, did or said... he glimpsed some sign of destiny, the shadow of an unavoidable fate, the mark of a higher will.... How can we avoid asking, then, what kind of self-image such an egocentric man, so sure of his exceptional nature, must have possessed in daily life? (p. 4)
Whether this is an accurate description of the inner workings of Dante's personality is, as all such "remote psychoanalysis" must be, highly questionable. No psychologist worth his salt would seek to describe the inner psyche of a man who never laid upon his couch, that, however, doesn't stop (some) historians. Santagata has fallen into this trap. This is particularly jarring as he readily admits,
His contemporaries offer little help to anyone wishing to reconstruct the true Dante. Almost none of those who knew him wrote about him; only a few of the next generation had anything reliable to say about him. (p. 5)
Apparently, eight hundred years after the poet's death, Sanatagata can, based off what he sees as less than credible historical accounts, have something "reliable to say about him."

Was Dante prideful? Without a doubt. This is a man who, based off the Vita Nuova and a few canti of the Comedy, claimed poetic equality with the greatest poets in history: Virgil, Homer, Ovid, Horace, and Lucan when he tells us "I became a sixth amidst such wisdom" (Inferno 4.102) and who feels the heavy weights the penitents on the terrace of pride must bear already.

Can we extrapolate out of his work all Santagata does? That is a bit more questionable, but worth reading his theory in full to decide for yourself.

Dante: The Story of His (Political) Life, Revenge and Patronage
This might well have been a more apropos title to this biography. Santagata tells the story of Dante almost exclusively through a political lens leaving unmentioned or marginalized Dante's relationship with the Church as an institution, with Christian belief, with philosophy as expounded by the Scholastics, with his poetic rivals and predecessors, and with his intellectual development from a servant of "the god of Love" to the supreme poet of the Christian God.

This narrow focus spills over into his interpretation of the Commedia, which is viewed as if it was only a political work. Each event examined by Santagata is seen as either an attempt to gain favor with a potential or current patron or as an act of revenge on those who rebuffed the poet in life.

He calls the first canticle of the Comedy "The Guelf Inferno" (p. 219) contending Inferno is entirely Guelf without a hint of pro-Imperial sentiments. This, according to Santagata, is because Inferno was largely written to assert Dante's loyalty to the Guelf cause as a means to return to Guelf Florence.

He fails, however, to convincingly explain the condemnation of the leading Guelfs in the cantica. Tegghiaio Aldobrandini, Jacopo Rusticucci, Calvacante Calvacanti, the great Guido Guerra and Brunetto Latini are all inexplicably (if we accept Santagata's thesis) met in the "Guelf Inferno". Nor does he address why, if the canticle is stressing Dante's loyalty to the Church Party, we meet Pope Celestine V as soon as we enter the realm of the dead. Hardly an auspicious start to a poem dedicated to prove Dante's loyalty to the Guelf-Papal cause. Celestine is only the first pontiff we meet in Hell. Popes are among the innumerable sinners in the "dismal round" (Inferno 7.31) shouting "Why do you squander" (Inferno 7.30) as they crash into other sinners.
These were clerics who have no lid of hair
upon their heads, and popes and cardinals,
in whom avarice achieves its excess. (Inferno 7.46-48)
And, of course, we meet Pope Nicholas in Malebolgie who predicts that he will soon be joined by Pope Boniface VIII and Pope Clement V, both supports of the Parte Guelfa, especially in Florence, and of the Guelf-Angevin alliance responsible for destroying Ghibelline hopes of ultimate victory. These condemnations hardly would have endeared Dante to the Guelfs back in Florence.

Santagata's claim that there is no mention of a pro-imperial position in Inferno is even weaker. Not only do we meet Julius Caesar, the first Roman Emperor (as Dante's day considered him), among the virtuous pagans, but Brutus and Cassius (traitors to the founder of the Empire) are co-sufferers with Judas Iscariot in the three mouths of Satan. This puts traitors to God's divinely established Empire on par with betrayers of God's divinely established Church. Can we imagine a more pro-Imperial (i.e. Ghibelline) sentiment?

Santagata's go to response to this counter-evidence is to explain away the inconvenient facts as "later rewritings." He doesn't present early manuscripts that lack these passages or other historical or textual evidence to support this claim. Instead he concludes these passages must be rewrites solely on the basis that these episodes put the lie to his theory! This is (historical) pseudo-science at its worst. The theory ought to be disproven or supported by the facts; here we see the facts manipulated to fit the theory. This is a move beneath the dignity of Santagata.

That is not to say Dante's work wasn't at all influenced by the kindness or rejection he met in exile. Nor is it to say that Dante's politics never shifted nor that these shifts are present in the work (as we'd expect them to be). Santagata doesn't get this all wrong. He does overemphasize this element of the work and ignores other, more important, influences on the poem.

Perhaps this is because of his mastery of the politics of Dante's day. Rather, I suspect, it is an effect of the unfortunate "drift" of the humanities in seeking to emulate the hard sciences by emphasizing "new discoveries" over the passing on of accurate, time-tested, dare I say somewhat "traditional" and even "conservative" understandings of the great books.

Professors of the liberal arts are, or ought to be, guardians and transmitters of tradition - critiquing that tradition where necessary and adding new information when possible. When these professors are lauded only when presenting novel theories of interpretation (e.g. a feminist reading of the Comedy) things go astray and can quickly descend into absurdity.

Incredible Historical Vision
Despite this understandable tendency, Santagata proves himself an able historian with a firm grasp on the very complex historical events of Dante's Italy. His explanations of the history and politics of Dante's Florence makes the book well worth reading. This is especially true of the first half of the book in which Santagata's learning shines. When he stays away from postulating theories of interpretation of Dante's works based exclusively on political events and sticks to relating the facts and in exploring various theories based on those facts, Santagata is at his finest.

Final Verdict
The book might be a bit uneven, but it is, in the end, worth picking up and reading. If you are interested in the poet, his life, and his times this is well worth the money. With the reservations noted above, I recommend Dante: The Story of His Life.

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Monday, November 14, 2016

The Feast of Christ the King

This weekend is the patronal feast of this blog, the Feast of Christ the King. In honor of one of my favorite feasts in the Church, I thought we'd take a closer look...

What is the official name of this feast?
While it is popularly known as the Feast of Christ the King, it's technical name is the Solemnity of Christ the King. It's original Latin title was Dominus Nostri Jesu Christi Regis, which was changed by Pope Paul VI to Dominus Nostri Jesu Christi universorum Regis (Our Lord Jesus Christ King of the Universe).

What is a "solemnity"?
Solemnity is the highest rank given to a feast by the Church.

What color vestments will the priest be wearing tomorrow?
White or Gold as he does for all major feasts. 

When is Christ the King celebrated?
Christ the King closes the liturgical year and is always celebrated on the last Sunday of ordinary time, the last Sunday before the first Sunday of Advent. This year the feast will be celebrated this Sunday on November 20th.

Is Christ the King celebrated in the forma extraordinaria, the 'traditional Latin Mass'?
Yes, but on a different date. In the old pre-Vatican 2 calendar the Feast of Christ the King is celebrated on the last Sunday in October, the Sunday before All Saint's Day. This is one of those areas where we might be better off changing the old calendar to match up with the new. That, however, is well above my pay grade.

Is this an ancient feast?
No. In fact it only dates to the twentieth century. Pope Pius XI founded the feast with his 1925 encyclical Quas Primus. That means no complaining about the change of date after Vatican Two.

Is there any Biblical evidence that Jesus is a King? I thought He was a poor, simple man.
Saint Paul, in his letter to the Philippians tells us that Jesus
"being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." (2:6-11)
and in First Timothy he tells us that Jesus
"is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords." (6:15)
and in the Book of Revelations we read that Jesus
"hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, King Of Kings, And Lord Of Lords." (19:16)
Examples multiply, but I'll end with my favorite. The unwitting proclamation of Pontius Pilate
"And Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the cross. And the writing was Jesus Of Nazareth The King Of The Jews." (John 19:19)

Do any other Christians celebrate this feast?
Yes. Following the lead of Pius XI in honoring Christ as King with this feast are Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, the Church of England, the United Church of Christ, and some Eastern Orthodox Churches all of whom adopted the feast after the Catholic Church. I suppose even high Church Protestants can look to Rome for guidance now and then. I'd call that ecumenism at its best.

What other posts have you written on Christ the King?

Christus Rex Est - being a brief overview of the feast

Quas Primus, Pope Pius XI on Christ the King (pt 1) - being a look at the Papal Encyclical of Pius XI

Quas Primus, Pope Pius XI on Christ the King (pt 2) - being the second part of the same.

Homeless Jesus - being a reflection on a statue blessed by Pope Francis.

The Homeless King - being the second part of the same.

Our World is "Enemy-Occupied Territory. Are YOU Ready to Fight? - being a call to arms of sorts.

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Monday, November 7, 2016

Of Milton, Dante, and Shakespeare

Shakespeare, Milton and Dante from Ezra Pound's Dante
The comparison of Dante and Milton is at best a stupid convention.... Milton resembles Dante in nothing; judging superficially, one might say that they both wrote long poems which mention God and the angels, but their gods and their angels are as different as their styles and abilities. Dante's god is ineffable divinity. Milton's god is a fussy old man with a hobby. Dante is metaphysical, where Milton is merely sectarian. Paradise Lost is conventional melodrama, and later critics have decided that the Devil is intended for the hero, which interpretation leaves the whole without significance. Dante's Satan is undeniably evil. He is not "Free Will" but stupid malignity. Milton has no grasp of the superhuman. Milton's angels are men of enlarged power, plus wings. Dante's angels surpass human nature, and differ from it. They move in their high courses inexplicable.... Milton, moreover, shows a complete ignorance of the things of the spirit. Any attempt to compare the two poets as equals is bathos, and it is, incidentally, unfair to Milton, because it makes one forget all his laudable qualities. Shakespear (sic) alone of the English poets endures sustained comparison with the Florentine. Here are we with the masters; of neither can we say, "He is the greater";  of each we must say, "He is unexcelled."... Our knowledge of Dante and of Shakespear (sic) interacts; intimate acquaintance with either breeds that discrimination which makes us more keenly appreciate the other. 

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Thursday, November 3, 2016

If Catholicism is True, Why do Protestants Seem Closer to God?

Image © Bill Fairchild
Over at's forums a Catholic asked:
i am catholic but i feel more engaged by protestant worship and preaching and appreciate the close fellowship offered by some protestant communities. i feel that my relationship with God would become deeper and my discipleship would become more intentional by joining a protestant church. please enlighten as to why this is a sin if my overall relationship with the Lord is improved. 
thank you
To which I answered
An analogy: 
One person has 1 million dollars in the bank but only withdraws $100. 
A second person has $1,000 in the bank and withdraws all $1,000. 
Who has more money in his pocket?  
The second person is the Protestant. He doesn't have the Sacraments and so has less grace available to him. The first person, the Catholic, thanks to the Sacraments has more grace available. 
BUT, the Protestant, being more devout and having a better relationship with God (in your example), has withdrawn and uses more of the grace available to him and thus is closer to the Lord. 
HOWEVER, the devout Protestant, if he were to become Catholic, would be able to access much more grace and grow even closer to God than he is now. The Catholic, on the other hand, might leave the Church for a Protestant community, grow closer to God, and have more "money in the pocket" than he had as a Catholic. Of course, he would have even more had he stayed in the Church and grown closer to the Lord, but he is closer now than he was before. 
That shows (hopefully) why you can feel closer to God as a Protestant than you do in the Catholic Church, but why being in the Church is the best way to be as close as possible to the Lord. 
What say you? How would you have answered the question?