Augustine on the Beatitudes
This Sunday we will hear in the Gospel the wonderful account of our Lord's Sermon on the Mount, the pinnacle of which is certainly the Beatitudes. This passage used to be at the center of the Church's moral tradition, though it is generally ignored today by most textbooks of moral theology. St. Augustine, quite representative here of the later patristic tradition, wrote an entire book of twenty-three chapters devoted exclusively to this sermon, with an extensive treatment of the Beatitudes. I offer a few observations of my own:
First, Augustine inaugurates (or perhaps solidifies - I cannot find an earlier Father who teaches this as clearly) an ecclesial tradition of seeing in the Beatitudes the quintessence of the Christian moral life, 'a perfect standard of the Christian life.' Even more, it is all-comprehensive, containing 'perfect in all the precepts by which the Christian life is moulded' (emphasis mine). Augustine's ethic is teleologically oriented towards the end of happiness, or beatitude, which for him lies in possession of God - hence, Our Lord's direct revelation of the way to beatitude unsurpassable as a moral code.
Secondly, Augustine departs on what one might call a 'spiritualization', or to put it better, an 'interiorization' of the beatitudes. More modern scholars are tempted by the very 'social' language of the sermon to interpret it primarily in terms of social reform - the exaltation of the poor and persecuted, the value of peacemaking, the language of human comfort, etc. Augustine, on the contrary, is intent on redirecting these values inward, into the seat of the human soul in its quest for the vision of God. The 'poor' are the humble and God-fearing. The 'possession of the earth' which belongs to the meek is in fact the 'certain firmness and stability of the perpetual inheritance,' viz. the 'very rest and life of the saints.' The 'comfort' that belongs to the mourners is that of the Holy Spirit, which is given in the midst of temporal suffering. The 'food' of the hungry is the same food which nourished Christ - doing the will of His Father. The 'peacemakers' are those who possess peace of soul, when passions are rightly subjugated to the rulership of God. This is consistent with Augustine's theological formula of the relativization of temporal values vis-a-vis the absoluteness of the eternal (the programme of the City of God).
Thirdly, inasmuch as Augustine sees the beatitudes as a perfect compendium of the moral life, he also views them as an ordered hierarchy of mystical ascent. Accordingly, he lops off the eighth beatitude (regarding persecution, which he sees as an off-hand remark directed specifically and exclusively to the present audience) to make the perfect number, seven: 'Seven in number, therefore, are the things which bring perfection'. And it is, for Augustine, a hierarchy of progressive stages, beginning with the elementary value of humility, and reaching its culmination in the seventh and perfect beatitude, divine sonship ('. . . for they shall be called the sons of God' - note that sonship, here at least, surpasses even the vision of God, which constitutes the sixth and penultimate beatitude). Fourthly, Augustine cannot help but notice a certain correlation between the sevenfold Beatitude and the sevenfold operation of the Holy Spirit in Isaiah 11:1-3, traditionally known as the 'gifts of the Spirit' in the Catholic tradition. Although he has to reverse the order of the latter to make them fit, Augustine sees the parallelism as follows:
Poor in Spirit: Fear of God
Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness: Fortitude
Pure in Heart: Understanding
His reasoning behind each comparison is rather clever at many points, although perhaps somewhat forced at others. But the unity between them is essential, as it demonstrates the unity of all Scripture, especially between the Old and New Covenants.
Lastly, it is essential for Augustine that the seven beatitudes, or seven gifts, do not correspond to seven disctinct rewards, but rather, constitute one reward. Thus, he says, it is 'the one reward, which is the kingdom of heaven, [which] is variously named according to these stages'. This same regal reward is titled diversely: 'an inheritance', 'comfort', 'a full supply', 'mercy', 'the sight of God', and 'divine sonship'. All, in the end, amount to the same thing, the eternal possession of God Himself.
# posted by Jamie : 1:28 PM
Tuesday, January 18, 2005
It hardly requires noting that my attention to this blog of late has been somewhat flightly. To send up yet another earnest pledge to renew thrice-daily posts would be to forswear other equally earnest pledges, so I will have to content myself (and the few occasional readers who remain) with a personal update at this point.
After being admitted to doctoral candidacy in January, I managed to secure a major professor for a dissertation project. Neither the topic nor the director were exactly what I had in mind, but necessity makes for strange bedfellows. Rather than my Father of preference, namely the doctor of grace, I will be studying Origen of Alexandria. I did my master's thesis on Origen, so he is at least familiar to me, and I have to admit I even developed a deep respect for the thought of Origen, all posthumous condemnations notwithstanding. I am still narrowing in on a precise topic, but it looks as though I will be analyzing Origen's theological anthropology, or more specifically, the nature of the soul and its role in Origen's theological vision.
The topic is of great interest to me, although it is a bit difficult getting back into the business of library research, especially since I now have to jockey for time more than I used to.
Don't worry. I won't be turning this into an Origenist webpage. Though, sadly, I won't be able to read as much of the doctor of grace as I would have liked.
On other fronts, my second child is still safe and sound in utero, due to show his face sometime in May. (Note: the 'his' here is a traditional, gender-neutral 'his', as his gender remains unknown.) I ask for your continued prayers for him. My first child was born quite early, and seemed to have a personal interest in being born much earlier; this one is showing early indications of the same intent, which could be quite dangerous at this point.
I've agreed to another teaching stint, this time in West Virginia, three weeks from now, on a subject of which I know little (Pauline letters), and to a more educated group (ordained permanent deacons). So the stakes are higher, and the preparation time is shorter. It will also take time away from study, but I think it pays off in the long run.
Due to an accelerated pace at work, I have scarce time to blog on my own, much less read other blogs, and I have entirely tuned out of the news circuit. My own blogging for a while will remain, therefore, somewhat insulated, but that is not always for the worst.
# posted by Jamie : 1:55 PM
Pope Grants Plenary Indulgence for Year of the Eucharist
VATICAN CITY, JAN 14, 2005 (VIS) - A Decree from the Apostolic Penitentiary, dated December 25, 2004 and published today, states that during an audience granted on December 17, 2004 to Cardinal James Francis Stafford and Fr. John Francis Girotti, OFM.Conv., respectively penitentiary major and regent of the Apostolic Penitentiary, "the Holy Father wished to enrich with indulgences several determined acts of worship and devotion to the Most Holy Sacrament, which are indicated below. ... The Decree will be in force during the Eucharistic Year, starting with the day of its publication in the L'Osservatore Romano. Notwithstanding any disposition to the contrary."
Following are excerpts:
"A Plenary Indulgence is granted to all faithful and to each individual faithful under the usual conditions (sacramental confession, Eucharistic communion and prayer in keeping with the intentions of the Supreme Pontiff, with the soul completely removed from attachment to any form of sin), each and every time they participate attentively and piously in a sacred function or a devotional exercise undertaken in honor of the Blessed Sacrament, solemnly exposed and conserved in the tabernacle.
"A Plenary Indulgence is also granted, under the aforesaid conditions, to the clergy, to members of Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, and to other faithful who are by law obliged to recite the Liturgy of the Hours, as well as to those who customarily recite the Divine Office out of pure devotion, each and every time they recite - at the end of the day, in company or in private - Vespers and Night Prayers before the Lord present in the tabernacle.
"The faithful who, through illness or other just cause, are unable to visit the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist in a church or oratory, may obtain a Plenary Indulgence in their own homes, or wherever they may be because of their ailment, if, ... with the intention of observing the three usual conditions as soon as possible, they make the visit spiritually and with the heart's desire, ... and recite the Our Father and the Creed, adding a pious invocation to Jesus in the Sacrament.
"If they are unable to do even this, they will receive a Plenary Indulgence if they unite themselves with interior desire to those who practice the normal conditions laid down for Indulgences, and offer the merciful God the illnesses and discomforts of their lives."
The Decree asks that priests, especially pastors, inform the faithful "in the most convenient manner" of these dispositions, prepare, "with generous and ready spirit," to hear confessions and to lead the faithful "in solemn public recitation of prayers to Jesus in the Sacrament." The faithful are likewise exhorted "to give open witness of faith and veneration for the Blessed Sacrament" as proposed in such acts as Eucharistic procession and adoration, and Eucharistic and spiritual communion."
# posted by Jamie : 8:47 AM
Wednesday, January 05, 2005
Jean Danielou, who spearheaded the Catholic ressourcement movement of patristic scholarship in the mid to late twentieth century, is a true master of the patristic mind, with the added advantage that he has even their least accessible works at his literary fingertips. Here he has stooped to give us a compendium of patristic angelology, in a form that is both popular and scolarly acute. Medieval speculation about the metaphysical natures of angels gave way long ago to modern skepticm of their very existence, which has more recently given way to a postmodern fanciful obsession with them, an obsession which is unfortunately now unhinged from any foundation in the theological tradition which gave us angelology in the first place.
Danielou submerges us in the first Christian reflections on God's heavenly hosts, beginning in the pages of Scripture itself and stretching through the fifth century (with a chronological exemption given to our good friend Denys, for obvious reasons), reflection which focuses not on their natures but rather on their salvific mission to man, a topic far more robust and theologically satisfying.
Danielou's chapters on the angelic activity of the Old Covenant and of the pagan nations were most interesting, if only because this activity is the most glossed over by post-patristic treatments. Most helpful is the way familiar biblical passages are interwoven with early patristic commentaries and homilies, which put the same passages in a new light. It is also stunning to see the broad and surprising amount of consensus which the Fathers were able to hold on issues related to angelology, even on matters which are of little interest to theologians today (e.g., guardian angels, the 'angels of the nations,' the role of the angels in the sacramental economy). The book has the added advantage of being short and concise, easily readable in two or three days.
# posted by Jamie : 8:06 AM
Tuesday, January 04, 2005
Over Christmas I finished my second book by Mortimer Adler, Ten Philosophical Mistakes. So I thought I would write an overly-pompous book review:
Adler, true to form, has bitten off in this work more than even he could possibly chew, much less any of us lesser mortals - to identify and conquer the noetical errors at the heart of modernism. Predictably, he has accomplished the first task far better than the latter: e.g., pinpointing nominalism as the root cause of modern evil is easier than sacking it, especially when you try to do so in less than three sentences. (And, yes, he really does seem to think he has logically disproven it in that many sentences.) Even novices like myself are bound to feel the errors in question worthy of a little more thoroughness than Adler grants them. But perhaps the process of sleuthing should be seen as Adler's primary task here (as he himself claims), and if that is the case, then he has accomplished it with ease and grace. He does not rest with the symptoms of modern relativism (either moral or dogmatic), but goes to the very heart of the matter, dissecting the way we humans think and judge in a masterful way, and better yet, demonstrating that we way these things are done simply do not mesh with relativism.
More to the point, Adler's arguments will be convincing only to the already converted; it strains the imagination to picture his keen reasoning bringing a hardened modernist to his knees. His success, I think, lies in helping his fellow classicists (like myself) to purge the last remnants of Enlightenment rationalism from the deepest corners of our minds.
The frustrating thing for me, as someone who considers himself already somewhat narrow-minded, is how Adler's can manage to be even narrower. I stumbled once, twice, thrice over trains of thought where I couldn't quite follower Adler to the end: he denies flatly that universals have any existence in reality (p. 73), categorizes mathematics as a discipline whose object is not reality but conceptual notions (p. 103), and mocks Plato for thinking happiness could be found in virtue alone, without wealth (p. 143). It's not that I necessarily disagree with Adler here (though I think I do), but that I think intelligent people can disagree on these questions and still stand apart from the 'erroneous moderns' against whom Adler rages. It is in his final chapter that the author 'shows his cards,' simultaneously revealing to me why I disagreed with him more often than I had anticipated. Finally admitting his confessional stance, Adler apologetically insists that "it is possible to be an Aristotelian without being doctrinnaire about it" (p. 96), but methinks Adler is a bit more doctrinnaire than he thinks. Still, apart from a few sticking points, Adler has done a fine job in plunging yet another dagger into the heart of a dying school of thought (if it is not already dead, at least at its font), and his book will be of enormous value to almost any reader.
# posted by Jamie : 8:14 AM