Author: Collin Kourtz

Dominicana

What is Joy?

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Collin Kourtz

2022 Summer Reading Recommendations
Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, by C.S. Lewis

Joy—What is it? Is it different from happiness, contentment, or pleasure? C.S. Lewis proposes in his autobiography a very particular definition of “Joy” that sets it apart from the others. For Lewis, Joy is an insatiable desire that comes unexpectedly and wounds the heart: something akin to Saint Augustine’s restlessness. Joy can feel much like sorrow, except that those who have tasted Joy will want, more than anything, to be struck by it again. Lewis writes Surprised by Joy in his fifties. He covers his life from childhood to his conversion in his early thirties, and Joy—Joy in his strict sense—is the pervading theme, the golden thread that connects the whole story.

He describes in comic detail characters such as Oldie, Smugy (pronounced “Smewgy”), and Fribble, whose personalities are nearly as interesting as their nicknames. He writes at length about his tutor Mr. Kirkpatrick, dubbed The Great Knock, who was “almost wholly logical” and helped prepare Lewis for the academic career he would eventually pursue. Lewis recalls that, though Kirk was an atheist, he always gardened in his best suit on Sundays. Musing on this oddity, Lewis opines, “An Ulster Scot may come to disbelieve in God, but not to wear his week-day clothes on the Sabbath.” Religious or not, Kirk is the only person for whom an entire chapter is named, and Lewis recognizes how much he owes to this bizarre educator.

Books feature prominently in this autobiography. After all, Lewis was a literature professor by trade and, as we see quickly, a bibliophile by nature. From childhood, good reading was one of the triggers that elicited Joy. He recalls vividly one October evening when he went to Leatherhead to get a haircut and buy a book. He bought Phantasies, a faerie Romance by George MacDonald, and, according to his own testimony, that book irreversibly affected his life. It caused a stab of Joy like none he had felt before, and it helped spur his conversion.

Later, describing the period when Christianity seemed to be invading his world on all sides, Lewis explains how he thought of Christ as the “transcendental Interferer” and expresses the dismay he felt when he realized that so many authors he revered—Plato, Dante, MacDonald, Herbert, Barfield, Tolkien, and Dyson—were urging him toward Christianity. He warns, “A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.” As we have seen, even fairytales point to God.

Good friendships point to God too. A neighbor Lewis did not know well, Arthur, was sick when Lewis came to visit him and noticed on his nightstand a book that he cherished dearly. He describes the wonderful discovery of their mutual interest saying, “Next moment the book was in our hands, our heads were bent close together, we were pointing, quoting, talking—soon almost shouting—discovering in a torrent of questions that we liked not only the same thing, but the same parts of it and in the same way; that both knew the stab of Joy.” It turns out that Joy is not only a pointer to some Other, but it also unites those who have suffered its blows.

For anyone who has enjoyed Lewis’s fiction or apologetic writings, I heartily recommend that you allow this master storyteller to tell you his own story. Unsurprisingly, he tells it with all the same wit, perceptiveness, and clarity that characterize his other books. For anyone who has felt Joy, like the young Lewis and Arthur, consider reading Surprised by Joy and hearing firsthand how this deep yearning drew “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” to Christ.

Photo by Prateek Katyal on Unsplash

Originally posted in the Dominicana Journal.

ckourtz
Collin Kourtz
Dominicana

Surprised by Playfulness

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Collin Kourtz

Saint Dominic was an austere man. He traveled barefoot, slept on the hard ground, and often fasted on bread and water. This self-denial gave St. Dominic credibility among the townspeople of his time, who were disillusioned with the decadence of the clergy and attracted to the severity of the Waldensian and Cathar heretics. Given his austerity, one might assume that St. Dominic was sour-faced and unpleasant to be around. But this could not be further from the truth! 

A contemporary biographer, Blessed Cecilia Cesarini, recounts that St. Dominic “was always joyous and cheerful, except when moved to compassion at anyone’s sorrows” (Lives of the Brethren, 3.14). Another biographer, Blessed Jordan of Saxony, recalls that St. Dominic’s “cheerfulness is what enabled him so easily to win everyone’s affection,” and that “none was more affable, none more pleasant to his brethren or associates” (Libellus, 104).

One evening, when St. Dominic was preaching to a group of Dominican nuns in Rome, Satan himself interrupted the sermon. Having taken on the bodily appearance of a sparrow, the devil fluttered around the church and hopped on the nuns’ heads to distract them. Sensing that his audience’s attention was wandering, how did St. Dominic react? Not with anger or alarm, but with playfulness!

After asking a nun to catch the devil-sparrow, St. Dominic received it from her, identified it as the devil, and (no doubt with a mischievous grin) began to dramatically pluck its feathers, evoking much laughter from the friars and nuns present. Then, to the delight of his audience, St. Dominic took the devil-bird and chucked it out the window, calling theatrically after it: “Fly now if you can, enemy of mankind!” The chuckling nuns then listened once more to the sermon, their attention restored by what Bl. Cecilia called the “laughter-stirring miracle” (Lives of the Brethren, 3.10).

As the devil-sparrow incident illustrates, St. Dominic was a playful man. This playfulness made St. Dominic an effective preacher. He instinctively mastered Cicero’s maxim that “when the audience is weary, it will be useful for the speaker to try something novel or amusing” (quoted in ST II-II q. 168, a. 2, ad 1).

Likewise, St. Dominic’s playfulness brought useful refreshment to his fellow religious. Play and mirth relieve the mental weariness that accompanies the mind’s focus on higher things, refreshing the interior senses so they can be used again in prayer or study (ST II-II q. 168, a. 2). This refreshment is especially necessary for people who hope to persevere in sustained contemplative work—people like friars and nuns.

How weary must the friars and nuns have been on the evening of the “laughter-stirring miracle”! Tired from their studies and prayers, disturbed by seeing the devil-sparrow, perhaps grumbling that the Franciscans probably had better pest control, how many discouraging thoughts must have crossed their mind—until St. Dominic moved them to laughter!

Compare this liberating refreshment with the stifling effect of a boorish man on others. The boorish man, who offers no playful speech to others and actively hinders others from being moderately playful themselves, is burdensome to everyone he spends time with (ST II-II q. 168, a. 4). 

Like the Waldensians and Cathars of St. Dominic’s time, boors might offer a “greater outward show of piety” (Lives of the Brethren, 5.12), but they make for impatient teachers and community members, unable to bear or relieve the weariness of their hearers and brethren. In contrast, as St. Dominic shows us, true austerity is compatible with playfulness (ST II-II q. 168, a. 4, ad 3). One goes hand in hand with the other. 

Amid widespread clerical scandal in our time, we certainly ought to ask St. Dominic to teach us austerity—to help us pluck our hearts clean of sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust. Perhaps less obviously, in an age of distracting tweets and bitter moralism, we also ought to ask St. Dominic to teach us playfulness, so that we might seize the attention of scattered minds and refresh our weary brethren.

Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. (used with permission)

Originally posted in the Dominicana Journal

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Collin Kourtz
Dominicana

Soulful Songs for Sunny Days

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Collin Kourtz

Summer is now roughly half way through. We’ve celebrated the Fourth of July. We’ve likely enjoyed our day at the beach or our family vacation. Students can feel the last weeks before school slipping through their fingers, and, although the season and the heat will linger nearly until September ends, we have now entered a quieter, more reflective period of our summer. It is in the spirit of a quiet summer evening that I offer this musical recommendation.

Though it’s been over a decade since the release of Jon Foreman’s EP Summer (an EP or “extended play” is a musical release that is shorter than a full album), his songwriting has lost none of its poignancy and depth. This six-song EP is part of a larger four-EP project, with an EP dedicated to each of the seasons. The other EPs are also filled with gems, especially Fall which was released first, but I offer Summer for your consideration because I think Foreman admirably captures both the energy and the peace of a summer evening.

The EP opens with “A Mirror Is Harder to Hold,” the pleadings of a lover who has looked in the mirror and come face to face with hard truths about himself. He’s been full of himself. He’d much rather hold his beloved than this image of himself. The songwriting is excellent, and the subdued mariachi-style horns and soft backing vocals draw the piece together with a wry sad smile.

The following song, “Resurrect Me,” is a rollicking acoustic jam that demands new life from God. It features some slide guitar work that recalls George Harrison’s sitar playing on The Beatles’ Revolver album—it’s impossible not to start bobbing along. And the chorus contains a plea that we all surely cry out with the same insistence at different points in our lives: “I’ve become an empty shell / of a man I don’t like so well / I am a living breathing hell / Come on and resurrect me!”

In “Deep In Your Eyes (There is a River),” Foreman suggests that the drive for ultimate fulfillment in God can be seen in all of the people we meet—even when they themselves have not yet fully realized it. Musically it is a lovely piece, with a nice cello accompaniment, although it features neither the lyrical sharpness of the first two tracks nor the unique use of Scripture found on the final three songs on the EP.

The fourth track, “Instead of a Show,” is a bit aggressive. It’s a send up of a comfortable Christianity that can be quite common in contemporary America. Listening to it, the song could almost sound like it came from a radical critic of the Church and we might feel offended. But almost the entire song is lifted directly from Sacred Scripture. The bulk comes from the prophet Amos’s condemnation of a corrupt Israel’s worship (Amos 5:21-24). The second verse, while not a verbatim quotation of Scripture, is clearly inspired by Isaiah 1:15, which condemns the kingdom of Judah for the same behavior. The blow is softened ever so slightly in the bridge by the suggestion from Isaiah 1:18 that healing and forgiveness are indeed possible, but the call for repentance and justice remains.

The fifth track is a simple rendition of a familiar passage. It is noteworthy for the way in which it captures the feeling of peace found both in that passage and in a late summer afternoon. Although the lyrics are the well-worn words of Psalm 23, Foreman’s emphasis is not on the “fields” or “valley” of our earthly journey, but rather our destination: “The House of God Forever.” 

The sixth track, “Again,” makes use of instrumentation from the Far East and is yet another beautiful prayer. I only realized that it was pulled from 1 Kings 18:36-37 after enjoying the song for several years—suddenly Elijah’s prayer for fire from heaven sounded strangely familiar! What is most striking about Foreman’s song is his expansion on the “this day” of Elijah’s prayer. In his hands, “today” is unfolded into a reflection on God’s providential presence and activity. He is “God of the present tense” and “Father of history . . . present in our human events.” And, as Foreman rightly intuits, God and none other is capable of touching and “turning our hearts back” to him. 

I hope that you will enjoy this short ode to Summer by a truly exceptional artist. The EP can nourish the reflections in your heart on these peaceful summer evenings, as we await the more lasting peace of heaven.

Photo by Susan Lloyd (CC BY 2.0)

Originally posted on Dominicana Journal on August 5, 2022.

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Collin Kourtz
Dominicana

On the Threshold of Heaven in Hawthorne

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Collin Kourtz

It is an uncomfortable yet fundamental fact that death stands at the center of Christian life. Because of Adam’s sin, we die. Because of Christ’s death, we can live forever. “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord” (Rev 14:13). The question then follows: what are we to do now to be made blessed among men at the hour of our death?

A recent summer assignment with the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne testified profoundly to the perennial Christian answer: we are to love, as we have first been loved. Founded in 1900 by Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, the daughter of American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Sisters dedicate their entire lives to caring for those who are indigent and ill with terminal cancer. They pursue a life of consecrated holiness—attending Mass, chanting the Divine Office, fulfilling convent duties—and spend the remainder of their days ministering to the physical and spiritual needs of their residents, who live in a large wing attached to the convent.

One might imagine working with those who have been dealt a certain death sentence to be a macabre experience. But the light of faith and the fire of love—which pervade Rosary Hill Home in Hawthorne, NY—instruct and impel us otherwise. The fact of the matter, oblivious though many of us be, is that we all have been dealt a certain death sentence from the moment of our conception. The human mortality rate is 100%. The charge of the Sisters, then, is to assist those whose sentence has been rendered specific and imminent: “you will die by cancer, and it will be soon,” their residents have been told. The Sisters’ vocation is thus a continual memento mori, which, because of their life in the Resurrection, is also a memento vivere (i.e. “remember [that you have] to live”): “if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him” (Rom 6:8).

For all of the physical afflictions endured by the residents at Rosary Hill, the greatest drama occurs within. Each resident must make the personal, affirmative choice to prepare him or herself for death. This always entails what is, for many, the most difficult step: admitting—usually after an odyssey of treatments and facility transfers, not to mention an often turbulent life before the diagnosis—that this really is my last stop before I meet the Lord, and it is in fact a great stop en route to an even better destination.

Assisting the residents along their via crucis are the Sisters, who act on the pattern of Veronica, the Holy Women of Jerusalem, Mary Magdalene, and of course, the Mother of God, whose name every Sister receives as part of her religious name. The deep beauty of the Sister-resident dynamic is the mutual surrender that lies at its core. On the one hand, each Sister strives to surrender daily—to die to her weakness and offer her poor, chaste, and obedient love to the Lord, and to his beloved ones in the ward. For the Sisters, this surrender is never imposed but rather desired; these women sought out and continue to seek this sacrifice and the unique intimacy with the Lord that it yields.

The surrender of the residents is different, for it comes by way of their response to an imposition. The residents are poor in health and funds, chaste by circumstance, and helplessly obedient to their mortal nature. They did not ask for the evangelical counsels, yet they have in a manner received them—albeit as a hard yoke and heavy burden. God, however, refuses to abandon them to such a fate: day after day, his merciful love flows through the labors of the Sisters and their staff—from the perpetual patient care to the scratch-off lottery prizes at Bingo, from simple human conversations to the liturgies and Eucharistic processions. Residents, in choosing to receive this love, find their once stony hearts enfleshed, and typically in the precise measure that their mortal flesh fades. They become meek and humble, and the yoke of the counsels becomes voluntary—and so easy and light. Baptism or Confession is often sought, and the soul is sustained thereafter by holy oil and heavenly bread.

In this mutual effort of sanctification—Sister ministering to resident, and resident purifying Sister—the pangs of the present age still perdure: the sacraments do not relieve pain, end suffering, or make family strife and past wounds vanish into thin air. But the sacraments in fact do more—much more. They reroute an entire life toward a heavenly horizon, redeeming all that came before Rosary Hill and super-naturalizing all that happens therein. This in turn effects an astounding peace in the midst of trial, which is the surest proof that “beating cancer” is principally a spiritual war fought on a bodily battleground, for “it is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is of no avail” (Jn 6:63). 

An arresting vocation video recently released by the Sisters asks the question, “if death is at the end of it all, why try?” Because even—indeed, especially—at death’s door, we are loved by an eternal love made cruciform, which “deep waters cannot quench” (Sgs 8:7) nor death sting (1 Cor 15:55). On this truth hangs the Sisters’ whole reason for being, which one Sister expresses in the same video: “I hope that in those last moments, they can know that they are loved.”

Only acts of love—of God’s own unquenchable divine love—can convince someone that he is loved, yes, thirsted for by the crucified Christ. Everything at Rosary Hill boils down to this. So that when the last breath comes, and now becomes the hour of death, each resident might make Christ’s last words his own: “Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit,” and so hear in reply: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Image: Screenshot from “Hawthorne Dominicans Vocation Video” (used with permission)

Originally posted on Dominicana Journal on August 2, 2022.

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Collin Kourtz
Dominicana

My Grace is Sufficient for You

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Collin Kourtz

“All of this is because a fisherman died here,” said my then friend, now fellow Dominican Brother, as we stood atop St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It is true. The fisherman from Galilee, buried 450 feet below us, was certainly not wise by human standards, powerful, nor well born. (1 Cor 1:26). He was not preserved from serious sins like Mary, John the Baptist, or John the Evangelist. This was the disciple who denied Our Lord three times (Luke 22:54–61). Nonetheless, our Lord still called Simon son of Jonah. He built his Church on him and gave him the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt 16:17–18). He told him to feed his sheep and foretold his martyrdom on the Vatican hill (John 21:15–19). This calling and the grace our Lord gave to this weak fisherman turned him into a strong fisher of men, and shepherd of souls. 

From the top of St. Peter’s we could also see another massive basilica down the Tiber. This one does not house the bones of a fisherman. Rather, it is built over the tomb of a radical first century pharisee (Phil 3:4–6). A man not even fit to be called an apostle because he persecuted the Church of God (1 Cor 15:9). A man who consented to the execution of St. Stephen (Acts 8:1) and tried to destroy the Church (Gal 1:13). Yet this man, this sinner, was chosen by God’s grace. This man was struck down on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1–9), and encountered the Risen Lord (Gal 1:12). These two men, one uneducated and ordinary (Acts 4:13), and the other an enemy of God (Rom 5:10), were reconciled to God! They became Peter, the rock on which the Church is built (Matt 16:17) and Paul, God’s chosen instrument (Acts 9:15). 

These two sinners-turned-saints are useless on their own. Peter is not the rock of his own Church; he is the rock on which Christ builds his Church. So too Paul, as a chosen instrument of grace, is nothing without someone to use the instrument, namely Christ. These two men remind us that without God we can do nothing (John 15:5). For these men are apostles only because Jesus is “the apostle and high priest of our confession” (Heb 3:1). They are bishops and shepherds only because Jesus is “the shepherd and bishop of our souls” (1 Pet 2:25). 

Despite their sins, despite their mediocrity, God did amazing things with these two men. God made them like Jesus. God used their suffering to “fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church”(Col 1:24). He made them a spectacle to the world, being hungry and thirsty, naked, roughly treated, homeless, and toiling (1 Cor 4:11–12). He made them like Jesus who had nowhere to rest his head (Matt 8:20). God took these men and conformed them to Jesus Christ, using them to bring his gospel to the ends of the earth (Ps 19:4). This conformity to Jesus went deep; he even gave Paul his marks on his body (Gal 6:17).

In the end this transformation, begun on the beach in Galilee and on the road to Damascus, ended in Rome. Peter was so configured to the cross of Christ, that he, like the savior, was crucified. So too Paul was executed in the same city by beheading. However, their martyrdom was not merely the result of their work in the Lord’s vineyard. The grace of final perseverance was a gift, but it was not only a gift for these blessed Apostles. This final grace given to Peter and Paul extends to you and me! The same grace God used to save them, he now uses through them to save us. So that just as their voices went out through all the world in their earthly life, their prayers in heaven now bring us the graces of Jesus Christ!

Tomorrow the Church celebrates the principal feast of these heavenly patrons. Let us turn to them as our fathers and sources of Sacred Scripture and the Tradition of the Church. But more than that, let us turn to them because they are reigning in heaven! The rock still supports the Church, and the chosen instrument still intercedes for men. 

Photo by David Iliff (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Originally posted on Dominicana Journal on June 28, 2022

ckourtz
Collin Kourtz