Tag: Theology

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

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Collin Kourtz
Dominicana

God is Not Far From Us

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Pause for a minute and consider God.

Where does your mind take you? 

I think for most of us the mind goes outward. We imagine God somewhere way out there beyond the stars and outer limits of the cosmos. From his seat faraway, he admires all he has made, and if we’re lucky, he might even look upon one of us with his favor. 

This perspective is problematic.

First, God does not have a body; he is therefore not “in a place” or “far away.” “Where” is he then? Everywhere. Saint Paul teaches, “He is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’” (Acts 17:27b-28a). I am because God is. Those things that are deepest in me—my life, my ability to will this or that, my very existence—are caused at all times and in all places by God’s innermost presence (cf. Thomas Aquinas, ST I, q. 8, a. 1). The hand holding a cup of coffee four feet from the ground is like God holding me in being. His “right hand holds me fast” (Ps 63:9 Grail), and he does not let go. “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” (Ps 139:7-8). Wherever I am, there God is. Reason alone can even lead us to this awesome conclusion.

Beyond reason’s ambit, however, there lies a yet more profound truth about God’s nearness to the human soul. The Son reveals this truth: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23). The Son reveals that God is a communion of Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who dwell together in perfect unity (cf. John 10:30). The Son reveals that God has invited us to share in this communion. The Son reveals that our sharing in this communion is made possible by God dwelling in our souls. When the soul is in a state of grace, God is inwardly present not only as sustainer and mover, but as light and fire making us capable of divine knowledge and love (Thomas Aquinas, ST I, q. 43., a. 3). The Father sends his Son, “the light of men” (John 1:4), to illuminate our minds with the truth of God. The Father and the Son send the Holy Spirit to enflame our hearts with the love of God (Rom 5:5; cf. John 14:16). And where the Son and the Spirit are, there too is the Father. The body becomes a temple for the Triune God (1 Cor 6:19). 

It is not altogether wrong for the mind to go outward in contemplating God. God is wholly other. An infinite gap separates the Creator and the creature. My existence (the entire world’s existence!) is not necessary. God, on the other hand, is his own existence and he necessarily is: “I am who I am” (Ex 3:14). But precisely because of God’s supreme transcendence, he is most inwardly in all that is. The Christian at prayer contemplates a truth yet more marvelous. Gazing inwardly not to consider himself but to consider God, he might pray, 

O my God, Trinity whom I adore, help me to forget myself entirely that I may be established in you as still and as peaceful as if my soul were already in eternity. 

May nothing trouble my peace or make me leave You, O my Unchanging One, but may each minute carry me further into the depths of Your Mystery. 

Give peace to my soul; make it Your Heaven, Your beloved dwelling and Your resting place. May I never leave You there alone but be wholly present, my faith wholly vigilant, wholly adoring, and wholly surrendered to Your creative Action

(Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity, Prayer to the Holy Trinity).

Image: Anna Ancher, Evening Prayer (Wikimedia Commons)

Originally posted on Dominicana Journal

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Dominicana

The Virtue of Religion and the Pandemic

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All of us experienced how the pandemic brought life to a halt last spring in a way that normalized what seemed unfathomable only a few weeks beforehand. For Catholics, among what became “normalized” was the dispensation from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass in order to slow the spread of the disease. Even now, things have not in many places returned to what they were pre-pandemic, and I imagine, given some of what I have read and conversations that I’ve had, that this must be a little confusing. How can Sunday Mass be dispensed from, unlike most moral obligations, if religious worship is so important?

Current societal tendencies that treat religion as superfluous to civic virtue make this even more confusing. The increasingly secular nature of Western societies has tried to affirm more and more strongly that “essential” life can get along without religious worship. Correspondingly, our governments have seen fit to suspend it as if it were any ordinary, potential COVID-superspreading-event.

The mistake is to see the obligation of religious worship as arbitrary—that is, seeing it as something that is only commanded—rather than seeing it as a way to give to God what is his due. This is similar to the way that we give other human beings their due through justice. Recall that morality is about happiness—human flourishing. To say, for instance, that you ought to act justly is to say that if you want to be happy then you need to act justly. You cannot fail to want to be happy, and so neglecting to act justly leads inevitably to deep, inner frustration. You’re obliged to act justly because God, by creating you with a certain nature that inextricably links acting justly to your being happy, has incorporated you into his governance that orders all creation to manifest his goodness.

Before moving on to religious worship, consider, for a moment, why acting justly is necessary for happiness with the following example. While walking outside one Saturday morning with a coffee in one hand and your eyes glued to the Summa Theologiae in the other, you crash through a sliding glass door. You then hire someone to replace the door with the agreement that you pay him $2,000. By replacing the door, the contractor gives you something of his own: his skilled labor. It’s up to you to make things equal again by compensating him for his work. If you don’t come through with the payment, you fail to relate to him properly. Yet because a human being is a social animal, you cannot flourish as a human being if you do not relate to other human beings and the broader society correctly. Paying him isn’t just about what he is owed; it’s also about who you are in relation to others.

When we consider religion as a virtue, we categorize it as a potential part of justice. Religion is a potential part of justice because, while it is similar to justice in most respects, it’s missing something. Through justice one renders to another what is due to him to establish equality. Through religion you render a debt to God for creating you, but you cannot reestablish equality like you did with the person who replaced your door. Nothing you give to God can equal what he has given to you.

Instead, it is sufficient to do what you can. Interiorly, you express religion through devotion and prayer. Devotion—the heart of religion—is the will to give yourself readily to what pertains to the service of God. Through prayer, you express your dependence on God by asking from him what you need.

We also express our devotion and prayers exteriorly through the exterior acts of religion. Not only are exterior acts signs for what is in the heart, but they also excite our hearts so that our devotion is more fervent (ST II-II, q. 81, a.7). One important exterior act is sacrifice. An exterior sacrifice expresses the interior sacrifice of the heart (Ps 51:18-19) where we hand over our souls to God and acknowledge him as our ultimate source of life and happiness (ST, II-II, q. 85, a. 2, corp.). God himself has taught us how to worship him properly and has provided for us through Christ’s sacrificial offering on the cross, which we offer to God through the Mass. He has positively commanded us to worship him in this way.

With all of that being said, religion is part and parcel of an integral human life, and without it that life would become shallow. Worship—both interior and exterior—is necessary for us to express our subordination to and dependence on God in everything. We need it to relate to God properly. It is necessary for us to do this through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, that supreme form of worship God has provided for us. It is necessary for us to observe the Lord’s Day, in keeping with Divine Law, to remind us that our final rest is in God. The bishops relaxed part of the Church’s discipline that regulates how these were observed for a time on account of a public emergency, but they never pretended to do away with our inextricable need for public worship.

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

Originally posted on Dominicana Journal

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Dominicana

Why the Chair of Saint Peter Will Never Break

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

Few experiences are as unexpectedly unnerving—and embarrassing—as settling yourself into a chair only to have it buckle and break, dropping you flailing on the floor. Chairs are supposed to be secure and trustworthy, things that hold us up and protect us. Most chairs will eventually fail; one won’t. Today we celebrate that sturdiest of chairs, the Chair of St. Peter.

While the physical Chair of St. Peter, magnificently encased in bronze by Bernini, has proved surprisingly durable for a sixth-century piece of wooden furniture, the spiritual stability it represents is eternally rock solid. The pope’s teaching authority is a gift Christ gives to the Church which, like a good chair, gives stability and security to our faith. 

What prevents the pope’s chair from collapsing, however, is not bronze, but the true rock: “And the rock was Christ” (1 Cor 10:4). Jesus Christ is the true foundation of the Church’s faith, “a stone that has been tested, a precious cornerstone as a sure foundation; whoever puts faith in it will not waver” (Isa 28:16). Peter’s office calls out to us “Come to him, a living stone, rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God” (1 Pet 2:4). Peter became a rock of faith because he first came to that living stone. 

But Peter wasn’t always so solid or stable. His faith had to be compacted and molded and then reinforced. When Peter stepped out of his boat to join Jesus walking on the water, the waves of disbelief beat down his weak faith. Yet he knew to call out to the one who could steady him, grasp his hand, and set his feet on solid ground (Matt 14:22–33). 

Before his Passion, Jesus told Peter “Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31–32). When Jesus prayed that Peter’s faith would arise from the ashes of his denial and reinforce the faith of the Church, the Lord assured us he would accomplish it. Jesus promised to make the shifting sands of Peter’s faith into a solid bedrock for the Church. 

That promise of Christ holds good for all the popes from Peter to Francis. Their ability to steady the faith of others doesn’t depend on the strength of their own wisdom but on the word of Christ. Even if the chair seems to wobble—as during the Renaissance, for example—the office of the pope has never given way to error about God. We see this exemplified in the life of Peter, the first pope. He could fortify his brothers because he didn’t just follow what he wanted or thought right. Instead, he was open to being led where he did not initially want to go, stretching out his hands to be led by Christ (John 21:15–19). Saved from the waters of doubt and disbelief he can reach out his own hand to strengthen his brothers and secure their faith. Regardless of who is pope, it is Christ who stretches out the pope’s hand to draw us to know and love God.

Dominican priest and theologian Father Antonin Gilbert Sertillanges once wrote, “Towards Rome ever goes the road of the heart and the mind; it can always be traversed; the true faithful traverse it daily.” We go to Peter to find Christ. He leads us to know and believe in him, not as the world thinks of him—“Who do men say that the Son of man is?” (Matt 16:13)—but as he really is. This is why we celebrate Peter’s chair. We don’t have to fear the embarrassment of this chair collapsing beneath the weight of confused ideologies and worldly distortions. When our hearts and minds traverse the way to Rome, they can settle down secure.

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

Originally posted on Dominicana Journal

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