Category Archives: Patristic Voices

Gregory the Great: Living a New Life in Christ

By Thomas Palanza, Jr.

“‘Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets.’  When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish and their nets were tearing…  When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, ‘Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man…’  Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.’  When they brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed him” (Luke 5:1-11).

What makes this Gospel passage a fitting choice for today, the feast of Gregory the Great, is not so much the connection between the apostles and bishops, but the universal Christian experience of starting a new life in Christ.  It has been a theme lately in the daily and Sunday readings.  It is a prominent theme in Gregory’s life.  Asked to be pope despite wanting to live a quiet, monastic life, Gregory trusted that Christ would support him in his new role – one he often felt unable to perform well, “So who am I to be a watchman, for I do not stand on the mountain of action but lie down in the valley of weakness?  Truly the all-powerful Creator and Redeemer of mankind can give me in spite of my weaknesses a higher life and effective speech; because I love him, I do not spare myself in speaking of him” (Office of Readings, Sept. 3).

While not all of us are called to be pope, we are all still called to a new life in Christ, to be “a kind of firstfruits of creation” (James 1:17-18).  This new life is beyond our ability to live alone, just as it was beyond the ability of the apostles to catch fish and beyond Gregory to be pope.  Taking on this new life is frightening.  To catch fish, the apostles must go out into the deep water; to be pope, Gregory had to leave his monastic life that he lived so well; to be Christians, we too must leave behind our own shallow waters and familiar surroundings.  We know we are living Christianity well when we are uncomfortable (see the Beatitudes).

Yet, even in the unknown, there is the familiar.  This is because a new life with Christ is not absolutely unlike our old life.  True enough, leaving behind our old life is difficult and painful – a necessary transformation that is well documented in the recent Old Testament readings – but the conversion is not without carryover.  Thus, the apostles are called to be fishermen still, yet now fishers of people.  Jesus does not just ask us to live a new life completely unknown to us, but, even more extraordinary, shows us that the life we think we know so well is actually far deeper and more mysterious than we imagine.  Our challenge as Christians is not to be other worldly people, living a life that is disconnected from the life of others, but a people that can see the otherness in the world, a people that is aware of the presence of abiding, living, breathing grace.  That was the struggle Gregory had, to see Christ in the world.  It is not an easy task.  It requires us, just as the apostles and Gregory, to be overwhelmed by Christ, to be completely out of our league, to be totally dependent on someone else for our success, to love as Christ loves.  Oh what a love that must be, to be overwhelmed even by death and yet have a love deep enough to win out over it!

Smooth Transitions: Teresa of Avila’s Focus on Prayer

Teresa of Avila

By Thomas Palanza, Jr.

Have you ever heard about people who give birth to babies in bathtubs – on purpose?  What’s up with that?  The American Pregnancy Association describes water births as occurring in large tubs of warm water, carefully supervised by qualified healthcare providers.  “The theory behind water birth is that since the baby has already been in the amniotic fluid sac for nine months, birthing into a similar environment is gentler for the baby and less stressful for the mother.”  Well, that seems like a fair thought to me.  But I’ll leave it to my doctor friends to argue about the benefits and risks of water births; it was the idea of making the transition from one stage of life to another smoother, easier, more familiar that interested me.  For a theology student (or maybe just for me) the transition INTO the world almost always makes you think of the transition OUT of it as well.  Smooth births got me thinking about smooth deaths.

This is what I was thinking about during class the other day.  We were talking about The Way of Perfection by Teresa of Avila when, towards the end of class, our professor asked us, “So, why talk about prayer so much at all?  Why does it matter?  What is this discussion of prayer doing for the reader besides just learning how to pray?  What does learning how to pray serve?”  My answer (and that’s just the opinion of a casual Teresa reader) is that learning how to pray helps with the transition from one stage of life to another, from life through death to eternal life. Continue reading Smooth Transitions: Teresa of Avila’s Focus on Prayer

I’m a Doctor !

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By Matt Keppel

“Dammit Jim, I’m a Doctor!” It’s quick, simple, and absolutely classic. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, go watch some Star Trek with the original cast – yeah, I know there’s names for these things, but I’m not going to bely my utter nerdiness… yet. But what does it mean? In all the crazy adventures that Captain Kirk and the USS Enterprise encounter, Dr. McCoy, the ship’s surgeon, gets thrown into all sorts of situations that have nothing to do with being a doctor, but somehow he is the perfect person to save the day. Ultimately, Spock and Kirk come to McCoy to address the strange and unusual more often than not.

If you have ever worked for the Church, in any capacity, you know exactly where I’m going here. There are few other organizations that run entirely on the versatility of their employees like the Catholic Church. Myself, I have worked as a teacher and volunteered in youth ministry, but functioned as a graphic designer, carpool monitor, after-school babysitter, copy jockey, and IT specialist on top of being a math and religion teacher – my degree is in philosophy and theology. Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying, this is not a complaint! I love going to work and not knowing quite what will be asked of me each day. I consider it a wonderful part of the adventure of working in the Church. However, what I am asking for is patience… I think we all are actually.

Continue reading I’m a Doctor !

Things Medievals Say: Hope in the Cross

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From the reading of Javier Soegaard:

Now is there hope of life for me, that I am permitted to seek the tree of triumph…For it my heart’s desire is great, and my hope of protection is directed to the Cross.  I do not possess many powerful friends on earth; they have gone hence from the delights of the world, sought for themselves the King of Glory.  

They live now in the heavens with the High Father, dwelling in glory. And every day I look forward to when the Lord’s Cross that I beheld here on earth will fetch me from this short life and bring me then where joy is great, where the Lord’s folk are seated at the feast, where bliss is eternal…

May the Lord be friend, who once here on earth suffered on the gallows-tree for our sins:  he freed us and granted us life, a heavenly home.

-From “The Dream of the Rood” ca. 8th-10th Century

God is Love – Which Means?

god is love - Google Search

By Tom Palanza, Jr.

It’s such a familiar phrase, isn’t it: “God is love.”  I hardly ever seriously think about what it means anymore.  “It means God is love,” I say to myself, as if – a priori – I know what “God” means and I know what ”love” means, so I must also know what “God is love” means.  I use the phrase in “light” conversation with people and in my “heavy” school work.  It is one of those fundamental ideas you use all the time to develop more ideas.  It’s good that the phrase is a familiar one – you wouldn’t want people not to know God is love – but it’s also important to realize that the phrase is not self-explanatory since we cannot fully define either of it’s terms!  This phrase requires contemplation.

You might say that we know what love is.  There are the classic Greek words for love, the dictionary definition of love, and your own experiences of love that have shaped the meaning of the word for you.  But, if we take the passage of 1 John 4:7-21 seriously, then it seems to me that love becomes something very difficult to define.  In fact, it becomes tied up in the very being of God – which is not exactly something you could define during over espresso and biscotti (although I can’t think of a better way to attempt it)!

Continue reading God is Love – Which Means?

“The Old that is Strong does not Wither…” Wisdom from Ignatius of Antioch

Ignatius of Antioch

By Tom Palanza, Jr.

Perhaps I seemed critical of the “Francis Movement” in my recent post?  I was, in fact, trying to look at it through a critical lens, but I do think that Francis is doing things well.  It also seems to me that, far from doing new things, he is actually doing Christianity like the early Church did it.  While praying the Office of Readings a few Fridays ago, I was surprised at how closely the pope’s agenda reflected the advice that Ignatius of Antioch gave to Polycarp back at the turn of the first to second century.  I’ve included Ignatius’ letter as it appears in the Office below.  While reading it, look for similarities between Ignatius and Francis and also look at how Ignatius blends spiritual and temporal needs, concerns, methods, and goals.  Does the combination seem odd to you?  How would you present Ignatius’ advice to people today?  Is that what Francis is doing?

            Ignatius, also called Theophorus, to Polycarp, who is bishop of the Chruch of Smyrna, or rather who has for his bishop God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, greetings and all good wishes.

Recognizing your devotion to God, firmly built as if upon a solid rock, I am full of thanksgiving to Him for allowing me to see your blessed countenance – may I forever enjoy the sight of it in God!  I beseech you by the grace with which you are endowed to press forward on your course and to exhort all people to salvation.  Justify your episcopal dignity by your unceasing concern for the spiritual and temporal welfare of your flock; let unity, the greatest of all goods, be your preoccupation.  Carry the burdens of all people as the Lord carries yours; have patience with all in charity, as indeed you do.  Give yourself to prayer continually; ask for wisdom greater than you now have, keep alert with an unflagging spirit.  Speak to each person individually, following God’s example; bear the infirmities of all, like a perfect athlete of God.  The greater the toil, the richer the reward.

If you love only your good disciples, you gain no merit; rather you must win over the more troublesome of them by kindness.  The same salve does not heal all wounds; convulsions should be allayed with poultices.  Be prudent as the serpent in all things and innocent as the dove always.  You are both body and soul; treat gently the manifestations of human fault, even as you pray for the knowledge of things invisible, and then you will lack nothing but abound in every blessing.  Do as the circumstances require, like the pilot looking to the wind and the storm-tossed sailor to the harbor, that you may win your way to God with your people.  Exercise self-discipline, for you are God’s athlete; the prize is immortality and eternal life, as you know full well.  In everything I am your devoted friend – I and my chains, which you have kissed.

Do not be overwhelmed by those who seem trustworthy and yet teach heresy.  Remain firm, like tha anvil under the hammer.  The good athlete must take punishment in order to win.  And above all we must bear with everything for God, so that he in turn may bear with us.  Increase your zeal.  Read the signs of the times.  Look for him who is outside time, the eternal one, the unseen, who became visible for us; he cannot be touched and cannot suffer, yet he became subject to suffering and endured so much for our sake.

Do not neglect widows; after the Lord, it is you who must be their guardian.  Nothing must be done without your approval, and you must do nothing without God’s approval, as indeed is the case; stand firm.  Services should be held often; seek out everyone by name.  Do not look down upon slaves, whether men or women; yet they too should not be arrogant, but should give better service for the glory of God so as to gain from him a better freedom.  They should not be anxious for their freedom to be bought at the community’s expense, for they might then prove to be the slaves of their own desires.

Praying like a Professional: Meeting the Carmelites Carmelites

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By Thomas Palanza, Jr.

You really don’t hear much about the Carmelites, do you?  Not like Franciscans – who doesn’t know at least one person who goes around in Birkenstocks and a brown gown?  And the Archbishop of Boston is one of them too.  Then there are Dominicans: Thomas Aquinas – enough said.  And, despite being the butt end of a great many religious jokes, thousands of students a year graduate from Jesuit schools of all levels.   But Carmelites – do you know any?  Have you ever seen one?  Do you know what they do?  Still, despite a lack of popularity, they always seem to be there, somewhere, popping up every now and then out of obscurity (we had a Carmelite story on this blog not long ago).  You might have even noticed the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel a few weeks ago.  You know Carmelites are out there – unlike some other orders – but you don’t really know much about them.

The origins of the Carmelite order are not well documented, but the more or less official start of the order came around 1210 with St. Albert of Jerusalem writing the very short Rule of St. Albert for the hermits who were living together on Mount Carmel.  That would make their beginning contemporary with the other popular mendicant orders.  But the hermits chose Mount Carmel in the first place because of its ancient connection to the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 18:19-46).  It is from the example of Elijah encountering the Lord in “a light, silent sound” (1 Kings 19:9-14) that Carmelites take their charism – the Spirit of their lifestyle – prayer/contemplation.

Continue reading Praying like a Professional: Meeting the Carmelites Carmelites

Augustine and Francis on being a Shepherd

Agnus Dei - ZurbaranAgnus Dei - Zurbaran

By Tom Palanza, Jr.

Priest Matt’s last post and article about shepherd imagery and its influence on the priesthood brought to mind a passage from the Office of Readings from last Monday and a quote from Pope Francis.  The reading was from a homily by St. Augustine and the quote was from the Pope’s 2013 Chrism Mass homily.  I would like to look at how these two quotes detail the nature of ordained ministry, especially concerning the role of shepherd.

Pope Francis’ quote comes from his 2013 Chrism Mass homily.  There the pope urges priests to be shepherds “living with the ‘smell of the sheep,’ shepherds in the midst of their flock.”  The pope urges priests to the same qualities that Augustine does; especially: concern for their sheep.  The pope’s sensuous image of “smell of the sheep” makes it clear that he expects an intimate, immediate concern from pastors.  Good shepherds are close with their sheep.  The closer, more intimate you are with your sheep, the more comfortable they are with you and the more likely they will be to follow you when you call.  The closer, more intimate you are with your sheep the better you know their needs and can give them exactly what they require to flourish.  The closer, more intimate you are with your sheep the better you are able to protect them and give of yourself for their good.  Even well meaning shepherds who want to protect their sheep but do not stay close to them will not reach them in time to save them from danger.  Good shepherds know that they must be close to their sheep in order to protect them.  Ironically, it is only by doing your job well, being close to your sheep and thus closer to danger, that you risk losing your life – and then can hope to gain it. Continue reading Augustine and Francis on being a Shepherd

“Two Guys and a Bird” and Hildegard von Bingen

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Don’t lie, the Holy Spirit is your least favorite hypostasis (follow the link “person: 3” in definition 2) of the Trinity.  You might want to argue against this, but consider that last Sunday was the feast of the Trinity and the Sunday before that was Pentacost; these past few weeks are probably the most likely time of the liturgical calendar that your thoughts and prayers would be dwelling on the Spirit.  But think about the images that pop up in your mind while you recite the Nicene Creed or listen to a homily on the Trinity.

Likely you think about the Father.  You know that He doesn’t have a body, you know that He actually isn’t even a “he,” but you still probably imagine Michelangelo’s Creator God: all muscles and beard, stretching out his finger to Adam.  Well, it leaves a lot to be desired, but at least that image gets across three cataphatic traits of God: power (muscles), wisdom (a beard, or age), and life giving (look at the way the Father’s whole body is stretching out to Adam, eager to give him life).  Then you probably imagine Jesus – you might even picture Jesus before you picture the Father.  That’s understandable; Jesus is the fullest manifestation of God that humanity has ever experienced – it makes sense for your mind to jump to that.  Jesus was human (and God) and you are human (and hopefully being divinized – see the Prayer of Jesus), so you can relate to Jesus and know more about him.  Why else would we spend so much time  talking about him in the Creed?  Jesus is still a mystery, but we know at least a little about him.   Then there’s the Holy Spirit – a dove.

Continue reading “Two Guys and a Bird” and Hildegard von Bingen

They Said It: Leo the Great

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From this morning’s office of readings:

And so our Redeemer’s visible presence has passed into the sacraments. Our faith is nobler and stronger because sight has been replaced by a doctrine whose authority is accepted by believing hearts, enlightened from on high. This faith was increased by the Lord’s ascension and strengthened by the gift of the Spirit; it would remain unshaken by fetters and imprisonment, exile and hunger, fire and ravening beasts, and the most refined tortures ever devised by brutal persecutors.