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Sunday, September 25, 2011

St. Theophan the Recluse on penances in confession

Eastern Christian priests are not entirely uniform in the handing out of penances as part of the Mystery of Reconciliation.  Some whom I have known have declined the practice in an attempt to be authentically Eastern, on the grounds that penances smacks of Latin legalism, while others (including a hieromonk who translated from Orthodoxy after having been a schemamonk on Mount Athos for many years) give penances in the Latin style.  The following passage comes from one whose Orthodoxy and vostochnik credentials could never be questioned, St. Theophan the Recluse in the translation provided by Blessed Seraphim of Platina.  The source is from St. Theophan's The Path to Salvation:  A Manual of Spiritual Transformation (Platina, CA:  St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1996), p. 182.

If the spiritual father gives you a penance, accept it with joy.  If the spiritual father does not give you one, then ask him to.  This will be not only a send-off to you as you depart on your good path, but also a shield and protection from outside enemy attacks on your new way of life.  Here is what the Patriarch of Constantinople wrote in answer to the Lutherans:  "We accompany the absolution of sins with penances for many respectable reasons.  First of all, so that through voluntary suffering the sinner will be freed here from onerous involuntary punishment there, in the next life, for the Lord grants mercy to nothing more than He does suffering, especially voluntary suffering.  Therefore St. Gregory also says that God's love is granted for tears.  Secondly, it is in order to destroy in the sinner those passionate desires of the flesh which give birth to sin, for we know that opposites cure.  Thirdly, it is so that the penance would serve as a bond or bridle for the soul, and not allow it to again take up those same vices from which it is still being cleansed.  Fourthly, in order to accustom it to labor and patience, for virtue is a matter of labor.  Fifthly, it is so that we will see and know whether or not the penitent has truly come to hate sin.
The English edition references "Christian Reading, 1842, vol. 1, p. 244 [in Russian]."

This is an illuminating passage for several reasons, first and foremost that it gives five very good reasons for the giving of penance during confession, but also because it shows that the practice is not simply a Latin borrowing or inappropriate Latinization.  Finally, the first reason St. Theophan gives is illuminating regarding the Orthodox teaching on reparation for sins - the "involuntary punishment" he speaks of cannot be the permanent fires of Hell (since the sin for which the sinner would be punished is already forgiven by the Mystery of Confession), so they must be something analogous to the Latin doctrine of Purgatory.

Our holy father Theophan the Recluse, pray to God for us!

Thoughts on Hegel's Phenomenology of the Spirit

The following paragraphs contain a few thoughts or insights that came to mind reading Hegel's Phenomenology.  They do not necessarily reflect an accurate interpretation of Hegel's own thought, but rather the summary of what I was able to glean from it.  His book was difficult, and I may learn more from another reading, but for now this is what I learned from it.  

The “I”, as subject, is devoid of those personal characteristics associated with self-identity, the reflexive self, or self-as-object, the “me”.  Hegel concludes that the “I” is universal – by contrast, I conclude that the act of subjectivity is deeper than our reflexive ego, and prior to it.  Our subjectivity is transitive from us to something transpersonal and prior to even our pre-biographical unity or transcendental apperception.  The pre-biographical unity is the unity anterior to the self, while the “universality” of subjectivity points to a unity anterior to subjectivity as such.  The act of subjectivity is an act “pushing forward” from the impersonality of pure subjectivity to the reflexivity of self-awareness on through to the multiplicity of sense objects, upon which we turn back to a second reflexive understanding of the self (the first was self-consciousness, this is a truly reflexive understanding of oneself) as we process our sense-impressions through our thoughts and self-concepts.

Riding this wave of the surging act of subjectivity backwards (a paradox, since to think about something is to objectify it, and we are objectifying subjectivity qua subjectivity), we find that the pure subjectivity qua subjectivity is not only devoid of personal characteristics, but it is a surging-forth from nothingness into being.  This surging-forth, phenomenologically constituted, is the apperception of itself, that is, as the subjectivity surges forth into the cognition of things and thoughts, it apperceives the very act of apperception, and likewise there are reflective acts on a deeper level than apperception that turn back on themselves, pushing back the envelope deeper and deeper all the way to a nothingness prior to the unity of being.

This surging-forth from nothingness is the act of Creation, in theological terms, since the acts of creation and sustaining the universe are one.  The unity of this one act can be seen in the lack of individuality or the “universality” of the subjectivity qua subjectivity – though it is reflected on by many “me”s, there can be no multiplicity to the subjectivity as such, because no characteristics by which to individuate it.  There is only one “surging-forth” – one act of creation.

This is not metaphysical idealism, because we must alienate the objectivity of the outside world from our own subjectivity by positing objects separate from us, and the necessity of such an alienation implies a noumenal “surging-forth” independent of the existence of a human subject understanding or perceiving the objects.   This noumen is prime matter; it does not exist except phenomenally, but to even talk about a noumen is to talk about it as phenomenon, so it is meaningless to say that the noumen is “unknowable”.

Let us ride the wave of being forward now.  God reveals Himself by creating and by sustaining the world, and His Providence is the same as his sustaining of the world, and Hegel notes how man through his intellectual activity orders the world, imparts finality to it, elucidates it, sheds light on diversity in order bring unity and order out of chaos.  The movement is toward consciousness, consciousness OF everything in its relation to everything else.  Hegel thought this was the Absolute struggling to achieve consciousness of itself; I say it is God revealing Himself through the Book of Nature.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

That the material cause of evil is a bad sense of humor, with an illustration from Chesterton

Incongruity is the essence of humor; contradiction is the essence of evil.  The formal cause of evil is the contingent being rejecting its contingency.  It is humorous to joke about wanting to kill your mother-in-law; it is evil to actually do so.  Rudeness and insults are quite often funny when intended as a joke/teasing, but become mean when taken seriously. The incongruity of sex in certain situations forms the material for dirty jokes; yet to take such seriously is called fornication.  (Likewise, to take sexual pleasure from such jokes of a sexual nature – and not just that pleasure of incongruity – is fornication of the heart.)

To take an example, Sunday in G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday is an “anarchist” leader, yet in an entirely playful manner.  It is Gregory who takes it seriously, and who is the evil one.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Four General Attitudes on Sexuality

I am currently finishing my tour of Blessed John Paul II's trilogy on the Theology of the Body (an aesthetic presentation - The Jeweler's Shop, a philosophical treatise - Love and Responsibility, and his systematic theological presenation, The Theology of the Body).  It will take a while to finish, as I am slowly relishing the book by reading it aloud to my sweetheart instead of zipping through it in one sitting, yet for this post I will take the lead from this blog's patron figurehead, Chesterton, and like most authors write about something that I know nothing about, an unmarried continent man in the middle of reading the classic work on the subject.

What struck me as I was contemplating the subject is that the body is indeed an ethical and philosophical "problem".  Humanity's discomfort with the body has been expressed in a huge variety of extremes in its relationship to it, ranging from stark body- and world-denying ascetism (some Buddhist monastic rules forbid monks to even come within a certain distance of women, for example, like the "six-inch" rule preached though not always practiced by some fundamentalist Protestant sects, and Buddhist asceticism is mild compared to many forms of Hindu practice) to unrestrained libertinism.  The discomfort with the body is not restricted to religious considerations; the ancient Greeks often despised the body for philosophical reasons, either regarding it as a prison of the soul (as with Plato) or as a dangerous threat to man's tranquility (as with the Epicureans, especially Lucretius).  Nor was Victorian prudery particularly religious, and today's modern excesses in favor of promiscuity and unbridled lust are not religious either, though they also demonstrate a discomfort and self-consciousness with the body expressed in an obsession with sexuality (fifty minutes inside a college literature class will reveal this one quickly) and a frenetic search for an always evasive sexual panacea for all man's unease and disquiet.

It seems that mankind's reaction to the sexual problem can be divided into four basic attitudes we tend to fall back on.  One of them, which I will summarize last, is expressed by the theology of the body, the body viewed in the light of its nuptial meaning made even more clear to us by Divine Revelation; two of them are nothing short of despicable, and one of them has a veneer of piety and widespread adherence among modern Catholics, but is ultimately no less wicked than the others.

First there are the libertines, who view sex only as a dirty pleasure which everyone does, and which nobody should stop themselves from doing.  This is the legacy of the "sexual revolution", and it is a despicable cheapening of such a wondrous mystery as erotic love.  As this is only a blog post, this attitude does not deserve the space and time for further consideration.

Secondly, there are the Puritans, both religious and non-religious.  The Puritans are the Manichaeans and Zoroastrians who regarded the body as the creation of an evil deity, the Gnostics who regarded it as a fall from true spirituality, the Docetists who could not conceive of an Incarnate God, the historical Puritans who made it a crime (in Hartford, Conn.) for a man to kiss his wife in public on Sunday lest the Lord’s Day be profaned by public lasciviousness, and also unfortunately the attitude taken by many monastic and patristic spiritual writers who were tainted with a sort of angelism – regarding perfection as incompatible with the married state, or (with St. Gregory of Nyssa) believing sexual differentiation to be a second-best state, one God created in foresight of the Fall though He would have really rather made us propagate mentally, like angels.  This is an equally despicable view, to which I will give no further consideration.  Unfortunately, it still pervades some aspects of our culture - in many places one cannot purchase alcohol on Sundays. 

Third, there are the traditionalist Catholics and Russian Orthodox, who reverse this, and while the Protestants abstain from defiling the Sabbath with carnal pleasures, traditional Catholics and Orthodox honor the Lord’s Day with great celebration, both by feasting and by going hard at work in propagating their kind.  And yet such married couples will still practice periodic abstinence as a form of ascesis - in Russia for example it is traditionally forbidden to make love during Lent.  This is no less wrongheaded than the previous form of Puritanism, and in the end just as wicked an attitude, but for a slightly different reason.  We as Catholics do not abstain from the world because it is evil, but rather because it is good - but we give up the lesser good of innocent pleasures for the greater good of our soul, which is a personal good (we ourselves are ends rather than means, and therefore making our own substance or being good is more important than pursuing pleasures which are only means for other ends).  The fact that marriage is a joyful state does not justify reducing it to only an innocent pleasure like food and drink, and what distinguishes it is even more fundamental than its sacramental character – it is the interpersonal character of love, the mutual and total self-giving (and, therefore, the dying to self) involved that makes one’s love for one’s wife different than his love for a cold beer, and consequently why one cannot fast from one’s wife the same way one fasts from a cold beer, as if your wife was just another licit pleasure object.  This is especially problematic when such "ascesis" introduces an element of hypocrisy.  When NFP is used for contraceptive purposes, the husband fasts from the pleasure-object he is married to only when and precisely in view of when making love to her would be fruitful, all the time vaunting his “asceticism” and congratulating himself for achieving the same end as a mortal sin, the only difference being that he does so without taking a pill so "unnaturally" manufactured in a factory.  When the intention is contraceptive (and the method, according to its proponents, 99% effective), one is only deluding himself or engaging in the most meaningless sophistry by pretending to still be "open to life".  This is a contraception more pernicious, more double-tongued, more two-sidedly and blatantly wicked than any medical technique that at least has the honesty to admit that it is not in fact open to life, and while the full force of the Church's critique of contraceptives for their objectification of one's sexual partner remain in place, taking a pill is not quite so bad as reducing one's partner to the axiological status of a cold beer.

Abstinence during the period of fertility is not asceticism, but if carried out in a planned and systematic manner for contraceptive purposes, it is simply a shirking of the conjugal duty.  Of course, there is no duty to make love every night, or even to abstain on particular occasions if one does not wish to procreate that night for whatever reason (bad finances that might suggest waiting a month, or lack of sleep, or whatever).  Sex is by nature spontaneous, as is deciding not to have sex on a particular occasion.  What is a violation of one's responsibility as a married couple is the systematic and planned method of contraception, as for example when NFP is routinely taught to engaged or dating couples with the presumption that it will be used as "Catholic birth control" rather than an unfortunate concession to grave or serious circumstances, the only circumstances to which Humanae Vitae gave its blessing.

Lest I simply be dismissed as disagreeing with the Church's official teaching on this matter, I will support my claim with a passage from Blessed John Paul II's Love and Responsibility, p. 242:

We cannot therefore speak of continence as a virtue where the spouses take advantage of the periods of biological infertility exclusively for the purpose of avoiding parenthood altogether, and have intercourse only in those periods. To apply the 'natural method' in this way would be contrary to nature - both the objective order of nature and the essential character of love are hostile to such a policy.

The objection of course is often made that NFP is "natural" whereas medical contraceptives are "unnatural".  This is one of the more comical retentions from outdated science and metaphysics.  Contraceptives are not created ex nihilo in a laboratory - there is no distinction between "substantial" and "accidental" change apart from grammar, and they are just as "natural" as penicillin or baked bread.  The nature of the human body is to react to contraceptives the way it does, just as its nature is to react to penicillin the way it does, and to react to cyanide the way it does.  There is no telos in the realm of metaphysics.  There is a telos regarding biological purpose, but here one can easily see that contraceptive NFP is fundamentally unnatural - because of the procreative rather than contraceptive biological purpose of sexuality.  Females are most affectionate during that period (a fact confirmed by scientific research into hormone levels, as if any male in a relationship needed a scientific study to confirm the obvious), and as nature and biology and ordained and disposed intercourse to the period of fertility (biologically that’s why we want to do it then), going through elaborate processes to find that period and avoid intercourse can only be called unnatural.  And if marriage truly is as liberating to our sexuality as the theology of the body proponents claim and as the dignity of the sacraments demands, then let us all get married and procreate with reckless abandon.

One finds it not surprising that the traditional Catholic theology of marriage, the one which originally encouraged us to use the calendar as birth control, never spoke of marriage as a good in its own right, but always reduced the sacrament to utilitarian purposes or as a concession to sin.  Instead of recognizing that sexuality is in fact love, the only human form of love ennobled by being given the dignity of a sacrament, older theological manuals speak of it as a "remedy for concupiscence", as if marriage were nothing but legalized lust.  It is only a "remedy" for concupiscence in the same way that food is a remedy for hunger, not in the way that medicine is a remedy for sickness or that amputation is a remedy for a diseased leg.  As Paul Evdokimov states in his wonderful little book The Sacrament of Love, the end of marriage is not procreation or whatever biological function it may have; the end of marriage is nothing other than the spouses themselves, given to us for our own good and not some evolutionary biological purpose.  It is true that that biological purpose is present, but that is only relevant on the biological order, something we far transcend.  If marriage were simply a means for biological reproduction, then manipulating this biology would not be a sin (though one would be hard-pressed to explain the moral difference between using the calendar as birth control and using a pill).  But that is not the purpose of marriage; the purpose of marriage is to give oneself completely in love.

It is not necessary for me to try to summarize hundreds of pages of the theology of the body at the end of this post.  Marriage is nothing short of the sacrament of love, a foretaste of heaven and a consummation of man's nature in the full expression of the nuptial meaning of his body.  Both the religious life and marriage offer a foretaste of Heaven – the one through the total devotion to God and the transcendence of sexuality that we shall all experience after the Parousia, the other through tasting the joys of Heaven and the total love for each other in the sexuality which shall be consummated and completed as well as transcended when the perfect union between a man and woman shall become the perfect union of the Body of Christ, reflected in the icon of a marriage, reflected in many mirrors.  Both states of life require dying to oneself and growth in holiness.


Evdokimov, Paul.  The Sacrament of Love.

John Paul II,  Love and Responsibility.
John Paul II,  The Theology of the Body.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Mozarabic translation of the Nicene Creed

A friend of mine on facebook just published a "note" with a copy of the Latin translation of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed used by the Mozarabic Rite (used by Spaniards under the Moorish occupation, but now unfortunately restricted only to the Cathedral of Toledo).  Aside from some minor variations from the Roman Creed - "Lumen ex Lumine" rather than "Lumen de Lumine", "Patre et Filio" rather than "Patre Filioque", "Credimus" rather than "Credo",  I was particularly interested by the word "Omoúsion" rather than "consubstantialem".  This rare borrowing from Greek - the only instance of this word my own uneducated and amateur eye has ever seen - would almost seem to indicate a Greek rather than Latin Trinitarian theology among the pre-Isabellan Spaniards.  The Greeks tend to emphasize the irreducibility and reality of the Three Persons while the Latins tend to emphasize the unity of the Godhead, and this shift of emphasis is reflected in the different strengths of the word used in the Creed - the Greeks, following the infallible language promulgated by the First Council of Nicea and the First Council of Constantinople, say "homoousion" or "one in essence", while the Latins (and, formerly, the Latinized Ruthenians in America) following the infallible language promulgated by the Pope of Rome say "consubstantialem" or "one in substance" or "consubstantial".  ("One in being", an alternate translation, would seem more Greek than Latin to me, though I think it's only been used in America where nobody seems to ever be quite clear whether they are Greek or Latin or whether there is even supposed to be a difference.)  However, the otherwise thoroughly Latin character of the Mozarabic translation - the addition of "Deum ex Deo" and "Patre et Filio" to the Creed as promulgated by the universal Church - would seem to argue against the influence of Byzantine theology.  Historically, most connections between Greeks and Spaniards in the High Middle Ages were of a military, rather than ecclesiastical nature.  (One remembers in particular fondness the alliance between Greeks and Aragonese in the liberation of Sicily from the French in the War of the Sicilian Vespers.)

Symbolum Nicaenum-Constantinopolitanum

Crédimus in unum Deum Patrem omnipoténtem, factórem caeli et terrae, visibílium ómnium et invisibílium Conditórem.

Et in unum Dóminum nostrum Jesum Christum, Fílium Dei Unigénitum, et ex Patre natum ante ómnia sæcula; Deum ex Deo, Lumen ex Lúmine. Deum verum ex Deo vero; natum non factum, Omoúsion Patri, hoc est, ejúsdem cum Patre substántiae; per quem ómnia facta sunt, quae in caelo, et quae in terra.
Qui propter nos hómines, et propter nostram salútem, descendit de caelis, et incarnátus est de Spíritu Sancto ex María Vírgine, et homo factus est. Passus sub Póntio Piláto, sepúltus, tértia die resurréxit, ascéndit ad caelos, sedet ad déxteram Dei Patris omnipoténtis. Inde ventúrus est judicáre vivos et mórtuos, cujus regni non erit finis.

Et in Spíritum Sanctum, Dóminum vivificatórem, et ex Patre et Fílio procedéntem. Cum Patre et Fílio adorándum et conglorificándum; qui locútus est per prophétas.
Et unam, sanctam, Cathólicam et Apostólicam Ecclésiam.
Confitémur unum baptísma in remissiónem peccatórum.
Expectámus resurrectiónem mortuórum, et vitam ventúri saeculi.

Anyone interested in the thoughts of a real academic talking about the issue may find an interesting post on the topic here:

Friday, September 9, 2011

St. Nikolai Velimirovich on the Nativity of the Theotokos

I borrow or blatantly plagiarize from John Sanidopoulos' excellent and praiseworthy blog, "Mystagogy".  The entire article by St. Nikolai, which also contains an account of the Nativity of the Theotokos and a reflection on the same, can be found here:

St. Nikolai was the bishop of Zhuca, or Žiča, and later the rector of St. Tikhon's Seminary in South Canaan, Pennsylvania.  He worked out his sanctification in the concentration camp of Dachau during World War II, where he was arrested along with so many other Orthodox, Catholic, and some Protestant monastics and clergy, and where he was tortured and compelled under duress to give a speech slandering his fellow people outside the camp.  He was the author of a number of books including the well-known "Prayers by the Lake", now collected as volume 5 of the "Treasure of Serbian Orthodox Spirituality".  The following hymn of praise is in honor of the Nativity of the Theotokos:

HYMN OF PRAISE: The Nativity of the Most-holy Mother of God

O greatly desired and long awaited one,
O Virgin, thou hast been obtained from the Lord with tears!
A bodily temple of the Most-holy Spirit shalt thou become,
And shalt be called Mother of the Eternal Word.

The Burning Bush they called thee,
For thou wilt receive within thyself the divine fire:
Ablaze with fire but not consumed,
Thou shalt bear the Golden Fruit and offer it to the world.

Thou shalt be the Bearer of Him Who bears the heavens,
To Whom all of heaven offers up praise!
The Miracle of miracles shall come to pass within thee,
For thou shalt bear heaven, thou who art "more spacious than the heavens!''

Thou art more precious to us, O Virgin, than precious stones,
For thou art the source of salvation for mankind.
For this, may the entire universe glorify thee,
O Most-holy Virgin, O white Turtledove!

The King of Heaven shall desire to enter the world,
And shall pass through thee, O Beautiful Gate!
O Virgin, when thou dost become woman thou shalt bear Christ for us;
From thy body, the Sun shall blaze forth.