Those Extra Books: Thoughts on the Catholic Canon

13 Dec

One of my students, a devout Protestant, sent me a message a few days ago. We’d had conversations in the past about Catholic matters, and I was delighted that she followed up with her questions. “Do you have any books or articles about the Protestant canon vs. Catholic, and how the books were chosen?” she wrote. “I’m assuming that if I were to believe some books were ‘kicked out’ that should’ve been included, I would have to think more seriously about some things.”

I replied that I’d be happy to provide her with reading materials, but, better yet, I’d set her up with an actual Catholic Bible – complete with all those kicked-out books. I always keep give-away copies on hand in my office for just such inquiries.

When she arrived, I handed over the volume (an NAB) and asked what prompted her interest. “I’m going to do a Bible study with some Catholics I’ve gotten to know, so I decided I needed to get a better understanding of this issue.” We chatted a bit about the Hebrew Masoretic text and the Greek Septuagint, and then I sketched out a rough history of how our respective traditions adopted varying lists of authoritative scriptural books – the role of liturgy and lectionary, for instance, and Martin Luther’s rejection of the deuterocanonical books in the 16th century. I also clarified that our Bibles only disagreed with respect to the Old Testament – that our New Testament canons were exactly the same.

Then she asked this remarkably insightful question: “So, if I decided that those extra parts of the Old Testament really do belong in my Bible, how would that affect my faith? What difference would it make?”

It seemed like her question required a two-part answer, and I addressed the easier part first. “As far as doctrine and belief, not much.” Maybe she’d have to re-think purgatory and praying for the dead because of certain passages in II Maccabees, but that’s about it. Sure, there would be unfamiliar narratives and characters – like Raphael and Tobit and the bird dropping story, and Daniel’s Solomonic intervention on behalf of the falsely accused Susanna. Aside from those bits, however, my student would hardly notice if the Deuterocanon (or what many Protestants call the Apocrypha) were introduced into her worship services. Take last Sunday’s reading from Baruch for instance: It seems to be a messianic gloss on Isaiah, and I doubt its prophetic cadences would raise a single eyebrow in most Protestant churches if it were read aloud.

The real challenge of the Deuterocanon, I told my student, was less its content than what it represents in terms of authority. Those seven OT books and scattered portions of Esther and Daniel – preserved only in the Greek of the Septuagint – stoked all kinds of controversy in the early church. St. Jerome, the Bible’s patron saint, was the most prominent opponent, and he wanted to exclude them from the Christian Scriptures. Nonetheless, Jerome bowed to Tradition and did end up including them all in his 4th-century Latin Vulgate translation – a decision that was ratified by various early councils and definitively ratified by the 16th-century Council of Trent.

“But councils are made up of fallible men,” my student protested. “How do we know they weren’t mistaken?” That launched us into further conversation about a Catholic understanding of the two streams of Divine Revelation – Scripture and Tradition – which are authoritatively interpreted for us in the present by the Magisterium.

We talked about the early church relying exclusively on the OT as their scriptural reference point while the NT books were being written and then circulated among the brethren; of how some of those NT books were subsequently rejected as being out of step with Tradition while others were adopted as faithful witnesses of apostolic teaching; of the ongoing dialogue between Tradition and Scripture through the centuries, a process of discernment that relies on inspired magisterial elucidation. “We both of us revere the Bible as God’s Word,” I told my student, “but it’s a static text – regardless of how you go about deciding what belongs in it – until it’s brought to life in the Body of Christ” (cf. DV 10).

So, who speaks for the Body of Christ? Given the varying ways in which the Scriptures can be (and certainly have been) interpreted, it’s no wonder we have tens of thousands of different denominations and churches – all claiming to have a bead on biblical truth. “In the end, there’s only one Pope and Magisterium,” I finally said, “or we’re all popes. And that seems to conflict with Jesus’ insistence on unity,” especially in his prayer right before his Passion. “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (Jn 17.20-21).

There was a pause in our conversation – and a knock at my office door. A different student had arrived for a scheduled appointment. As edifying as the conversation had been, it would have to be continued another time. Besides, the Bible’s depths can never fully be plumbed, and our conversations with it and regarding it can always be extended.

And that’s definitely a phenomenon common to all Christians.
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Compression of Character: The Two-Hour Test

2 Dec

“Two hours of life are always two hours. A great many things may turn up in even as little a while as that.”
 ~ Robert Louis Stevenson

“Did you hear that Stan Lee died?”

“Stanley who?”

I wasn’t present for that exchange, but I have it on good authority that it happened. The uninformed respondent was my wife, Nancy, who clearly isn’t tapped into the Marvel Comics Universe the way the rest of the country (the world?) has.

Which is why she rarely joins me and our kids in taking in the latest installments of the MCU canon at the theaters, and she’s even less inclined to sit down to watch our favorites with us at home. She can tolerate Captain America and Tom Holland’s adolescent Spider-Man, but Iron Man? X-Men? All the Avengers drama, especially at the end of “Infinity War” (2018)? Marvel just hasn’t been Nancy’s cup of tea. Her tastes run more along the Jane line – Jane Eyre, Jane Austen, you get what I mean.

Enter Ant-Man. “C’mon, honey,” I told her as we were popping the “Ant-Man and the Wasp” (2018) DVD into the machine, “I really think you’ll like it.” Nick and Kath, our youngest, added their voices to the chorus, and she relented.

And you know what? She kinda liked it! A couple nights later we convinced her to watch the “Ant-Man” (2015) origin story, and she liked that even more. The clumsy goofiness of Ant-Man’s Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) appealed to her, and his obvious commitment to be a good dad – despite his divorce, despite his shortcomings and failings – won her over.

Dare I say that she’s a fan now? Well, that might be a stretch, but she’s definitely come around to the MCU camp – at least the Ant-Man corner of it.

But how’d that happen? What transpired to bump Nancy over the speed bump of her comic-book misgivings to give Ant-Man a chance – especially after such a relatively diminutive (pun intended) cinematic exposure?

Chalk it up to the magic of filmmaking. In a couple hours on average, filmmakers patch together images, dialogue, and music in such a way – such an artful, subtle way (yes, even MCU filmmakers) – that audiences connect with the characters on the screen, come to care about them and their stories, and leave theaters changed by the encounter. At least that’s what’s supposed to happen. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s marvelous (pun intended again).

Nancy’s two-hour Ant-Man conversion was fresh in my consciousness when I chanced upon Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story, “The Sire de Malétroit’s Door” (1877). The narrative takes place during the Hundred Years War in a town dually occupied by English and Burgundian forces. Denis de Beaulieu, a dashing and cocky young cavalier is returning home late at night and gets lost. When his movements are detected by hostile sentries, he retreats to the dark portico of an imposing mansion and draws his sword to defend his life.

As he leans back on a door to steady himself for the fight, he finds that it gives way to a pitch-black interior. Denis, grateful for this seemingly providential boon, slips inside and the door slams shut – almost as if by design.

Although safe now from his enemies without, Denis finds himself trapped within, and so he turns into the strange room and spots a sliver of light at the top of some stairs. When he reaches the light, he enters a room and comes face to face with the mansion’s owner, Alain, Sire de Malétroit. “Pray step in,” he tells Denis. “I have been expecting you all the evening.”

It quickly becomes evident, at least to Monsieur de Beaulieu (and the reader), that there’s been a mistake. The Sire had set the door-trap for an unknown suitor who’d been sending love letters to Blanche, de Malétroit’s niece and ward. De Beaulieu denies any knowledge of the affair, and he is backed up by Blanche when they finally meet. “That is not the man!” she cries out. “My uncle, that is not the man!”

The cruel, exacting de Malétroit, determined to undo the purported dishonor Blanche’s romance has brought to the family name, dismisses the couple’s entreaties and offers them a choice: Marry, on the spot, or Denis will be hanged. The distressed Blanche, of course, is horrified. It was bad enough that she was to be forced to marry a man she was in love with; now she was to be compelled to marry a stranger.

And Denis? He nobly demurs, and, while paying Blanche every courtesy and compliment, suggests an alternative avenue of resolution. “I believe there are other ways of settling such imbroglios among gentlemen,” he nobly tells the Sire. “You wear a sword, and I hear you have used it with distinction.”

Alas, the Sire had anticipated such a reaction, and he reveals to Denis that a large party of armed men are ready to impose their master’s will. Nonetheless, de Malétroit is not totally unreasonable in his demands. “As the bridegroom is to have a voice in the matter, I will give him two hours to make up for lost time before we proceed with the ceremony.”

Two hours – two measly hours to find out about another’s character and worldview, virtues and weaknesses, history and aspirations. Not only that, but to do so with an eye toward making a lifelong commitment, or forfeiting life itself. Now, I’m not about to spoil this excellent story for anybody by divulging its conclusion – although you might have some idea of where it’s headed. Regardless, if you haven’t read it, I urge you to do so – here’s a link to the text if you don’t have a copy ready at hand.

The point at issue is that two hours. Apparently, it’s enough time for filmmakers to help us get to know and like (or dislike) their characters. Is it enough time for real people to get to know each other? Put another way, if I really did only have two hours to sum up who I am, how would I do it? What would I say? Better yet, what would I do? And if I only had that much time to get to know someone else, what would I ask? What would I look for?

Take it further: What if I had even less time – say, a half hour instead of two, or maybe even just two minutes flat (like a movie trailer). The stakes are rarely so high as they were for Blanche and Denis, but aren’t most of our encounters with strangers more along such briefer lines? What impressions do I make? Do I look into people’s eyes with curiosity and compassion? Do I listen to them? Am I present to them?

That is, how do I conduct myself when I only have two minutes with another? Is the me I reveal who I want it to be?

Thomas Merton once commented that “the saint preaches sermons by the way he walks, and the way he stands and the way he sits down and the way he picks things up and holds them in his hand.” It stands to reason that sinners preach in a similar way. What kinds of sermons am I preaching in my chance encounters? I want my life to preach holiness – I want to be a saint.

“It is never too late to begin,” says de Malétroit in Stevenson’s story. He meant it as a challenge to the cornered Monsieur de Beaulieu. I’ll take it as a word of Advent hope.
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St. Edmund Campion and the Advent of Advent

1 Dec

“Proclaim the good news among the nations:
Our God will come to save us.”

Read more…

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A Thousand Miles for Love

22 Nov

“I was quite taken out of myself and vowed a vow there to go to Rome on Pilgrimage and see all Europe which the Christian Faith has saved.”
~ Hilaire Belloc

Read more…

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The Monkey on My Back: A Chronic Illness Tutorial

16 Nov

“To the extent that Christ’s suffering becomes my suffering, my suffering becomes a prayer.”
~ Dom Hubert van Zeller

Read more…

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Joy in Parentheses

11 Nov

The next to last chapter of Thomas Merton’s Seeds of Contemplation (1949) is entitled Contemplata aliis Tradere – roughly translated, “To teach others contemplation.” It’s one of the mottos of the Dominican Order, and it’s drawn from Thomas Aquinas’s Summa. “That form of active life in which a man, by preaching and teaching, delivers to others the fruits of his contemplation,” writes St. Thomas, “is more perfect than the life that stops at contemplation.” In other words, an active Christian life is good, a contemplative life is better, but better still is a contemplative life that leads to action – more specifically, action directed at helping others become contemplatives themselves.

Merton points out that this is tough to achieve because true contemplation doesn’t lend itself to didactic practices. Teaching and preaching generally involves words, and contemplation, as I understand it, is an approach to the divine that is devoid of words, concepts, and propositions.

I’ll have to take Merton’s word on this. As much as I enjoy his meditations in Seeds, I’m nowhere near anything resembling contemplative prayer in my own life. Even so, there’s a passage in this particular chapter that leaps out at me. It comes after he describes the unspeakable, “incorruptible” joy associated with contemplative prayer – a joy that’s meant to “overflow from our souls and help other men to rejoice in God.” And then Merton makes this parenthetical point:

(But do not think that you have to see how it overflows into the souls of others. In the economy of His grace, you may be sharing His gifts with someone you will never know until you get to heaven.)

I love it that Merton puts this comment in parentheses – almost as an afterthought. It makes me think he threw it in as a gift, almost an alms, for all his readers, not just full-fledged contemplatives, but also posers and spiritual bumblers like me – those of us who are doing what we can with what we got, plodding along in the active life, trying to choose good and avoid evil, aspiring to virtue and carrying out the duties of our vocations with varying degrees of success. Our prayer lives, such as they are, are on the shore opposite the leafy glades of contemplation island, and we’re in no position, for whatever reason, to make the crossing. We’re doing well just to get to Mass with our families and stay awake – sometimes not even that. But we’re getting to Mass, and that’s something at least.

So, we have no fruits of contemplation to pass along because we have no contemplation. But we still have joy. We still have that little spark of anticipation that getting to Mass, receiving the sacraments, saying our prayers, and living our vocations are actions pleasing to God, maybe even equipping us for eternity. Sometimes things go wrong, sometimes disastrously wrong, and we cling to hope, stick to the practice of our faith, and struggle to choose love, love, and love again, especially when we don’t want to. Sometimes, often, we blow it, and we say we’re sorry and go to confession. Then we take a crack at loving again.

And who benefits? Hopefully, those closest to us – our spouses, our children, our neighbors and co-workers – the direct recipients of our efforts to love. But Merton’s secret, his parenthetical boon, is that many others will observe our efforts, and be blessed as well. They’ll see our faltering and failing and our not giving up. They’ll sense that we possess some kind of spiritual flame within, no matter how muted, and they’ll be warmed by its radiance.

Best of all, we’ll have no idea – that would be a tempting distraction. Instead, we can be content to carry on in our parentheses and leave the economy of radiated joy to God.
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

3 Fairy Tales with Not So Tidy Endings

4 Nov

“For my part, I do not write for children, but for the childlike,
whether of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.”
~ George Macdonald

“And they all lived happily ever after.” It’s the fairy tale equivalent of “riding off into the sunset,” and it bespeaks a neat wrapping up of loose ends at the end of a harrowing yarn. The bad guys, vanquished; the good guys, triumphant. The village is spared, and the populace rejoices in the good fortunes of the hero and heroine who risked all to come to the rescue.

It’s what we’ve come to expect from fairy tales – or, perhaps, it’s what we’ve been conditioned to expect from decades of exposure to Disney-fied versions of fairy tales. Keep in mind that Disney is a business, and businesses seek to sell us stuff. Ambiguity, agony, and angst don’t sell as well as happy endings. From detergent and diapers to fairy tales and family films, it’s much easier to hawk what people are already clamoring for, and it seems that we prefer tidy narratives for our kids.

So much for the modern, free-market approach to fairy tales. In previous ages, it was not so. Here’s a few examples from Victorian times:

The Princess and the Goblin (1872)

George MacDonald wrote lots of books, but he’s especially remembered for his fairy tales. They unfold somewhat haphazardly and erratically – as if they’re printed versions of bedtime stories Macdonald made up on the spot for his children. (If you’re a dad and have attempted to do the same with your own little ones, you know what I mean.)

This particular MacDonald classic is noteworthy because of its influence on one J.R.R. Tolkien, who populated his own fantasy fiction with MacDonald-esque goblins: malevolent and seemingly irredeemable creatures who reside in the underworld of caves and mines. In MacDonald’s story, the goblins are so base that they can’t even “bear singing” because they “can’t sing themselves…and they don’t like other people to sing.” Nonetheless, they set their sights on securing a foothold in the overland world of men so they kidnap the Princess Irene as a bride for Harelip, their goblin prince.

Yet their schemes are thwarted by a young miner named Curdie who is humble and heroic and heedless of danger. Armed with song and his trusty mattock, and assisted by Irene’s magical great-great-grandmother, Curdie frees the Princess, who in turn comes to Curdie’s rescue after he’s captured, and the goblins are thoroughly routed in the end. When the king, Irene’s father, is apprised of all these events, he offers Curdie a royal appointment in his retinue, and the stage seems set for Curdie and Irene to grow closer as they grow older, with nuptial bliss on the horizon in due course.

What happens instead is that Curdie, an only child, opts to stay behind with his parents in their mountaintop home. “But Curdie,” his mother tells him, “why shouldn’t you go with the king? We can get on very well without you.”

“But I can’t get on very well without you,” the boy replies. “The king is very kind, but I could not be half the use to him that I am to you.”

More surprising is the fact that the evil goblins turn out to be redeemable after all. “Their skulls became softer as well as their hearts,” MacDonald narrates at the end, “and by degrees they became friendly with the inhabitants of the mountain and even with the miners.” Perhaps they even learned to enjoy singing in time.

The Princess and Curdie (1883)

This is MacDonald’s sequel to The Princess and the Goblin, and it picks up the story with Curdie on the mountain at home with his folks. Now that his adventures with the goblins have receded, Curdie seems to sink into a moral indolence. Finally, he has a crisis of conscience when he shoots an arrow at a pigeon for no good reason. “He had done the thing that was contrary to gladness; he was a destroyer!” MacDonald writes. “He was not the Curdie he had been meant to be!”

Almost as an atonement for his transgression, he goes on a quest to locate Princess Irene and save her father, the king, from a slow death by poison at the hands of his corrupt court. Irene’s great-great-grandmother provides Curdie with special powers of discernment as well as a mutant minder, Lina, who serves as companion and protector on the road.

As they travel, Curdie and Lina are joined by numerous other mutant creatures, and by the time they reach the king’s city, Gwyntystorm, they are an intimidating band. Through artifice and force, Curdie and Lina gain entrance to the castle, come to the aid of Irene and her father, and oust the traitorous courtiers and servants. The king’s enemies enlist the support of a rival nation to do battle against their own homeland, but with the aid of Curdie’s monstrous crew, the king is victorious and re-establishes his authority over Gwyntystorm and his realm.

At this point, the promise of the previous Princess tale is realized, and the now mature Irene is wed to the valiant Curdie. After the king dies, the young royal couple assumes rule over the kingdom, and a season of peace and prosperity ensues. Yet, Curdie and Irene, it turns out, never have children of their own, and when they themselves die, the kingdom falls into ruin. The king appointed by the people becomes consumed by greed, the people themselves revert to their wicked ways, and the royal city itself eventually collapses into obscurity. “All around spreads a wilderness of wild deer,” reads the book’s last lines, “and the very name of Gwyntystorm had ceased from the lips of men.”

Not exactly the “happily ever after” ending you’d have expected following the successful reign of King Curdie and Queen Irene. Still, MacDonald’s ending projects backward a poignancy and realism over the entire two-volume work that gives the reader pause. Were Curdie’s and Irene’s efforts for naught if their kingdom disappeared? Does the value of our present actions depend on their long-term impact and how they build our legacies?

The Little Lame Prince (1875)

I’ve been reading MacDonald’s stories for decades, but I’d never heard of this fable by MacDonald’s contemporary, Dinah Maria Craik, until I came across it recently at home. It was a night of insomnia, and I went hunting among our stacks for something to lull my overactive brain into slumber – something light, something diverting. Maybe something new.

I saw the discordant title on the white Watermill Classic spine, and I paused. “Lame? Prince?” I thought. “Now there’s a kid’s story I don’t know.” I grabbed it, headed back upstairs, and settled in for what I thought would be a chapter or two before I nodded off.

Craik’s tale kept me up for a while, and then again the next couple nights. It’s a wonderful story, and most certainly in the vein of MacDonald’s works, with odd twists and turns that keep you locked in until the very end. It’s the story of poor little Prince Dolor whose mother died shortly after his birth, and who himself suffered a crippling injury on the day of his baptism. After the king dies as well, an unscrupulous and scheming uncle arranges for the disabled young prince to be shipped off to exile in an isolated tower, and it seems unlikely that Dolor will ever come into his royal inheritance.

The prince’s godmother, however, has fairylike powers, and she delivers an enchanted cloak to Dolor that enables him to escape his exile and travel about the countryside. Eventually, after his uncle dies, Dolor is restored to his birthright and assumes the throne, and his kingdom is restored to its former glory.

But what of his lameness? Doesn’t the godmother heal Dolor’s infirmity? It’s not even suggested as a possibility. Instead, throughout the story, the prince’s lameness is a given, and it’s part of his nobility that he’s able to rise above it and rule with equanimity.

First, because, accepting his affliction as inevitable, he took it patiently; second, because, being a brave man, he bore it bravely, trying to forget himself, and live out of himself, and in and for other people. Therefore other people grew to love him so well that I think hundreds of his subjects might have been found who were almost ready to die for their poor lame king.

Dolor never marries in Craik’s story, and so, like Curdie and Irene, the royal blood line is interrupted. However, Dolor takes on a distant cousin. a descendant of his treacherous uncle, as a protégé, and by the end of the tale Dolor peacefully turns over the reins of power to him. The retiring, crippled king then exhorts his people to follow their new leader, produces his enchanted cloak, and slips away.

It’s not exactly riding off into the sunset, but it’s satisfying all the same. And it’s a narrative template of perseverance, virtue, and selflessness that not only enthralls but edifies.

Who wouldn’t want their kids to have that?
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