Tag Archives: C.S. Lewis

When History Shrugs: Pope St. Urban I (d. 230)

1 Oct

“It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.”

“She seems to be…well, a person of particular importance?”

“Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.”

~ C.S. Lewis

My designated “Papa chair” is now located near a window, nestled between two bookcases. It had been in a different room altogether, but recent redecorating and refurbishing there required that my ratty old perch be shifted elsewhere.

Which is just fine. In fact, its new situation is ideal, particularly with reference to the wealth of analogue information within easy reach. I’m not a cell phone guy, and I’ll be the one they’ll have to jail someday when Big Brother decides that everyone has to have a smart phone. Consequently, when I’m sitting in my dad spot every morning, sipping my coffee and doing some meditative reading, I don’t fire up a gizmo to track down answers to fleeting questions. Instead, I grab a book – which, like my chair, is often enough ratty and old, and frequently requiring a quick puff along the top to disperse accumulated dust.

Recently, something in my early a.m. reading caused me to snag a weathered Encyclopedia of the Papacy off the shelf. Maybe it some oddball papal reference I’d come across and wanted to check up on; maybe it was my random church history cursor going off – who knows? In any case, I grabbed the Encyclopedia, blew off the dust, and thumbed through the pages, back to front. I made note of the earliest entries and their relative brevity compared to later ones. Indeed, some in St. Peter’s immediate line of succession only merited a line or two. “Stands to reason,” I thought. “The later the pope, the more likely there’d be surviving, solid documentation.”

Then my eye fell on the entry for Pope Urban I, who served the Church of Rome for eight years before his death in 230. Here’s the entry in its entirety: “Nothing of note occurred during Urban’s pontificate.”

Huh – really? How could that be? The first few centuries of the Church were filled with persecution and ecclesial wrangling, doctrinal division and staying one step ahead of imperial anti-catholic law. Eight years of petrine service in the chaos of pre-Constaninian Rome, but “nothing of note?” Nothing worth commenting on? I picture the faithful adorning Urban’s earthly remains with an “I sat in the throne of St. Peter, and all I got was this lousy t-shirt” covering before committing him to the catacombs.

I examined the Encyclopedia a bit further: Publication date, 1958; author, one Hans Kühner; publisher, The Philosophical Library out of New York. Ah, a secular treatment of papal history – I should’ve known. Maybe something a bit more Catholic could reveal some edifying tidbits about poor Urban I.

So I turned to the 1967 New Catholic Encyclopedia and read E.G. Weltin’s brief treatment of Urban. I was glad to find that Weltin provides a few more details than Kühner, but not much. It seems that Pope Urban dealt with lingering dissension and Christological heresies, but these seemed to be already on the wane by the time he was ensconced. Plus, Weltin points out that Urban’s pontificate coincided with the reign of Emperor Alexander Severus “who was favorably disposed toward Christians,” so the Pope probably died in his sleep – not martyred like so many of his predecessors.

Further investigations didn’t prove all that fruitful. The time-honored 1912 version of the Catholic Encyclopedia has a longish article on Pope Urban I by J.P. Kirsch, but little more in the way of solid facts. Kirsch provides context in terms of the controversies in play during Urban’s reign (namely those stirred up by the schismatic Hippolytus) and background on Emperor Alexander’s strikingly benign attitude toward Urban’s Church. Kirsch also reviews Pope Urban’s appearance in the legendary Acts of St. Cecilia and discusses various proposals regarding his burial location and associated inscriptions. Yet, even Mr. Kirsch has to conclude that “[n]othing is known concerning the personal labours of Pope Urban.”

In desperation, I even turned to Wikipedia, but the only additional info I came across there was that Urban I has a cameo in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Maybe the Kühner’s Encyclopedia of the Papacy is right after all.

Wrong. For although Kühner dismisses the business side of Urban’s papal tenure, he overlooks what we already know from the liturgy: Pope Urban I is a saint. And sanctification, as we all know from experience, is always noteworthy and hardly the stuff of insignificance. It’s the whole point of the Christian enterprise, and it’s, frankly, grueling – at least for most of us. It’s why we keep going to Mass and saying “Amen” when the Body of Christ is held up to us at Holy Communion. It’s why we strive to keep our disordered appetites in check and choose virtue over vice when it’s inconvenient, or even seemingly impossible. And it’s why we go to Confession, over and over again, surrendering our selfishness at the court of last resort – really, the court of only resort – and promise to try again.

No, Pope St. Urban I led a significant life, despite the historians’ inability to divine the details. He’s a saint, after all – a saint! To paraphrase Leon Bloy, becoming a saint is all that matters, but that “becoming” is wild – like a steeplechase in a puzzle in a whirling tumbler. And the vast majority of all that is interior – acts of conscience and intention and self-abandonment – so how could anybody keep track of anyone’s path to glory with all its hidden ups and downs?

So it will be for you and me should we realize, with God’s grace, the same heavenly prize as Pope Urban. Sure, he’s an obscure figure as far as the scholars are concerned, but can there be any doubt that he cares little about that now? Similarly, all those who’ll join him in Paradise won’t care a whit if their doings are recorded in a book – not even a single line. Nobody on earth will know about the extra prayers and fasting you undertook for your ailing grandma; nobody will know about the kindnesses you doled out on strangers in need; nobody will know when you didn’t do the wrong things you wanted to, nor right things you embraced when you were inclined otherwise. But God knows. God knows our doings, God knows our hearts, and that’s plenty. Indeed, it’s everything.

Oh, and if you do want to give Pope St. Urban I his due, consider marking his feast next May 25. I know I will be.
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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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Of Coddling Demons and Auricular Confession

25 Jun

No being could attain a “perfect badness” opposite to the perfect goodness of God.
~ C.S. Lewis

The Gospels are filled with weird scenes – which you’d expect from eyewitness accounts of an incarnate God. There’s no precedent for Jesus, no template or benchmark. He’s extraordinary in so many ways, so it’s no surprise that his actions and words would be extraordinary as well – at least on first hearing.

You know this from witnessing your own children thrill at the coming of Christmas when they were very young. The story of the Bethlehem invasion was fresh and exciting – and fantastic! The same goes for Passiontide as our young ones grew morose upon hearing of Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion, which transmuted into delight upon their discovery of Easter and the resurrection.

Then there’s us. We don’t think of the Gospel accounts as unusual anymore because we’ve heard them countless times, and we’re accustomed to their quirky narrative shifts – even if we don’t really understand them. Like Judas, for instance. We hear about Jesus choosing him as an apostle, despite his knowing (as God) that Judas would betray him down the line. The Lord even sends out the future traitor with the other apostles to minister to the crowds – what? Yet we just glaze over when we hear it proclaimed at Mass or referenced in a sermon. Yawn.

Once in a while, however, every once in a while, the Scriptures come alive again, even for us, even for me. Maybe it’s a particular lector’s voice and intonation; maybe it’s an enlightening commentary or sermon; always it’s grace.

Such a grace came my way recently as I reviewed the Gospel accounts of Jesus and the Gerasene demoniac. There’s a version of the story in Matthew, but fuller accounts appear in Mark and Luke. The action takes place in Galilee in the latter days of the Lord’s public ministry there. He and the disciples had just arrived in the region of Gerasa (or Gadara, or Gergesa – there’s some confusion about this) after a rough passage across the Sea of Galilee. A deadly tempest had terrified the disciples, but a sleepy Jesus had taken it in stride and quelled it almost as an afterthought. The disciples were duly impressed: “They were filled with awe, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?’” (Mk 4.41).

As if to answer that question, Jesus followed up his demonstration of power over natural forces with a startling demonstration of his supernatural dominion.

As soon as he and his crew hit the Gerasene shore, a wild man accosted them from a graveyard. I picture him as a combination of J.K. Rowling’s Hagrid and Marley’s ghost from A Christmas Carol – all hair and height, bruises and blood, with shackles and chains rattling about. The possessed Galilean tomb-dweller, hardly still a man, rushed the Lord and demanded an accounting. “What have you to do with me, Jesus,” he shouted, adding a confession, “Son of the Most High God?” Finally, a plea. “I beseech you, do not torment me” (Lk 8.28). When Jesus asked for his name, the wild man claimed, “My name is Legion; for we are many.”

We’re definitely in strange territory here. I see a walking stadium full of demons testifying to Jesus’ divine identity. Also, I see a tortured, lonely soul, a castoff loser and social threat, rebuffing the ministrations of the one he knows could totally heal him. Stranger still, Jesus is choosing to chat with him – or them (pronouns with Legion are tricky). But what’s there to chat about? Let’s free the poor guy from his spiritual affliction and restore him to his family already – ba-boom.

Yet, the strangeness only widens as the Gospel writers next draw our attention to a herd of pigs – pigs! a herd! – on a nearby hill. You’d think Jesus and his Jewish companions would’ve avoided this area altogether rather than risk even the slightest association with pork. Nope, and the pigs actually end up playing a central role in the tale. “Send us to the swine,” the Legion of demons begged Jesus, “let us enter them” (Mk 5.12). I envision a Messianic shoulder shrug and toss of the head, followed by the Aramaic equivalent of “Why not?” before Jesus gives in to the odd petition. “Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine,” continues St. Luke, “and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned” (8.33).

The Gospel narratives move on to the swift reaction of the swineherds and local townspeople (they “were seized with great fear” and asked Jesus to “depart from them”), as well as the equally swift recovery and commissioning of Legion (whom Jesus sent home to proclaim “how much the Lord has done for you”). But I’m stuck back on that hillside. “The demons puzzle us,” writes Frank Sheed. “The pigs puzzle us.” Right, as does Jesus himself, for it seems to me that he took pity on those demons when he acceded to their request. Was the porcine possession a show of compassion for the hellish habitués? A bizarre amnesty, no matter how fleeting, granted by the Good Shepherd himself? I’m with Sheed who comments, “We long to read deeper into the mind of our Redeemer.”

Frankly, I’m also interested in reading deeper into the minds of those devils. They must’ve known that they were still destined to return to Hell eventually, for even if their pig-hosts hadn’t immediately rushed to a watery demise, they would’ve been butchered soon enough. Since Legion’s demons had no doubt about who and what Jesus was (and is), what could’ve motivated their plea for temporary clemency? Surely not love – but…hope? Is it possible that these damned creatures were displaying a last vestige of hope, however unlikely?

We’ll never know. What we do know, however, is that the graphic transfer of Legion’s burden to the doomed pigs was a stark display of release and liberation. Perhaps, as Jerome Kodell suggests, it was meant to broadcast Legion’s fresh start, providing his community “visible proof that the demons have left the man.” Granted it required significant destruction of property (which prompted the objections of those swineherds), yet maybe such was justified in order to reassure Legion’s people of his radical transformation – and even Legion himself.

Weird as it is, I think the pig-demon transfer in this Gospel story is a valuable illustration of why we have auricular confession. As the Catechism affirms, the sacrament of reconciliation requires the penitent to be contrite, practice humility, and “confess with the lips” (CCC 1450). Certainly there are exceptions – speech impairments, for example, and extreme debilitation – but ordinarily, in “accord with the law and practice of the Church, the faithful must orally confess their sins” (Congregation for Divine Worship). It follows that the confessor must ordinarily hear those sins and voice an absolution.

“But why do you have to confess your sins out loud?” my Protestant students often ask me. “Why can’t you just confess them directly to God – in private? Or just write them down?”

Next time I get that question, I’ll have a ready answer. “Because we’re Legion,” I’ll say. “Because our sins are like demons, and we need concrete, sensory reassurance that they’ve been excised from our souls.”

When I confess my sins, as humiliating as it is, I’m always glad to be getting them out of my head and into the open air. To hear myself pronounce my self-accusations, knowing that the alter Christus is craning an ear, means that my sins are gone, they’ve been sent over the confessional cliff, and they’re drowning in grace – what a relief!

Then it’s my turn to listen, and the priest’s verbal funneling of the Lord’s forgiveness is an electrifying largesse (CCC 1465). It’s a new beginning, every time. And every time, I’m sent out unburdened after my penitential encounter, but with an implicit (sometimes explicit) commission, similar to Legion’s: “Go in peace,” the priest may intone, “and proclaim to the world the wonderful works of God who has brought you salvation.”

They’re words I never tire of hearing, and the strange mercy they bespeak never grows old.
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Of Witches, Walburga, and Welcoming Spring

23 May


“We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology.”
~ C.S. Lewis

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Nailed: Outrage, Consolation, and a Helpless God

2 Apr

“If Christ was not of the very substance of omnipotence,
if becomes relatively pointless to point to the paradox of his impotence.”
~
G.K. Chesterton

Early in the first semester of nursing school, I teach a unit on mobility and range of motion. We talk about body mechanics and ergonomics, how to ensure proper positioning for ailing patients as well as proper nursing postures to avoid back injuries. I tell the students that mobility is a continuum: It begins with limited locomotion in infancy, progresses to maximum free movement in youth and adulthood (with occasional interruptions due to injury or illness), and then finally declines with the entropy of natural aging. When we care for patients suffering altered mobility, our job as caregivers is to move them back along that continuum toward their maximum potential – to restore, that is, their fullest possible functioning with regards to voluntary movement.

As a part of that module, we also talk about restraints, which are the exact opposite of promoting mobility. Under certain circumstances – namely for patient safety and/or the safety of the practitioners – physical restraints are warranted, but they’re never easy to implement. People typically choose nursing as a profession because they’re caring and compassionate, and it goes against the grain for nurses (especially students) to impose anything that, on the surface, defies the Golden Rule. “I wouldn’t want to be restrained,” our thinking goes – a notion that also applies to giving shots and inserting loathsome tubes. Still, for the greater good of the patient, for the advancement of his healing and recovery, we are obliged to do such things. And, yes, we’re even obliged to physically confine our patients’ freedom of movement when it is required to bring about a greater good.

This Lent, I’ve been dwelling on the idea of restraints with reference to the crucifixion. Ordinarily we focus on the crucifixion’s Cross and its wood, especially on Good Friday – and rightly so. All through the New Testament, there’s a repeated emphasis on crosses – the Cross that our Lord carried and upon which he died; the crosses that we ourselves take up and bear as followers of the Lord, as imitators of him. “Apart from the cross,” insists St. Rose of Lima, “there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven” (CCC 618). These days, however, I’m more fixated on the nails – in fact, “fixate” is an especially appropriate descriptor here, because that’s exactly what nails do. They fix something in place: God, in this case.

Of the three or four Holy Nails that affixed our incarnate God to the Cross, there are few intact specimens with any substantial provenance. St. Helen is said to have discovered the originals along with the True Cross in the fourth century, but then their history gets a bit murky after that. Tradition has it that the nails are still around, or at least facsimiles with some kind of associative pedigree. You can view and venerate them – all 30 or more – at various sites and shrines around the world.

Years ago, I myself had the privilege of seeing one of them at the Roman Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, and it’s a Holy Nail with an especially solid claim on authenticity. “The true nail, kept at Rome, in the church of the Holy Cross, has been manifestly filed,” notes Fr. Alban Butler and his associates, “and is now without a point, as may be seen in all pictures of it.” It’s in a side chapel containing other Holy Land treasures, including Pilate’s tri-lingual placard that declared Jesus the King of the Jews, a couple thorns from the Crown, and chunks off the True Cross.

As a relatively new Catholic at the time of my visit, I was especially taken with these relics of the Passion, and I recollect even then being particularly impressed with the Holy Nail on display. The wood of the True Cross, I knew, was scattered around the world in innumerable reliquaries, but here was one of the actual bolts that captured God – that restrained him, not for his own good, but for mine. “The fact that He stayed on the Cross until the end…has remained in human history the strongest argument,” writes Pope St. John Paul II. “If the agony of the Cross had not happened, the truth that God is Love would have been unfounded.” That agony was a function of the nails; that salvific demonstration of divine love was facilitated by a fettered restriction to which he subjected himself.

Nowadays, the Holy Nails come to our attention primarily when we’re making the Way of the Cross and come to the Eleventh Station – “Jesus is nailed to the Cross.” However, the reflections associated with that Station are usually directed to the physical pain that accompanied the nailing – the pounding of those spikes into our Savior’s limbs, the gush of blood, the agony, the terror. “These barbarians fastened Him with nails; and then, raising the cross, left Him to die with anguish on this infamous gibbet,” writes St. Alphonsus Liguori in his familiar version of The Way. Then, in his meditation on this terrible event, Liguori requests of the Lord that he “nail my heart to Thy feet, that it may ever remain there to love Thee, and never quit Thee again.” It’s a laudable sentiment and a worthy spiritual goal, but recently the Nails have come to mean something even more to me.

I was sharing with Jim, my ersatz godfather, about a delicate and complex problem I’d been contending with. “I feel powerless to do anything,” I told him with a sad sigh, “helpless.”

Jim listened, paused, and then made a simple, wise suggestion. “Sounds like you should spend more time in church looking at Christ nailed to the Cross.”

The moment he said it, I knew he was right, and the crucifix in my parish church lent itself well to Jim’s proposal. The corpus is outsized, those holy hands clearly visible from the pews, and the black tacks pinning the divine wrists jut out in clear relief. The nails defy, they taunt, they dismiss all entreaties. One can readily imagine the bound Messiah feebly commending his mother to St. John and vice versa – what else could he do? No gesture of affection, no caress of his mother’s brow, none of that. The extremities of the Lord were held fast.

Yet it needn’t have been so – by Jesus’ own admission. “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father,” he told his disciples, “and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” And yet he acquiesced and stayed on the Cross, allowing the nails to pin him fast. I’m reminded of the scene in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where the lordly Aslan, a Christlike servant-king, submits to a humiliating, tortuous spectacle:

The Hags made a dart at him and shrieked with triumph when they found that he made no resistance at all. Then others…rushed in to help them, and between them they rolled the huge Lion over on his back and tied all his four paws together, shouting and cheering as if they had done something brave, though, had the Lion chosen, one of those paws could have been the death of them all. But he made no noise, even when the enemies, straining and tugging, pulled the cords so tight that they cut into his flesh.

As I gaze in silence at the nails on my parish’s imposing crucifix, and I contemplate how they briefly and mysteriously confined the Word made flesh, the principle of God’s creative force in the universe, I realize a peace with regards to my own intractable situation. I can do nothing, nothing – just like the One who bowed to a cross and its bondage. There’s only endurance and waiting, abandonment and hope, and I take comfort in the knowledge that he knows every dimension of my human pain, including the pain of limitation.

His immobility beckons me to imitate his acceptance and perseverance. He beckons; I hesitate. He beckons; I pray. He beckons….
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This reflection also appeared on Catholic Exchange.

The Best Violent Movie You’ve Never Seen

4 Mar

“The history of warfare can be seen as a history of increasingly more effective mechanisms for enabling and conditioning men to overcome their innate resistance to killing their fellow human beings.”
~ Lt. Col. Dave Grossman

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Of Hitchcock, Heaven, and the Thrill of the Chase

11 Jan

feast

“In Paradise you will be the great artist that God meant you to be! Ah, how you will delight the angels!”
~ Fillipa, “Babette’s Feast

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Battening Down the Hatches and Waking Up Catholic

6 Nov

trappists

“When you expect the world to end at any moment,
you know there is no need to hurry.”
~ Thomas Merton

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