Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Feast of the Holy Trinity

First Reading: Proverbs 8:22-31

Thus says the wisdom of God:
"The LORD possessed me, the beginning of his ways,
the forerunner of his prodigies of long ago;
from of old I was poured forth,
at the first, before the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no fountains or springs of water;
before the mountains were settled into place,
before the hills, I was brought forth;
while as yet the earth and fields were not made,
nor the first clods of the world.

"When the Lord established the heavens I was there,
when he marked out the vault over the face of the deep;
when he made firm the skies above,
when he fixed fast the foundations of the earth;
when he set for the sea its limit,
so that the waters should not transgress his command;
then was I beside him as his craftsman,
and I was his delight day by day,
playing before him all the while,
playing on the surface of his earth;
and I found delight in the human race."

Second Reading: Romans 5: 1-5

Brothers and sisters:
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faithto this grace in which we stand, and we boast in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Gospel: John 16: 12-15

Jesus said to his disciples: "I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth.

He will not speak on his own, but he will speak what he hears, and will declare to you the things that are coming. He will glorify me, because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you. Everything that the Father has is mine; for this reason I told you that he will take from what is mine and declare it to you."


            One of the proofs of Christianity, to my mind, is the fact that it has so much that no one understands. The Trinity is the most prominent and obvious example. One God in Three Persons, all of whom are eternal, equal, and unified. It isn’t One God expressing Himself in three ‘personas’ or three gods united in purpose, or One God who created two other equal Gods. As a matter of fact, pretty much any explanation for it that you can come up with will be more or less wrong. No one can understand it.
            Okay, so Christians believe something that’s impossible to understand and which seems self-contradictory. Why do I consider this as evidence for Christianity? Because this is exactly what we should expect from God: that He would be beyond our understanding. The source and end of all being, the uncreated Creator, the ultimate Reality makes contact with humanity. Do we really expect to be able to understand just what He is?
            Christianity doesn’t propose to explain everything about itself, which is precisely what gives it its strength. A philosophy which purports to account for everything and explain everything is obviously false. For one thing, it expects us to believe that one guy, one ordinary human being with ordinary brain power, figured out all the secrets of the universe. For another, the existence of mystery is part of Creation, so a philosophy that dispenses with mystery is, by its nature, incomplete.
            It’s interesting, then, to remember that Jesus didn’t explain everything while on Earth. He didn’t even come close to. He spoke directly on some things, dropped tantalizing hints on others, and completely ignored the rest. He left room for exploration, discussion, and philosophizing. You almost could say that what He left the Apostles was a statue hidden inside a mountain and told them to go nuts digging it out, knowing that they would never uncover the whole thing.
            The Trinity, along with other mysteries of the Church (such as the incarnation, the meaning of Christ’s Passion, the problem of Evil, and so forth), are things that we can never fully grasp, and that each generation of theologians finds something new to say about. Which, of course, is exactly what we would expect from an encounter with the Infinite.

Vive Christus Rex!

Friday, May 24, 2013

Famous Catholic Friday: William-Adolphe Bouguereau

Now we turn to the world of painting with one of the last great classical artists.

Catholic Credentials: Life-long devout Catholic; frequently painted religious themes; viewed his art as a form of worship.

Nerd Credentials: A history and mythology buff; a staunch traditionalist in an age of increasing modernism (okay, that’s stretching ‘nerd’ credentials to the breaking point, but I think it’s notable).

               He was one of the most famous and respected artists of his time, but he was forgotten and ridiculed almost immediately after his death. From being hailed as the greatest living artist, he was dismissed as a prosaic dinosaur, bound to the past and with nothing whatsoever to say to the modern world. The rise and fall of William-Adolphe Bouguereau could almost be used as a parable for modernity, in which the timeless and beautiful is cast aside in favor of being considered 'up-to-date.'
                The son of wine and olive oil merchants, Bouguereau was born in La Rochelle, France on November 30th, 1825. As was fairly common in the region, he the product of an inter-religious marriage: his father was Catholic, his mother a Calvinist, and as was the custom, he was raised in his father’s religion.
                Theodore Bouguereau, William’s father, was never a successful man. His business problems (and, no doubt, the religious differences) put a terrible strain upon his marriage. Both to ease the family’s financial burden and to spare them the sight of their parents’ violent arguments, the children (William and his sister, Hanna) were sent to live with relatives.
                William, for his part, stayed with his uncle, Father Eugene Bouguereau, in the small parish of Mortagne sur Gironde. It turned out to have been the best possible thing for the young artist and one of the happiest times of his life. His uncle became a father and mentor to him, giving him the love and affection that had been so sorely missing from his unhappy parents. The priest instructed his nephew in Latin, religion, literature, and classical culture, as well as being an enthusiastic supporter of the drawings that the boy had already been working on. In addition to his instruction, Fr. Bouguereau was a true friend and companion to his nephew, taking him on long horse-back rides throughout the beautiful Saintonge region where they nourished their shared love of nature and history.

Fr. Eugene Bouguereau, as painted by his nephew

                When Bouguereau was fourteen years old, his uncle sent him to a boarding school run by a friend of his. Contrary to so many other tales of boarding school horror, young William adjusted well to the new environment and eagerly gobbled up his classes in theology, classics, literature, and his first ever drawing lessons.
                It was during the latter that his instructor, a young classicist named Louis Sage, drilled into his head the fact that the art world was not the romantic, bohemian life that some claimed, but was in fact nothing but endless competition and struggle. Bouguereau took this lesson to heart and determined that constant hard work would be the only way one could survive as an artist.
                After only two happy years at the college, Bouguereau was summoned home. Not his happy home in Mortagne, but his father’s home in Bordeaux. Theodore had by this time abandoned the wine trade and opened up a olive oil business and he wanted his son to come and help with the bookkeeping.
                As you can imagine, this was not at all pleasing to the teenaged artist. The only silver lining was that there was an art school in Bordeaux. After much patient pleading, he finally obtained his father’s permission to enroll there, on two conditions: one, that it would not interrupt his professional duties, and two, that it would not lead him into a career as an artist. Needless to say, neither condition lasted long.
                Bouguereau excelled at the school. Despite only being a part time student, he soon surpassed his older, full-time contemporaries. His success was such that, before long, he was entertaining dreams of going to Paris to enter the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts. His father, apparently realizing that the damage was done, reluctantly gave him permission to leave home, and with the help of his uncle Bouguereau soon earned enough money painting commissioned portraits to fund his trip to Paris.
                In Paris Bouguereau became the student of Francois Picot, a prominent academic artist of the time. Bouguereau threw himself into his work, taking very little time to eat or sleep while Picot drilled him incessantly in the art of painting (rumors that he had the young man wax his carriage repeatedly to develop his brush stroke remain unconfirmed). While he worked, Bouguereau enrolled in the Ecole, where he again excelled, finally taking home the coveted “Grand Prix de Rome” for his painting Zenobia found by Shepherds on the Banks of the Araxe in his fourth year. The reward was an all-expenses paid year of work and study in Rome, where he poured over the great Italian masters: Leonardo, Michelangelo, and especially Raphael, who quickly became one of his favorites (no word on his opinion of Donatello).

Dante and Virgil In Hell: an early work.

                Upon his return from Rome, Bouguereau threw himself into his career with every ounce of dedication he possessed (which was quite a lot). The result was a meteoric rise in fame and prestige, so much so that in 1857, a mere six years after returning from Rome, he received a commission from Emperor Napoleon III himself to paint his portrait and that of the Empress. Napoleon was so pleased with the results that he commissioned another painting before the year was out, this one commemorating his visit to the flood victims of Tarascon (note that the Emperor wasn’t so much concerned with commemorating the victims themselves as his visit to them. Some things never change).
                With his income rising steadily, Bouguereau married Marie-Nelly Monchablon in 1856 and soon after purchased a large house and studio in Monparnasse. Then, from 1862-63, Bouguereau suddenly reigned in his prodigious output, producing a mere two painting in ’62 (one of which, Holy Family was purchased by the Emperor as a gift for his wife; he really was a big fan). The reason was twofold: first, Bouguereau had decided to do a complete overhaul of his painting technique in an attempt to find new and better ways to produce the beauty he sought. The other was that he had somewhat reluctantly decided to apply for membership in the Academie and needed to cultivate his social connections. It was his second such attempt, but the effort paid off; he was accepted. In years to come, he would be elected president of the Academie.

The Departure of Tobias
                Meanwhile, after that brief period of dryness, Bourguereau continued to produce paintings an almost insane rate. Almost every morning he was rush to his studio, eager to begin, and every night, when he couldn’t continue, he was excited at the prospect of starting again the next day. Any day he couldn’t get any painting in, he was miserable for the loss. Over his lifetime he produced a staggering 826 paintings. His favorite subjects included classical mythology (especially the story of Eros and Psyche), religious themes, and children, especially peasant children. He loved to exult the poor, and he had a special gift for retaining the likeness of his sitter while beautifying her at the same time.

Italian Girl Drawing Water

The Edge of the Brook

Pony Ride

                In addition to his painting, Bouguereau also worked hard as a teacher, striving to preserve the art of classical painting in a world that was increasingly turning to more modern schools. He emphasized hard-work and discipline, but also encouraged his students to explore and express their own loves and imagination in their art. To Bouguereau, technical perfection was what set the imagination free: once an artist had developed the skill born of hours upon hours of effort, he could paint anything he desired. Over the years he taught hundreds, if not thousands of young artists. When he wasn’t painting or teaching, Bouguereau gave much of his time (at least one day a week was his rule) to charity work, raising money for the poor and struggling artists. He also became famous for his almost militant drive to open up the great art schools to women. It was largely due to his influence and unfailing efforts in this direction that this was indeed accomplished in his life time.
                His personal life, alas, was not as happy as his professional life. Though he and his wife, Marie, loved each other dearly, they had to suffer the loss of four of their five children. In 1877, Marie herself died shortly after giving birth to his fifth child, a son who died only a few months later. These constant tragedies devastated the aging artist, and he took solace, as usual, in his paintings, which reflected his grief.

The First Mourning


                Following the death of his wife, Bouguereau began to entertain ideas of marrying again. Specifically, he had fallen in love with one of his brightest pupils, an American named Elizabeth Jane Gardner, who was 12 years his junior. His mother and daughter adamantly protested the match, so Bouguereau obediently refrained from saying anything more about it for the remainder of his mother’s life, though he and Elizabeth were secretly engaged in 1879.

Miss Elizabeth Gardiner, painted in 1879

                Professionally, he remained at the top of his field. When Victor-Hugo died in 1885, he was selected by the French Institute to represent the art of painting at the master’s funeral. His art continued to be popular, especially among wealthy Americans, who considered him one of the greatest painters of the age.
                Despite his popularity, the shadows of things to come were visible on the horizon. Already Bouguereau had to endure the slander and contempt of the avant-garde. They called him stingy and miserly (when, as noted, he gave much of his free time to charity work). They accused him of being lecherous for his many nude paintings. Setting aside the fact that Bouguereau only painted nudes comparatively rarely (they amounted to about 10% of his works), that’s a rather ironic accusation for the avant-garde to be making, considering how famously bohemian many of their lifestyles were/are. Degas in particular loved to mock and dismiss Bouguereau’s work as being ‘lifeless’ and ‘plastic.’ And more and more these new artists were coming to dominate the French art world, where they would eventually use their monopoly on schools and museums to black-list the Academics.
                Bouguereau, for his part, didn’t give much thought to these young artists. He presumably didn’t care for what he saw as their undisciplined style, but he remained largely undisturbed by their slanders. His focus was the pursuit of beauty in his painting, and as long as he could do that, he was happy. He offered no defense of his paintings, because they quite clearly needed no defense. They were beautiful, and that’s all there was to it. A painting, he knew, is like a joke: no explaination should be required.


Bouguereau never sold this painting, but kept it in his studio as an act of piety

                In 1896, Bouguereau’s mother died at the age of 92, bringing the now-71-year-old artist’s seventeen-year engagement to an end. He and Elizabeth were finally married in his home parish in La Rochelle. His joy was tempered by several professional blows, including an angry public response to his participation in the Berlin Exposition in 1891 (Franco-Prussian relations were still bitter following the devastating war between the two nations in the 1870s), and the tragic death of his adult son, Paul, in 1899. Following this final, terrible loss, Bouguereau began to retire from public life. He performed his remaining duties for the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris (where his paintings were exhibited to great acclaim), but he began to turn down the invitations and accolades he continued to receive. In 1905 his delicate health was given another jarring blow when someone attempted to burgle his home. Sensing his end was near, he returned home to La Rochelle, where he died peacefully on August 19th, 1905.
                Bouguereau hadn’t been dead long before his reputation was in tatters. New schools of art: impressionists and cubists, the self-styled ‘avant-garde’ of the art world, were gaining in popularity. The academic style was ridiculed as being too rigid and ‘obvious,’ while the new styles were bold, innovative, and freeing. Bouguereau, as the greatest and most prominent of the old school, received the brunt of the new artists’ mockery. For decades his work was left in private collections, or abandoned to rot in museum store-rooms, unseen by all but a few. His name wasn’t even included in art encyclopedias, unless it was to deride him as one of the justly-supplanted Academics. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that his work was exhibited again and began to be appreciated once more.

The Broken Pitcher

We won’t argue with the quality of impressionist art: as with all styles, some of it is good, some of it is bad, some of it is ugly (*coughpicassocough*). However, it is undeniably very much of its own time: an impressionist or cubist or post-impressionist painting screams “Hey, I was made in the 19th or 20th century!” Whether they will remain popular in the future is anyone’s guess. The trouble with the avant-garde is that, once it ceases to be avant-garde it frequently loses its appeal. When the excitement of the new and innovative is passed, what we are left with is nothing but the sheer reality of beauty and ugliness.
I am no art critic, and I can’t predict whether the impressionists and neo-impressionists, and all the rest will enjoy a long popularity (I am, however, pretty certain that most of the junk that occupies modern art museums won’t). But one thing I can say for sure is that, if a day ever comes when Degas or Monet or Picasso are relegated to the obscure corners of art classes, to be studied only by a select few, the paintings of William-Adolphe Bouguereau will still be viewed, admired, and beloved by millions.
“One has to seek Beauty and Truth,” Bouguereau declared, and his whole career was built around this search. His work, unlike the work of so many of his contemporaries is timeless, as is Raphael’s, Michelangelo’s, and the work of any other great artist for that simple fact: because it is beautiful.  

The Abduction of Psyche

The Nut Gatherers, my personal favorite painting

Vive Christus Rex!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

If You Won't Do It Now, You Won't Do It Then

                So, I was looking for a lead into an article about the “infinity of excuses” we make for inaction (as Theodore Roosevelt put it) when I stumbled across what, effectively, was the article I wanted to write. Nuts.
                So, as presented by Stacy Trasancos at StacyTrasancos.com, here is the tale of Can and Could:

Could held himself in great esteem, and was always dreaming. “If I were rich, I could…” He felt blessed with a benevolent disposition, and in his imagination he thought of a great many projects for doing good on a grand scale. Can was a simple young woman, not great or so well-dressed. She went about her life neither sauntering nor scheming far into the future. She scarcely knew what a project was.

One day Could was riding a crowded bus and the conductor inquired if any of the gentlemen would like to give up his seat. A sick man wanted to ride the bus and it was very cold outside. “Like!” thought Could with a laugh. “Who would like to be outside in this cold?” And so Could stayed in his warm seat and thought of new laws he might pass to improve the transportation system. No one should have to walk sick in the cold.

On the same day Can, having finished her chores, entered a store to buy something to eat. Inside there was a child carrying a basket much too heavy for her small frame, and the shawl that she wore was fallen from her shoulders and dragged in the muddy snow. “What happened to your shawl?” Can asked. The little girl said her mother was too ill to go to the store, so she sent her daughter instead. The girl could not hold up her shawl to keep warm lest she drop the basket. ”You’ll die from the cold,” said Can. Then Can tied up the shawl, helped the girl sell the items in the basket, and walked with her back to her home where she made the sick mother’s bed.

That night Could feel asleep in his arm chair by the fire in his comfortable home reflecting on all the acts of justice his new laws would bring, while Can cooked a stew so she might return to check on the poor family the next day. The moral of the story? Of all the ills that human kind endure, small is the part which laws and kings can cure.

                Now, the moral the story gives itself is of the folly of looking to laws and the government to solve all our problems when most of them could be solved by a little Christian charity. That’s an extremely relevant moral for today, but it’s not the one I’d like to draw from this story.
                See, Could, as his name implies, looks at life through the lens of ‘if only:’ if only I were rich, if only I had political power, if only I were a Metahuman, then I would be a veritable saint! ‘Could,’ by its very nature, implies a ‘but:’ I could help you, but I’d much rather stay warm myself, so I won’t.
                Most of us do this. We imagine ourselves to be so wonderfully charitable and kind because we picture the sort of things we would do…if we had more money, time, courage, faith, and energy. So, we live out our lives in a dream-like haze, waiting for our ship to come in so we can do all the wonderful things we imagine ourselves doing.
                The truth, though, is that we’re deluding ourselves. We will always find an excuse for our inaction. We don’t give money to the poor because we don’t think we have enough, but if we won the lottery tomorrow we still wouldn’t give to the poor because we’d be afraid of swindlers. We don’t make time to exercise because we are so busy, but when we have vacations we don’t exercise because, well, it’s a vacation!
                The short version of what I’m trying to say is that if you won’t do it now, you won’t do it then. If the absence of ideal circumstances prevents you from doing something, it means you don’t really intend to do it. The brutal fact is that circumstances will never be ideal and there will always be something we could come up with to excuse ourselves.
                Look at the men throughout history who accomplished great things: can you find even one for whom circumstances were ideal? Theodore Roosevelt was a timid, asthmatic child who grew up to win the Medal of Honor, serve as President of the United States, and explore the Amazon jungle. John Paul II had his university career interrupted by the Second World War and completed his studies by firelight in between shifts at a chemical plant. George Eastman conducted his experiments with film and photography by night while working full time, going without sleep for up to 48 hours straight.
                See, if you really want to do something, you’ll do it regardless of your circumstances. If you only imagine you would like to do something, you’ll come up with any number of excuses no matter what your circumstances. So, if you want to be a saint, help the poor, and spread the word of God, you’ll do it wherever you can and no matter what your circumstances. Remember how Jesus blessed the poor widow in the Gospel for resolutely giving alms despite her own destitution.
                So, if there’s something you feel called to do, don’t wait: do it now! Don’t fall into the trap of thinking “when I have more time” or “when I have more money” or “when I am appointed the unquestioned lord and ruler of the world.” Whatever it is, start working on it right now. Even if you only have ten free minutes a day, that ten minutes to do a little writing, sketch a little, sew a little, do the Charles Atlas routine, or what have you. Ten real minutes of effort today will get you a lot further than hours of effort ‘someday.’  

Vive Christus Rex!

Scripture Readings: Pentecost

First Reading: Acts 2: 1-11

When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem. At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. They were astounded, and in amazement they asked, “Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his native language? We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.”

Second Reading: Romans 8: 8-17

Brothers and sisters: Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you. Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is alive because of righteousness. If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit that dwells in you. Consequently, brothers and sisters, we are not debtors to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a Spirit of adoption, through whom we cry, “Abba, Father!”The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Gospel: John 20: 19-23

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.”When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”


And so, at long last, we come to Pentecost and the return of Ordinary Time.

Today I’d like to focus on St. Paul’s difficult, complex passage from Romans (excuse my redundancy: his passage from Romans).  

Right off the bat we get Paul’s favorite theme in Romans: the fact that you can’t just work your way into Salvation. This isn’t a quid-pro-quo situation, in which you do something and you earn an equal and proportional reward (not to say that merit and reward are not involved, but they aren’t the fundamentals of the thing). That is, there is nothing we can do on Earth to ‘earn’ our salvation purely as a matter of ‘this for that.’ Those who can’t see beyond the idea of exchange, who ‘are in the Flesh,’ cannot see God. Lewis had a good example of this sort of person in The Great Divorce in the form of a factor owner who, upon getting to Heaven, angrily demands his rights and rejects the idea of ‘bloody charity.’ The spirit who has come to greet him – a repentant murderer – warns him that his ‘rights’ aren’t what he thinks they are and that no one gets their rights in Heaven, but only charity. The foreman, who lives according to the flesh, declares that he would rather be damned and so returns to Hell.

But moving on, Paul then goes on to describe his readers as being “in the Spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.” In the following sentences, he seems to use ‘the Spirit’ synonymously with both “the spirit of Christ” and simply “Christ.” The Spirit of God, then, is the same as Christ’s Spirit, which is also the Spirit that raised Christ, and the Spirit that dwells in the follower of Christ: the Holy Spirit.

So, the Holy Spirit, we may say, is both what raised Christ from the dead, and that which gives us life in Christ. Also remember that Mary conceived Jesus “by the Holy Spirit.” Therefore, the Spirit is both what brought Jesus into His human, earthly life and what raised Him into His glorified, resurrected life. This also, according to Paul, is the role he plays in our lives; the Spirit is what elevates us out of our ‘dead,’ fleshy lives and allows us to truly live the Gospel.

This, then, is the ‘counterpoint’ to the life of the flesh, as described above. Christians don’t seek to earn our way into Heaven, but to work as far as possible on the way to perfection by means of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit, then, is the means by which we become virtuous and acquire Heaven.

This is what balances the ‘reward vs. freely given’ conundrum; that we ‘put to death’ our sinful lives by means of the Spirit. It both allows us to ‘merit’ our rewards (since it involves our choices and actions) but also prevents it from being a simple matter of ‘rights,’ since it’s the Holy Spirit, and not our own fleshy selves that perfects us and brings us to Salvation.

Vive Christus Rex!

Friday, May 17, 2013

Famous Catholic Friday: Dante Alighieri

After a bit of a break, we continue our tour through the arts as we now turn to literature.

Catholic Credentials: Lifelong Catholic; wrote perhaps the definitive work of Catholic imagination.

Nerd Credentials: Master poet; wrote one of the great works of world literature; pretty much created the popular image of Hell.

The son of a Florentine notary, Dante Alighieri’s life began in 1265 between May 18th and June 17th (judging by the fact that he self-identified as a Gemini). He was a member of the ancient Guelph family, which ruled the democratic Florence.

His new life began when he was nine years old when his father took him to a May Day party. There he met the then-eight-years old Beatrice, whom he instantly fell in love with, a love he carried for the rest of his life. This was despite the fact that he only met her again once, some nine years later. The story goes that he was walking down the streets of Florence when he saw her, dressed in white and accompanied by two chaperones. She turned and greeted him, which so overwhelmed the young poet that he had to retreat to his room to think of her.

Beatrice married a Florentine banker named Simone dei Bardi in 1287, while Dante himself married a woman named Gemma di Manetto Donati, whom he had been betrothed to since childhood, and who bore him four children. Beatrice died in 1290, and Dante composed his monumental dedication to her, Vita Nuova in 1294, celebrating his deep spiritual love for her.

In the meantime, of course, life went on, and for Dante it was never easy. He was deeply embroiled in Florentine politics, where the two ruling parties were the democratic Whites (of which he was a member) and the aristocratic Blacks, who had the backing of Pope Boniface VIII. The conflict (which is too complicated and full of politics to get into here) ended with Dante and his fellow Whites being utterly defeated in 1302. On trumped-up charges he was sentenced to permanent exile from Florence under pain of death by burning. He never saw his wife or his beloved city again, though three of his children later joined him in exile. He made an abortive attempt to reenter Florence by force through an alliance with rival families, but nothing came of it.

With this crushing defeat Dante withdrew from politics for a time and focused completely on his poetry, through which he attempted to come to terms with his exile. In particular, his Canzone of the Three Ladies he described himself as being visited by Justice and discovering that she too is an outcast, causing him to declare his exile an honor if he has such companions.

With the election of Henry VII as Holy Roman Emperor in 1308, Dante returned to politics. Hoping that the Emperor could restore his fortunes in Italy, he threw his full support and writing prowess behind the temporal ruler, composing De Monarchia in 1309, in which he argued that the Emperor, the temporal ruler of the world, was as necessary for man’s earthly happiness as the Pope was for his eternal salvation; the Pope entrusted with all things revealed of the divine, the Emperor with care of all things temporal. And just as the Pope’s authority came from Jesus, so the Emperor’s authority came from God.

Henry indeed entered Italy in September, 1310, and Dante continued to praise and exult him as a new savior, come to heal the wounds of the land. At the same time, he repeatedly urged the Emperor to take Florence, denouncing the city’s rulers for their opposition to Henry. In September and October of 1312, Henry finally laid siege to Florence, but the city withstood him and the imperial army withdrew. A year later, Henry died and Dante was left again without a patron.

Dante travelled to Lucca, where he came under the protection of the ill-fated Uguccinone della Faggiuola, a soldier who had temporarily taken control of the city. From there, in 1316, he became aware that there was talk in Florence of permitting his return, under certain conditions. Dante, however, angrily refused to accept any such conditions for his return. With the possibility of his return to Florence gone forever, Dante settled in Ravenna. It was there that he finally (mostly) completed his masterpiece: The Divina Commedia: the Divine Comedy; an allegorical journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven that contains virtually the full intellectual and artistic achievement of the Middle Ages. I don’t have either the time or the skill to do justice to it here, but it stands as one of the pillars of world literature; the greatest artistic achievement of its age. Moreover, Dante’s decision to write in Italian rather than Latin (over the objections of many of his contemporaries, who considered the material to elevated for the vernacular) made him almost the founder of Italian poetry. Far from the language debasing the material, the material elevated the language.

In the course of the first book of his epic, Inferno, Dante fixed forever the popular image of Hell as a pit of nine concentric circles, each one dedicated to punishing a particular sin. Most his hell is made up of fiery rock and sulphur, but at the very bottom, the lowest circle reserved for the worst sinners, it is frozen and icy. Here are the traitors punished.

Personally, my favorite book is the second one: Purgatorio. In it, Dante and his guide ascend the mountain of Purgatory, where repentant sinners work off their particular crimes while climbing to heaven. At the end, in the new Eden that stands at the very gate of Heaven, Dante meets Beatrice again, who rebukes him for his sins and faithlessness before inviting him to gaze his fill upon her beauty.

The third and final book, Paradisio, is, alas, not as evocative as the others, being largely devoid of the great imagery of the first two. Dante intended to revise and perfect the book, but he never had the chance: his life’s journey ended in 1321.

Dante had a mostly hostile relationship with the Church hierarchy of his time. His political aims and views were at odds with those of the Papacy of his day, and his bitterness at this is evident in the Inferno, where he envisions most of the Popes of his lifetime (including St. Celestine V) in Hell. This, in turn, has given rise to speculation that he was a kind of proto-protestant. However, it is clear from his writings that, despite his opinions of specific Church leaders and the behavior of the Church as an institution (and it must be admitted that there was a lot to condemn at the time), Dante revered the Church’s spiritual authority and believed all of her teachings, including regarding the supremacy of the Papacy. More importantly, his theology was perfectly Orthodox, from his moral thought to his views on the Saints, the Eucharist, Mary, and the path to Salvation.

Dante Alighieri was a man haunted all his life by love: his chaste, idealized love for Beatrice; his fiery, passionate love for Florence; and his inspired, uplifting love for God. Theses loves, combined with his struggles and sufferings, combined to give us one of the purest examples of Christian imagination ever committed to paper. He reminds us that our loses, our sufferings, and our failures can lead to something far greater than we could ever have imagined, if we will surrender to “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

Vive Christus Rex!

Monday, May 13, 2013

Scripture Readings: The Ascension of the Lord.

First Reading: Acts 1: 1-11

In the first book, Theophilus, I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught until the day he was taken up, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them by many proofs after he had suffered, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While meeting with them, he enjoined them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for “the promise of the Father about which you have heard me speak; for John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

When they had gathered together they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He answered them, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight. While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going, suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”

Second Reading: Ephesians 1: 17-23

Brothers and sisters: May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of him. May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened, that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe, in accord with the exercise of his great might: which he worked in Christ, raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavens, far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion, and every name that is named not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things beneath his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.

Gospel: Luke 24: 46-53

Jesus said to his disciples: “Thus it is written that the Christ would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold I am sending the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, raised his hands, and blessed them. As he blessed them he parted from them and was taken up to heaven. They did him homage and then returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God.


“And he put all things beneath his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.”

Note the interesting clause used to describe the Church, ‘which is his body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.’

The implications of this brief statement are staggering, if we take the trouble to draw them out. The Church is Christ’s body; that much we hear often enough. But Paul goes on to describe it as ‘the fullness of’ Jesus (understanding “the one who fills all things in every way” to refer to Jesus).

What does this mean? Consider it in light of Jesus’s last words to His disciples at the beginning of Acts, just before He is taken up to Heaven:

“And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth.”

The Church, then, as represented by the Apostles, is Christ’s voice on Earth; it is the continuation of His mission. We saw this even before His passion, when He sent out the twelve and then the seventy-two to spread His word throughout Judea (Luke 9: 1-6, 10: 1-20).

But this is more than just a PR effort or a messaging mission. The Church isn’t just the means of telling people about Jesus. In effect, she is Jesus. The Church is Christ’s body; she is the continuation of His incarnation. Not only is Jesus the head of the Church, but Jesus is truly present in every individual church and chapel through the Eucharist.

And there’s still a deeper way. Consider what happens when we receive the Eucharist. When we eat or drink anything, it is broken down in our body and the nutrients are then used to repair and build our cells. Therefore, when we eat His body and drink His blood, He remains in us, not just in a spiritual sense, but in a literal, corporeal sense. Literally, His body is used to build up part of our own body. Therefore, each of us who receives the Eucharist carries Christ’s body within us. We are literally part of His body.

The implication I take from the ‘fullness’ clause is that the Church is not a ‘holding pattern,’ so to speak. She isn’t just a means of remembering Jesus’ work, or even continuing it. The Church is the ‘fullness’ of Jesus’ work; she is what He came to create: to be. Jesus didn’t just come for the sake of the comparatively few people He was able to minister to while on Earth; He came for the whole world. But how could He minister to the whole world while He was in the flesh? By ascending to Heaven and sending out the Church, He becomes present to the entire world. The Church, then, is the fullness of Christ’s ministry.

That’s why Jesus had to ascend to the Father, and why He commanded Mary Magdalene ‘do not touch me’ (John 20: 17). The time Jesus spent on the Earth in the flesh was the foundation; the seed He planted. But now the time had come for it to sprout and the disciples had to ‘let Him go’ in order to receive Him in His fullness as the Church. Because the Church is how He would spread throughout the whole world; the Church is Christ on Earth.

Vive Christus Rex!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Scripture Readings: The Sixth Sunday of Easter

  First Reading: Acts 15: 1-2, 22-29

Some who had come down from Judea were instructing the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.” Because there arose no little dissension and debate by Paul and Barnabas with them, it was decided that Paul, Barnabas, and some of the others should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders about this question.

The apostles and elders, in agreement with the whole church, decided to choose representatives and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. The ones chosen were Judas, who was called Barsabbas, and Silas, leaders among the brothers. This is the letter delivered by them:

“The apostles and the elders, your brothers, to the brothers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia of Gentile origin: greetings. Since we have heard that some of our number who went out without any mandate from us have upset you with their teachings and disturbed your peace of mind, we have with one accord decided to choose representatives and to send them to you along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, who have dedicated their lives to the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. So we are sending Judas and Silas who will also convey this same message by word of mouth: ‘It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage. If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right. Farewell.’”

Second Reading: Revelations 21: 10-14, 22-23

The angel took me in spirit to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. It gleamed with the splendor of God. Its radiance was like that of a precious stone, like jasper, clear as crystal. It had a massive, high wall, with twelve gates where twelve angels were stationed and on which names were inscribed, the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites .There were three gates facing east, three north, three south, and three west. The wall of the city had twelve courses of stones as its foundation, on which were inscribed the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. I saw no temple in the city for its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb. The city had no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gave it light, and its lamp was the Lamb.

Gospel: John 14: 23-29

Jesus said to his disciples: “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; yet the word you hear is not mine but that of the Father who sent me.

“I have told you this while I am with you. The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. You heard me tell you, ‘I am going away and I will come back to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father; for the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it happens, so that when it happens you may believe.”


“Whoever loves me will keep my word.” That’s one of those passages that we like to skip over, isn’t it? “Oh, I love Jesus and I know Jesus loves me! I don’t have to follow that silly old teaching, do I?” Yes, yes you do. Because if you really love Jesus, you will keep His word. That is, you will follow His commandments. If you don’t, that means you don’t actually love Jesus, you only love your image of Him: you love the imaginary Jesus you made up to comfort yourself.

There is only one Jesus and you find Him in the Bible and in the Tradition of the Church. If you want to know what Jesus has to say about a particular issue, you go to those two sources (both of them; trying to use just one or the other tends to get you into trouble). 

St. Jerome famously said “To be ignorant of Scripture is to be ignorant of Christ.” I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that most of us today are shamefully ignorant of Scripture; I know I am. This, I’m afraid, means that most of us are appealing to a Jesus who doesn’t exist. That’s a concept that should scare us, since Jesus is the only way to Salvation and following the false Inception-type-version probably won’t save us.

The fact is that anyone who claims to follow Jesus must read the Bible and listen to the Church if they’re going to be following the real Him. Of course, the real Him is much more intimidating and demanding than the Spellbinder-machine version, which is why so many people prefer the imaginary Jesus to the real one. It’s much easier to picture a Jesus who simply smiles and tells everyone to be nice to each other than one who says that plucking out your own eyeballs is preferable to sin and that divorce is impossible for the lawfully married. But only the latter Jesus: the real Jesus can save us. He is the only real Jesus.

That’s why, whenever you hear someone say something like “I don’t think Jesus cares about this” or “the Church needs to change her teachings on this subject” we need to tell them “show me from the Bible or from Tradition where it says that your view is correct and the Church is wrong.” Because if you can’t do that, you’re arguing from a false Jesus and your argument has no weight.

As the Apostles said a couple weeks ago, let us obey God rather than men.

Vive Christus Rex!

Magazine Capacity Limits are a BAD Idea: Exhibit A

The following video illustrates pretty starkly why you might want to have more than seven rounds in your magazine (and why you'll probably need to shoot your attacker several times):

You see, most people get their ideas about guns from the movies, where if you shoot someone he dies immediately. That's not how guns work in real life. Guns poke holes in you; that's it. Yeah, one or two shots will probably cause you to bleed out eventually, but "eventually" doesn't really count when someone is trying to kill you or your family. To make someone stop, especially with a handgun, you're probably going to have to put a lot of bullets into him (hardened or drug-addled criminals have been known to soak up ten or fifteen rounds and still walk to the ambulance). Then, if he has an accomplice or two...well, you get the idea. 

One thing about this video is that the guy really should have barricaded his family in the basement or an interior room or something rather than waiting in the living room (quite apart from what happens here, what if the first guy just started shooting right away?). That, and he ought to have had a spare magazine handy for just such an occasion (or, you know, a shotgun or assault rifle handy in the basement. You know what I said about putting a lot of bullets into the guy? Shotguns let you put eight or nine in with a single blast). Good on him for looking out the window before letting the thief in, though.

Vive Christus Rex!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Feel-Good Video of the Day

Crook with shotgun vs. unassuming civilian. Guess who wins:

Free tip: guns are long range weapons. As in, you don't have to shove it right in your victim's face for it to work. Thank God for stupid crooks!

Vive Christus Rex!