Maundy Thursday & Richard Wilbur…The Rule

The Rule

The oil for extreme unction must be blessed
On Maundy Thursday, so the rule has ruled,
And by the bishop of the diocese.
Does that revolt you? If so, you are free
To squat beneath the deadly manchineel,
That tree of caustic drops and fierce aspersion,
And fancy that you have escaped from mercy.
Things must be done in one way or another

          Richard Wilbur

You might be tempted to eat the fruit. Do not eat the fruit. You might want to rest your hand on the trunk, or touch a branch.  Do not touch the tree trunk or any branches. Do not stand under or even near the tree for any length of time whatsoever. Do not touch your eyes while near the tree. Do not pick up any of the ominously shiny, tropic-green leaves. If you want to slowly but firmly back away from this tree, you would not find any argument from any botanist who has studied it. . . . This is the manchineel, known sometimes as the beach apple, or more accurately in Spanish-speaking countries as la manzanilla de la muerte, which translates to “the little apple of death,” or as arbol de la muerte, “tree of death.”

(Dan Nosowitz, “Do Not Eat, Touch, or Even Inhale the Air Around the Manchineel Tree,” Atlas Obscura, May 19, 2016.)

This warning is obviously based on bitter experience over a long period of time. It comes not only as a warning but as a gift to those to whom the manchineel tree looks perfectly appealing and who don’t suspect just how deadly the tree actually is. This is how a living tradition operates. Long experience provides each new generation with warnings it would have to learn the hard way all over again. This is especially helpful when behavior or principles of action that might seem unproblematic to one generation produce dire consequences for subsequent generations. Those who do not wish to learn the hard way about “the little apple of death” will be grateful for the tradition that warns them, and they will, in turn, make it their business to warn those who come after them.

Alas, we fallen creatures inhabit a world where multiple species of “the little apple of death” are found, each as seductive to the unsuspecting. But those who live in a self-consciously progressive age learn in a thousand little ways that traditions constrain our freedom, and those who are bold enough to strike out on their own, ignoring the warnings of their ancestors and predecessors, are valorized for doing so.

It has been over 50 years since Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, we are now in a position to judge the accuracy of its warnings about the consequences of the widespread acceptance of artificial means of birth control. The encyclical was widely mocked as hopelessly out of date, the fears of an aging celibate about matters on which he lacked the experience to “pontificate.” That he was drawing on millennia of experience by the oldest institution in history seemed to many all the more reason to ignore his warnings:  that easy access to artificial contraception would lead to a breakdown in sexual morality and undermine the stability of the institution of marriage, to casual sex, abortion and the hardness of heart required to imagine it to be morally acceptable, and not least to the demographic winter which will ravage our civilization and drastically compromise the cultures our children and grandchildren will inhabit.

Who would have thought a tree as lovely as the manchineel or something as seemingly innocuous as artificial forms of contraception would be so fraught with dire consequences? Almost no one knew based solely on his or her experience, but the accumulated experience and wisdom of our forebears very often knows such things. The chief reason we need such a tradition is because some of the mistakes we are likely to otherwise make are not only virtually irreversible but their terrible consequences will fall on our children and grandchildren, whose welfare largely depends on how we conduct ourselves, personally and culturally.

(reprised from the August 11, 2018)

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From the archives: Just Before Entering Holy Week

Just before entering into the spirit of Holy Week, however, I am prompted by a piece about the retrofitting of the Lord’s Prayer by a group calling itself the “Non-Theistic Liturgy Resources Working Group” at St. Stephen’s College in Edmonton, Alberta.

The rephrasing is perfectly predictable. It could have been written in one’s sleep. The “welfare of the Earth” — complete with a upper case E — admission of our “shortcomings,” and so on.

The author of this vacuous catalogue of platitudes is Rev. Dr. Charles Bidwell. Dr. Bidwell is anxious to point out that: “… at no time does this indicate a petition to an external force to intervene and do the work which only we can do.”

Which brings me to this from Benedict XVI:

The temptation to reduce Christianity to the level of a type of moralism is very great in our own day. For we are all living in an atmosphere of deism. It seems that there is no room for God himself to act in human history and in my life. And so we have the idea of God who can no longer enter into this cosmos, made and closed against him. What is left? Our action. And we are the ones who must transform the world. We are the ones who must generate redemption. We are the ones who must create a better world, a new world. And if that is how one thinks, then Christianity is dead.

On a related theme, speaking of the Cross of Christ, the future Benedict XVI wrote this in his now-classic Introduction to Christianity. The Cross, he wrote, “expresses the primacy of acceptance over action…”

Accordingly, from the point of view of the Christian faith, man comes in the profoundest sense to himself not through what he does but through what he accepts. [my emphasis]

One of the persistent themes in the writings of the great French theologian, Henri de Lubac, was captured in the title of one of his books: The Paradoxes of Faith. It is precisely these paradoxes that are lost on those who have lost the faith that keeps the paradoxes from turning into crude antitheses. Cardinal Ratzinger spelled out one such paradox in Introduction to Christianity:

The primacy of acceptance is not intended to condemn man to passivity; it does not mean that man can now sit idle. On the contrary, it alone makes it possible to do the things of this world in a spirit of responsibility, yet at the same time in an uncrampt, cheerful, free way, and to put them at the service of redemptive love.

Let Holy Week begin . . .

(this is an edited version of a post originally made on March 31, 2007 on our old blog site

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Free Revelation, and a Poetic entrée to Holy Week…

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As we prepare to enter Holy Week our attention is drawn toward the Paschal Mystery – and away from the those daily tasks that so incessantly occupy our time and energy. In characteristically poetic fashion Gil Bailie, below, offers us an entrée into these days of interior reflection as we find ourselves among the crowds following Jesus into Jerusalem:

Gil Bailie

Of one of my favorite poets, T. S. Eliot wrote: “Edwin Muir will remain among the poets who have added glory to the English language. He is also one of the poets of whom Scotland should always be proud. But there is, furthermore, it seems to me, something essential which is neither English nor Scottish, but Orcadian.” [The people of the Orkney islands off the northern coast of Scotland draw on a unique ancient heritage.] “There is [in Muir’s poetry] the sensibility of the remote islander, the boy from a simple offshore community plunged into the sordid horror of industrialism in Glasgow, who struggled to understand the modern world of the metropolis in London, and finally the realities of central Europe in Prague where he and his wife saw the iron curtain fall.”

Eliot’s assessment is confirmed in Muir’s poem The Incarnate One, which seems to me germane to both the world historical moment in which we live and to the drama of Holy Week which we are poised to enter. The poem has something of the foreboding of Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach, with its “eternal note of sadness” at the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the sea of faith. Unlike Arnold’s sense of wistfulness, however, Muir’s faith survives his disappointment with the harsh Calvinist Christianity into which he was born. Both his sober assessment of the historical circumstances of his time and his confidence that no recrudescence of paganism or decent into nihilism will long eclipse the Christian truth seem appropriate as well to our time. It also evokes something of René Girard’s understanding of Christianity and – if I may say so – it has a resonance with some of what I wrote in God’s Gamble and in my forthcoming essay in Communio: International Catholic Review entitled: “Making Peace Through the Blood of His Cross.”

Muir was roughly contemporary with G. K. Chesterton, and The Incarnate One ends on a Chestertonian note, but it begins with the rejection of the doctrine of predestination:

The Word made flesh here is made word again,
A word made word in flourish and arrogant crook.
See there King Calvin with his iron pen,
And God three angry letters in a book,
And there the logical hook
On which the Mystery is impaled and bent
Into an ideological instrument.

There’s better gospel in man’s natural tongue,
And truer sight was theirs outside the Law
Who saw the far side of the Cross among
The archaic peoples in their ancient awe,
In ignorant wonder saw
The wooden cross-tree on the bare hillside,
Not knowing that there a God suffered and died.

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A Prayer Before Holy Week

“May God grant my continued understanding of one thing: attachment to the Church’s tradition, far from being a stumbling block it is the principle of all effective audacity.”

– Henri de Lubac

Henri de Lubac

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Had Enough…?

Charles Péguy

“It is one and the same movement which makes people no longer believe in the Republic and no longer believe in God, no longer want to lead a republican life, and no longer want to lead a Christian life, they have had enough of it … One and the same sterility withers the city and Christendom. The political city and the Christian City. The city of man and the City of God. That is the specific sterility of modern times. … [T]he modern world is … opposed and contrary to all old cultures, to all old régimes, to all old cities, to everything which is culture, to everything which is the city. In fact, it is the first time in the history of the world that a whole world lives and prospers, appears to prosper, in opposition to all culture.”   – Charles Péguy

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A Thirst for Communion

Henri de Lubac


“The story is told of a priest who, shortly after apostatizing, said to a visitor who was about to congratulate him:

‘From now onward I am no more than a philosopher – in other words, a man alone.’

It must have been a bitter reflection, but it was true. He had left the home outside which there will never be anything save exile and solitude. Many people aren’t aware of it, because they live in the passing moment, alienated from themselves, “rooted in this world like seaweed on the rocks.” The preoccupations of daily life absorb them; “the golden mist of appearances” forms a veil of illusion around them. Sometimes they look in a hundred and one different places for some substitute for the Church, as if to deceive their own longings. Yet the man who hears in the depths of his being the call which has stimulated his thirst for communion – indeed, the man who does no more than sense it – grasps that neither friendship nor love, let alone any of the social groupings that underlie his own life, can satisfy it.”

Henri de Lubac

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Some Thoughts to Ponder…

Joseph Ratzinger

Before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger summarized something written by the French mystic and Jewish writer Simone Weil…

People recognize the good only when they themselves do it. They recognize the evil only when they do not do it.

Simone Weil

Henri de Lubac

The Church is not Catholic because she is spread abroad over the whole of the earth and can reckon on a large number of members. She was already Catholic on the morning of Pentecost, when all her members could be contained in a small room, as she was when the Arian waves seemed on the point of swamping her; she would still be Catholic if tomorrow apostasy on a vast scale deprived her of almost all the faithful. For fundamentally Catholicity has nothing to do with geography or statistics.” – Henri de Lubac

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Lenten Discipline

Christians the world over entered the liturgical season of Lent on Ash Wednesday. Many Catholic Christians were notified by their priests and bishops of the specific rules to be followed during these penitential 40 days leading into Holy Week and Easter. At my parish the list of Lenten Disciplines took up a whole page in the bulletin. This included the details of what comprised ‘fasting’ and ‘abstinence from meat’ and to whom it applied. Most people know that Lent is a time of fasting, prayer, and alms giving where self-sacrifice is called for. But in our individualistic age it rankles to read the rules laid out so unambiguously. The notion of discipline itself has a negative sound to modern ears. However, if we listen to the word carefully, we may be able to hear the cognate word ‘disciple’ – a word, at least to Christian ears, that is perceived more positively. In the Latin root the words refer to what is taught (disciplina), a teaching; and to one who is taught (discipulus), a student. This was pointed out to me many years ago by a monk I had visited seeking spiritual direction. He understood my desire to be a disciple of Our Lord. And as a Benedictine he surely knew about discipline. As we spoke and prayed for guidance as to my particular calling as a disciple, he said that there is always a discipline that is present and available to each person that is suited for his particular gifts and work. No doubt he saw that I had a greater desire to be a disciple than I had for discipline – for I went away disappointed in my hope that I would find in him a director for my spiritual longings.

Over the years since I have come to see that I did find spiritual direction in this encounter.  I have carried with me this understanding of the ever-present discipline that is always available, so that whenever I hear the word ‘discipline’ I perceive an opportunity to become a disciple, to be taught and to learn.

Gil Bailie introduced me to Fr. Dunstan Morrissey, O.S.B. in the early 1990’s and posted the following note when Dunstan passed from this life:

Here is the obituary of this most extraordinary man:

Fr. Dunstan Morrissey, O.S.B., died on Ash Wednesday, February 25, 2009 at the age of 85. He was the son of Robert and Joy Buchanan Morrissey and graduated magna cum laude from University of Notre Dame. He also attended L’Institut de Hautes Etudes Internationales, Geneva, and Sandeepany Sadhanalaya, Bombay. He served as a U.S. Vice Consul at Alexandria, Egypt before entering monastic life at St. Bede Abbey, Peru, Illinois where he taught and was ordained a priest. Fr. Dunstan devoted the rest of his life to his vocation as a hermit monk, in silence, solitude, and solidarity with the world.

His was a life of solitude, silence and prayer lived with such integrity that the lives of those fortunate enough to discover it were changed by his witness.


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The Role of the Laity

Gil Bailie recently gave a presentation at the Convocation of the College of Fellows of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley. Following are some excerpts:

My remarks take their point of departure and borrow their resolve from the following quotation from Hans Urs von Balthasar:

To the layman God has not given the help of sacramental power and ecclesial office, so he will not be able to entrench himself behind these as tactical cover; nor has God given the layman the yoke of ecclesial obedience: such obedience would dispense the layman of his specific responsibility in having to make judgments and take bold steps in the world, and freedom from ecclesial obedience in fact enables the layman to be a Christian in the world who dares all and is exposed to all.  (from Bernanos: An Ecclesial Existence)

….As von Balthasar has reminded us, we lay members of the Church will be required to “make judgments and take bold steps in the world,” inasmuch as our “freedom from ecclesial obedience” … both enables and compels us to perform a service for our beloved Church which those under the yoke of ecclesial obedience may be either unqualified, unable, or reluctant to perform. Let us step up, remembering the possibility – nay the likelihood – that in every hostile crowd there may be at least one Saul whom the Church desperately needs and whose conversion may depend on how we behave in the face of worldly opposition.

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From Anthropology to Social Theory

In the introduction to their “From Anthropology to Social Theory,” Arpad Szakolczai and Bjørn Thomassen remark on the entries found in the 2017 Sociology Catalogue:

“What [the catalogue] offers as social theory in 2017 is clearly a representative collection. It indeed represents something, even simply presents it: the utopian impulse of Marxism that can always be rejuvenated towards a finally realized socialism, liquification of the past in a constantly faster-moving present, post-meta-post ideologies, inciting youth with an invitation to transgress the threshold into a brave new world loosened from restricting norms, a relentless insisting on the Enlightenment values of autonomy and freedom to safeguard our liberal democracy. This is indeed a catalogue; a sort of war damage report of the most serious problems that plague our times. What we need is not a brand new social theory, as any step forward from here would just exacerbate the situation. We simply cannot go on like this. What we need is a proper stock-taking of this cul de sac, and a reassertion of what went lost along the road.”

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