TSD 43: The Meek Week

Meekness in Scripture, Francis de Sales, and elsewhere

I covet your prayers as I work over these next several weeks. Ideas are coming into place for by book Renewal 2050, but actually getting them on paper amid all the other business of life is the tricky part. Pray especially for patience for my children as I spend a bit more time with my laptop than they’d like me to. Thank you!

These Seven Days…

…in the Ordinary Form

It is the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time. The readings are Isaiah 8:23-9:3; 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 17; and Matthew 4:12-23 (or 12-17, if you’re lame).

The reading from Isaiah is quoted directly in the Gospel, but I’d rather focus on the second half, in which Peter, Andrew, James, and John casually walk away from their families and livelihoods to follow the Lord. Matthew doesn’t dwell on the details, but what a strange and extraordinary moment in salvation history! Augustine writes:

Had one learned been chosen, he might have attributed the choice to the merit of his learning. But our Lord Jesus Christ, willing to bow the necks of the proud, sought not to gain fishermen by orators, but gained an Emperor by a fisherman. Great was Cyprian the pleader, but Peter the fisherman was before him.

And Gregory the Great discusses what we can learn about following the Lord from these Apostles:

Peter and Andrew had seen Christ work no miracle, had heard from him no word of the promise of the eternal reward, yet at this single bidding of the Lord they forgot all that they had seemed to possess, and straightway left their nets, and followed Him. In which deed we ought rather to consider their wills than the amount of their property. He leaves much who keeps nothing for himself, he parts with much, who with his possessions renounces his lusts. Those who followed Christ gave up enough to be coveted by those who did not follow. Our outward goods, however small, are enough for the Lord; He does not weigh the sacrifice by how much is offered, but out of how much it is offered.

I admit I’m not a huge fan of the classical portrayals of this scene—Caravaggio’s, for instance, removes the men from the context of fishing and makes Andrew and especially Peter quite old, which has never sit right with me. This mosaic, from the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, seems to hit closer to the mark. It’s remarkable how much expressiveness—confusion and intrigue and hope—can be put into the faces of the soon-to-be Apostles in this medium.

Tuesday, January 28, is the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas. This is one of those ones that’s really impossible: What do you say about the angelic doctor that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? We could talk about the fire poker story—when he is said to have chased away a prostitute sent by his nasty brothers to undermine his vocation. We could talk about the ecstatic vision, after which he is said to have attempted to burn his corpus because compared to the experience of Christ it was all “straw.” I suppose if there’s one thing to say about St. Thomas that might complement the typical appreciations, it’s this: For all the incredible work of his intellect, he was first a man of unparalleled sanctity. The Catholic Encyclopedia has an entire subsection on the “supernatural causes” of his genius, including:

The spirit of prayer, his great piety and devotion, drew down blessings on his studies. Explaining why he read, every day, portions of the “Conferences” of Cassian, he said: “In such reading I find devotion, whence I readily ascend to contemplation.” In the lessons of the Breviary read on his feast day it is explicitly stated that he never began to study without first invoking the assistance of God in prayer; and when he wrestled with obscure passages of the Scriptures, to prayer he added fasting.

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Our man Francisco de Zurbarán painted this Apotheosis of St. Thomas Aquinas in 1631.

Friday, January 31, is the Feast of St. John Bosco. I feel like the nineteenth century produced a disproportionate number of personally accessible and inspiring saints—Damien of Molokai comes to mind, and Andre Bessette from a few weeks ago straddled the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—men of humility and charity in action rather than borderline frightening mystics or incomprehensible geniuses. It could simply be that the social conditions aren’t so far removed from our own and so are more relatable, but might it also be that God raised up humble men and women of justice because they were what the times called for, because they were particular signs of contradiction?

Don Bosco famously gathered hundreds of orphaned and delinquent boys in his various institutions, which always annoyed the neighbors and often the authorities. His theory and practice of discipline should inspire all of us: It was about emphasizing our human dignity, focusing on reason and love rather than fear. This was personally risky and required trust, but Don Bosco was inspired and sustained by prayer and the sacraments—and with grace those fears melt away into peace. He consecrated his efforts under the spirituality and patronage of St. Francis de Sales (OF feast Jan 23; EF feast Jan 29, below), founding the Salesian Order that runs hundreds of institutions for children around the world to this day.

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An 1880 photograph of Don Bosco, taken in the city of Turin to which he dedicated his life and ministry.

…in the Extraordinary Form

It is the Third Sunday after Epiphany. The Epistle is Romans 12:16-21 and the Gospel is Matthew 8:1-13, including the story of the faithful centurion.

In this reading from Romans we hear of the virtue of meekness, so prized by St. Francis de Sales (below). I am particularly fond of the verse:

If it be possible, as much as is in you, be at peace with all men.

Remembering that peace is not necessarily the absence of conflict but the presence of justice, Witham adds in the Haydock commentary, “That is, if it can be without prejudice to truth or justice.” The remainder of the selection describes how to go about this, eschewing revenge and always doing good even when it seems, in the logic of the world, that evil is called for in response to evil. There is a somewhat confusing line in the old Douay-Rheims about how kindness to him who wrongs us is like “heap[ing] coals of fire on his head.” Witham explains:

Some say, inasmuch as by this means thou shalt make him liable to greater punishments from God. Others, as St. Jerome and St. Augustine, by coals of fire, understand kindnesses and benefits, which shall touch the heart, and inflame the affections even of thy enemies, which shall make them sorry for what they have done, and become thy friends.

I incline strongly to the latter interpretation. Grace which we communicate through kindness, can bring communion out of the most apparently permanent rupture.

Monday, January 27, is the Feast of St. John Chrysostom. One of the most important and eloquent men of the early Church, it’s a shame for Western Catholics that he’s been coded as mostly a saint for the East. The Catholic Encyclopedia bluntly calls him “the greatest preacher ever heard in a Christian pulpit.” It’s remarkable that Chrysostom (an epithet from the Greek for “golden-mouthed”) had the time to write and speak as he did, given the political-ecclesial controversies he constantly participated in, first as an early sort of celebrity priest in Antioch, then as bishop of Constantinople. You can read more about this in the well-sourced Wikipedia entry, though do feel free to skip the section where it implies the Church was woke on sodomy until mean J. C. came along and ruined everything. We’ll close with the CE’s words on his preaching, culminating with a with a somewhat humorous observation that sheds light on the more, uh, freewheeling liturgical praxis of the early Church:

The success of Chrysostom's preaching is chiefly due to his great natural facility of speech, which was extraordinary even to Greeks, to the abundance of his thoughts as well as the popular way of presenting and illustrating them, and, last but not least, the whole-hearted earnestness and conviction with which he delivered the message which he felt had been given to him. Speculative explanation did not attract his mind, nor would they have suited the tastes of his hearers. He ordinarily preferred moral subjects, and very seldom in his sermons followed a regular plan, nor did he care to avoid digressions when any opportunity suggested them. In this way, he is by no means a model for our modern thematic preaching, which, however we may regret it, has to such a great extent supplanted the old homiletic method. But the frequent outbursts of applause among his congregation may have told Chrysostom that he was on the right path.

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St. John Chrysostom reproves the empress Eudoxia, who was offended by the preacher’s condemnation of luxury. By Jean-Paul Laurens, 1893. It was really nice to find a J. C. depiction that didn’t look like a space alien.

Wednesday, January 29, is the Feast of St. Francis de Sales. Known today mostly for his masterpiece Introduction to the Devout Life and Don Bosco’s Salesian institutions, Francis de Sales was considered one of the most incandescently holy men of his age. I have been interested in meekness recently—it’s the theme of this month’s Scottish Catholic Observer article—so permit me to quote at length from Francis de Sales’s teaching on this essential virtue, his favorite, as related by Fr. Butler:

The most powerful remedy against sudden starts of impatience is a sweet and amiable silence; however little one speaks, self-love will have a share in it, and some word will escape that may sour the heart, and disturb its peace for a considerable time. When nothing is said, and cheerfulness preserved, the storm subsides, anger and indiscretion are put to flight, and nothing remains but a joy, pure and lasting.—The person who possesses Christian meekness, is affectionate and tender towards every one; he is disposed to forgive and excuse the frailties of others; the goodness of his heart appears in a sweet affability that influences his words and actions, and presents every object to his view in the most charitable and pleasing light; he never admits in his discourses any harsh expression, much less any term that is haughty or rude. An amiable serenity is always painted on his countenance, which remarkably distinguishes him from those violent characters, who, with looks full of fury, know only how to refuse; or who, when they grant, do it with so bad a grace, that they loose all the merit of the favour they bestow.

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The meek Francis de Sales, by Nicolas-Guy Brenet, late 18th century.

Those Seven Days

Let’s go Bucs! Trevor is the real deal: He also went on the Steel City Catholic podcast, which is hosted by buddies of mine here in Pittsburgh.

In case you’re wondering about the context here, this is the tweet Trevor was replying to, regarding the company “Monastery Icons,” which bamboozles Catholics to fund its weird syncretic cult:

It’s like Simcha’s got my house bugged:

This is the kind of thing that happens in prison. It’s like the Spirit moves in particularly dramatic ways within the walls.

The really hot take is that there’s no such thing as secularism, strictly speaking: just varieties of paganism/idolatry:

Yep, and charity both requires and communicates grace.

Tip Jar

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Sir Ian insists that you tip

As for me…

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My monthly piece for the Scottish Catholic Observer, coincidentally about meekness, came out a couple weeks ago, but I’m just getting around to sharing it now: “No one has ever uttered the phrase: ‘I really admire that man as a Christian: He’s very effective at getting what he wants from others.’” 

See you New Yorkers next week!

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