Soul Train: The Syriac Edition
Sunday February 26th 2012, 8:00 pm
Filed under: Books,Patristics

BMCR reviews To Train His Soul in Books: Syriac Asceticism in Early Christianity, edited by Robin Darling Young and Monica Blanchard. This is going right to my wish list.

To Train His Soul in Books is a volume of essays written in honor of Sidney H. Griffith. Most scholars of late antiquity have encountered at least one arm of Griffith’s scholarship. He is well-known for his translations and exposition of Syriac texts, which have given Syriac Christianity the attention it deserves to stand alongside Greek and Latin Christianities. Specifically, within this field, he has contributed ground-breaking scholarship on Ephrem the Syrian and on Syriac asceticism. Griffith is known too for his studies in Arabic Christianity and Christian-Muslim dialogue from the ancient to the contemporary period. The reach of his scholarship has been as wide as it has been deep…

The essays in the volume represent extensions of Griffith’s work on Ephrem the Syrian and on subsequent traditions of Syriac-speaking Christianity. Like the scholarship of Griffith himself, some essays make available new translations of Syriac texts. In chapter one, Joseph P. Amar provides readers with an English translation of the Vespers liturgy for the feast of the Announcement to the Bearer of God, Mary. The translation is accompanied by a nice discussion of intercalated psalmody in the liturgical tradition of the Syriac Maronite church. In chapter two, Francisco Javier Martínez translates into Spanish three of Ephrem’s Hymns On Virginity, introducing his translations with a discussion of extant manuscripts and of the hymns’ relation to Syriac ascetic and liturgical traditions. Finally, in chapter nine, Monica Blanchard translates into English selections from a yet-to-be-published Syriac manuscript by East Syrian monk Beh Isho’ Kamulaya, selections in which the author focuses on “purity of heart.”



Intro to Lent III: Almsgiving
Thursday February 23rd 2012, 5:13 pm
Filed under: Site News

Third in a series of three posts.

Of the three marks of Lent — prayer, fasting and almsgiving — almsgiving is surely the most neglected.

And yet, in the only place where the Bible brings all three together, the inspired author puts the emphasis firmly on the last: “Prayer and fasting are good, but better than either is almsgiving accompanied by righteousness … It is better to give alms than to store up gold; for almsgiving saves one from death and expiates every sin. Those who regularly give alms shall enjoy a full life” (Tob 12:8-9).

Why is almsgiving better than prayer and fasting? Because it is prayer, and it involves fasting. Almsgiving is a form of prayer because it is “giving to God” — and not mere philanthropy. It is a form of fasting because it demands sacrificial giving — not just giving something, but giving up something, giving till it hurts.

Jesus presented almsgiving as a necessary part of Christian life: “when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Mt 6:2-3). He does not say IF you give alms, but WHEN. Like fasting and prayer, almsgiving is non-negotiable.

The first Christians knew this. “There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need” (Acts 4:34-35).

That was the living embodiment of a basic principle of Catholic social teaching, what tradition calls “the universal destination of goods.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it succinctly: “The goods of creation are destined for the entire human race” (n. 2452).

But they can’t get there unless we put them there — and that requires effort.

As with prayer and fasting, so with almsgiving. If we have a plan, we’ll find it easier to do. Throughout history, many Christians have used the Old Testament practice of “tithing” as a guide — that is, they give a tenth of their income “to God.” In practice, that means giving it to the poor, to the parish, or to charitable institutions.

My friend Ed Kenna, an octogenarian and dad, remembers the day he decided to start tithing. “When I was a senior in high school, back in 1939-40, I read an article on charitable giving in a Catholic newspaper,” he recalls. “And it had a lot of testimonies to the fruits of tithing. Breadwinners told how God provided whenever they were in need or had an emergency. I decided, then and there, to start tithing, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

For Kenna, those 65 years have had their financial ups and downs. He served in the military during World War II, went to college and raised a family of nine children. Through it all, he says, he was often tempted, but he never wavered in his tithing. “There were many times when I reached a point where I said, ‘Something has to give — but I’m not going to give up on my tithing.’”

It’s a matter of trusting God, Kenna adds, “and God will not be outdone in generosity.”

Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35), but those who tithe often find themselves on the receiving end as well. “I worked as an industrial engineer through the highs and lows of American industry,” Kenna recalls. “Twice my job fell victim to corporate mergers, but the phone always rang just in time. I never lost an hour of work to layoffs.”

He sees the difficult times as God’s test of our trust. “It’s especially hard in the beginning. On your first paycheck, it hurts. On the second, the pain’s a little less. At about the third or fourth, there’s no pain at all. You get used to it. It’s a habit. But you have to make that firm resolution: I’m gonna do it and not give in.”

Kenna, like many others, interprets tithing to mean taking ten percent off the “first fruits” — gross income, rather than net. He divides this up as “5 percent to the parish and 5 percent to other Catholic institutions.” He also gives of his time and has, for many decades, been a volunteer for the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

Indeed, many Catholics extend the concept of almsgiving beyond money to include time and talent as well, donating a portion of these to worthy causes.

In the late fourth century, St. John Chrysostom looked at the good life people were living in the imperial court, and he was filled with righteous anger. In the name of God, he raged against those who owned toilet seats made of gold, while other people starved in cold hovels.

While our commodes may be made of less precious materials, many Americans today enjoy a better standard of life than any Byzantine emperor ever knew. Central heat, central air conditioning, electric lights, consistently safe food and water, antibiotics, and even aspirin — these are luxuries beyond the dreams of our ancient ancestors.

We are living high, but are we giving high?

It’s a good question to ask ourselves during Lent. It is a scandal, after all, for Christians to have closets overstuffed with clothing when there are families who are shivering because they can’t pay their heating bill. It is a scandal for Christians to be epidemically overweight when they have near neighbors who go to bed hungry.

We need to give to God — whom we meet in our neighbor — until these problems go away. Whatever we give, whether it’s a tenth or a twentieth or half, is symbolic of the greater giving that defines the Christian life. As God gave himself entirely to us, so we give ourselves entirely to Him. In the Eucharist, He holds nothing back. He gives us His body, blood, soul and divinity — everything He has. That’s the giving we need to imitate.

Charity begins at home, where we daily make the choice to give our time, our attention, our affirming smile, and give generously. But charity must not stop there, because for Catholics “home” is universal, and our family is as big as the world. We need to dig deep and give much where much is needed. But, whenever possible, our charity should also involve personal acts, not just automatic withdrawals from our bank account. Pope John Paul asked us to see, and be seen by, “the human face of poverty.”

We give what we have till we have nothing left to give. My friend and sometime co-author Regis Flaherty remembers his sister Pat as a woman who practiced giving all her life, to her sibilings, her husband, her children and her friends. To the end, she gave what she could. “When she was dying she was in and out of consciousness, but whenever she looked up at us, she would invariable smile — absolutely amazing considering how much she was suffering.”

Sometimes all we can give is a smile, but sometimes that is the greatest sacrifice, the greatest prayer, and indeed the most generous and most sacrificial alms.



Intro to Lent II: Fasting
Wednesday February 22nd 2012, 11:43 pm
Filed under: Site News

Second in a series of three posts.

“Why do Catholics have to fast?”

The question came from a non-Catholic Boy Scout in my son’s troop. We had spent a long, soggy weekend in the middle of the woods. And now, Sunday morning, the adults announced that breakfast would be delayed so that the Catholics could keep the Communion fast. He was not a happy camper.

His question comes to mind again as Lent begin, because fasting is the most distinguishing practice of the season. On two days in Lent, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Catholics limit their eating to one full, meatless meal. On all the Fridays of Lent we abstain from meat.

Why do Catholics fast? Our reasons find firm grounding in the Bible.

When we fast, we follow holy example. Moses and Elijah fasted forty days before going into God’s presence (Ex 34:28, 1 Kgs 19:8). Anna the Prophetess fasted to prepare herself for the coming of the Messiah (Lk 2:37). They all wanted to see God, and they considered fasting a basic prerequisite. We, too, wish to enter God’s presence, so we fast.

Jesus fasted (Mt 4:2). And since He needed no purification, He surely did this only to set an example for us. In fact, He assumed that all Christians would follow His example. “When you fast,” he said, “do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting” (Mt 6:16). Note that He did not say “IF you fast,” but “when.”

And WHEN is now. In Lent the Church extends the idea of fasting, beyond the minimal skipping of meals, to a more far-reaching program of self-denial. Jesus said: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself … daily” (Lk 9:23). So we “give up” something that we’d ordinarily enjoy: sweets, soda pop, a favorite TV show, or the snooze alarm.

Fasting has its health benefits, but it’s not the same as dieting. Fasting is something spiritual and far more positive. Fasting is a spiritual feast. It does for the soul what food does for the body.

The Bible spells out specific spiritual benefits of fasting. It produces humility (Ps 69:10). It shows our sorrow for our sins (1 Sam 7:6). It clears a path to God (Dan 9:3). It is a means of discerning God’s will (Ezr 8:21) and a powerful method of prayer (8:23). It’s a mark of true conversion (Jl 2:12).

Fasting helps us to be detached from the things of this world. We fast, not because earthly things are evil, but precisely because they’re good. They’re God’s gifts to us. But they’re so good that we sometimes prefer the gifts to the Giver. We practice self-indulgence rather than self-denial. We tend to eat and drink to the point where we forget God. Such indulgence is really a form of idolatry. It’s what St. Paul meant when he said, “their god is the belly … with minds set on earthly things” (Phi 3:19).

How can we enjoy God’s gifts without forgetting the Giver? Fasting is a good way to start. The body wants more than it needs, so we should give it less than it wants.

St. John of the Cross said that we cannot rise up to God if we are bound to the things of this world. So we give up good things, and gradually we grow less dependent on them, less needy.

All of this is part of our preparation for heaven. For we’re destined to lose our earthly goods anyway. Time, age, illness and “doctor’s orders” can take away our taste for chocolate, our ability to enjoy a cold beer, and even the intimate embrace of a loved one. If we have no discipline over our desires, then these losses will leave us bitter and estranged from God. But if we follow Jesus in self-denial, we’ll find a more habitual consolation in the ultimate good — God Himself.

How is it that some people are able to remain serene and cheeful amid extreme suffering and even when facing imminent death? It’s not just a matter of temperament. They’ve prepared themselves for the moment by giving up the things of this world, one small thing at a time. They’ve grown so accustomed to small sacrifice that the big one isn’t such a stretch.

No one says that fasting is easy. In fact, says Benedictine Father Thomas Acklin, author of The Passion of the Lamb: God’s Love Poured Out in Jesus. “Fasting can seem very hard, and it can seem that if I do not eat I will become weak and will not be able to work, or pray, or do anything.

“Yet there is that marvelous moment,” he adds, “when, after some hours have passed, my stomach has stopped growling and I’ve even forgotten what I’ve given up, when there is a lightness, a freedom, a clarity of the senses and a brightness of attitude and feeling, an incomparable closeness to the Lord.”

Lent is a special season, but God wants these forty days to have a lasting effect on our lives. So, in a sense, fasting is for always. Father Rene Schatteman, an Opus Dei chaplain in Pittsburgh, says that he received this lesson directly from a canonized saint. “I learned from St. Josemaria Escriva, whom I had the privilege of knowing personally, that a person should make some small sacrifice at each meal, always, and not just during Lent.”

Fr. Schatteman emphasizes the importance of little things, and the big effect they can have: “We should all feel the need to help Christ redeem the world by practicing self-denial in everyday, ordinary eating and drinking … to take a bit less, or a bit less of what we like most, to avoid eating between meals, to skip a snack or dessert, etc., without making a big deal of it.”

A Pittsburgh businessman (who asked for anonymity) told me of his longtime practice of fasting on Fridays, “a 12-15 hour fast from food, water-only.” He said, however, that this can be difficult to carry out, not because of the hunger, but because it can disrupt family life. “It’s very hard to sit at the family table and not eat. It’s not so much a question of resisting the temptation of the food. I always felt like I was breaking fellowship. My fasting actually felt selfish, like I was taking something away from our time together as a family.”

He has since modified his fast, “to be broken at the family dinner in the evening.”

Why do Catholics fast? Our anonymous businessman put it well: “It’s medicine for my biggest problem — selfishness and lack of self-control. To force myself to curb my appetites, to not satisfy my desires — even for a short period of time — this is a good thing. To offer up the little sacrifice to God, for my family, for people who are hungry through no choice of their own, this I think is also good.”



Intro to Lent I: Prayer
Tuesday February 21st 2012, 11:59 pm
Filed under: Patristics

First in a series of three posts.Reprinted from 2007.

How do you know it’s Lent?

It’s not so much by the ash mark on your forehead or fish marks on the calendar. Tradition tells us that Lent has three distinguishing marks: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

This three-part series will examine those practices. Prayer is surely the best place to begin, because it’s the one that unites them all. Fasting and almsgiving are themselves just forms of prayer.

There are two classic definitions of prayer. The one in most catechisms comes from St. John of Damascus (eighth century): “Prayer is the raising of the mind and heart to God.” The other comes from St. Clement of Alexandria (third century). He defined prayer as “conversation with God.”

In prayer we talk to God, and He talks to us. As in any relationship, this conversation takes many forms. Think of all the ways a husband and wife communicate: formal marriage vows, casual chat, winks across a crowded room, affectionate caresses, and phrases they never tire of repeating.

Our communication with God includes a similar range of expressions — set phrases, quiet conversation, gestures such as the Sign of the Cross, and the intimate embrace of the sacraments. Just as a man and woman grow in love by repeating “I love you,” so we Christians grow in love by repeating the Church’s prayers.

Prayer comes in many forms and styles. These are usually divided into “vocal” and “mental” prayer. The categories are helpful, but not watertight. All prayer, after all, should involve our mind; so, in a sense, all prayer is mental prayer. Modern writers sometimes speak of the two types as formal prayer and spontaneous prayer.

Again, such distinctions are useful; we should, however, step beyond them for a moment. When we look at all prayer as conversation, it can change the way we go about it. Thinking of prayer as conversation can help us also to overcome obstacles — such as distractions, dryness, inability to focus — because all these things also come up in human conversation.

Prayer is a conversation that never ends. In the Scriptures, St. Paul says: “Pray at all times” (Eph 6:18); “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:1); and “be constant in prayer” (Rom 12:12). He saw prayer as endless conversation.

That seems to be asking a lot, but it’s really the best way to think about it. If we are to pray this way, we have to form the habit of prayer. And, like any good habit or skill, prayer requires a sustained effort, over time, with much repetition.

Many people bristle when they hear about discipline in prayer. They think prayer should always be spontaneous. And sometimes prayer does come spontaneously, as when we experience some great joy or great sorrow. But spontaneity is most often the fruit of discipline. It is usually the best-trained musicians who are able to improvise freely. To do anything well takes time, dedication and patient endurance through sometimes-tedious exercises.

The most effective way to discipline our prayer life is by following a program, a schedule of sorts — what the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin called “a game plan for the Christian.” The best time to set up such a plan is during Lent.

A “plan of life” is a firm but flexible program that schedules our prayer amid the ordinary duties of work, family life and social activity. A daily plan should include some vocal prayers, such as the Rosary or other devotions; plus reading of the Bible and some spiritual book (the writings of the saints are best); attendance at Mass (at least on Sundays and holy days, but more often if possible); and quiet time for more focused conversation with God in mental prayer. The best place for this prayer is in church, before Jesus in the tabernacle.

“Prayer first means God is speaking to us and not the other way around,” says Father Kenneth Myers, a priest of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. “That requires silence — the art of listening carefully to the Lord. And the best place to do that is in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. Prayer before the Blessed Sacrament requires real effort and commitment, but even when our hearts are dry and it seems fruitless to keep on praying, being before the Eucharistic Lord is like being in the sunlight — even by doing nothing we still absorb those powerful rays of light.”

Our plan should also include weekly or monthly practices, such as confession, fasting, almsgiving and so on.

It helps to set standard times, or to key each practice to other activities, so that we never forget. We can keep our spiritual book by the coffee pot and read while the java is brewing every morning. We can use the beginning of our lunch hour as a reminder to say the Angelus. We can pray the Rosary while waiting for the bus home in the evening. We can listen to ten minutes of the Bible on tape as we drive.

We should plant prayers throughout the day like vines. Put one here, one there — and pretty soon, like ivy on a wall, our prayer will cover our day.

This is how Jesus modeled prayer for us. His own prayer life was rich and varied. Sometimes He offered formal prayers (Mk 12:29, 15:34). He kept holy days, made pilgrimages and attended the rich liturgy of the Jews (Jn 7:10-14). He also prayed spontaneously (Jn 11:41-42). He made time to pray alone in silence (Lk 3:21-22). Yet He also prayed together with His friends (Lk 9:18). He fasted, and He studied the Scriptures.

The first Christians followed their Lord in all these practices, and so do we.

Not that it’s always easy to do. But the formal quality of prayer helps us know what to do when we meet with obstacles. “Never, Never, never, never give up!” says my friend Steve Galvanek. A systems analyst, husband and dad, Steve says his plan sustains him even when he’s tired and preoccupied. “If in my feeble attempts to say a Rosary, I manage just one or two heartfelt Hail Marys, that’s far better than if I hadn’t tried at all”

Even the more unpleasant and difficult things in life can become reminders to pray. The key is to think of them as opportunities rather than obstacles. Another friend of mine, Sarah Scott, admits that it’s hard to find time to pray. She’s a mother of five, owner of a home-based business and volunteer at her children’s Catholic school. “It helps to offer everything up all the little things that you don’t like to do,” she says. “I hate folding laundry. But, instead of getting annoyed about it, I try to offer it up and think about what other people have to deal with. Efforts like this keep me talking with God throughout the day.”

Sounds like a plan.



Once Upon a Time …
Tuesday February 21st 2012, 9:07 am
Filed under: Books,Patristics

The Emperor Julian (“the Apostate”), in his drive to re-paganize the empire, tried to weaken Christian opposition by dividing it, setting one faction against another. He restored heretical bishops who had been deposed, so that major cities would have two competing bishops. He offered prominent Catholics high positions, so that he could neutralize them while claiming their support. Meanwhile, he made the requirements for schoolteachers so stringently pagan that no Christian could fulfill them. Banished from the public square, Christianity could be minimized as a cultural force. According to a recent biographer, Julian “marginalised Christianity to the point where it could potentially have vanished within a generation or two, and without the need for physical coercion.” Said Julian: “If they want to learn literature, they have Luke and Mark: Let them go back to their churches and expound on them.” Julian wished to remove Christians from public discourse – drive them into a cultural ghetto.



Nealing to Pray
Thursday February 16th 2012, 10:55 pm
Filed under: Patristics

Dr. Tom Neal recently hosted me for two days of nonstop talking in Des Moines, Iowa. I spoke to the clergy, to a group of catechetical professionals, at a parish, and with a men’s group. (Though at the last I mostly listened, enthralled.) Tom commemorated the event with this blog post — and with a great original poem about Tertullian, whom I quoted often in my talks. The poem is embedded in Tom’s post. Don’t miss it!



Celebrate St. Valentine …
Tuesday February 14th 2012, 3:12 pm
Filed under: Site News

… with Maureen’s great historical roundup.



A Very Patristic Conversion
Wednesday February 08th 2012, 10:29 am
Filed under: Patristics

My friend Jason Stewart tells his very patristic conversion story. Check it out!



Ghost Towns of Byzantine Syria
Tuesday February 07th 2012, 11:58 pm
Filed under: Archeology

Suburban Banshee (aka Maureen) points us to a stunning page of photos of the ghost towns of Byzantine Syria. I find these sites fascinating, and I’ve blogged about them before — here, here, and here.



The Last Pagan
Monday February 06th 2012, 11:22 pm
Filed under: Books,Patristics

Adrian Murdoch has been posting short videos on each of the Roman emperors, and he’s finally come to Julian. Adrian is author of The Last Pagan, which I reviewed for Touchstone Magazine. We share a fascination for the old Apostate.



For the Priests You Know
Saturday February 04th 2012, 10:03 pm
Filed under: Books

Father Michael Giesler has given me many occasions to blog on his scholarship in patristics (here and here), biblical theology – and especially his fiction. Father Michael is the author of a trilogy of page-turner novels set in the second century (with cameo appearances by Justin Martyr).

Now he applies his priestly wisdom in a new book aimed at the clergy: Called by Name: Twelve Guideline Meditations for Diocesan Priests. It’s the ideal gift to give the priests you love — and you surely love many of them. So buy by the crate!