Augustine and sainthood

It is a commonplace of hagiography to extol the saint whom one is writing about to such an extent that the saint is turned into something almost but not quite human. There are, for example, various lives of saints which record the various miracles the saint performed while still an infant, including healings, preachings, and conversions performed while the saint before the average person would even be able to utter a meaningful sound or take a single step. There are the accounts of saints having conversations with animals, of saints transcending the laws of nature, and of saints evincing such love and courage in the face of dire circumstances that everyone for hundreds of miles around is converted to faith in Christ. And then there is St. Augustine and his Confessions.

As the most influential figure of the Western Church perhaps in all of history, Augustine would, no doubt, have been the victim of these mythologized and eulogized hagiographies to which so many other important saints have been subject. He, however, did the work himself of ensuring that we remember him as the deeply flawed and altogether normal human being that he was.

As Augustine traces his life, inner and outer, from infancy to adulthood to conversion to Christianity, the reader is allowed an insight into a man much like himself. What we see is a man driven by lust and tossed about by doubt. What we see, in short, is a man — a real, living human being like ourselves who shared in the same passions in which we share. And who, through the grace of God, conquered them all and became one of the greatest saints of the Christian Church.

If St. Augustine can be a saint, anyone can be saint. And that, in short, is what makes The Confessions one of the greatest of the Great Books.

Book Review: Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot

One of T.S. Eliot’s masterpieces, Murder in the Cathedral is a drama of the return to England and martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket. From the historical events, Eliot creates a piece of writing that is simultaneously, and in equal proportions, a prayer, a study in the psychology of both the murderer and the martyr, and a meditation upon the proper relationship between church and state. The result is one of the greatest works of 20th century literature in the English language.

Eliot begins shortly before Thomas’s return to Canterbury following seven years in France. A feeling of trepidation is already in the air. The players, like the audience, know already what is going to happen.

Upon Thomas’s return, he is haunted by four successive temptations. The first three are the obvious temptations of anyone in his position: power, ease, and treason. The fourth, however, comes as a surprise even to Thomas: the temptation to do the right thing, to embrace martyrdom, but for the wrong reasons. Thomas conquers each temptation in turn. The “Interlude,” a homily by Thomas upon martyrdom, finally shows that he has conquered the fourth temptation.

After the murder of Thomas, the knights who have killed him each in turn step forward to justify themselves to the audience. Just as Thomas’s homily revealed the mind of the martyr, the mind of the murderer is revealed in the defenses given by each knight for his actions. The audience is asked to decide who was in the right, if anyone. Perhaps, Eliot seems to indicate, both Henry and Thomas, as well as the knights, were doing their duty, however much the particular duty of each might bring them into conflict with the other.

The book concludes, as it ought, with a prayer to God as well as to St. Thomas, the martyr, not with an invocation of the king. “Blessed Thomas, pray for us.”

Dante’s apology of the saints

In the Paradiso, Dante reveals the “great cloud of witnesses” spoken of by St. Paul in Hebrews 12:1. This use of individuals rather than merely abstract types throughout the Divine Comedy is essential to Dante’s presentation. It is not “saints” and “sinners” in the abstract who are blessed or condemned. It is, he continually reminds us, real people, like ourselves, who populate Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell. And it is not difficult to extrapolate from this that each of us will someday be a denizen of one of these places. In this way, Dante’s tour of Heaven in the Paradiso acts an apology for the Christian faith. In answer to the test of the pragmatic, whether Christianity indeed accomplishes what it claims to accomplish, namely the redemption and sanctification of human beings, Dante provides a panoply of saints who furnish proof of truth of Christianity’s claims.

Throughout the Paradiso, Dante observes a multitude of souls whose redemption has been brought about by the saving activity of Christ, pointing out various individuals who catch his attention. As if to emphasize that these souls are indeed like us, Dante begins his journey through Heaven on the Moon, where the souls of those who broke their vows dwell (Canto III). These are clearly human beings, imperfect and often failing, but who nonetheless have been saved and now dwell in the presence of God. Piccarda, the first person with whom Dante has an extended dialogue in Heaven, further drives this point home. She is not, for Dante, a figure from the distant past, only read about in books or told about in stories extolling her virtues, but rather a quite human figure and a close relation, the sister of a friend.

The first three spheres of Paradise, in fact, are designated by Dante as the dwellings of those souls who fell short in their virtue yet are saved and enjoy the beatific vision even if not in equal measure with the inhabitants of other, higher spheres. As Dante explains, “everywhere / in Heaven is Paradise, though the high Good / does not rain down His grace on all souls there / Equally” (Canto III). On Mercury, he visits those who led virtuous lives but whose fault was seeking virtue for fame (Canto V). On Venus, Dante sees those whose love for earthly pleasures was intemperate (Canto VIII).

As Dante continues his journey, he advances to the higher spheres, each of which contain a group of souls who exhibited a certain virtue or quality in their lives. On the Sun, he encounters those who were marked by their wisdom (Canto X). On Mars, he sees the warriors who fought in defense of the Church (Canto XIV). On Jupiter, Dante finds those kings and other leaders who ruled their domains with justice (Canto XVIII). On Saturn, Dante meets those who lived the contemplative life (Canto XXI). Finally, Dante ascends to the sphere of the fixed stars and speaks with the apostles Peter, James, and John, who symbolize faith, hope, and love, respectively.

Although the saints are treated as symbols of the various virtues in the higher spheres, Dante takes special care to emphasize that they have not lost their individuality. They are not, as in the Hindu conception of the afterlife, assumed into divinity with a consequent loss of all distinguishing characteristics. On the contrary, they are not redeemed only in the abstraction of their common human nature, but in their individual characteristics as well. St. Peter, for example, retains the impetuosity he so frequently displayed on earth, as when he cut off the ear of Malchus with his sword in a rash attempt to defend Christ (John 18:10). What had been hotheadedness on earth, however, is transfigured into righteous indignation in Heaven, which Peter displays in his burning redness as he unleashes a diatribe against the corruptions and corrupters of the Papacy in Canto XXVII.

The final saint to whose presence Dante is treated is, of course, the Virgin Mary, traditionally considered by Christians to be the greatest of the saints. As St. Anselm of Milan rhetorically asked while extolling the various perfections and virtues of Mary, “What is greater than the Mother of God? What more glorious than she whom Glory Itself chose?” Yet, importantly for Dante as for the whole history of Christian thought on the subject, even she who bore God is a human being like ourselves.

A faith without saints is not a saving faith because it is a faith in which none are saved, none redeemed, and none sanctified. In presenting this vast multitude of saints, Dante offers a sound argument in favor of the Christian faith. Here, he says, is the proof for the truth of Christianity, that, in spite of my human, all too human, failings, “the Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen (2 Tim. 4:18).

Only two arguments for Christianity

The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb. Better witness is borne to the Lord by the splendor of holiness and art which have arisen in the community of believers than by the clever excuses which apologetics has come up with to justify the dark sides, which, sadly, are so frequent in the Church’s human history. If the Church is to continue to transform and humanize the world, how can she dispense with beauty in her liturgies, that beauty which is so closely linked with love and with the radiance of the Resurrection? No, Christians must not be too easily satisfied. They must make their Church into a place in which beauty — and truth — is at home. Without this the world will become the first circle of hell. . . . A theologian who does not love art, poetry, music and nature can be dangerous. Blindness and deafness toward the beautiful are not incidental: they necessarily are reflected in his theology.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)

The heresies of pacifism and simplicity

Leo Tolstoy spent the second half of his life expounding a doctrine of Christian pacifism and renunciation of all things worldly. He used his literary talents to argue against the lifestyle of the bourgeois (as in The Death of Ivan Ilyich), against the cruelties of military service and the luxuries of the aristocracy (“After the Ball”), and against the avaricious wealthy landowners of his period (“How Much Land Does a Man Need?”). His infatuation with a simple, pacific lifestyle led him to condemn what he saw as excesses in the Russian Orthodox Church, including the ornate cathedrals, iconography, worship rituals, and even its most central doctrines. While remaining a strong adherent to the ethical teachings of Jesus, for example, he denied his divinity, stating “I believe that the will of God is most clearly and intelligibly expressed in the teaching of the man Jesus, whom to consider as God, and pray to, I esteem the greatest blasphemy.”1 Ultimately, in denying any utility or necessity for grandeur or majesty to man as a whole, he found it necessary to deny it also to the single man whom he ostensibly respected most, Jesus, and therefore stripped him of his divinity.

The great error of Tolstoy, the recognition of which might have saved him from allowing his laudable focus on spiritual poverty to degrade into a sickly and feeble pseudo-Christianity, was in his insistence that human nature is monolithic and stagnant rather than pluriform and dynamic. G.K. Chesterton, in his Orthodoxy, insightfully revealed this error of “the Tolstoyans” as the belief “that when the lion lies down with the lamb the lion becomes lamb-like. But that is brutal annexation and imperialism on the part of the lamb. That is simply the lamb absorbing the lion instead of the lion eating the lamb.”2 One can see Tolstoy’s insistence, for example, through the words of the character Ivan in “After the Ball,” that the punishment a military leader inflicts on a soldier caught deserting is irredeemably evil because it involves one human being harming another. One might justifiably wonder just what Tolstoy thought should be done with such a soldier, whose actions had compromised the integrity of his unit and the safety of his entire nation? Lions are as necessary as lambs, to use Chesterton’s terminology, borrowed, in turn, from the Prophet Isaiah, as it is the lions who must protect the lambs. Chesterton goes on to identify “the real problem,” which is not that one nature should swallow up and replace the other, but “can the lion lie down with the lamb and still retain his royal ferocity? THAT is the problem the Church attempted; THAT is the miracle she achieved.”3

Indeed, it is a miracle that was achieved in the Russian Orthodox Church itself more than 300 years before Tolstoy’s life. In the early 16th century, the Russian Orthodox Church was faced with a conflict between two groups, the Possessors and the Non-Possessors, whose argument began with a conflict, as the names of the respective groups indicate, over whether monastic establishments should possess land and the serfs attached to the land. The issues at stake, however, were much wider. The Possessors, led by Joseph of Volokolamsk, favored a close relationship between the Church and the State as well as society as a whole. They believed that it was necessary for the Church, including the monasteries, to own lands, serfs, and other sources of wealth so that it could beautify its churches and provide services such as hospitals and soup kitchens. The Non-Possessors, led by Nil Sorsky, argued that the Church, and especially the monasteries, should instead possess no wealth whatsoever and should remove itself from secular affairs entirely.

Interestingly, the original issue which caused the division between the Possessors and the Non-Possessors, namely the ownership of land, was also taken up by Tolstoy in his “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” There, he tells a morality tale in which a landowner causes his own death in his avaricious acquisition of larger and larger landholdings. The moral of the story is that one should be content with a small plot of land which provides just enough food to provide for oneself and one’s family and should not go beyond this. While his condemnation of avarice, one of the most overlooked but most insidiously destructive sins, reflects some insight on Tolstoy’s part, his apparent condemnation of all desire to acquire something greater than one currently possesses goes too far.

This was precisely the decision the Russian Orthodox Church reached when considering these issues during the controversy between the Possessors and the Non-Possessors. The Church would eventually attempt to adopt a middle course between the two in a recognition that both sides had their benefits and their errors. While the Possessors ran the risk of allowing the Church to become too worldly through entanglements in economic and social affairs, the Non-Possessors, many of whose arguments often sound like those of Tolstoy, put the Church at risk of becoming alienated from the life of the average person. A life of absolute poverty and renunciation, whether for a single individual such as Tolstoy or entire monastic communities like the Non-Possessors, is a life that separates those who adopt it from the bulk of mankind and makes him or them unable to serve their needs. To insist that all people adopt this lifestyle, as did Tolstoy, is nothing more than tyranny, even if it is the tyranny of the lamb. Instead, the Russian Orthodox Church accomplished its Chestertonian miraculous reconciliation between the lion and the lamb by canonizing both Joseph of Volokolamsk and Nil Sorsky as saints. It also allowed both of their ideologies to influence the Church’s practices, as the Church extended its blessing to both the poor hermits in their small sketes in the countryside as well as to the large and ornamented cathedrals of Moscow with their elaborate services.

In his denial, for example in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, that there is anything finally redemptive or meaningful in an unexceptional middle class life, Tolstoy extended his tyranny of the lamb even to his fellow lambs. He insisted that human life must be monolithic. In Tolstoy’s “After the Ball,” the character Ivan admits that perhaps those who approved of the cruelty he witnessed being inflicted on a military deserter “must have known something I didn’t” but that he was perpetually unable to discern or understand what this might be.4 The heart of Tolstoy’s great error is here, in his inability to appreciate the fact that others might want to live their own lives differently from how he chose to live his. Centuries before its excommunication of Tolstoy and his vitriolic response, the Russian Orthodox Church had prepared its answer to those who would insist that there is only one way to live a human life by placing its great seal of approval on a diverse variety of lives rightly lived, from that of Joseph of Volokolamsk to that of Nil Sorsky, and from that of the warrior and prince Alexander Nevsky to the brothers Boris and Gleb whose pacifism led them to renounce their positions in government. It had already reconciled the lions and the lambs, without either swallowing up the other.

1 Leo Tolstoy, “A Reply to the Synod’s Edict of Excommunication.”

 2 G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Ch. 6.

3 Ibid.

 4 Leo Tolstoy, “After the Ball.”

How to die, if you must

In one of his final dialogues before his death, Socrates famously informed his interlocutors “that those who really apply themselves in the right way to philosophy are directly and of their own accord preparing themselves for dying and death.”1 They are, he said, even “looking forward” to it. Socrates’s attitude toward death sits uneasily in the midst of the thought of the ancient world, in which the tendency was to view death in overwhelmingly negative terms. Many of the greatest tales of the ancient world are accounts of great men who desperately sought to escape the inevitability of death, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Sophocles’s plays in particular present a fascinating example of the ancient attitude toward death in that they exhibit both the prevailing attitude of the ancient world as well as the potential for redemption in and of death. There is a marked contrast, for example, between the horror with which Oedipus greets his fate in Oedipus Tyrannos and his final acceptance of death in Oedipus at Colonus. The death of Antigone, Oedipus’s daughter, at the behest of Creon in the play which bears her name is described by the Chorus in that play as “stately.”2 She goes to her death as innocent who suffers for the sins of others. As a result, her death takes on a redemptive, even beautiful, nature. From the perspective of a Christian, the deaths of Socrates, Oedipus, and Antigone are clear cases of spermatikos logos, looking forward to that time when “death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54, KJV).

A little over five centuries after Socrates, the Christian bishop and apologist St. Irenaeus of Lyons offered his own baptized version of Socrates’s statement, telling his flock that “the business of the Christian is nothing else than to be ever preparing for death.”3 Such a view of death as Socrates held fit more firmly into a Christian worldview, which saw death as having been redeemed through Christ’s perfect life, death, and resurrection. As a result, the medieval mind, under the influence of Christianity’s attitude toward death, tended to view death in more positive terms. The fourth century bishop St. Ambrose of Milan, for example, in commenting on the death of his own brother wrote that death was ordained by God as a mercy so that man did not have to continue to live in the painful state produced by sin. “Human life was condemned because of sin to unremitting labor and unbearable sorrow and so began to experience the burden of wretchedness,” and, said Ambrose, “there had to be a limit to its evils; death had to restore what life had forfeited. Without the assistance of grace, immortality is more of a burden than a blessing.”4

This more positive Christian vision of death was not, however, an embrace of the spirit of nihilism and suicide. “Fear of death is a natural trait in man, that derives from the disobedience of Adam,” wrote the seventh century abbot and mystic St. John Climacus, adding that “the terror of death, however, proves that there are unrepented sins.”5 The Christian attitude toward death, then, was not to seek after it in hopelessness as does the suicide, but to accept it in submission and hope. In this First Letter to the Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul placed this emphasis on hope in the center of the Christian attitude toward death, advising the Church in Thessalonica to “sorrow not, even as others which have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13, KJV).

This attitude was exhibited nowhere else more clearly than in the deaths of the early Christian martyrs and in the treatment of these martyrs by the early Christian communities after their deaths. One very early early account of a martyrdom, that of St. Polycarp of Smyrna, a bishop and disciple of the Apostle John, records that Polycarp faced his death with courage and treated it as an opportunity to please God through his exhibition of unflagging faith. After his death, says the account, “we, having afterwards taken up his bones, more valuable than precious stones, laid them where it was suitable. There, so far as is allowed us, when we are gathered together in exultation and joy, the Lord will enable us to celebrate the birthday of the martyrs.”6 The death of the martyr is both a source of grief because of the separation which it brings about as well as a source of hope and even joy at the work of God and the steadfastness of the martyr. His body is no longer a source of secular uncleanliness and ritual pollution as it was under the Old Covenant when death inspired horror,7 but instead takes on a sacramental nature, acting as a conduit between the grace of God and the believer who venerates the relics. In short, the death of the martyr is death par excellence; it is a death which is sublime.

1 Plato, Phaedo.

2 Sophocles, Antigone.

3 St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Fragments, XI.

4 Catholic Breviary, reading for All Souls’ Day.

5 St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 6.

6 Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, 18:2-3.

7 See Numbers 19:11.

Faith and certainty

Faith is very often understood by people as a defeat of intelligence. In other words, faith begins when I can no longer think creatively, when I let go of any attempt at rational understanding, and when I say ‘I believe’ because it is so absurd that it is the only way of facing the problem. This may be an act of credulity, it may be an act of cowardice, it may be a preliminary act, full of wisdom and intelligence, that teaches us not to draw conclusions or to come to conclusions before we have understood. But this is not faith as understood by the great men of all religions, and particularly the Christian faith. In the Epistle to the Hebrews in the eleventh chapter, faith is defined as ‘certainty of things unseen’. We usually lay the stress on ‘things unseen’ and forget the ‘certainty’ about them. So when we think of faith we usually think of the invisible and instead of certainty put against it an interrogation mark. Then to solve the problem, we accept in a childish way, in an unintelligent way very often, what we are told by others — usually our grandparents of three generations back, or whoever else we choose to believe for reasons that are not always reasonable. But if you try to see the way in which faith originates in those people who were the great men of faith, the heroes of faith, you can see that it always originates in an experience that makes the invisible certain, and which allows them, having discovered that the invisible is as real as the visible, to go further in searching the invisible by methods of their own.

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, God and Man, p. 32