Category Archives: philosophy

St. Cyril of Alexandria (d.444)


Pope Francis, speaking in his recent Apostolic Exhortation “Gaudete et exultate” of “the saints next door” – the ordinary holy people of our world– says “Their lives may not always have been perfect, yet even amid their faults and failings they kept moving forward and proved pleasing to the Lord.” (3) They persevere.

The pope in that same exhortation says that canonized saints have their faults and failings too.“Not everything a saint says is completely faithful to the Gospel; not everything he or she does is authentic or perfect. What we need to contemplate is the totality of their life, their entire journey of growth in holiness, the reflection of Jesus Christ that emerges when we grasp their overall meaning as a person.” (22)

Later in his letter, Francis speaks about the dangers of modern day Pelagianism and cautions that when some say “ all things can be accomplished with God’s grace, deep down they tend to give the idea that all things are possible by the human will, as if it were something pure, perfect, all-powerful, to which grace is then added. They fail to realize that “not everyone can do everything”, and that in this life human weaknesses are not healed completely and once for all by grace. (49)

Being holy, being a saint, doesn’t mean you’re perfect, the pope says. That’s good to remember when we consider St.Cyril of Alexandria, the 4th century bishop of Alexandria and doctor of the church, whose feast is today, June 26th.

If you read his online biography in Wikipedia–where many today look for information about saints – you’ll find that he was deeply involved in the messy partisan politics of his time, when Christians, Jews and Pagans fought and schemed to control the city that was then probably the most important city in the Roman empire. He was a “proud Pharaoh;” “ a monster” out to destroy the church, some said, an impulsive bishop in a riotous city. That’s the way the Wikipedia biography mainly sees him.

He was a saint, others said. Why a saint? Well, Cyril was absorbed in understanding and defending the Incarnation of the Word of God. Did the Word of God come among us? How did he come? Who was Jesus Christ? Pursuing that mystery defined Cyril during life.

He thought and wrote extensively about this mystery; it absorbed him. The way he came to express it was used at the Council of Ephesus (431) and became the way we also express it in our prayers. Mary was the Mother of God. The One born of her was not simple another human being. Her Son was true God, who would be truly human and eventually die on the Cross. God “so loved the world” that he came among us as Mary’s Son.

What we see as “the totality” of Cyril’s life, his “life’s jouney”, the “overall meaning of his person”, to use the pope’s words, is not his involvment in the violent politics of city and society of his day, but his quest to know Jesus Christ.

St. Justin, Philosopher and Martyr (c.100-165 AD)

Justin-Martyr

Justin Martyr

We need Christians like St. Justin, the 2nd century philosopher, we remember today. “We need to make our teaching known,” he said. Still true in our day.

In Justin’s time, philosophers were the mentors and teachers of Roman society and were welcomed in the forum and private homes of the Roman world.

Born in Nablus in Palestine of Greek parents, Justin studied all the philosophers of his time in Alexandria, Athens and Ephesus. It may have been in Ephesus around the year 130 that he encountered Christianity when, walking along the seashore, he met an old man who told him the human heart could never be satisfied by Plato but “the prophets alone announced the truth.”

“After telling me these and other things…he went away and I never saw him again, but a flame kindled in my soul, filling me with love for the prophets and the friends of Christ. I thought about his words and became a philosopher..” (Dialogue 8)

Justin was influenced, not only by Christian teaching, but also by the example of Christians he met:

“I liked Plato’s teaching at first and enjoyed hearing evil spoken about Christians, but then I saw they had no fear of death or other things that horrify, and I realized they were not vicious or pleasure-loving at all.” (Apology 2,12)

Forum q

Ruins of the Roman Forum

Justin championed Christianity as a philosopher as Christians were increasingly being attacked by society. Donning a philosopher’s cloak he taught and wrote in Rome about the year 150 AD. He was a new kind of Christian, a Christian philosopher engaging Roman society on its own terms. He gave Christianity a Roman face and voice.

Justin defended Christians against the charge they were atheists and enemies of the Roman state. Christians were good citizens, he wrote, who pray for Rome, though they don’t worship in temples, who had no statues of gods or who did not participate in the religious rites of the state.  Justin’s writings give us a unique picture of 2nd century Christianity and early Christian worship.

In his “Dialogue with Trypho, the Jew” Justin offered the traditional Christian defense of Christianity to a Jew antagonistic to the new religion. The Jewish prophets predicted the coming, the death and resurrection of Jesus, Justin argues.

In the documents of Vatican ii, Justin is recognized as an early example of Christian ecumenism. (Evangelium Nuntiandi 53) Through the Word of God all things came to be, he said.  The Word became flesh in Jesus Christ, but Justin linked the biblical Word to the Logos of the philosophers. “Seeds of the Word” were scattered throughout the world, Justin claimed. Every human being possesses in his mind a seed of the Word, and so besides the prophets of the Old Testament, pagan philosophers like Heraclitus, Socrates and Musonius lead us to Jesus Christ, Justin said. (Apology 1,46)

A prolific writer and teacher, Justin was an early Christian intellectual using his talents to promote his faith, Unfortunately only three of his writings come down to us. Other Christian intellectuals followed him, using the tools of philosophy, to dialogue with the Greco-Roman world.

Finally, rivals in Rome pressed charges against Justin as an enemy of the state and he was  brought before a Roman judge along with six companions. Sentenced to death, they were beheaded probably in the year 165 AD. The official court record of their trial  still survives.

Mark 6: A Ministry to “Unclean Spirits”

In today’s gospel from Mark at Mass, Jesus commissions his apostles for ministry. He summons “the twelve and began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits.” (Mark 6, 7) Jesus often drives out unclean spirits in his ministry, Mark says. After he’s baptized in the Jordan and comes to Capernaum, Jesus and his disciples go into the synagogue on that “paradigmatic day” and Jesus first drives an unclean spirit out of a man. (Mark 1, 16-34)

When Jesus and his disciples cross the sea into pagan territory– an important new step in his ministry– Jesus meets a man in the tombs and drives the unclean spirit out of him. (Mark 5, 1-20)

As Jesus extends his ministry “whenever unclean sprits saw him they would fall down before him and shout, ‘You are the Son of God.’ (Mark 3,11) Unclean spirits were favorite targets for Jesus in his ministry.

What’s an “unclean spirit”?

In their fine commentary on Mark’s gospel John R. Donahue, SJ, and Daniel Harrington, SJ, say “In this context ‘unclean’ (akatharton) primarily connotes not a moral (even less a sexual) fault), but something opposed to the “holy.” In the command of the Old Testament to be holy (Leviticus 11,44) it implies life, wholeness and completeness,( Leviticus 21, 17-21) whereas uncleanness implies something that should not be, something out of place ( e.g. soil in a farmer’s field is productive, while in a house it’s dirt). The opposite of the realm of the holy is the demonic, hence the spirits there are “unclean”. Physical defects or psychological aberrations can make a person “unclean”in a sense of incomplete, imperfect and out of order.”
(The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagina, Liturgical Press 2002 page 80.)

Jesus did not engage primarily the intellectual establishment or the religious establishment when he came. He engaged the chaotic world of the “unclean spirits.” He set up a “field hospital” to use a phrase dear to Pope Francis.

That can be a messy, scary world as we see in Mark’s gospel. Just think of the poor man in the tombs, chained and hurting himself. Who wants to deal with him? But Jesus gives his disciples “authority” over unclean spirits. His followers have the power to take them on.

Ecumenism

I attended a beautiful Methodist funeral this week at a funeral home in Ocean Grove, New Jersey. I prayed and sang with the members of the family and their friends. Some years ago, before the Second Vatican Council, I would have been told “In no way is it permitted for the faithful to take part in any way in non-Catholic services.” (Canon 1258)

We have come a long way in our relations with other Christian churches and other religions. In the days of St. Francis de Sales in the 16th century, Christian churches were fighting each other over religion. Francis de Sales as the bishop of Geneva, Switzerland, chose to approach religious differences through dialogue and not arms. His approach anticipated the Vatican Council decrees on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratia) and Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate) which told Catholics to respect the religious beliefs of others and dialogue with them.

Dialogue means listening to the other and offering what you know in return. It’s an on-going process that ultimately, I think, has its roots in the created world we live in, which we know little by little. The word “respect”is a beautiful word, meaning “looking again,” Francis de Sales based his spirituality on respect for the variety of creation. We’re “living plants” in the garden of the world. We need to keep “looking again.”

And while we respect others, we need to “look again” at our own tradition to appreciate it and see it “ever ancient, ever new.”

We’re ending the Church Unity Octave on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, the Apostle, January 25th. St Francis de Sales, St. Paul the Apostle, St. Paul of the Cross, pray for us.

The Most Common Occurrence

by Howard Hain

 

Christ lives in the Eucharistic Prayer.

He listens carefully.

The Father listens too.

We listen with Them.

The Holy Spirit speaks.

He speaks a great silence.

He listens to the listeners.

We collectively hear.

God.

Three Persons.

His Entire People.

All Creation.

The Sound of One Breathing.

The Sound of Life.

Communion.

Amen.

 

(Jan/4/18)