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. St. Paul addressed them in Athens with limited success.

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)

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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.

Noah and the Ark

Where did the story come from?

A few years ago Nova on PBS featured a program called“The Secrets of Noah’s Ark.” In early times, floods were common in the “Fertile Crescent,” the area in Mesopotamia {modern Iraq} where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and the ancient city of Babylon were located. Floods, sometimes great floods, occurred, so the people had to be ready. You had to keep your boats handy, and a big boat also– you never knew..

But people then, as now, had short memories. “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. In those days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day that Noah entered the ark. They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away.” (Matthew 24, 37-38)

I suspect some Babylonian priests then– meteorologists and story tellers of the age– came up with a flood story thousands of years before the Noah story in Genesis, to keep people on their toes – and maybe challenge some early climate change deniers too. It reinforced important advice: “ Keep your boats in shape and make sure a big boat’s around for ‘the big one.’”

Jewish priests and scribes in 6th century Babylon saw the story a perfect fit for the story of human origins they were telling their people. For them the take-away from the story was not to keep a big boat handy, but to be faithful to God like Noah and Abraham and their families. If they were faithful, God would save them from the flood and bring them  to the Promised Land.

The Nova program showed evidence from today of those big boats there “just in case.”

The story gave hope to the Jews driven from Jerusalem to exile in Babylon where, “By the rivers of Bablyon, we sat ad wept, remembering Zion.” (Psalm 137)  Christians– the pictures in the catacombs remind us (above)– saw Noah as a sign that the waters of baptism saved them from death and brought them the promise of paradise lost by Adam and Eve.

So the story of Noah and the ark is more than a myth.

“A Vision Thing”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. is set to release her ‘Green New Deal” today–government proposals for health care for all, job guarantees, a push to eliminate U.S.carbon emissions. 

Good luck to her, but it’s going to be a hard road ahead. Maybe a start, but we are going to need more than political legislation and technological innovations to deal with climate change.

Here’s a favorite picture of mine from the Staten Island Ferry. You say it’s a picture of the New York skyline?

I say it’s a picture of water that gave birth to the city. True, isn’t it? The water was here first. The city came to be because water brought the world here, making the city a capitol of world trade and drawing millions of human beings to this place. 

These waters once abounded with fish, the surrounding areas abounded in game. Plenty for all, so the native peoples allowed the original Dutch settlers a little piece of land for themselves.

 Now look at it. The man who built the new World Trade Center claims it’s the tallest building in the country, challenging the heavens–like Babel.

.Be careful, though, about challenging the heavens and forgetting about the earth. Be careful about the waters that brought you where you are. No fish or oysters here to eat now. Little space for the waters to go when they rise. And they will.

Don’t forget– the water was here first. It’s a “vision thing.” That’s what Pope Francis says in “Laudato si”.

Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together

 

 

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Pope Francis and the Grand Imama of Al-Azhar, Ahmad el-Tayeb,

“Something is happening.” That’s the way the great reading for our Holy Saturday liturgy, taken from an ancient homily, begins. We don’t see clearly yet, but something is happening.

And that’s the way I felt yesterday watching on YouTube a Mass at Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates where more than one hundred thousand Christian migrant workers in the Middle East celebrated their faith with Pope Francis. Christianity is alive in the Middle East.

In the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” signed on Monday afternoon in Abu Dhabi by Pope Francis and the Grand Imama of Al-Azhar, Ahmad el-Tayeb, a path for the two religions and the world itself opened. Something is happening.

The document from leaders of these two great religious traditions, Christian and Muslim, is worth reflecting on.

It begins:
“In the name of God who has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and who has called them to live together as brothers and sisters, to fill the earth and make known the values of goodness, love and peace,”

The document speaks for innocent human life, the poor, the destitute and the marginalized, the victims of destruction, calamities and war. It invokes the name of freedom, fraternity, peace and justice, the name of all people everywhere:

“In the name of God and of everything stated thus far; Al-Azhar al-Sharif and the Muslims of the East and West, together with the Catholic Church and the Catholics of the East and West, declare the adoption of a culture of dialogue as the path; mutual cooperation as the code of conduct; reciprocal understanding as the method and standard.”

“We, who believe in God and in the final meeting with Him and His judgment, on the basis of our religious and moral responsibility, and through this Document, call upon ourselves, upon the leaders of the world as well as the architects of international policy and world economy, to work strenuously to spread the culture of tolerance and of living together in peace; to intervene at the earliest opportunity to stop the shedding of innocent blood and bring an end to wars, conflicts, environmental decay and the moral and cultural decline that the world is presently experiencing.”

One commentator Tuesday said a meeting like this takes time for its meaning to be felt. “Something is happening.”

Facing “Unclean Spirits”

Edvard Munch: The Scream


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

Throughout  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 focus on the intellectual establishment or the religious establishment in his ministry. 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.

Jesus commissioned  his apostles for this ministry. He summons “the twelve and began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits.” (Mark 6, 7) We’re not out of place in our chaotic world today.

Broken Baby Jesus

by Howard Hain

(Note: This post was originally published on December 24, 2011.)

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We have not put up a tree in years.

For nearly a decade we have been moving—no longer than two years in any one house and no less than ten different not-so-humble abodes. Between and during the moves we were very much engaged with the world. A seemingly endless movable beast.

This December marks one year in our current house. I am happy to say it is our home. The Lord has blessed us with great peace. And with that peace comes a tree. A simple, well-shaped tree. Fittingly, a dear friend offered it to us as a gift.

Francesca could not be more ready to be initiated into the act of trimming. Before the tree arrived, her two-year-old fingers pointed out every tree, artificial or real, that graced the pages of a holiday flyer or the commercial floor of a Rite Aid or Dollar Store.

Up the stairs came the evergreen, into the old stand that has been in storage since my father last used it several decades ago. I cut off the mesh and out popped the branches.

We hung the lights and old glass ornaments that my mother-in-law washed a few days before.

The main attraction for Francesca was the Nativity.

Not since St. Francis of Assisi assembled the first Nativity in Greccio in 1223, has there been such admiration for each and every witness who Our Lord assembled to adore His Son that first Christmas two millennia ago. Francesca kissed and hugged every shepherd, sheep, donkey, angel, and king. Most of all she adored the Holy family, calling Mary and Joseph, Ma-ma and Da-da, respectively. And Jesus, He was simply called: “ba-be.”

She carried them around the apartment. I did not want to ruin her fun, but they are ceramic. I explained a few times to be very careful.

“Gentle, Francesca…gentle…”, I harked a host of times.

Boom. To the wood floor went the shepherd. Amazing, grace held him intact. I took that as a great sign to put an end to her carrying the animals, angels and representatives of mankind.

I was fixing my coffee when I turned to see Francesca with Baby Jesus in her tiny hands. But He is so small, so tiny, what harm could come from holding Him? So I let her get away with carrying the Savior.

As I stirred my spoon Christ crashed to the floor, the tile floor. Francesca immediately looked at me, as if expecting all hell to break loose. I think I sighed but that was about all. It is Christmas, right? And it is, after all, only a ceramic figure purchased at Target.

After assuring Francesca not to worry and guiding her toward a few coloring books in the living room, I bent down to retrieve the broken Christ.

———

St. Francis was told by a Crucifix in an old abandoned chapel: “Restore my Church.”

In my small one-bedroom apartment, I found Baby Christ, broken into exactly three: The Head, the Torso, and the Crossed Legs.

“Restore the Trinity,” was spoken to me.

———

For half of my forty years I can honestly say I have tried to pursue Truth, wherever it lie. In philosophy, in scripture, in literature, in art, in nature, in history…

Now, the entire Gospel of Christ lie naked on my kitchen floor.

We separate, we distinguish, we categorize, we breakdown. The Fall of Adam was a fall into denomination.

Christ’s body is One. His Church cannot be broken. Only mere men can get things so wrong.

I think of the great “Angelic Doctor” of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas, who after spending a lifetime in unparalleled pursuit of human understanding, said after glimpsing a vision of what Our Lord has in store for those who love God:

“All that I have written seems like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me.”

Yes… “straw”…my brother Thomas…merely straw. Straw that lines the manger within which Our Savior is laid bare.

———

It is tradition to leave the crib empty until Christmas morning. Only then do we place the figurative baby Jesus into the scene, after all until that moment he was not yet brought forth from Mother Mary’s womb.

This Christmas morning I will glue together a Broken Baby Christ. The Head, the Torso, and the Crossed Legs will again be One.

Like the world after the birth of Christ, I will never be the same.

For what has now been revealed to me, no fall can break apart.


 

Howard Hain is a contemplative layman, husband, and father. He blogs at http://www.howardhain.com