Pope Benedict on the Infancy Narratives

I just finished reading Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, the final installment of Pope Benedict’s three-volume book series on Jesus. Here, as the name suggests, his focus is on the Gospel accounts of the birth and early days of Jesus.

There is much in the book worth reflecting on. Among the most important is something we see played out in so many ways in the infancy narratives, “the paradoxical element in God’s way of acting…greatness emerges from what seems in earthly terms small and insignificant, while worldly greatness collapses and falls.” At various points the Pope highlights examples of this in the Gospel accounts, starting with the announcement of Jesus’ birth to an unknown young woman in an unknown small dwelling in an unknown small town, and ending with the Magi, who find Jesus not in the King’s palace, but in a small home.

Just as God works in ways that seem surprising to us given the standards of the world, so, too, must we abandon worldly ideas of what constitutes greatness. At one point in the book, Pope Benedict observes that “one aspect of becoming a Christian is having to leave behind what everyone else thinks and wants, the prevailing standards, in order to enter the light of the truth of our being, and aided by that light to find the right path.”

Another point in the book crucial to our understanding of both God and our role in the world is the Pope’s discussion of the interrelationship between grace and freedom. He begins by talking about the two extreme positions: first, “the idea of the absolutely exclusive action of God, in which everything depends on his predestination,” and second, “a moralizing position, according to which everything is ultimately decided through the good will of the human person.”

Neither of those extremes is correct. Instead, “the overall testimony of Scripture” makes clear that grace and freedom “are thoroughly interwoven, and we cannot unravel their interrelatedness into clear formulae.” God loves first, but we are free to love in return or to refuse God’s love. It is God’s plan to save, but he asks Mary’s consent to participate in his plan; “the only way he can redeem man, who was created free, is by means of a free ‘yes’ to his will.”

There are many other things I liked about the book: the discussion of the joy and of hope, the way the Pope talks about our response to that which we cannot understand, and the challenge to “make haste…where the things of God are concerned.”

I was less impressed with the book’s tremendous concern with establishing that the events contained in Matthew and Luke’s narratives were historical rather than theological. My reaction to his efforts to refute those who see things like the virgin birth, the census and the visit of the Magi as theological stories reminded me of my reaction in my college Problem of God course to various “proofs” of the existence of God: wholly unnecessary to those who already are convinced and completely unpersuasive to those who aren’t.

With respect to the last of those examples – the Magi, Benedict quotes Jean Danielou as “rightly” observing that the adoration of the Magi “does not touch upon any essential aspect of our faith. No foundations would be shaken if it were simply an invention of Matthew’s based on a theological idea.” (Danielou, nonetheless, concludes that this event was historical.) Many might have the same reaction to some of the other things the Pope is concerned with proving the historicity of.

Whatever one thinks of the literal truth of the stories in the infancy narratives, there is much to reflect on in this book.


Benedict on the Environment

Our Sunday Visitor has published The Environment, by Pope Benedict XIV. The book is a collection of excerpts from audiences, speeches, encyclicals, messages, letters and homilies of Pope Benedict’s that address matters related to the environment. I was delighted to receive a copy of it from The Catholic Company as part of its reviewer program.

The book addresses what is obviously an important topic. Pope Benedict observed in one of the general audiences excerpted in the book, that “life is a stewardship of the goods received from God, which is why each one is responsible for the other.” I think it is fair to say that we are not being as good stewards as we are called to be. That we are not doing enough, either individually or collectively, to care for the earth we have been given (or for each other). And we see and hear the effects of that all around us. Climate change. Deforestation. Famine for far too many of our brothers and sisters. Lack of access to clean drinking water for many.

Pope Benedict has had much to say about the environment. In these excerpts, we find a clear exposition of the Church’s social teaching about our call to assume political and social responsibilities in the world and of a “eucharistic spirituality” that aspires to sanctify the world. We find beautiful statements about the meaning and value of agricultural labor and of the rural family. We hear warnings about the effects of scarcity of energy supplies on portions of the world’s population. We hear a call for global solutions to issues such as sustainable development and climate change, which the Pope calls “matters of grave concern for the entire human family,” the ethical implications of which “no nation or business sector can ignore.”

If I have a quibble about the book it is that I could not discern any principle of organization to the excerpts, which are simply presented one after the other. Although it would have been a difficult task to achieve, the book might have benefitted from an effort to organize the material thematically. I also think some of the shorter excerpts might have been left out with no loss to the book. An example is several of the addresses to particular groups, which by their nature tend to be very formalized and thus say little of substance. Having said that, their inclusion serves to highlight the extent to which Pope Benedict has spoken on this important subject.

Far too many people are still woefully uninformed about the principles of Catholic Social Thought, including that of stewardship. This book is a useful aid in presenting the Church’s teachings on the environment and our stewardship responsibility in an accessible way.

The Rule of Benedict

One of the things I love about spending time at St. Benedict’s Monastery, where I’ve spent the past week working on the book I’m writing about conversion, is participating in communal prayer with the sisters who live here. Although I didn’t find either the book or movie version of Eat, Pray, Love to be compelling, I do love the Eat, Pray, Work (not necessarily in that order) rhythm of Benedictine community.

Morning prayer each day is preceded by a reading from The Rule of Benedict.

The Rule of Benedict, written around 530, is a set of precepts for those living in community. Benedict intended the Rule, which is based on his own experience and observation living in monastic communities, as a guide to those living in the monasteries he founded. He also expressed the with that the rule “be read often in the community, so that none can offer the excuse of ignorance.”

The Rule still offers good advice today – and advice useful for all of us, not only those living a monastic life. And I love the practice of taking a small segment to listen to and reflect on each day.

For most of the days I’ve been here, we listened to passages from the Prologue. I invite you to take a look at it if you are not already familiar with the Rule of Benedict. The Prologue on the link I’ve provided you is divided into daily passages, as it would be read in a monastery. It would be a worthwhile exercise to see what some of the passages have to say to you about your own discipleship.

I will leave St. Benedict’s Monastery this afternoon, filled with gratitude to the Sisters there for welcoming me into their community during this visit, as they have during my previous times here.

Doctors of the Church

I just finished reading Pope Benedict XVI’s Doctors of the Church, sent to me by the Catholic Company as part of its reviewer program. I have generally benefitted from the writing of Pope Benedict (particularly his Jesus of Nazareth and his contributions to Mary, Church at the Source) and this book was no exception.

Drawn from the Pope’s weekly general audiences, the chapters of the book present catecheses on thirty-two of the thirty-three Doctors of the Church, that is, individuals who have been recognized over the years for both their “holiness of life and profundity in learning.” For me, some of those selected were people I had no familiarity with, some were names I recognized but knew little or nothing about, and others were old friends. Thus, in reading I learned a lot about some of the Doctors and some new things about others. Even those chapters that gave me no new “information” about the Doctor (like the chapters on Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena) were good to read – like spending time with a good friend and being reminded of what I love about them.

What Pope Benedict does so effectively in these catecheses is to not just present a biography of people who are important in Church history, but to convey the core of each of their spiritualities. There are obviously some similarities in them – a deep personal relationship with Christ, a recognition of the importance of Scripture, a recognition of God’s love, and a real and consistent prayer life, which itself is an important lesson for us.

Although there are many things in the chapters on Doctors like Lawrence of Brindisi, Peter Canisius and Isidore of Seville I’m tempted to share, because we are in Advent and because I agree with Pope Benedict’s assessment of the beauty of the images presented, I’ll just share a snippet of the writing of the second Doctor included in the book. Here is an excerpt from St Ephrem’s hymn On the Nativity of Christ that you might like to pray with:

The Lord entered her and became a servant; the Word entered her, and became silent within her; thunder entered her and his voice was still; the Shepherd of all entered here; he became a Lamb in her, and came forth blessing.

The belly of your Mother changed the order of things, O you who order all! Rich he went in, he came our poor: The High One went into her [Mary], he came out lowly. Brightness went into her and and clothed himself, and came forth a despised form…

He that gives food to all went in, and knew hunger. He who gives drink to all went in, and knew thirst. Naked and bare came forth form her the Clother of all things [in beauty].

Lest anyone think Pope Benedict’s writings are only for those with a high degree of theological sophistication (although certainly such people will also benefit from reading his book), this book, as others of his, is written in a very accessible prose style, making it a worthwhile read for all Christians.

Humility and the Rule of Benedict

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Memorial of St. Benedict, to whom is given the title of patriarch of Western monasticism because of his contributions to the development of monastic life in Europe.

Among his contributions is the Rule of Benedict, a guide for those committed to monasticism. “Rule” is a potentially misleading word. Although the work does contain certain rules legislating many details of common living, it is much more a treasure of spiritual wisdom, that has something to say to everyone, not just communities of monks. More importantly, it contains timeless wisdom that addresses many of the issues that face us today.

During my several visits to St. Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph, Minnesota, as part of their Visiting Scholars Program, I listened to readings from the Rule of Benedict at the opening of Morning Prayer each day. There were many gems in those readings that I would find myself sitting with from time to time during the day. Here is one in honor of his celebration today.

In the chapter on Humility, Benedict write:

The fourth step of humility is that in this obedience under difficult, unfavorable, or even unjust conditions, our hearts quietly embrace suffering and endure it without weakening or seeking escape…
In truth, those who are patient amid hardships and unjust treatment are fulfilling God’s command: “When struck on one cheek, they turn the other; when deprived of their coat, they offer their cloak also; when pressed into service for one mile, they go two.”… With the apostle Paul, they bear with “false companions, endure persecution, and bless those who curse them.”

For Benedict, bearing bad things is, in Joan Chittister’s words, “a mark of humility, a mark of Christian maturity.” As she observes, this is “a dour and difficult notion for the modern Christian to accept.” She writes:

The goal of the twenty-first century is to cure all diseases, order all inefficiency, topple all obstacles, end all stress, and prescribe immediate panaceas. We wait for nothing and put up with little and abide less and react with fury at irritations. We are a people without patience. We do not tolerate process. We cannot stomach delay. Persist. Persevere. Endure, Benedict says. It is good for the soul to temper it. God does not come on hoofbeats of mercury through streets of gold. God is in the dregs of our lives. That’s why it takes humility to find God where God is not expected to be.

Benedict’s words…and Chittister’s…are good ones for us to chew on. I suspect we could all benefit from a bit more humility in our lives.

St. Bartholomew

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St. Bartholomew. He is not one of the Apostles about whom we know a great deal. We hear his name only when the Gospel lists the names of the twelve apostles and thus get no details about who he is.

Bartholomew traditionally has been identified with Nathaniel, who was brought to Jesus by Philip. Most of us remember his response when Philip tells him he has found the one of whom the prophets spoke: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth.” Talking about Bartholomew/Nathaniel’s reaction, Pope Benedict says,

Nathanael’s protest highlights God’s freedom, which baffles our expectations by causing him to be found in the very place where we least expect him. Nathanael’s reaction suggests another thought to us: in our relationship with Jesus we must not be satisfied with words alone. In his answer, Philip offers Nathanael a meaningful invitation: “Come and See!” Our knowledge of Jesus needs above all a first-hand experience…we ourselves must be personally involved in a close and deep relationship with Jesus.”

Pope Benedict also suggest that very the scarcity of information we have about Bartholomew tells us something important. He suggests that Bartholomew “stands before us to tell us that attachment to Jesus can also be lived and witnessed to without performing sensational deeds.” Comforting.

I, And No Longer I

I’ve just finished reading Timothy Radcliffe’s, Why Go to Church: The Drama of the Eucharist, which I talked about in a post a couple of days ago. I’m very grateful to my friend Julie for recommending it; there is a lot here on which one could profitably spend a lot of time reflecting.

One of the things that resonated very strongly with me is Radcliffe’s discussion of Paul’s line in Galatians, where he says that it is no longer he, but Christ who lives in him. Quoting from Pope Benedict’s 2007 Easter Vigil sermon, Radcliffe suggests that a proper understanding of this idea offers something of a middle way between the secular Western view of the self as “having a purely self-contained identity, hermetically sealed from others,” and the understanding expressed in some versions of Buddhism of non-self as meaning that the “I” is “utterly swallowed up on some impersonal ocean of being.”

Instead, our Christian understanding is really that in Christ we remain “both ‘I and no longer I.’” God gives each of us an identity; there is an “I.” But the “I” is not isolated; instead, it finds itself within the vastness of God. We have identities, our “individuality is not abolished,” but our identity is defined not by separation but by communion – with Christ and with each other.

As I was repeating to myself the words “I and no longer I, but Christ,” I realized that what helped me absorb the idea most vividly was not so much my actual experience of “I and no longer I, but Christ,” but my analogous experience of “you and no longer you, but Christ.”

The months, and especially the last few weeks, before my father’s death from pancreatic cancer six years ago were very difficult for me. Visits to the hospital, anxiety and worry, talking to out of town relatives about his condition, concern for my mother… all were very exhausting.

Often during that period, as at other times during the years I lived in the vicinity, I made frequent visits to St. Ignatius Retreat House for afternoon daily Mass, in addition to whatever programs brought me there. One of the Jesuits on the retreat house staff was at one time my spiritual director and is someone for whom I have a great deal of love and admiration. During that period, there were any number of occasions on which he saw me walk in, doubtless seeing the stress, anxiety and exhaustion, and simply held out his arms for me to walk into. Each time he hugged me, I felt as though I were being wrapped in the arms of God. I felt God’s presence. I felt completely supported and loved and strengthened and for those moments felt better.

What was clear to me then was that it wasn’t that it was God and not my Jesuit friend. My friend was there – but it was both him and more than him. Him and God at the same time. It is hard to put it clearly in words, but understanding “him and no longer him, but Christ,” helps me to understand what Radcliffe and Pope Benedict are trying to convey by “I and no longer I, but Christ who lives I me.”

Benedict on Paul

During the special Jubilee Year to St. Paul, which the Catholic Church celebrated from June 28, 2008 to June 28, 2009, Pope Benedict devoted a number of his General Audiences to provide teachings on St. Paul. (These occurred between July 2, 2008 and February 4, 2009.) This cycle of Catacheses is collected in a volume titled Saint Paul, published this year by Ignatius Press, which I read as part of the Catholic Company reviewer program.

Each of the general audiences addresses a particular topic relating to St. Paul (e.g., Pauls’ relationship with Jesus, the Doctrine of Justification, Paul’s Theology of the Sacraments) and has its own chapter, although there is obviously a great deal of overlap between the various themes. My recommendation is to read the book the way it was delivered, that is to read and reflect on each chapter separately rather than digesting the book on one or two long sittings. Different readers will find different chapters more or less compelling, but everyone will find something worth reflecting on in all of them.

For me, several points were particularly powerful. Two are the subjects of separate blog posts I made in the last week or so: Benedict’s elaboration on the meaning for us today of the words Paul puts on the lips of the Corinthians at the end of his first letter to them: Marana, tha!, Come, Lord Jesus! (which is here), and his explanation of original sin (which is here).

A third is Benedict’s beautiful elaboration on the importance to Paul’s conversation of his personal encounter with Jesus. As Benedict explains, Paul “was transformed, not by a thought, but by an event, by the irresistible presence of the Risen One,” the understanding of which is central to our understanding “the Christian ethic [as] not born from a system of commandments but [as] a consequence of our friendship with Christ.” The book also contains helpful commentary on our mission as disciples and on the importance of community and, of course, discussion of the meaning (and essential interrelatedness) of the cross and the Resurrection for St. Paul.

There is a lot to reflect on in this compilation of Benedict’s teachings on St. Paul and I suspect there are many passages here that I’ll come back to again and again.

Come, Lord Jesus!

One of the books I’m currently reading is St. Paul, a book the collects Pope Benedict’s 2008-09 cycle of Catechesis on (as you might guess from the book title) St. Paul. Among other things I’ve been struck with thus far in my reading is Benedict’s suggestion of how we should pray today a prayer that originated in the first Christian communities: Marana, tha!, Come, Lord Jesus.

The early Christians were praying for Jesus’ parousia, for the final coming. Benedict suggests that “for us today, in our lives, in our world, it is difficult to pray sincerely for the world to perish so that the new Jerusalem, the Last Judgment and the Judge, Christ, may come.” Nonetheless, he believes that there is a “correct and proper way” for us to pray as did the early Christians: Come, Lord Jesus! He explains:

We do not of course desire the end of the world. Nevertheless, we do want this unjust world to end. We also want the world to be fundamentally changed, we want the beginning of the civilization of love, the arrival of a world of justice and peace, without violence, without hunger. We want all this, yet how can it happen without Christ’s presence? Without Christ’s presence there will never be a truly just and renewed world. And even if we do so in a different way, we too can and must also say, completely and profoundly, with great urgency and amid the circumstances of our time: Come, Lord Jesus! Come in your way, in the ways that you know. Come wherever there is injustice and violence. Come to the refugee camps, in Darfur, in North Kivu, in so many parts of the world. Come wherever drugs prevail. Come among those wealthy people who have forgotten you, who live for themselves alone. Come wherever you are unknown. Come in your way and renew today’s world. And come into our hearts, come and renew our lives, come into our hearts so that we ourselves may become the light of God, your presence.

What else is there to say, other than: Come, Lord Jesus! Come!

The Temptations of Jesus

In today’s Gospel, we hear St. Mark’s version of the temptation of Jesus. Much shorter than the accounts in Matthew or Luke’s gospels, which detail three temptations put to Jesus by Satan, Mark merely tells us that

The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts and the angels ministered to him.

I was reminded while reflecting on Marks’ passage of Pope Bendict’s book, Jesus of Nazareth, which has a powerful chapter discussing the temptations of Jesus.  Early in the chapter, Benedict explains the importance of this episode in Jesus’ life:

It is a descent into the perils besetting mankind, for there is no other way to lift up fallen humanity. Jesus has to enter into the drama of human existence, for that belongs to the core of his mission; he has to penetrate it completely, down to its uttermost depths, in order to find the “lost sheep,” to bear it on his shoulders and to bring it home….The Letter to the Hebrews is particularly eloquent in stressing that Jesus’ mission, the solidarity with all of us that he manifested beforehand in his Baptism, includes exposure to the risks and perils of human existence. “…For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.”

Benedict goes on to say that the temptations are intimately connected with Jesus’ baptism, through which he entered into “solidarity with sinners.” Jesus’ temptations are thus a core part of his messianic mission.

However, Benedict explains that the temptations are about more than Jesus’ particular mission. Rather, they “address the question as to what truly matters in human life.” He helpfully and simply encapsulates what all temptation boils down to.

At the heart of all temptations, as we see here, is the act of pushing God aside because we perceive him as secondary, if not actually superfluous and annoying, in comparison with all the apparently far more urgent matters that fill our lives. Constructing a world by our own lights, without reference to God, building on our own foundation; refusing to acknowledge the reality of anything beyond the political and material, while setting God aside as an illusion – that is the temptation that threatens us in many forms.

The particulars vary; we will each be tempted in different ways. But at the root, all temptations share a common core. Equally importantly, Benedict reminds us that, at least for those of us attempting to lead spiritual lives, temptation often comes in pleasing disguises.

Moral posturing is part and parcel of temptation. It does not invite us directly to do evil – no, that would be far to blatant. It pretends to show us a better way, where we finally abandon our illusions and throw ourselves into the work of actually making the world a better place. It claims, moreover, to speak for true realism: What’s real is what is right there in front of us – power and bread. By comparison, the things of God fade into unreality, into a secondary world that no one really needs.

There is a lot of meditate on in these words as we reflect on what this episode in Jesus’ life has to say to each of us.