Author: tomlirish

THE EUCHARIST IS NOT A PRIZE FOR THE PERFECT; NOR IS IT A REMEDY FOR THOSE IN MORTAL SIN

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(ST. THOMAS AQUINAS)

“The Eucharist is too great a gift to tolerate ambiguity and depreciation.” (Saint Pope John Paul II)

The prerequisite for receiving Holy Communion is that one must be in a state of sanctifying grace. This is one of the most fundamental principles of Catholic sacramental life and it is frankly surprising that there appears to be some confusion regarding this requirement. This principle is set forth in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“To respond to this invitation [to receive Holy Communion] we must prepare ourselves for so great and so holy a moment…. ‘Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.’ Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1385)

Clearly from this principle in CCC 1385 we can see that the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect because one need not be cleansed of all sin to receive Holy Communion – only of mortal sin, that is to say, of grave sin.

The purpose of this note is to simply demonstrate that Saint Thomas Aquinas clearly teaches that the Eucharist is not a spiritual medicine to heal those in mortal sin, but rather a medicine given to strengthen believers who are in a state of grace.

The clear teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas I am referring to occurs in Question 80, Article Four (Pt. III) of the Summa Theologica, which reads as follows as specifically pertaining to Objection 2 (which St. Thomas answers in Reply to Objection 2):

FOURTH ARTICLE: Whether the sinner sins in receiving Christ’s body sacramentally?

We proceed thus to the Fourth Article: – 

Objection 2. Further, this sacrament, like the others, is a spiritual medicine. But medicine is given to the sick for their recovery, according to Matthew 9:12: “They that are in health need not a physician.” Now they that are spiritually sick or infirm are sinners. Therefore this sacrament can be received by them without sin.

[St. Thomas then responds to this objection, stating]

On the contrary, The Apostle says (1 Corinthians 11:29): “He that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself.” Now the gloss says on this passage: “He eats and drinks unworthily who is in sin, or who handles it irreverently.” Therefore, if anyone, while in mortal sin, receives this sacrament, he purchases damnation, by sinning mortally.

I answer that, In this sacrament, as in the others, that which is a sacrament is a sign of the reality of the sacrament. Now there is a twofold reality of this sacrament, as stated above (III:73:6): one which is signified and contained, namely, Christ Himself; while the other is signified but not contained, namely, Christ’s mystical body, which is the fellowship of the saints. Therefore, whoever receives this sacrament, expresses thereby that he is made one with Christ, and incorporated in His members; and this is done by living faith, which no one has who is in mortal sin. And therefore it is manifest that whoever receives this sacrament while in mortal sin, is guilty of lying to this sacrament, and consequently of sacrilege, because he profanes the sacrament: and therefore he sins mortally.

Reply to Objection 2. Every medicine does not suit every stage of sickness; because the tonic given to those who are recovering from fever would be hurtful to them if given while yet in their feverish condition. So likewise Baptism and Penance are as purgative medicines, given to take away the fever of sin; whereas this sacrament is a medicine given to strengthen, and it ought not to be given except to them who are quit of sin.

CONCLUSION: You do not need to be in a state of perfection to receive the Holy Eucharist, but you are required to be in a state of sanctifying grace (that is to say, knowingly free from mortal sin). If you are in mortal sin, you must first go to sacramental confession before receiving Holy Communion.

Thomas Mulcahy, M.A., J.D.

P.S. This note naturally presupposes that you have made your First Holy Communion in accordance with sacramental guidelines.

Image: “Detail from Valle Romita Polyptych by Gentile da Fabriano  (circa 1400)” at Wikipedia. Public Domain, U.S.A.

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THE THEME OF DEATH AND RESURRECTION IN JANE EYRE

“As to St. John Rivers, he left England: he went to India. He entered on the path he had marked for himself” (Chapter 38)

I intend to make this a quick note rather than anything that might be considered a scholarly note! I really have been trying to make sense of that strange ending to Jane Eyre regarding her follow-up (or epilogue) on the missionary journey of St. John to India (in the last page or two of the novel). After all, it seemed like the novel was going to end on the happiest of terms regarding Jane’s marriage to Mr. Rochester, but then at the very ending Bronte relates some rather grim details of St. John’s lonely life and impending death. Thus, after such a joyous ending, the novel returns to the stark realism of death and to the hope of resurrection.

Let’s face it: Jane Eyre is a Death and Resurrection story. I mean, look at the life of Mr. Rochester: his life journey may be a bigger death and resurrection story than Jane’s! After all he lives through a literal holocaust in the burning down of Thornfield from which he emerges a humbled, repentant, maimed man who begins to pray and turn his life towards God. You don’t need to be a literary genius to see the death and resurrection motif here. Clearly after the burning down of Thornfield Rochester is a changed man with a new life. 

Then there is Jane’s own resurrection story. I won’t go into all the details, but after her failed marriage at Thornfield she undergoes a sort of religious passion where she is basically stripped of everything she ever had and all that is left is her faith in God. Perhaps at the very doorstep of death, and famished from lack of food, she is rescued by the kindness of St. John’s household and given a new life there! Jane admits later on in Chapter 35 that St. John had “once saved my life.” The death and resurrection motif here is quite patent, and is resumed again when she flees Moor House and is reunited to the now completely transformed Mr. Rochester whom she marries (against all odds).  

And of course there is that famous and touching scene in Chapter 9 where Jane stays with Helen Burns at her time of death. Helen tells Jane about her faith in God despite her impending death: “I believe; I have faith: I am going to God.” After Helen’s death Jane “learned that Miss Temple, on returning to her own room at dawn, had found me laid in the little crib; my face against Helen Burns’ shoulder, my arms round her neck. I was asleep, and Helen was—dead. Her grave is in Brocklebridge church-yard; for fifteen years after her death it was only covered by a grassy mound; but now a gray marble tablet marks the spot, inscribed with her name and the word ‘Resurgam'(Chapter 9).” Resurgam is a Latin word meaning “I will rise again,” so the theme of death and resurrection is powerfully displayed in the life and death of Helen Burns, inspiring Jane to such a degree that fifteen years following Helen’s death Jane marks the grave with the word Resurgam! Indeed, Jane Eyre is a Resurgam story!

Even Adele is rescued by Jane from her overly strict school as related at the end of the novel. When Jane visits Adele, the child is “pale and thin,” and very “unhappy.” Jane found the school to be “too severe for a child of her age” and Jane “took her home with me.” Jane placed Adele in an English boarding school which corrected her “French defects” and molded her into a “good-tempered, well principled” young lady and an obliging companion for Jane. So we see, then, that even Adele’s story has an implicit resurrection theme as she is given new life in a new school and thus a happy and fulfilling existence.

Finally, we return to St. John Rivers. What is his Death and Resurrection story? It is given to us by Bronte in the very final pages of the novel. It is the grim reality that his “toil draws near its close.” There almost appears to be a slight tone of acerbity for St. John in the words used by Jane, but this cannot be true because she says that his last letter “drew from my eyes human tears, and yet filled my heart with Divine Joy.” St. John anticipates his “sure reward,” his “incorruptible crown,” and “no fear of death” will “darken his last hour.” Jane adds that “his hope will be sure; his faith steadfast.”

Jane Eyre does not conclude with a fairy-tale happy ending. The stark reality of St. John’s impending death concludes the story. And the hope of resurrection related there (in the very last sentences of the novel) underscores the underlying Christian nature of the novel, consistent with the theme of death and resurrection so prevalent in the story.

Tom Mulcahy

References: In her very helpful essay, Human Performance, Divine Reality: The Spectacle of Jane Eyre, Corinna Cole makes the following insightful observation regarding St. John Rivers’ impending death: “The inevitability of death is the truest claim Bronte can make on her audience. It collapses the distance between the characters and the reader and resolutely grounds the novel in the divinely sanctioned final reality of death. Thus, the enchanting pageantry of the novel concludes by returning both her audience and characters to realism.”  

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THE METAPHYSICAL CONTENT OF PERCEPTION

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The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1)

The “metaphysical content of perception” is a power-packed phrase I came across in a book by Fulton Sheen, Peace of Soul. Sheen quotes Franz Werfel, who said: “The atheist…betrays his own psychology when he thinks he is unveiling the mystery; and his denial unwittingly becomes the proof of God by confirming, against his own troubled will, the tremendous and vital importance of the metaphysical content of perception” (p.49). I confess I have not read Franz Werfel, but perhaps he is implying that the more one explains life on purely material grounds the more obvious it becomes that he has simply omitted an explanation of its ultimate origin. As Chesterton once observed, mystery is not eliminated by meticulously explaining the processes of life because “nobody can imagine how nothing turned into something.” Dietrich von Hildebrand spoke of “man’s metaphysical problem” on a number of occasions, and the problem here is that man seeks an ultimate explanation for life.  

Albert Einstein (commenting on our human perception of the universe) once said: “I’m not an atheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws” (Einstein: His Life and Universe, p. 386).

We are talking here about natural knowledge, what theologians call acquired knowledge, the knowledge gained from sense perception acted upon by human reason (ratiocination). The great Catholic philosopher, Jacques Maritain, states: “The part played by the senses in the perception of beauty is even rendered enormous in us, and well nigh-indispensable…only sense knowledge possesses perfectly in man the intuitiveness required for the perception of the beautiful.” Father Thomas Dubay adds: “Creation is a book proclaiming the Creator. It is a book of beauty that our intellect reads, but through the passageways of our five senses.”

The Church proclaimed infallibly in Vatican Council I that God can be known by the light of human reason. It said: “The same Holy Mother Church holds and teaches that God, the beginning and end of all things, can be known with certitude by the natural light of human reason from created things; ‘for the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made’ ” [ Rom 1:20] (Dogmatic Constitution “Dei Filius”).

St. Thomas Aquinas expounds further: “Our natural knowledge begins from sense. Hence our natural knowledge can go as far as it can be led by sensible things. But our mind cannot be led by sense so far as to see the essence of God; because the sensible effects of God do not equal the power of God as their cause. Hence from the knowledge of sensible things the whole power of God cannot be known; nor therefore can His essence be seen. But because they are His effects and depend on their cause, we can be led from them so far as to know of God ‘whether He exists,’ and to know of Him what must necessarily belong to Him, as the first cause of all things, exceeding all things caused by Him” (Summa Theologica, First Part, Q 12).

We see, then, that faith in God is intrinsically linked to human reason. “Being Atheist, it is characteristic of the advancing wave that it repudiates the human reason….But the Faith and the use of the intelligence are inextricably bound up. The use of reason is a main part – or rather the foundation – of all inquiry into the highest things” (Hilaire Belloc).

Michael Corey, in discussing the possibility whether our “wondrous universe could have evolved by blind chance” quotes the distinguished University of Montreal psychiatrist Karl Stern as  labeling such a view of the universe as “crazy.” He further quotes Stern as saying: “And I do not at all mean crazy in the sense of a slangy invective but rather in the technical meaning of psychotic. Indeed such a view has much in common with certain aspects of schizophrenic thinking” (God and the New Cosmology, p.220). Stern is basically maintaining that it is flat out irrational to believe the universe came about by chance or accident.

The metaphysical content of perception is God. The Bible confirms this: “For all people who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature; and they were unable from the good things that are seen to know the one who exists, nor did they recognize the artisan while paying heed to his works;…If through delight in the beauty of these things people assumed them to be gods, let them know how much better than these is their Lord, for the author of beauty created them. And if people were amazed at their power and working, let them perceive from them how much more powerful is the one who formed them. For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator” (Wisdom 13: 1-5, as edited).

Tom Mulcahy, M.A.

Note: In Catholic theology a distinction is made between natural and supernatural knowledge. The focus of this note has been natural or acquired knowledge.

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HOW TO PRAY ACCORDING TO THE CATECHISM OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH

(THE ANGELUS BY MILLET, 1859, PUBLIC DOMAIN, U.S.A.)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) was prepared and promulgated under the papacy of Saint Pope John Paul II and he indicated in the document itself that it is “a sure and authentic reference text for the teaching of Catholic doctrine….” The Catechism of the Catholic Church is divided into four main sections, and the entire fourth section is devoted to Christian prayer – specifically paragraphs 2558 through 2865. Reading the entire portion of the CCC on prayer is very valuable, but here in a quick note are ten or more important points on prayer as set forth in the CCC.

1. Prayer is vitally necessary. Indeed, prayer and the Christian life are inseparable. Without perseverance in prayer, we risk falling back into the slavery of sin (CCC 2744, 2745).  It is the life of prayer that places us in relationship with God (CCC 2565).

2. Humility is the foundation of prayer. We should go to God in prayer as “a beggar,” asking Him to bestow on us “the gift” of prayer (CCC 2559).

3. An effective means to begin prayer is to consciously place ourselves in the presence of God (CCC 2803).  St. Francis de Sales states: “Begin all your prayers, whether mental or vocal, in the presence of God. Keep to this rule without any exception and you will quickly see how helpful it will be.”

4. After placing ourselves in the presence of God, the basic movement of Christian prayer should start with adoration (CCC 2626).  In this type of prayer, we adore the Trinitarian God who is the source of every blessing.

5. Before turning to prayers of petition, where we ask God for help with our needs, it is essential to first ask God for mercy and forgiveness. This “is a prerequisite for righteous and pure prayer.” This can be done simply by saying, “Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am a sinner” (CCC 2631). Then in “boldness” and “deep faith,” tell God what it is you need (CCC 2610), asking the Father in the name of Jesus (CCC 2614).

6. During our prayer time, it is appropriate to pray for others (intercession), 2634, and to spend time praising God “simply because HE IS” (CCC 2639).

7. An effective means to end prayer is in Thanksgiving, thanking God, in the name of Christ Jesus, for all He has done for you, and even for your trials and tribulations (CCC 2638).

8. An effective means to enter into meditative prayer is to read the Bible or the writings of the great Saints in order to to stir our thoughts, imagination, emotions and desires towards the love of Jesus Christ (CCC 2705 – 2708).

9. Ejaculatory prayer. The Catechism of the Catholic Church specifically recommends that, throughout the day, we invoke the name of “Jesus,” which contains the entire economy of salvation, and also that we invoke the Holy Spirit saying, “Come, Holy Spirit” (CCC 2665-2672).  It is the Holy Spirit acting within us that makes prayer possible (CCC 2672). The Catechism of the Catholic Church also highly recommends prayer to and with the Virgin Mary, stating in paragraph 2679 the following:

“Mary is the perfect Orans (pray-er), a figure of the Church. When we pray to her, we are adhering with her to the plan of the Father, who sends his Son to save all men. Like the beloved disciple we welcome Jesus’ mother into our homes,39 for she has become the mother of all the living. We can pray with and to her. The prayer of the Church is sustained by the prayer of Mary and united with it in hope.

10. How important is prayer? Those who pray will be saved; those who do not pray will be lost (see CCC 2744 quoting St. Alphonsus Liguori).

As mentioned, the entire fourth section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is devoted to Christian prayer – paragraphs 2558 through 2865 – and is well worth reading.

Remember, the best way to pray is to pray! Lift your heart to God!

Tom Mulcahy, M.A.

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THE SCARLET LETTER IS TRANSFORMED UPON THE SCAFFOLD OF REDEMPTION

“Is not this better [said Dimmesdale to Hester on the scaffold] than what we dreamed of in the forest?” (Chapter 23)

The power of the scaffold in The Scarlet Letter is most amply manifested by the redemption and salvation of Mr. Chillingworth – one of the most menacing and evil characters in all of literature! But Chillingworth manages to make it up upon the scaffold, and even to kneel down for a moment, when a prayer is said for him. In this light, as I hope to demonstrate, The Scarlet Letter is a tale about repentance, forgiveness, rebirth and redemption.

Henry James, the famous novelist, wrote a note about The Scarlet Letter in which he called it “the finest piece of imaginative writing yet put forth” in the United States. His main criticism of the novel was that it contained “a great deal of symbolism…I think, too much.” The point, however, is that symbolism is very important to understanding The Scarlet Letter, and in this short note I will make much of two very important symbols used by Nathaniel Hawthorne in the novel, namely, the scaffold and the forest. I will maintain that the scaffold is ultimately a symbol of salvation, and the forest a symbol of freedom from conventional moral restraints. Especially by the use of these two symbols, I hope to demonstrate that all four of the main characters in The Scarlet Letter – Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, Mr. Roger Chillingworth and Pearl – were saved (and by saved I am referring ultimately to the Christian meaning of that term, although it has other meanings as well).

Let me get straight to my main point (knowing that you are already familiar with the facts of the novel): no one is saved in The Scarlet Letter unless he climbs up upon the scaffold. In other words, the pathway to redemption and salvation in the novel is directly connected to the scaffold. Dimmesdale flees the scaffold, or mounts it in a cowardly and imaginary fashion under the cover of darkness, when no one can see him, and thus suffers incredible interior pain throughout the course of the novel due to the concealment of his sin (and Hawthorne’s psychological description of Dimmesdale’s acute suffering is quite remarkable). Hester Prynne, by contrast, who was forced to undergo the public humiliation of standing on the scaffold (as described in the opening chapters) fairs much better. Her mental well-being and fortitude is impressive, and her growth in virtue as described by Hawthorne in Chapter 13 results in her being called a “Sister of Mercy.” Nevertheless, there is a temptation within Hester’s soul that attracts her to the illusion of salvation offered by the forest (and one can naturally sympathize with her attraction to the type of (seemingly) liberating moral calculus offered by the forest given the Puritanical oppression she has heroically endured).

But the forest is not the pathway to true salvation. In that famous scene near the end of the novel, where Dimmesdale and Hester meet in the forest, the temptation is placed in their hearts to see in their love something greater than the moral restraints that prohibit it, Hester arguing that their forbidden love “had  a consecration of its own.” Their plan of escape, which can never amount to a true escape, is to get out of Boston and sail to England, and live a new life (along with their daughter, Pearl). The forest thus symbolizes a freedom not found in the civilized world, a freedom that would romantically overshadow (or overpower) the stigma of sin. But the narrator (speaking for Hawthorne) comments:

“Such was the sympathy of Nature—that wild, heathen Nature of the forest, never subjugated by human law, nor illumined by higher truth—with the bliss of these two spirits! Love, whether newly born, or aroused from a deathlike slumber, must always create a sunshine, filling the heart so full of radiance, that it overflows upon the outward world. Had the forest still kept its gloom, it would have been bright in Hester’s eyes, and bright in Arthur Dimmesdale’s!” (Chapter 18).

But as soon as Dimmesdale leaves the forest and reenters the civilized world he is attacked by diabolical temptations so vehement that he is on the verge of saying blasphemous, vile and wicked things to people passing by (most of whom are associated with his congregation).  At some point, upon returning home, Dimmesdale must sense or discern that his spiritual life is under attack (“…am I given over utterly to the fiend?” he wondered on his walk home) and that no amount of miles between himself and Boston can ever really solve his underlying problems of guilt and concealment. This is clearly supposition on my part, but it seems to be confirmed later when Dimmesdale says to Chillingworth, “Ha, tempter! Methinks thou art too late,” which evidences the Reverend’s change of heart (and one theory is that Dimmesdale’s change of heart was the result of his preparation for his Election Day sermon, but in any event Hester recognizes a definite change in him on Election Day before he delivers the sermon). Thus, the true path to freedom for Dimmesdale will be to mount the scaffold of guilt and confession, to “unconceal” to all what he has been hiding for seven years. It is on the wooden beams of the scaffold that he can unveil his heart to the crowd, and reveal publicly his true situation.

I thus turn to the final, dramatic scene on the scaffold that takes place after the procession on the day of the Governor’s inauguration, following Reverend Dimmesdale’s very moving Election Day sermon, three days after the meeting of Hester and Dimmesdale in the forest. In the lengthy but crucial quotes set forth below (from chapter 23) you can see clearly that Dimmesdale, Hester, Pearl and Chillingworth all make it on to the scaffold, which I have referred to as a symbol of salvation in the novel. Here we find Dimmesdale being helped by Hester and Pearl to mount the scaffold of his final confession (one might even say, in proper context, being helped to carry his cross).

“Hester Prynne,” cried Dimmesdale, with a piercing earnestness, “in the name of Him, so terrible and so merciful, who gives me grace, at this last moment, to do what—for my own heavy sin and miserable agony—I withheld myself from doing seven years ago, come hither now, and twine thy strength about me! Thy strength, Hester; but let it be guided by the will which God hath granted me! This wretched and wronged old man is opposing it with all his might!—with all his own might, and the fiend’s! Come, Hester, come! Support me up yonder scaffold!”

The crowd was in a tumult…they remained silent and inactive spectators of the judgment which Providence seemed about to work. They beheld the minister, leaning on Hester’s shoulder, and supported by her arm around him, approach the scaffold, and ascend its steps; while still the little hand of the sin-born child was clasped in his. Old Roger Chillingworth followed, as one intimately connected with the drama of guilt and sorrow in which they had all been actors, and well entitled, therefore, to be present at its closing scene.

“Hadst thou sought the whole earth over,” said [Chillingworth], looking darkly at the clergyman, “there was no one place so secret,—no high place nor lowly place, where thou couldst have escaped me,—save on this very scaffold!”

The salvific nature of the scaffold is thus confirmed by Chillingworth who states that Dimmesdale’s only escape from Chillingsworth’s evil machinations is the scaffold. The dramatic scene on the scaffold thus continues:

“Thanks be to Him who hath led me hither!” answered the minister.

Yet he trembled, and turned to Hester with an expression of doubt and anxiety in his eyes, not the less evidently betrayed, that there was a feeble smile upon his lips.

“Is not this better,” murmured he, “than what we dreamed of in the forest?” ***

“For thee and Pearl, be it as God shall order,” said the minister; “and God is merciful! Let me now do the will which he hath made plain before my sight. For, Hester, I am a dying man. So let me make haste to take my shame upon me!”

And so we finally reach the climax of the novel, Dimmesdale’s powerful confession of guilt:

Partly supported by Hester Prynne, and holding one hand of little Pearl’s, the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale turned to the dignified and venerable rulers; to the holy ministers, who were his brethren; to the people, whose great heart was thoroughly appalled, yet overflowing with tearful sympathy, as knowing that some deep life-matter—which, if full of sin, was full of anguish and repentance likewise—was now to be laid open to them. The sun, but little past its meridian, shone down upon the clergyman, and gave a distinctness to his figure, as he stood out from all the earth, to put in his plea of guilty at the bar of Eternal Justice.

“People of New England!” cried he, with a voice that rose over them, high, solemn, and majestic,—yet had always a tremor through it, and sometimes a shriek, struggling up out of a fathomless depth of remorse and woe,—“ye, that have loved me!—ye, that have deemed me holy!—behold me here, the one sinner of the world! At last!—at last!—I stand upon the spot where, seven years since, I should have stood; here, with this woman, whose arm, more than the little strength wherewith I have crept hitherward, sustains me, at this dreadful moment, from grovelling down upon my face! Lo, the scarlet letter which Hester wears! Ye have all shuddered at it! Wherever her walk hath been,—wherever, so miserably burdened, she may have hoped to find repose,—it hath cast a lurid gleam of awe and horrible repugnance round about her. But there stood one in the midst of you, at whose brand of sin and infamy ye have not shuddered!”

It seemed, at this point, as if the minister must leave the remainder of his secret undisclosed. But he fought back the bodily weakness,—and, still more, the faintness of heart,—that was striving for the mastery with him. He threw off all assistance, and stepped passionately forward a pace before the woman and the child.

“It was on him!” he continued, with a kind of fierceness; so determined was he to speak out the whole. “God’s eye beheld it! The angels were forever pointing at it! The Devil knew it well, and fretted it continually with the touch of his burning finger! But he hid it cunningly from men, and walked among you with the mien of a spirit, mournful, because so pure in a sinful world!—and sad, because he missed his heavenly kindred! Now, at the death-hour, he stands up before you! He bids you look again at Hester’s scarlet letter! He tells you, that, with all its mysterious horror, it is but the shadow of what he bears on his own breast, and that even this, his own red stigma, is no more than the type of what has seared his inmost heart! Stand any here that question God’s judgment on a sinner? Behold! Behold a dreadful witness of it!”

With a convulsive motion, he tore away the ministerial band from before his breast. It was revealed! But it were irreverent to describe that revelation. For an instant, the gaze of the horror-stricken multitude was concentred on the ghastly miracle; while the minister stood, with a flush of triumph in his face, as one who, in the crisis of acutest pain, had won a victory. Then, down he sank upon the scaffold! Hester partly raised him, and supported his head against her bosom.

But could there possibly be grace for the evil Mr. Chillingworth who kneels down next to Dimmesdale on the scaffold? The scene continues:

Old Roger Chillingworth knelt down beside him, with a blank, dull countenance, out of which the life seemed to have departed.

“Thou hast escaped me!” he repeated more than once. “Thou hast escaped me!”

“May God forgive thee!” said the minister. “Thou, too, hast deeply sinned!”

He withdrew his dying eyes from the old man, and fixed them on the woman and the child.

And then we come to one of the most touching scenes in the book which speaks to the remarkable transformation of the child, Pearl, who is, in essence, given her humanity back upon the the scaffold (she who had been made essentially unreal by her father’s concealment) .

“My little Pearl,” said he, feebly,—and there was a sweet and gentle smile over his face, as of a spirit sinking into deep repose; nay, now that the burden was removed, it seemed almost as if he would be sportive with the child,—“dear little Pearl, wilt thou kiss me now? Thou wouldst not, yonder, in the forest! But now thou wilt?”

Pearl kissed his lips. A spell was broken. The great scene of grief, in which the wild infant bore a part, had developed all her sympathies; and as her tears fell upon her father’s cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor forever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it. Towards her mother, too, Pearl’s errand as a messenger of anguish was all fulfilled.

Finally, just before he dies, Dimmesdale says his goodbye to Hester.

“Hester,” said the clergyman, “farewell!”

“Shall we not meet again?” whispered she, bending her face down close to his. “Shall we not spend our immortal life together? Surely, surely, we have ransomed one another, with all this woe! Thou lookest far into eternity, with those bright dying eyes! Then tell me what thou seest?

“Hush, Hester, hush!” said he, with tremulous solemnity. “The law we broke!—the sin here so awfully revealed!—let these alone be in thy thoughts! I fear! I fear! It may be, that, when we forgot our God,—when we violated our reverence each for the other’s soul,—it was thenceforth vain to hope that we could meet hereafter, in an everlasting and pure reunion. God knows; and He is merciful! He hath proved his mercy, most of all, in my afflictions. By giving me this burning torture to bear upon my breast! By sending yonder dark and terrible old man, to keep the torture always at red-heat! By bringing me hither, to die this death of triumphant ignominy before the people! Had either of these agonies been wanting, I had been lost forever! Praised be his name! His will be done! Farewell!”

That final word came forth with the minister’s expiring breath. The multitude, silent till then, broke out in a strange, deep voice of awe and wonder, which could not as yet find utterance, save in this murmur that rolled so heavily after the departed spirit.”

So then, who was saved? And I reply: all of them! We can see rather easily from the quotes above how God’s mercy fell upon Dimmesdale and Pearl, but what about Chillingworth and Hester?

Did Dimmesdale’s prayer of mercy for Chillingworth on the scaffold work? Apparently so. We read in the novel that “nothing was more remarkable than the change which took place, almost immediately after Mr. Dimmesdale’s death, in the appearance and demeanor of the old man known as Mr. Chillingworth.” Is one act of great charity sufficient to save a soul? We read that Chilingworth died “within the year,” but that in his last will and testament he bequeathed (rather amazingly) “a very considerable amount of property, both here and in England, to little Pearl, the daughter of Hester Prynne,” all of which supported a very fine existence for Pearl (who Hawthorne intimates got married and had a child across the sea). All of this evidences a changed heart and a saved soul for the man who had been the very embodiment of revenge.

But what about Hester Pyrnne? Did she go back to the forest, so to speak, to find her salvation there (on her own terms)? We know that “for many years” after Dimmesdale’s death she left New England and ventured somewhere “across the sea.” But Hester ultimately returns to New England because, as Hawthorne tells us, “there was a more real life here for Hester Pyrnne…here had been her sin; here, her sorrow, and here was yet to be her penitence.” And there from her cottage, where she had so long lived in isolation, Hawthorne tells us she ministered to the needs of women “who besought her counsel” because they were wounded in love or could find none at all. And so ends The Scarlet Letter, and the woman who wanted to flee New England ends her life there in gentle penitence, caring for other women harmed by the difficulties of life and love.

And the “A” on Hester stands for “Able,” and the scaffold she three times stood upon for salvation.

Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A.

Image: Hester Prynne & Pearl before the stocks, an 1878 illustration for the book by Mary Hallock Foote (Public Domain, U.S.A.)

Note/References: The critical essays in The Scarlet Letter, A Norton Critical Edition were valuable (see especially the essays by Carpenter, Fogle and Stewart). Hoffman adds: “The salvation of Pearl depends upon Dimmesdale. Until he acknowledges himself her father she can have no human patrimony, and must remain a Nature-spirit, untouched by the redemptive order that was broken in her conception” (p. 371). One could also argue that the salvation of Chillingworth depended upon Dimmesdale. It was Dimmesdale, too, who seems to have played a certain role in the salvation of Hester. The unity of these four main characters on the scaffold at the end of the novel warrants additional reflection. If I were to place this tale in a specific CATHOLIC context, I might say to myself: “When is the last time you went to Confession?” The point seems clear: confession has powerful ramifications.

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A SHORT NOTE ON THE MYSTERY AND MEANING OF LIFE

      “I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly” (John 10:10)

We know that life is a mystery –  and yet we want to understand why there is life, and so much life. The other morning there was a loud noise coming from the back gutter of my house, so I opened a window upstairs and a bunch of Blue jays flew away – a beautiful sight to see! Everywhere we go the world is teeming with life – life, beautiful life!

But it was not supposed to be so! From everything I’ve read, inanimate matter, which preceded organic life, is utterly incapable of generating biological life. Like everywhere else in the universe, there should be physics and chemistry, but the stunning world of biology on planet earth is quite a surprise!!, and in a very real sense it is something akin to the miraculous. “The evolution of modern cells is arguably the most challenging and important problem the field of Biology has ever faced” (Carl Richard Woese, famous American microbiologist).

“…no life, no biology, only physics and chemistry….we only have evidence that it happened on one planet, after a lapse of half a billion to a billion years.  So the sort of lucky event we are looking at could be so wildly improbable that the chances of its happening, somewhere in the universe, could be as low as one in a billion billion billion in any one year.  If it did happen on only one planet, anywhere in the universe, that planet has to be our planet—because here we are talking about it”(Richard Dawkins, Climbing Mount Improbable).

The Catholic Church claims to repeat on its altars each day this stunning transformation of inanimate or non-living matter into biological life through, anthropologically speaking, the incantation of a priestly blessing over bread and wine. The whole thing seems (without faith) wildly improbable, and yet in the well documented literature of Eucharistic miracles there appears to be compelling evidence that it has happened on more than one occasion. Amazing, but then again biological life itself is wildly improbable (see Joan Carroll Cruz’ well researched book, Eucharistic Miracles, which documents many stunning miracles of such sort)!

We come, then, to the person of Jesus Christ, who claims to be “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). In his teachings he accentuates over and over again the central point that the meaning of life is eternal life. “In the preaching of Jesus everything is directed immediately toward Eternal Life” (Father Garrigou-Lagrange). The Gospel of John, in fact, is often referred to as the “Gospel of Eternal Life.” Now we have this amazing phenomenon that a group of apostles witnessed the dead cellular structure of Jesus’ crucified body come back to life! Jesus, in fact, went out of his way to demonstrate to the apostles – and on more than one occasion – that his resurrected body was a real, human body, the very body he had before his death (“Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have” – Luke 24:39).

Thus, the apostles were not left wondering whether they had seen Jesus in the flesh following his death and burial – Jesus went out of his way on multiple occasions to make sure that they had!  And these apostles were men that went on to live heroic lives, to suffer and die for what they had witnessed, spawning the amazing rise of the Christian faith despite insurmountable obstacles, and without any resort to violence.

And if we probe even more deeply into the heart of the “matter,” if we go all the way back to the very frontier of creation, we might say with Chesterton: “Nobody can imagine how nothing could turn into something. Nobody can get an inch nearer to it by explaining how something could turn into something else. It is really far more logical to start by saying ‘In the beginning God created heaven and earth’ even if you only mean ‘In the beginning some unthinkable power began some unthinkable process.’ For God is by its nature a name of mystery, and nobody ever supposed that man could imagine how a world was created any more than he could create one” (The Everlasting Man, p. 24).

The mystery of life most certainly involves the stunning interplay between inanimate, inert matter and living things. And perhaps in this light it should not be so stunning, after all, that God can bring dry bones back to life! (see Ezekiel 37).

Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A.

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THE CRUCIFIX IS A SOURCE OF DEEP MEDITATION ON THE MEANING OF LIFE

“O for some corner, the least, the lowest, and the last in the world to come [Heaven], where we may spend an untired eternity in giving silent thanks to Jesus Crucified!” (F.W. Faber) 

“For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.” (1 Cor. 2:2)

That crucifix in your home is of immense spiritual value. Father Grou, a great spiritual writer, goes as far as to say the crucifix is the “answer to everything”! Everything as in everything!

Grou says: “Let the crucifix… be our chief spiritual book. Let it be a book not only for our eyes only but for our hearts! Let us beg of Jesus to teach us how to read in it, and to reveal to us all its secrets, not only that we may contemplate them in the sweetness of prayer, but that we may practice them faithfully during the whole course of our life.”

Grou tells us that “the crucifix is the greatest proof that God…could give us of His love , and it is the strongest motive He could employ to gain our hearts in return. Every virtue is included in the crucifix, and it is the consummation of the way of perfection.”

“The crucifix is the abridgment of all that a Christian ought to practice. All the morality of the Gospel consists in bearing our cross, in renouncing ourselves, in crucifying our flesh…and in sacrificing ourselves to the will of God….” The crucifix is “the most striking and living expression of the whole teaching of the Gospel.”

Even in Heaven, says Father Grou, we will never fully comprehend “the greatness of this benefit which faith places before our eyes when we look at our crucifix.” God “could not possibly …given us a greater proof of His love.” Such a “way of salvation could only have been conceived in the heart of a God who loved us infinitely.”

Grou says: “[Let us take our part] in the sufferings and humiliations” of Jesus, asking our Savior to “plant His cross deep in [our] hearts.” Jesus on “the cross will be an answer to everything,” and we will “leave His presence with the desire to suffer more.” Grou asks: looking at the crucifix “shall we argue with God about trifles?” Shall we complain about “what virtue costs us?” Jesus crucified, says Grou, will give us the courage and strength to bear our crosses, and our weaknesses, even to the point of living out the Gospel with a greater patience and charity towards our neighbors (especially the ones who cause us the most difficulties!).

Are you looking for a profitable Lenten exercise? Pull up a chair in front of your crucifix. Look at it, study it, let the crucifix be your chief spiritual book as you converse with Jesus crucified in deep prayer, and then place it in your heart, and let it do its work of sacrificial love in all the trials and tribulations of your life.

“He who desires to go on advancing from virtue to virtue, from grace to grace, should meditate continually on the Passion of Jesus…There is no practice more profitable for the entire sanctification of the soul than frequent meditation on the suffering of Christ” (Saint Bonaventure).

Amen!

Thomas L. Mulcahy

Ref. This is a highly edited and condensed note from an essay by Father Grou, entitled, “On the Crucifix,” from his great work, A Manual For Interior Souls, and although in places he is sometimes talking to souls seeking perfection, it should be remembered that all baptized Christians are called to this lofty state, and I certainly consider his comments applicable to all Catholics in a state of sanctifying grace, wherever they may be on their spiritual journey. The essay itself is much longer (much more detailed) than this condensed and edited note.

P.S. A number of years ago I went out and looked for and bought a crucifix that I found particularly moving to my own sensibilities. That decision has paid many dividends for me.

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JESUS BELONGS TO US!

             

          “All Christ’s riches ‘are for every individual and are everybody’s property’ ” (CCC 519)

A meditation by F.W. Faber…

Jesus belongs to us.

He vouchsafes to put Himself at our disposal.

He loves us with a love which no words can tell, nay, above all our thought and imagination; and He condescends to desire, with a longing which is equally indescribable, that we should love Him, with a fervent and entire love.

His merits may be called ours as well as His. His satisfactions are not so much His treasures as they are ours. His sacraments are but so many ways which His love has designed to communicate Him to our souls.

Wherever we turn in the church of God, there is Jesus.

He is the beginning, middle, and end of everything to us.

He is our help in penance, our consolation in grief, our support in trial.

There is nothing good, nothing holy, nothing beautiful, nothing joyous, which He is not to His servants.

No one need be poor, because, if he chooses, he can have Jesus for his own property and possession. No one need be downcast, for Jesus is the joy of heaven, and it is His joy to enter into sorrowful hearts.

We can exaggerate about many things; but we can never exaggerate our obligations to Jesus, or the compassionate abundance of the love of Jesus to us. All our lives long we might talk of Jesus, and yet we should never come to an end of the sweet things that are to be said about Him.

Eternity will not be long enough to learn all He is, or to praise Him for all He has done; but then that matters not; for we shall be always with Him, and we desire nothing more.

He has kept nothing back from us. There is not a faculty of His Human Soul which has not had to do with our salvation. There is not one limb of His Sacred Body which has not suffered for us. There is not one pain, one shame, one indignity, which He has not drained to its last dreg of bitterness on our behalf. There is not one drop of His most Precious Blood which He has not shed for us; nor is there one beating of His Sacred Heart which is not an act of love to us.

We know our own unworthiness. We hate ourselves for our own past sins. We are impatient with our own secret meanness, irritability, and wretchedness. We are tired with our own badness and littleness.

Yet, for all that, He loves us with this unutterable love, and is ready, if need be, as He revealed to one of His servants, to come down from heaven to be crucified over again for each one of us.

Oh, how is it we can ever turn ourselves away from this one idea! How is it we can take an interest in anything but this surpassing love of God for His fallen creatures!

Comment: The essence of what Father Faber is saying is that Jesus lived his life for us, and all that he merited by his life of expiation and suffering he shares with us. Another great spiritual writer says, “We must hope and expect great things from God, because the merits of our Lord belong to us…. His merits, His satisfactions, His graces are inexhaustible. He is so lavish of them that He offers them unceasingly to all the world, more ready to give than we are to receive….Everything in our Lord Jesus Christ belongs to us in a most special manner” (Father Lallemant, The Spiritual Doctrine, as edited).

Jesus belongs to me! Oh Jesus, I trust in you!

Tom Mulcahy

References: The edited quote from Father Faber (1814—1863) is from the very beginning of his famous book, All for Jesus.

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THE POWER OF CHRISTMAS

 

A Meditation by G.K. Chesterton

Any agnostic or atheist whose childhood has known a real Christmas has ever afterwards, whether he likes it or not, an association in his mind between two ideas that most of mankind must regard as remote from each other; the idea of a baby and the idea of unknown strength that sustains the stars. His instincts and imagination can still connect them, when his reason can no longer see the need of the connection; for him there will always be some savor of religion about the mere picture of a mother and a baby; some hint of mercy and softening about the mere mention of the dreadful name of God. But the two ideas are not naturally or necessarily combined.

It has been created in our minds by Christmas because we are Christians; because we are psychological Christians even when we are not theological ones. In other words, this combination of ideas has emphatically, in the much disputed phrase, altered human nature. There is really a difference between the man who knows it and the man who does not. It may not be a difference of moral worth; but it is a plain fact about the crossing of two particular lights, the conjunction of two stars in our particular horoscope. Omnipotence and impotence, or divinity and infancy, do definitely make a sort of epigram which a million repetitions cannot turn into a platitude. It is not unreasonable to call it unique. Bethlehem is emphatically a place where extremes meet.

No other story, no pagan legend or philosophical anecdote or historical event, does in fact affect any of us with that peculiar and even poignant impression produced on us by the word Bethlehem. No other birth of a god or childhood of a sage seems to us to be Christmas or anything like Christmas. The truth is that there is a quite peculiar and individual character about the hold of this story on human nature; it is not in its psychological substance at all like a mere legend or the life of a great man.  It does not exactly in the ordinary sense turn our minds to greatness; to those extensions and exaggerations of humanity which are turned into gods and heroes, even by the healthiest sort of hero worship. It does not exactly work outwards, adventourously, to the wonders to be found at the ends of the earth. It is rather something that surprises us from behind, from the hidden and personal part of our being; like that which can sometimes take us off our guard in the pathos of small objects or the blind pieties of the poor. It is rather as if a man had found an inner room in the very heart of his own house, which he had never suspected; and seen a light from within. 

It is if he found something at the back of his own heart that betrayed him into good. It is not made of what the world would call strong materials; or rather it is made of materials whose strength is in that winged levity with which they brush and pass. It is all that is in us but a brief tenderness that is there made eternal; all that means no more than a momentary softening that is in some strange fashion become strengthening and a repose; it is the broken speech and the lost word that are made positive and suspended unbroken; as the strange kings fade into a far country and the mountains resound no more with the feet of the shepherds; and only the night and the cavern lie in fold upon fold over something more human than humanity.

Comment: The mysteries of our Lord’s life are packed with power, which is precisely the reason why we meditate upon them in the Rosary. 

Merry Christmas and a  Blessed New Year!

Thomas L. Mulcahy

Note: This highly edited and condensed quote is taken from The Everlasting Man by G.K. Chesterton (from a much longer chapter called “The God in the Cave”). Chesterton’s book is highly recommended.  

Image:  Adoration of the Shepherds, circa 1622, by Gerard von Honthorst

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MICHIGAN’S PLACE IN THE GREAT GATSBY

(Lake Superior)

               “We must not attempt to find an absolute in the flesh” (C.S. Lewis)

My niece came over a few days ago and she told me that her High School class in Michigan is reading America’s iconic novel about the roaring twenties, The Great Gatsby. She told me that the teacher often reads parts of the book to the class, and also shows them a movie version of the book. I told her she might want to consider listening to an audio rendition of the book because I have found that listening to this particular book being read is almost more edifying and real – or at least more pleasurable – than reading it.

In any event (as I explained) most of the action in the novel takes place in Long Island, and secondarily in Louisville, but almost unknown is the fact that one of the most important scenes in the novel takes place in Michigan! If you drive to the far western end of the Upper Peninsula – really as far as you can go west and south and still stay in Michigan – you will come close to a bay on Lake Superior known as Little Girl’s Bay or Little Girl’s Point (and there is a park nearby where you can camp called Little Girl’s Point County Park). A little further north along Lake Superior are the beautiful Porcupine Mountains where I camped two summers ago, and where I witnessed a spectacular display of stars the first evening there (my own mystical experience on Lake Superior!).

It is at Little Girl’s Bay that the dramatic transformation or recreation of James Gatz’s life takes place and he changes into the person known as Jay Gatsby. “James Gatz – that was really, or at least legally, his name. He had changed it at the age of seventeen and at the specific moment  that witnessed the beginning of his career – when he saw Dan Cody’s yacht drop anchor over the most insidious flat on Lake Superior” (Chapter 6). Dan Cody “had been coasting along all too hospitable shores for five years when he turned up as James Gatz’s destiny in Little Girl Bay” (Chapter 6).

Julie Kenyon points out in an essay on The Great Gatsby that there is a folk-tale associated with the naming of Little Girl’s Point, which tells of a “young maiden who runs off with her fairy lover. At night her moonlit figure is seen on the shore by the fisherman across the waters. When they approach she flees, sheltered by her lover’s green plumes.” It is interesting to note, in this context, that Daisy’s maiden name, Fay, means fairy, and that the euphoric green light that formed the basis for all of Gatsby’s dreams and aspirations signified her presence. One could argue that The Great Gatsby is a fairy tale that crashes into reality and ends with a very unhappy ending. 

But as the fairy tale goes, Gatsby hit it off with Cody, a multi-millionaire, hopped on his yacht, and sailed around the continent for five years! Pretty cool! During this voyage of discovery, Cody became a Father figure for Gatsby, educating him in a “vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty” (Chapter 6). If you look up the word meretricious it means fake, or insubstantial, or even prostituted. Fitzgerald adds, “So [Gatz] invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen year old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.”  

Gatsby’s incarnation into a new person has a religious dimension because he sees himself, as Fitzgerald indicates, as a “son of God,” a clear reference to the life of Jesus, and a very poor and vulgar comparison. I think at this point Fitzgerald would have been better off sticking to his philosophical description of Gatsby’s “Platonic conception of himself” rather than bringing in the weak (and crude) religious comparison as well. After all, Daisy is a Platonic ideal for Gatsby, she is the perfect form that gives life a transcendent reality for Gatsby, and all his efforts are employed at getting her back from Tom Buchanan. 

And there is no Jesus sacrifice made by Gatsby at the end of the novel, implied by him “shouldering” his mattress to the pool and being asked if he needed help to carry it, and this is because Gatsby has no idea he is about to be shot by George Wilson. So again, the Jesus allusion is weak and pretty much unnecessary. 

The real relevance Jesus has to this novel are his warnings about the dangers of riches and a purely materialistic view of life. For the American dream, at least in its most elevated form, sees God as the transcendent reality by which all material gains must be seen in their proper perspective. It is said that F. Scott Fitzgerald admired the literary skills of G.K. Chesterton. But in actuality it is Chesterton’s theological insight that seems far more applicable to the life of Gatsby. Chesterton says:

“The whole case for Christianity is that a man who is dependent upon the luxuries of this life is a corrupt man, spiritually corrupt, politically corrupt, financially corrupt. There is one thing that Christ and all the Christian saints have said with a sort of savage monotony. They have said simply that to be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck.”  

As Fitzgerald acutely observes in the novel, Daisy ultimately “tumbled short of Gatsby’s dreams – not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion.”

And so to my niece I say: be careful what you dream about on the shore of Lake Superior!

Thomas L. Mulcahy

References: The essay by Julie Kenyon is entitled, “Little Girl Bay,” Frontier, and Folklore: Fitzgerald’s Use of Regional History in The Great Gatsby (available online). The quote from Chesterton is in his famous book, Orthodoxy. With respect to the spelling of Little Girl’s Point (or Little Girls Point) I note here that some internet sites use the apostrophe and some do not.

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