Catholic Church: October 2007 Archives

The Thorn in the Flesh

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Reading Dark Night of the Soul one encounters a passage in which St. John of the Cross gives the fairly traditional view of St. Paul's "thorn in the flesh." During a recent community meeting, one of the community members asked me, "How did he (St. John of the Cross) know that St. Paul's thorn in the flesh was lust? I'd never heard that before."

I responded, perhaps vaguely, but appropriately, "Because he was male." The ambiguity here is which he I was referring to, but it works for both. St. John of the Cross understood because he was male, and the thorn in St. Paul's flesh being lust was perfectly understandable to any other male.

The human male is a very, very simple animal. If two simple needs/desires are satisfied (one of them is food), we tend to be a pretty contented lot. Upset the schedule of one or the other, we tend to get out of sorts.

Yes, it's a vast simplification, but when I think of the capital vices/capital sins and I look at much of human history and human legend, one crops up more often than any other, and it isn't pride. In fact, if one considers the idiotic things done in the name of "love," one can readily conclude that for most men pride takes a far distant second place to lust as the most common besetting sins. For example, Helen of Troy (admittedly legend), the rape of the Sabine women, the reign of Henry VIII, the reign of W J Clinton and role model JFK--the roll call goes on and on.

Judging by the state of society today, it is fairly evident that everything is set to keep that particular vice at a fever pitch. Now, this is not to say that the impulses in this direction cannot be subdued or with the aid of grace resisted. But one glance at the present state of society which, whether feminists like it or not, is a male-construct to which "liberated women" have foolishly consented in their desire to become more and more like men, shows the basis on which almost everything is done, sold, or considered. Again, I'll grant that it is a simplification, but there is an element of truth to it. That element is sometimes expressed in the outrage against celibacy and its native chastity. Some are outraged over the celibacy requirement, calling it unnatural, unrealistic, and gravely disordered. When I look at the same state, I do see something that is not natural--rather it is supernatural--a state exalted above that of most of us and preserved purely by grace. When a priest from time to time fails at maintaining this state of life, that too is likely in God's grace--a lesson in humility, because his fall is a matter of public notice. He cannot do what many in society do casually without causing scandal. But society at large is threatened by it because it is a sign that the thorn in the flesh can be removed or at least made subservient to the person who experiences it. Presently, one would think that the thorn was, in fact, the entire flesh and that such was a normative existence.

St.Anthony of the Desert heroically fought off the demons of lust throughout his time in the desert. St. Augustine, Blessed (?) Charles Foucault, and a great many others, perhaps many we do not know, spent a great deal of energy fighting those impulses that comprised for them "the thorn in the flesh."

In our conversation, I did go on to confide that I honestly didn't know what might form the most common or besetting sin among female kind. (Some women, exhibiting the need and desire to be more like men, have foolishly accepted the male vision of the world and see promiscuous and untethered sexual conduct as normative, rather than as the degrading objectification of persons that it actually is. Sexual congress outside of the sacrament of matrimony is sinful precisely because of its tendency to turn an person into a object. And, in fact, this can be a problem even within the sacramental union.)

Oh, and by the way, I still refuse to speculate. I'll tend my house, thank you, it's far more than I'm capable of on a day-to-day basis anyway.

Now, there is a theory that pride is more an ur-sin rather than a capital sin. That is pride is considered the source of all the other sins.

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Dangerous Lepers


Don't know where to classify this anecdote:

Yesterday in Church the Priest was reading the Gospel about the encounter Jesus had with the 10 lepers. He had no sooner finished the sentence regarding them than the little boy across the aisle, perhaps 5 or 6 years old, said, "10 Leopards?" in a voice loud enough for those nearby (and perhaps even at a distance) to hear him.

Mother was too busy laughing to be able to explain.

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The pre-Blessed Spirits


One of the truly wonderful things about Purgatorio is that Dante over and over again affirms that these souls who arrive on the shore of the island of Purgatory are already blessed. They arrive and proceed through at their own pace, a pace determined by their lives on Earth.

Among those moving very slowly on the shores of the island we meet Manfred:

from Purgatorio
Dante, tr. John Ciardi

My flesh had been twice hacked, and each wound mortal
when, tearfully, I yielded up my soul
to HIm whose pardon gladly waits for all.

Horrible were my sins, but infinite
is the abiding Goodness which hold out
its open arms to all who tun to It. . . .

No man may be so cursed by priest or pope
but what the Eternal Love may still return
while any thread of green lives on in hope.

Those who die contumacious, it is true,
though they repent their feud with Holy Church,
must wait outside here on the bank, as we do,

for thirty times as long as they refused
to be obedient, though by good prayers
in their behalf, that time may be reduced.

I quote this passage for several reasons. One is to give a sense of Dante's vision. Ciardi notes that there seems to be no real significance to 30 as opposed to say 50 or 100. In fact, except that it probably doesn't work in Italian 33 might be more apropos.

Another reason is that reading this one gets the sense of a need for real notes. What's this about twice hacked, what actually went on. In a section I didn't quote there is a mention of him being transported with "tapers quenched" after his death. Good notes are essential to any real understanding of these works. Either that or a fairly thorough understanding of the history of all the kingdom that made up Italy at the time of Dante--an expertise almost none of us command.

Finally I quoted it because it contains a line that I have borne in memory since the eighth or ninth grade when we were called upon to read Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. There is either in an epigraph or in a chapter proper, a quotation which, in the book, is a reference to the office set-up of Willie Stark, but which is reflected clearly here

Mentre che la speranza ha fior del verde

which is translated in that book As long as hope still has its bit of green. Here is is translated "while any thread of green lives on in hope."

For whatever reason, that line has stuck with me, and I scoured Dante several times looking for it. And this morning, it just popped out at me as I was reading. God's sheer grace and goodness and perhaps a message for meant for this day.

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as explicated by St. John of the Cross:

from Dark Night of the Soul I:11:11-12
St. John of the Cross

11. Finally, insofar as these person are purged of their sensory affections and appetites, they obtain freedom of spirit in which they acquire the twelve fruits of the Holy Spirit.

They are also wondrously liberated from the hand of their enemies, the devil, the world, and the flesh. For when the sensory delight delight and gratification regarding things is quenched, neither the devil, nor the world, nor sensuality has arms or power against the spirit.

12. These aridities, then, make people walk with purity in the love of God. No longer are they moved to act by the delight and satisfaction they find in a work, as perhaps they were when the derived this from their deeds, but by the desire of pleasing God. They are neither presumptuous nor self-satisfied, as was their custom int he time of their prosperity, but fearful and disquieted about themselves and lacking in any self-satisfaction. This is the holy fear that preserves and gives increase to the virtues.

I am not original in claiming that the dark night had for Blessed Mother Teresa a protective effect, an effect all the more necessary in a world where the entire world is at your doorstep and scrutinizing every action.

This deep and unsatisfied longing for God's presence has the unique attribute of taking away from her the many temptations that come as a result of success in the world. Satan's most effective ploy in dealing with someone like Mother Teresa would be to have them change their focus from serving and saving souls to better the lives of people. These two sound like hand in glove; however, they are as different in focus as a microscope and a telescope.

What if Mother Teresa, not wandering in a dark night of spirit had started to pay more attention to things that mattered, but were no the One Thing. What if she suddenly started to say to herself, "With a few dollars more, I could build a house for twenty more people." What is the focus of her effort became the betterment of lives through better buildings, more technology, what have you, rather than helping people to get what they needed to live a life and leave a life with dignity. No matter how holy the motive, when the focus slips from, "For God and God alone, a gift of His people," to "Look what we can do if we only try," Satan has won.

But the dark night has a paradoxical effect. The longing for and the apparent absence of God in a life, increases the focus on serving Him. It cocoons the person away from some of the yammerings of the world and helps them to see life as it should be seen.

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What Can We Learn from Dante?


Reading The Inferno gives one pause at moments. Frequently in fact. It isn't so much the punishments described in Hell as it is a number of factors that stem from that. For example, did Jesus not teach us, "Judge not, lest ye be judged." And yet Dante, with impunity, assigns any number of people to any circle of Hell he chooses. Now, were these living people (at the time of his writing) one could say that this were a cautionary tale; however most of them are dead as of the writing of the work. What then do we adjudge from this seeming infraction of a commandment of love?

Next, we get from the Inferno a God of infernal intellect, delicating designing and manipulating Hell as to be of the most exquisite pain to the sinners assigned there. The lavish and ornate punishments that make up the bulk of hellish existence beggar the imagination. What then was Dante about?

Finally, we have an image of a God of such remarkable sternness, indeed of such profound violence that one is at a loss to figure out what Dante wanted us to understand of God from this.

The last question first. I don't know what Dante wanted us to understand of God, but what one can see of God in this is that the image of God fluctuates in time with the society in which He is seen. In Dante's time a clearly stern judge, devoid of compassion for circumstances, hewing carefully to the letter and not the spirit. In the time of "the enlightenment" a God of watchmakers and mechanists, having set the stars in their courses and the planets in their respective paths, he sits back to observe all and watch it slowly unwind. Today's God, the "Good Buddy Jesus." Everything goes, God is all inclusive, completely open to whatever perversion of justice, thought, or principle we need to feel good about ourselves. The point: none of these are accurate pictures of God. Each shows some feature of God distorted through the lens of the time. Dante's God, is God the Redeemer, picking carefully among the flotsam and jetsam of humanity to select the few, the proud, the elect to ascend into heaven and occupy ornate circles of praise at appropriate distances from divinity. The God of the enlightenment, is God the creator, and only that, an uninterested tinkerer who plays with galaxies and universes and lets them spin away to their natural destruction, never giving another thought to them except perhaps how lovely they are and how nicely they reflect His glory. The God of our times is the Sanctifier, making everything holy and everything whole, compassionate to the point of idiocy, embracing all ideologies and all human choices. Murder? Why not, so long as you don't do it to excess and you have what you think is a good reason for it. Adultery? Well, after all, how can we expect one person to fulfill the needs of an aimless humanity seeking to fill a God-sized hole?

Not one of these images tells us anything useful about God. Dante's comes closest because it is the least distorted--at least His justice is meted out with something approximating the justice devised by the human mind--it is rational and considered and ordered, like everything else about Him. Still, it isn't the complete picture of God. However, looking at Dante's image of God should help counterbalance the lunacy of some of the images suggested by people int he modern world.

On the first question--how Dante assigns to Hell with impunity--we get at the core of the question of Allegory. Dante and Virgil couldn't very well walk through an empty inferno. Nor would it perfectly suit the purpose to invent people to populate the place--it would require enormous work and lengthen the tale to the point of losing the train of thought. Instead Dante says something like--if the tendencies shown in this life went unrepented to the grave, this person, whom you all know, would be exemplary of this class of sins, which is punished in just such a way. This would also help us to better understand the mythological figures who intrude from time to time. While a great many philosophers and poets are in the limbo of the righteous pagan, we meet an awful lot of the classical crew on our journey through Hell. Are we to think that Dante thought that Jason really existed, much less Zeus or Hera or Aphrodite--offenses against whom are being punished in this very Hell? Or rather, he took the figures of well known stories and said, you know what these guys did, well, this is where they would be under the circumstances. The judgment is allegorical. Dante may have believed or even in some cases hoped for his vision of assignments, but their purpose is instructive, to latch on to a universal that can propel the reader through the poem.

And the second point was more or less addressed implicitly in the discussion of the third. Above all else, Dante's vision of God is that of the Person who wrests order from chaos, who delicately balances the tendency toward destruction with the tendency toward elevation. He has ordered the cosmos, down to and including the elaborate, ornate, and poetically apt structure of Hell itself--giving rise to the whole term poetic justice.

There is much more to be learned from Dante, much more. But these were questions that have surfaced for me nearly every time Ihave read The Inferno and I thought I'd take a stab at answering them for those who follow asking similar questions.

And follow you all should--a good version of Dante, with acceptable notes and good typesetting takes very little time to read. I prefer Ciardi's translation because the notes proved most helpful to me. Additionally the set-up in terza rima breaks gives some sense of rhythm to the eye. Others have faulted him for being too free in his translation. Truth is, a translation is a translation, and poetry can only come so close any way because there is always much lost in the course of translation. So you pick the version you will read best and then read it. But by all means, please go to the effort to acquaint, or reacquaint yourself with at least the first division of this great work. By all means, read all three. But at a minimum The Inferno.

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From the Wood of Suicides


I am certainly glad that understanding of the human condition has improved through time and the scene in the Wood of Suicides that results in the mark below would be viewed with greater compassion today. Nevertheless, it is interesting what Dante has the suicide say, and it is interesting how far this applies to all the ways we can choose to sin--for any sin of the flesh is, in some way, throwing away a great gift.

from The Inferno
Dante (tr. John Ciardi)

Like the rest, we shall go for our husks on Judgment Day,
but not that we may wear them, for it is not just
that a man be given what he throws away.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Catholic Church category from October 2007.

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