A Catholic Commentary on Modern Thought

Prayer, Belief, and Priority

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A conversation with a Protestant friend of mine brought to the forefront something I have been mulling over for some time. He claimed in a rather blunt way that Pius XII had rejected the axiom lex orandi lex credendi. He pointed to a passage from Mediator Dei, one which I will quote at length, as a proof of his position:

46. On this subject We judge it Our duty to rectify an attitude with which you are doubtless familiar, Venerable Brethren. We refer to the error and fallacious reasoning of those who have claimed that the sacred liturgy is a kind of proving ground for the truths to be held of faith, meaning by this that the Church is obliged to declare such a doctrine sound when it is found to have produced fruits of piety and sanctity through the sacred rites of the liturgy, and to reject it otherwise. Hence the epigram, “Lex orandi, lex credendi” – the law for prayer is the law for faith.

47. But this is not what the Church teaches and enjoins. The worship she offers to God, all good and great, is a continuous profession of Catholic faith and a continuous exercise of hope and charity, as Augustine puts it tersely. “God is to be worshipped,” he says, “by faith, hope and charity.” In the sacred liturgy we profess the Catholic faith explicitly and openly, not only by the celebration of the mysteries, and by offering the holy sacrifice and administering the sacraments, but also by saying or singing the credo or Symbol of the faith – it is indeed the sign and badge, as it were, of the Christian – along with other texts, and likewise by the reading of holy scripture, written under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. The entire liturgy, therefore, has the Catholic faith for its content, inasmuch as it bears public witness to the faith of the Church.

48. For this reason, whenever there was question of defining a truth revealed by God, the Sovereign Pontiff and the Councils in their recourse to the “theological sources,” as they are called, have not seldom drawn many an argument from this sacred science of the liturgy. For an example in point, Our predecessor of immortal memory, Pius IX, so argued when he proclaimed the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. Similarly during the discussion of a doubtful or controversial truth, the Church and the Holy Fathers have not failed to look to the age-old and age-honored sacred rites for enlightenment. Hence the well-known and venerable maxim, “Legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi” – let the rule for prayer determine the rule of belief. The sacred liturgy, consequently, does not decide or determine independently and of itself what is of Catholic faith. More properly, since the liturgy is also a profession of eternal truths, and subject, as such, to the supreme teaching authority of the Church, it can supply proofs and testimony, quite clearly, of no little value, towards the determination of a particular point of Christian doctrine. But if one desires to differentiate and describe the relationship between faith and the sacred liturgy in absolute and general terms, it is perfectly correct to say, “Lex credendi legem statuat supplicandi” – let the rule of belief determine the rule of prayer. The same holds true for the other theological virtues also, “In . . . fide, spe, caritate continuato desiderio semper oramus” – we pray always, with constant yearning in faith, hope and charity.1

As I gave my response to his claim, citing both the context and content of what Pope Pius XII wrote,  I found that I was explicating what I had perhaps known for a while, but had never explicitly formulated: that the theology of the Church is truly prior to her liturgy.

There has been a tendency in Eastern Orthodox as well as certain Anglican and Lutheran movements to see the liturgy as the source of our theology. The essence of the argument is that during the great Christological controversies of the 4th and 5th centuries, it was an appeal to the worship and prayer of the Church, not some sort of defined apostolic authority or theology that was the central argument against the heresies of the day: Arianism, Monophysitism, Nestorianism, Eutychianism, and the like. This is expounded to a great degree by Anglicans seeking to ground their tradition in the Book of Common Prayer as opposed to the teachings of the Fathers or some Reformation era creedal statement. It gives room for the diverse interpretations of Anglicans and helps found the argument against both the Roman position and the Catholic Mass.

This idea finds its way into Catholicism, especially among those who greatly esteem the Mass. The idea that all good (and all ill) flow from the Mass, that it is the supreme arbiter of belief, and that it is the only meaningful test of Catholic identity has found a hold in certain parts of Catholic thought. To be sure, the liturgy is of great importance, but it is ultimately formed by the Church, not the other way around. The theology of the Church forms the Mass, which in turn passes  belief on to us in a particular, concrete way. The Mass certainly communicates theological truths to us, but it is not itself the source of those theological truths.

We can look to the organic development of the liturgy to see exactly how this process works, in particular in the case of the Eucharistic controversy surrounding Berengar of Tours. His denial of transubstantiation caused no little uproar. Though he eventually recanted and died reconciled with the Church, Lateran IV still dogmatized transubstantiation to ensure there was no question as to the place transubstantiation holds in the faith. What is interesting is the liturgical response to this controversy, namely the inclusion of the major elevation after the consecration. Before the 11th century, there was no major elevation after the consecration; there was only the minor elevation at the doxology which concluded the Canon. The major elevation began as a way to combat the heresy Berengar had spread.

There are a few things to conclude from this episode. First, that the liturgy adapted and conformed itself to good theology in order to combat heresy. While the major elevation was never rubrically proscribed, it was still a good, pious act which helped communicate one of the central truths of the faith. It was not the liturgy itself which was the source of the refutation of Berengar, but rather, it was the practical demonstration of the teaching of the Church against him. Second, that the liturgy was important in shaping the belief of the faithful, many of whom did not have the training or capacity to understand the finer points of controversy. While a typical Catholic would not have understood the careful distinction between a substantial change as opposed to a formal or spiritual change, they can clearly see and comprehend the ramifications of the pious action of the Priest, presenting the Lord to them. The Mass truly passed on the theology of the Church to those who otherwise would have been unable to engage it. Third, in combating the heresy of Berengar, we see an appeal to the theology of the Church and not her liturgy as such. In the works of LaFranc of Canterbury and Guitmund of Aversa, two men who combated the Berengar heresy fiercely, we see an appeal to the fathers and magisterium of the Church. In the instances where either LeFranc or Guitmund do make an appeal to the Mass as proof of their position, they always found their interpretation on the testimony of the Church, as a way of showing their source. It is, on the other hand, Berengar who appeals to the prayers of the Mass without any source or foundation in the Church’s theology as a support of his heresy.

This small example, one of many, serves as a way of understanding the proper role that the liturgy plays in catechesis, that is, it serves to instruct the faithful, both those who are great theologians and those who are humble layfolk. But it is not the source of our theology. Pope Pius XII rightly makes this distinction, when he shows that the liturgy does inform the theology of those who experience it, but it is not the beginning or spring of that theology. That comes to us from the Church, from the Vicar of Christ, from the Magisterium, from the Fathers, from Sacred Scripture, and from the Sacred Tradition. Theology doesn’t begin and end with the liturgy, rather it is made present to us in a visible way in the Mass.

Pope Pius XII condemns an improper interpretation of lex orandi, lex credendi, one that sought to make prayer and liturgy the dogmatic foundation of the Church, but he never denies that as we pray, so we believe. He simply makes sure to ground that prayer in the teaching authority of the Church.


  1. Mediator Dei, Pope Pius XII 

Heresy Corner – Monothelitism

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Monothelitism may be one of the more ignored heresies formally condemned by the early Councils. It developed out of the Monophosite controversy as a proposed compromise between the Chalcedonian definition of Christ’s dual natures and the Monophosite claim of a single nature. Maximus the Confessor devoted his life to fighting the Monothelite position that Christ had a single will, even losing a tongue and right hand for speaking out against it. While Nestorianism has been in vogue, especially among ill-informed Protestants trying to sound cool – “You know Nestorious was condemned for political reasons by Cyril. He wasn’t really a heretic.” – usually due to a lack of philosophical training and an inability to grasp the concepts in play, Monothelitism is mostly forgotten. While Pelagianism might be the heretical all-star after recent comments by Pope Francis, Monothelitism sits alone, relegated with other lesser known heresies like Acacianism.

In the end, does it really matter whether Christ had a single will or dual wills? Does that effect anyone’s salvation? Surely this is quite the unimportant distinction. Yet here we are, faced with St. Maximus, willing to undergo torture and exile unto death, for his belief in Christ’s dual wills. No one dies for an ultimately unimportant distinction. No one suffers torture over the proper spelling of “color.” No one loses their tongue over who the best Dr. Who was (it was Tom Baker). Maximus the Confessor suffered greatly to fight Monothelitism, and the answer why is found in his ecclesiology and his view of the cosmos.

Throughout scripture, we see Christology and Ecclesiology connected. St. Paul makes clear that the Church is the body of Christ. What we say about Christ effects what we say about the Church and vise versa. Discussing St. Maximus’ ecclesiology is difficult, given that he never directly wrote on it. Nevertheless, we can see he interweaves his ecclesiology throughout his writings. Andrew Louth, remarking on the connection between Maximus’ liturgical writings and his view of the Church, says: “The Mystagogia could be regarded as being explicitly a work on the nature of the Church…He begins by discussing in chapter 1 how the Church may be seen as ‘an image and type of God.’”1 This same language is used to describe Christ, who St. Paul also calls the image of God.2 The connection between Christ and the Church is made explicit by Maximus when he says: “Thus to be and to appear as one body formed of different members is really worthy of Christ himself, our true head.”3 If what we say about Christ reflects what we say about the Church, we can easily see St. Maximus’ concern with Monothelitism. If there is but one will in the person of Christ, then there is but one will in the Church. This immediately leads to serious problems: either the Church has a purely human will, and is thus acts in a purely human way or the Church has a completely Divine will in which case we end up with a coercive, deterministic account of how God works in and through his Holy Church. Neither of these extremes could be embraced by St Maximus.

Maximus the Confessor’s view of the cosmos was another point of contention with Monothelitism. Hans Ur von Balthasar notes in The Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe According to Maximus the Confessor that St. Maximus sees a necessary correlation between the dual wills of Christ and the relationship between God and his creation. Proclaiming Christ’s two wills, human and Divine, distinct but united perfectly also proclaims that God is united with the cosmos, but distinct from it. Christ’s dual wills ensures that God’s relationship with his creation is in no way pantheistic. It is easy to see where St. Maximus’ language would necessitate this distinction. He says: “It is he who encloses in himself all beings by the unique, simple and infinitely wise power of his goodness.”4. St. Maximus is aware of the pantheistic tendencies found in Neo-Platonism and is careful to avoid them. Louth, anticipating the pantheistic problem states: “Maximos goes on to apply the analogy of the radii of a circle converging on the centre to both God’s relationship to the created order and the Church’s relationship to its members, and concludes that in both cases, there is achieved a union that, though profound, does not confuse the beings joined, but preserves their integrity.”5

What Maximus the Confessor sees in the dual wills of Christ (and of course in his dual natures) is a metaphysical proposition about the nature of the whole created order. Any confusion of the wills (or natures) of Christ leads to a confusion of the Creator with his creation, something St. Maximus could never endorse. It is not hard to see how “progressive Christology” suffers from precisely this malady, a reduction of Christ to only his humanity and a willingness to posit any and all human imperfections to him, from ignorance to despair. It is, of course, no coincidence that such tendencies ultimately lead to a view of God’s grace that, far from being particular, is simply a pervasive force of nature, like gravity. While one might be tempted to focus more on a “practical” Christianity and eschew theoretical issues in favor of love of neighbor, let us not forget the example of St. Maximus the Confessor, who suffered greatly for his commitment to the truth of Christ’s dual wills, and the ramifications this truth has throughout the entire Christian faith.


  1. Andrew Louth. “The Ecclesiology of Saint Maximos the Confessor,” International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church 4, no. 2 (2004): 110 

  2. 2 Corinthians 4:4 

  3. Ibid. 110 – 111 

  4. Ibid. 111 

  5. Ibid. 

Youth Ministry and Getting Back to Virtue

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One of the things modern individuals notice when perusing the lives of the saints is how young they were were when moving on to major stages in their lives. One cannot help but pause, for example, at the thought of St. Louis de Montfort entering university at the tender age of twelve.

For the typical family of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, it seems clear that the foibles of childhood were not to be indulged, at least not to the degree they are in the contemporary West. Frequently, one hears that children “mature more slowly than they used to.” Adolescence, we are told, simply lasts longer, and we must accommodate for it.

One of the ways the Church accommodates this feature of modernity is through youth ministry. Let me begin by stating that I have nothing against youth ministry, even as a concept: young people need a group of like-minded youths, in order to support them as they grow in the faith. Groups of like-minded individuals sharing some characteristic are extremely valuable to the life of the Church.

However, youth ministry is not without its problems, both in terms of strategy and implementation. I will look at one of these problems here: youth ministry does not always do what it should to challenge the foolishness of youth with its antidote, Virtue.

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Back in the long-long ago, when girls and boys didn’t stay so for long in Western society, the concept of Virtue was alive and well. The youngster was seen as one just beginning the path to Virtue, and thus everything about his or her youth was aimed at growth in essential, objective attributes bringing them away from the foibles of youth and into a solid maturity based upon unchanging principles of goodness.

With the death of Virtue (as well as the breakdown of the nuclear family), kids are no longer being called into the objective order of Virtue. Though the human mind can never entirely escape virtuous categorizations, modern notions place virtue in the realm of the subjective. To be “good,” for example, is based upon my experience, my relationship to others, and my version of goodness is never your version. “Charity” will always look different from one lover to the next, consequently explaining the easy acceptance of homosexuality among American youths.

In short, relativism has undermined classical Virtue, and society has diminished its significance to the subjective realm of experience, often rooted in the emotional life. Modern ethics operates under a “Cheers vs. Jeers” approach: if it feels good, it is good.

So much of our energy in regard to youth ministry goes into “focusing on where the kids are at,” that we lose sight of the entire point of ministry: to lead them where they need to be. Even though most working in the Church see this as the end goal, we end up catering to their emotivism by attempting to make Christianity relevant to it, and in every case, we end up watering down Christ and His Church in the process. Christ becomes a balm to the subjective condition1 because no matter where you find yourself in life, Christ is the comfort. What he is not, in many programs across the U.S., is antidote to sin and death.

In the Gospels, transformation takes place through an encounter with the authentic Christ as he is, present to those around him. Christ is not “brought down” to the level of the sinner; the sinner is raised up to the level of Christ. Conversion occurs as the result of an encounter with the other, rather than by any sentimental notion which seeks to reduce Jesus to mere “friend” or “buddy.” God wills us the good, and we call this Love; and willing us the good means that often, he wills us to change.

This is why Virtue is so important to the Christian life, and thus to youth ministry. If we aim for growth and improvement through our programs, Virtue has to be front and center, such that youth have the opportunity to engage challenging categories necessarily extrinsic to themselves. The teen’s focus must shift away from themselves and all the messes of adolescence, and toward the beauty of what is missing and obtainable in their lives.

Most youth programs do not do this, and the result is insulting to youths. The thinking is that because they are selfish and wrapped up in the hormonal tragedies of adolescence, they must necessarily be this way. That’s just the way things are, the adults in control of these things seem to say to themselves, so we must continue to simplify Christ’s message to meet simple minds.

As St. Louis de Montfort and a number of saints show us, it need not be this way. Let us continue to bring Christ to youth, rather than watering down Christ to make him more palatable to the ones who deserve Truth unfiltered.


  1. And he most certainly is, but only through an application of the universal to the particular

Unchained From the Earth: A Pastoral Approach to Reforming Parish Music

Music is an essential part of worship, as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger noted in The Spirit of the Liturgy. Though not every Mass contains music, it is inappropriate to view it as something extra, something extrinsic to its celebration. It is no small coincidence, then, that the Extraordinary Form develops over the centuries “in concert” with liturgical music.

Hymns are a normative part of the average American’s experience of parish life in the United States. Regardless of size, nearly every parish in the country has a music program for Sunday Mass. We all experience hymns, and are likely to have an opinion on them1. Rarely, however, does your average American Catholic stop to think about what kind of work the hymn should be doing.

One of the Church’s leading musicians once said to me that hymns exists for one purpose: to convey the text. This is remarkable, considering this particular gentleman is an immensely talented organist. By his own admission, musical accompaniment is just that: a vehicle to carry words to the worshipper2. Thus, when evaluating whether or not a hymn is proper to worship, the text is of critical importance.

A hymn should seek to aim for the ultimate end of liturgy: right worship of God. Obviously, this means that the text should contain nothing heretical or theologically erroneous. But it also means that a hymn be rooted in God such that it exalts the worshipper into a state of connectedness with the Divine. The liturgy is, at its core, centered on the Trinity, and the spiritual fruits of worship are derived by setting aside the self and the assembly, in order to focus on something larger than ourselves.

Unfortunately, however, most of the hymns sung in typical American parishes do not allow us to achieve this end. Instead of exalting us into the Heavens with the natural progression of the Mass, the majority of “modern”3 hymns keep us keep us chained to the earth. The focus is on us: that we’ve gathered4, that we’ve been called to something by God, that we’re going to communion, or a host of other themes celebrating us and who we are as Christians. Lost is the sense of why we gather in the first place: to adore the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Thus, a hymn is suitable to the liturgy insofar as its subject involves heavenly reality: the Trinity, Mary, the angels and saints, etc.

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With a few exceptions, most young priests beginning to assume pastorates understand this principle. Most of us reject unsuitable hymns like “We Are Called” or “Gather Us In,” and the classic 70′s and 80′s fare is a consistent source of lighthearted fun when my generation meets. Most of us reject these hymns. The question, then, is this: how do we go about changing the culture of the parishes we inherit, such that we do not become responsible for propagating that which we scorn?

The problem is that the majority of the people in the pews are not with us yet. If we were all on the same page, things would be easy. As it stands, young pastors need to be able to move parishioners from Point A to Point B. Again, the question turns to “how.”

One strategy we might employ appeals to the thought of the Church. Nearly everything published by legitimate and respectable sources on this issue in recent years promotes a return to sacred music, both stylistically and thematically. It is obvious to anyone with a couple of fingers on the pulse of the Church, that we are headed in this direction academically, if indeed they ever truly moved away. The problem is that most people don’t have a grip on the contemporary thought of the Church, and never will; they simply regurgitate the bad ideas of the previous generation, which never had academic roots to begin with. Theological pronouncements regarding music are helpful to support your argument, but not to make it entirely.

Another strategy involves talking about Beauty. This gets thorny, however, because we live in a culture where people view Beauty as a subjective experience. It is unlikely that you will be able to shake people out of, “But I like it, and it’s beautiful to me.” For all the trials he faced, I am willing to bet that St. Thomas Aquinas never had to contend with a teed off old woman who grew up listening to something as mind-numbingly bad as “Change Our Hearts.” Once again: use this strategy, but only as a supplement.

The easiest, most surefire way to win people over to your position is by highlighting the criterion for sacred music outlined in the previous section. People need to be reminded that Christ is the center of the Mass, not the priest or the congregation. Once they see this, the priest and the Director of Sacred Music5 can begin to phase out all those old songs that have it backwards; making something about God rather than us removes the issue of individual preferences by pointing to the text and its subject, which are both objective and easily relatable.

Lastly, have courage. Any time you shake up a parish and attempt to move it forward, you are guaranteed to run into resistance even while employing the very best strategies. Refuse to back down, wherever the salvation of souls is at stake.

 


  1. Not all opinions are equal: when it comes to musical style, some are appropriate for Mass and some are not. 

  2. This does not diminish the inherent Beauty of the liturgy in any way. Of course beautiful music is itself to be prized, since it conveys God. 

  3. Another of my friends once pointed out that when people throw around the terms “modern” and “contemporary” in reference to liturgical music, they’re really talking about the modern and contemporary styles of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. 

  4. Incidentally, there’s no such thing as a “Gathering Hymn,” even though many parishes refer to it as such. Liturgically, the Church aptly refers to it as the “Processional Hymn.” 

  5. Having a Director of Sacred Music — not just a “Music Director” — is also big. Hire discriminately, and make sure a candidate shares your vision. 

Transubstantiation and the Phantom Dogma

I keep hearing the same stupid argument from intelligent, learned people who are committed to the teachings of the Church. The argument goes as follows: “You know, the Council of Trent didn’t really dogmatize transubstantiation, it is simply the best description we have for how Christ is really present, but it could change at some point at which we gain greater revelation of this mystery.” We can see a perfect example of this claim here:

The bishops responded that in the act of consecration the underlying reality (the “substance”) of the bread and wine is changed into the reality (the “substance”) of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. The physical attributes of the bread and wine remain the same. We call this change “Transubstantiation”. The great medieval theologians (like Thomas Aquinas) devised the theory to help them understand and explain the mystery of the Eucharist. It is worth noting that the Church is committed to the Real Presence of Christ in the eucharist; it is not equally committed to the theory of Transubstantiation. At the end of the day, we face a profound mystery.1

The reason I get so frustrated with this particular argument is because of how absurd it is. Besides the very clear wording of Canon II of Session XIII of the Council of Trent, which is simply a re-affirmation of Lateran IV, this idea is found nowhere in any of the post-Conciliar documents of the Church. None of the documents of Vatican II make this claim and Mysterium Fidei mentions this idea nowhere. The Catechism simply quotes Trent on Transubstantiation saying:

The Council of Trent summarizes the Catholic faith by declaring: “Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy Council now declares again, that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation.”2

So where has this idea come from? How is it that an idea which has no basis in either the previous Councils nor any post-Conciliar document has found such a widespread adoption among holy, orthodox priest and laymen. Over the coming weeks we will be investigating this question and hunting our way back to its source.


  1.  Is Transubstantiation Dogma? 

  2. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1376 

The Pipe Bowl and the Sacred Liturgy

I had an epiphany the other day when I was sitting on my deck enjoying an elderly bourbon and a pipe. I recently added a new estate pipe into my rotation. The bowl is one of the classic Rhodesian styles and tends towards the small side. While it isn’t the smallest pipe I own, it is a close second compared to some of the huge bowls I am used to smoking.  I was surprised at how long the bowl lasted. I knew I had done a decent job packing it, but this thing just kept going. It finally gave up the ghost after about 75 minutes of pleasurable smoking. I had found the natural rhythm of this pipe (and the tobacco) and I let it dictate the pace and length of my smoke. I have a tendency to be a fast smoker, so sitting back and letting this pipe burn as it would was soothing; it was a refreshing change from my normal pace.

Now before you check out completely thinking this is simply a post regaling you with the glories of smoking a pipe – and to be clear it most certainly is that – this experience helped me to put a concrete example to something I have been considering for a while: the length of a Mass has nothing to do with its beauty or reverence. I think this is a trap that is easily fallen into, especially when the primary Mass one attends is a typical Sunday turnstile in a suburban parish. I have heard many complaints regarding the pervasive one hour Sunday Mass, and they hinge on a central argument: if we truly loved God, wouldn’t we give him more than an hour on a Sunday? Recourse is often made to the – much longer – Eastern liturgies as well as the infamous Gospel church services that often go on for hours. One might also hear about the length of Masses in the third world, where Catholicism is booming.

Just like my larger pipe bowls are, at the end of the day, unnecessary for a complete, satisfying smoke, so also are long Masses unnecessary for a reverent, beautiful sacrifice to God. I have been to beautiful Masses in both forms that truly showed reverence to God and beautifully conveyed the reality of the sacrifice taking place that were under thirty minutes. Likewise, I have been to absolute abominations where the only solace to be taken was a valid consecration that lasted for an hour and a half. One particularly great Mass that stands out to me even now was an all Latin Novus Ordo, celebrated ad Orientem, at the Brompton Oratory in London. This Mass was the best example I have seen of a properly celebrated Novus Ordo and it took less than an hour, including Benediction following the Mass.

The liturgy has a natural rhythm to it. It moves at its own pace, because ultimately, sacred time is not our time. We come into a timeless act celebrated in the joining of heaven and earth. This is not to excuse the false expediency that often times creeps into the Mass. That laziness masquerading as efficiency is equally foreign to the natural rhythm of the liturgy. Were I to chain smoke my pipe in such a way as to finish a 45 minute bowl in 15 minutes, it would be a wholly un-enjoyable experience that could easily damage my pipe from the excessive heat. Likewise, the soul is not gladdened by a Mass that is rushed.

As in every other element of life, Aristotle’s Golden Mean is a guiding principle for our liturgical practice; the Mass should take the time that is proper to it. This may be different from circumstance to circumstance, Sunday to weekday, Solemnity to ferial. But the principle remains: just as each pipe has a natural rhythm, so too does the Sacred Liturgy. It is in those times when we let the liturgy be what it is that we truly take repose in it and we allow the Holy Spirit to heap grace upon Grace. That being said, it won’t stop me from giving Fr. Ignatius grief for his perpetual attempt to say a 45 minute Sunday Mass.

Sophist Weekly – The Essence of Experience

In Sophist Weekly, we featuring the sophistry which passes for reason on the web. It may come from Facebook, blogs, or something we hear. 

In this edition of Sophist weekly, we are brought to the familiar realm of specious arguments: Facebook. The following was a response to some deep sounding existential questions. As always, the names and particulars are changed (mostly to protect me):

There is actually a simple answer to what seem to be deeply philosophical issues. And it has to do with the limitations of our humanity, living under the conditions of “created beings”. So here are the answers to the questions you pose:

How do we reach the real essence of experience?
We don’t because we cannot.

How does an essence become an acquaintance?
We are not capable of knowing this.

How can we understand the inexpressible “being” of things?
We can’t, for we are incapable of understanding “being” as it is in itself.

While it is true that the condition of Fallen-ness enters into it, the simple fact that we are limited by our own created status is equally powerful. As the Eastern Orthodox so rightly point out, only God can truly “know”/experientially “know” the “essence” of anything. That humanity tried to “be as God,” to “know as God knows” is what all traditional Christian doctrine has called The Fall, and the Gift of God was Death, that we might not live on continuously growing deeper and deeper into the dark consequences of that initial act of hubris. This is why Redemption requires not only a Death to open the Way to us but our own deaths daily in order to access its power within our lives.

Like all terrible Facebook arguments, this one suffers first of all from a lack of definition of terms. How is the term “essence of experience” being used? For that matter how is the word “essence” itself being used? Forget trying to extrapolate how being is “being” used. Is it like Plato? Thomas Aquinas? Kant? Hegel? The homeless guy in the train station bathroom? We don’t know, though to be fair, neither does the author of this comment. Nevertheless, we soldier on to his “answers,” which all seem to lend themselves to a soft epistemological cynicism. Basically, we can’t know anything. The inscrutable “essence of experience” is unknowable.

At this point, I am wondering if there is indeed any content to this comment, when we get a nice paragraph describing the sophist’s view on religion. A light at the end of the tunnel! Some context within which to ground the answers to these questions. Though, like any good sophist, he has a cursory knowledge of a tradition not his own, but which he has pseudo adopted, which he completely misunderstands. Now I will be the first to admit that I am no expert when it comes to Eastern theology. I find myself much more at home in Thomas than in the Philokalia. That being said, even I know that the Orthodox do not believe that the “essence” of created things is unknowable by humans. Because creatures are a result of God’s energies, which humans can know (and without which humans could have no knowledge of God), human can know the whatness of finite creatures. It probably doesn’t help that he seems to mix an Aristotelian ontological view with his essence talk, but then it gets even worse.

“As the Eastern Orthodox so rightly point out, only God can truly “know”/experientially “know” the “essence” of anything.”

We are in trouble.

Now I know the Eastern Orthodox do not believe God has knowledge through experience, yet here we are, claiming God alone can experientially know the essence of the thing. I can’t even begin to know how God would have experience of a thing, given his relationship to time and matter, but nevertheless, here we are with an experiencing God.

“That humanity tried to “be as God,” to “know as God knows” is what all traditional Christian doctrine has called The Fall, and the Gift of God was Death”

No, dear Lord no. Think of the Children.

Now there are two possibilities here. Either our sophist is not familiar with the term “Gift of Death” as the name of one of Derrida’s work or he is the biggest deconstructionist troll ever. Nowhere in the history of Christianity, is the death resulting from the fall referred to as a gift. Except he is not a deconstructionist. A deconstructionist would dualistically challenge both sides the questions, as well as concepts like the Fall and Redemption. Our sophist does neither.

Ultimately, our interlocutor spent a lot of time saying absolutely nothing, much less anything of worth.