The Discipline of the Secret

In my post for Holy Thursday, I mentioned the mystogia, the Easter catechesis in the early Church that was given to the newly baptized in order to deepen their understanding of the faith, especially regarding those central mysteries celebrated in the liturgical events of the Paschal Triduum.  In this post, I am offering my own little Easter mystogia in relation to the values of Marian Chivalry.  At the center of this paschal enlightenment are the two principle Christian relics that became the focus of chivalrous ideals, the Holy Grail and the Holy Sepulcher.

The mystogia was particularly necessary because of a custom practiced from the earliest times of the Church called the disciplina arcani, “the discipline of the secret,” whereby the most profound mysteries of the faith were kept hidden from heathens and from even the catechumens preparing for baptism.  The special—but not only—object of this discipline was the Eucharistic Sacrifice and Sacrament.

Gatekeepers

Hence, one of the minor orders of the Church—in fact, the lowest—in preparation for diaconate and the priesthood was Ostiarius or “Porter.”  In the Roman rite, the Porter was the gatekeeper who locked and unlocked the church, and who made sure that no unbaptized person was present for the “Mass for the Faithful,” or what is referred to in the Novus Ordo as the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  Catechumens were permitted to be present for the “Mass of the Catechumens” (Liturgy of the Word), but then were escorted out of the Church by the Porter at the beginning of the offertory.  The catechumens’ first experience of “The Mystery of Faith,” celebrated at the altar, was immediately after their baptism, when they were escorted into the Church in their white garments.  The first time the newly baptized received the Eucharist, they had just moments before become aware of the full truth of the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist.

Reverence Inside and Out

St. Basil compared the discipline of the secret to the way in which Moses, by God’s command, reserved certain parts of the tabernacle by putting in place “sacred barriers.”  He wrote that “the awful dignity of the mysteries is best preserved by silence.”  And “Moses was wise enough to know that contempt stretches to the trite and to the obvious, while a keen interest is naturally associated with the unusual and the unfamiliar” (On the Holy Spirit, 27).

Imagine the joy of the newly baptized who were privileged to know the sacred mysteries and their exultation at being able to participate in so awesome a mystery while being introduced more fully by the post-baptismal catechesis into the truths of our faith.  Think also of how fearful the mysterious must have seemed, in terms of inspiring awe, reverence and gratitude.  What a tremendous grace was contained in the revelation of the mysteries and how beautifully was both the superabundance of God’s grace communicated while the dignity of the mysteries preserved and augmented.

As more and more it became necessary to defend the faith against heretics, apologetical tracts of the Fathers protected less and less of the secret, until the discipline was entirely abandoned.  One might also understand that in the face of Gnosticism and many other Christian heresies that secret keeping could lend itself to the privileging of a few to the detriment of the universality of the Church.   After all, the lure of secret keeping has been to form exclusive societies in which the initiated can pride themselves on being enlightened and being in control of the unenlightened.

Even so, we may regret, at least theoretically, the complete loss of the discipline of the secret, especially today when the introduction of the mundane and even the profane into the precincts of our sanctuaries have stripped the faithful of a sense of the sacred and mysterious.  The tragic consequence of this has been the systematic cultivation of irreverence.

Revealing What Is Hidden

But the discipline of the secret is built into the sacred mysteries we celebrate during Easter.  Our Lord celebrated the first Mass in the upper room into which he ensconced the apostles for the preservation of the mysteries of Holy Thursday.  Into that enclosed space they would return, as a huddled and fearful band, after the events of Good Friday, and into that enclosed and locked space Our Lord would reenter in order to reveal to them that which he did not reveal to all.  As St. Peter said of himself and his companions, the Lord manifested Himself not to all the people, but to witnesses preordained by God, even to us, who did eat and drink with him, after he arose again from the dead (Acts 10:41).

Our Lord also initially hid Himself from His inner circle, as He did to St. Mary Magdalen at the Holy Sepulcher, to the disciples on the road to Emmaus and to Peter and his companions at the Lake of Galilee.  Certainly this deprivation of their ability to recognize Him was symbolic of their own lack of faith and of the power of the Resurrection to break down that barrier against faith. They knew him in the breaking of bread (Lk 24:35).  But may we not also reflect that the revelation of what was hidden underscores the mysterious content of the faith and the mystical or dark way in which the activity of God touches our soul?

St. Bonaventure says that we must enter the tomb with Jesus—into another enclosed space—and there we must die and experience the suspension of our senses.  He is not necessarily referring to ecstasy, but what belongs more fundamentally to the mystical life, namely, a new way of thinking that is not dependent on what we see, but on what the Lord tells us.  Of course, first of all that means what the Church teaches, but it also must mean the manner in which we assimilate it through our own efforts to surrender in faith in the silence of prayer.

Making the Hidden Grow

The Easter proclamation is the so-called kerygma, that kernal of truth at the heart of evangelization, and it must be broadcast to the four corners of the globe.  That which I tell you in the dark, speak ye in the light: and that which you hear in the ear, preach ye upon the housetops (Mt 10:27).  That proclamation is this: “The night will be as clear as day:
 it will become my light, my joy” (Easter Praeconium).  But each person it touches by way of the hidden workings of God:  So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed into the earth, and should sleep, and rise, night and day, and the seed should spring, and grow up whilst he knoweth not (MK 4:26-27).

In inner revelation of the Holy Sepulcher and the Holy Grail, has nothing to do with esoteric knowledge entrusted to a secret society or any other species of Gnostic, though these heretics have gotten lost along the way of a real quest for a real treasure.  Indeed, all along, it was quite literally under their noses: For lo, the kingdom of God is within (Lk 17:21).

Today we sell our secrets for a bowl of porridge and repackage old and used rags and peddle them as lost and hidden treasures.  Just call the most meager and pathetic truism a secret, such as the power of positive thinking, and then absolutize it with false promises and you can make millions of dollars on the same old stale snake oil.  Or take a real secret, such as the secret of our personhood, that leads us to veil our sexual values, and call it prudery and the snake oil business is booming once again.

Modesty, reverence and the guarding of the heart, are perhaps the most precious jewels to be cultivated by the truly honorable and courteous heart.  It is for these values that true prowess is willing to suffer and die.  The enclosed spaces of the Tomb and Chalice, like the Womb and Heart of Our Lady, are the places where Thy Mystery of Faith is celebrated and where the revelation takes place.

I will have more to say about the Holy Sepulcher and Holy Grail in my next Easter post.

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St. Francis, the Sultan and the President

I wrote the following essay some weeks ago, but never found time to edit and post it.  Since today is the feast of the Protomartyrs of the Franciscan Order, St. Berard and Companions, I thought it would be an auspicious time to bring this to light.

While I realize the historical figure of St. Francis lends itself to romanticizing and mythologizing because of the singularly extraordinary nature of his person, as a Franciscan it irritates me to see his life used as a political tool.  Paul Moses on the CNN Opinion website, does precisely this as he attempts to have St. Francis sucked into vortex of Obama-mania.  In addition to being the author of the CNN article entitled “Is Religion about War—or Peace?” Mr. Moses is the author of a new book called The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace. Mr. Moses is at pains to state that he does not “mean to liken Obama to Francis,” but, goes on to do precisely that and, in the process of expressing his admiration for Mr. Obama, he historically misrepresents the Seraphic Saint. Continue reading

The Theology of the Body and Courage: Fighting the Real Fight

In the light of John Paul II’s landmark teaching on human love in the divine plan, called Theology of the Body, there has been a recent effort in the United States to repackage the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality in “more positive” terms.  It is said that the Holy Father was reacting against “prudish Victorian morality,” especially prevalent in the United States, much in the same way that the sexual revolution was a reaction against “sexual repression.”  The difference, we are told, is that John Paul II’s teaching consists of a beautiful vision for marriage, not the world’s pernicious justification of lust.

Now while this modern sex-saturated age benefits from the beauty of the truth of God’s original plan for conjugal love, we run the risk of going off the rails if we make prudery the bogeyman for our pornographic age.  Modern man is not preoccupied with fear of the body and of sexuality.  Modern man is largely afraid of suffering and of dying.  This is also true within the Church.

Pope Benedict XVI critiqued modernity’s obsession with erotic love in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est without denying a real problem with prudery:

Nowadays Christianity of the past is often criticized as having been opposed to the body; and it is quite true that tendencies of this sort have always existed. Yet the contemporary way of exalting the body is deceptive. Eros, reduced to pure “sex”, has become a commodity, a mere “thing” to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity. This is hardly man’s great “yes” to the body. On the contrary, he now considers his body and his sexuality as the purely material part of himself, to be used and exploited at will (5).

The answer to this problem is not a new “holy” focus on all things erotic, but a subordination of eros to agape.  In the Benedict XVI’s language eros is “possessive love,” not bad in itself, but in need of being put in the service of agape or “oblative” (sacrificial) love (7).  God wants us all to be happy, but the way to happiness is through sacrifice.

The place we learn this more than anywhere else is at the foot of the cross, where the Hearts of Jesus and Mary are united in the wedding banquet of the Lamb and through which we are united to God by our participation in these mysteries in the reception of Holy Communion.  But first of all, the cross is the mystery of oblative love.  The Hearts of Jesus and Mary are opened for all mankind through the suffering and sorrow of their sacrifice.  Theirs is a battle against our ancient enemy.  While mankind has generally been the loser in this struggle, this new Man and Woman conquer by means of their fortitude, that is, by means of their willingness to face death.  This is more agape than eros.

But the fruit of agape is eros, because victory leads to joy and life.  Christ the King with His blessed Mother the Queen reign forever in the bliss of heaven because in this place of exile they overcame the enemy.  This must be the standard of our own effort to subordinate eros to agape.

Most Catholics are not afraid of their bodies.  They are afraid of death.  By definition, the virtue of fortitude is endurance in the face of suffering and death.  In reference to the cross and our participation in its mystery St. Bonaventure says:  “Whoever loves this death can see God because it is true beyond doubt that man will not see me and live” (Itinerarium Mentis in Deum 7.6, quoting Ex. 33:20).  Modern man needs to continue in the struggle against lust while striving also to see the beauty of God’s plan for love.  The focus of our lives needs to be on the cross where we find the Hearts of Jesus and Mary.

It seems to me that John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and Benedict’s XVI’s analysis of eros and agape fit hand in glove.  We should avoid using the profound insights of either pope to conduct a local crusade.  In the real battle we cannot afford to lose our focus.

Cross-posted here from Dawn Patrol.

Damsels in Distress

kill-bill

I started on this post more than a year ago and have come back to it from time to time.  While I am up at Mount St. Francis, hiding in my cave and working on my paper for our Coredemption conference in July, I thought I would finally knock it out.  I shot a video on the same topic  a while back.

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As one interested in helping to bring about a revival of Christian Chivalry, I have thought fondly of the image of the “damsel in distress” as being both iconic and inspiring of the chivalric ideals. I was horrified, then, to see such an honorable term being disparaged by those otherwise promoting the ideals of chivalry. Call me naive or nostalgic (or worse), but I cannot for the life of me see anything wrong with it.

I will admit, if we understand “damsel in distress” as it is caricatured, for example, by the film image of the pretty woman being tied screaming to the train tracks by Dastardly Dan and then being rescued by Agent Jim West, then there is much to be disparaged. The poor helpless thing is abused by one womanizer only to be rescued by another, and all the while is oblivious to everything but the attention she is getting. The ideals of chivalry have always been partially obscured by the cult of “courtly love.” There is nothing new under the sun.

Television and film have that curious ability of turning unalloyed gold into lead, and contrariwise, of cultivating a fondness for the most obvious absurdities. We have learned to despise feminine vulnerability and celebrate the wonders of the Bionic Woman.

So what is the “damsel in distress,” and why should her place in the venerable history of womanhood be preserved and honored? To answer this question we must first examine the contemporary feminist trend to idolize the Amazon.

Continue reading

Theology of the Head and Heart, Part II

(Part I can be found here.)

Theology of the Heart

Rereading Genesis in light of the spousal symbol in the Letter to the Ephesians enables us to grasp a truth which seems to determine in an essential manner the question of women’s dignity, and, subsequently, also the question of their vocation: the dignity of women is measured by the order of love, which is essentially the order of justice and charity (Mulieris Dignitatem, 29).

Clearly, the Theology of the Head enjoys the same primacy that faith does in respect to the other virtues, insofar as reason enlightened by faith provides the mean for all the other virtues and since without faith it is impossible to please God. Hence, man is to the family what faith is to the other virtues. Yet the dignity of women “measured by the order of love” suggests not only the virtue of obedience but the vocation to be the heart of the family, its core and center.

One here could enter into the debate of which ultimately has primacy, intellect or will, or as scholastics posed the question: In what does the essence of beatitude consist: the Intellectual vision of Infinite Truth or rest of the will in the Infinite Good? That debate is not going to be settled here.

Even so, the will does enjoy primacy in its own right when considered under the aspect of the perfection of virtue which is found in Charity, or what John Paul II calls in the above quote, “the order of love.” Knowledge leads to love. Love cannot be real unless it is based on truth, but if the apprehension of the truth does not lead to love, then such an apprehension is vain and sterile.

This primacy of love points to the reason why woman is the heart of the home, and the mother, the heart of the family. Woman is the guardian of the heart and hearth. Continue reading