Category Archives: Theology

Happy Thanksgiving

HappyThanksgivingThe act of gratitude is the first step of holiness. This is the teaching of great saints: Augustine, Aquinas, Benedict, Mom. Loyola spoke of the sin of ingratitude in strong terms. Why is gratitude especially important? For one, it reminds us that we don’t make ourselves. It reminds us that God is in-charge and that He loves us. As one commentator said, “The habitual practice of this first step [of Loyola’s teaching on the Examen that you start with gratitude for all that God has given,] opposes “spiritual amnesia” that the enemy tries to cause with desolation.” Jesuit Fr. John Navone writes, “Tell me what you remember, and I’ll tell you what you are (, S.J.). Another Jesuit,  Fr. John Hardon, used to say “the human memory is like a sieve.”

Our asceticism is to create the space to consciously remember good things — the blessings thus becomes a first step; acknowledging them moves into thanksgiving. Blessings on Thanksgiving Day 2015!

Purgatory shows that no man is an island

BVM and PurgatoryIn these last days of November the month of the Holy Souls, I think it is worth thinking about the doctrine of Purgatory. Several years ago Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical on hope “Spe Salvi” was published where he wrote some most beautiful lines ever written on purgatory. Here are paragraphs 45-48:

This early Jewish idea of an intermediate state includes the view that these souls are not simply in a sort of temporary custody but, as the parable of the rich man illustrates, are already being punished or are experiencing a provisional form of bliss. There is also the idea that this state can involve purification and healing which mature the soul for communion with God. The early Church took up these concepts, and in the Western Church they gradually developed into the doctrine of Purgatory. We do not need to examine here the complex historical paths of this development; it is enough to ask what it actually means. With death, our life-choice becomes definitive—our life stands before the judge. Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms. There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell. On the other hand there can be people who are utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbours—people for whom communion with God even now gives direction to their entire being and whose journey towards God only brings to fulfilment what they already are.

Yet we know from experience that neither case is normal in human life. For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul. What happens to such individuals when they appear before the Judge? Will all the impurity they have amassed through life suddenly cease to matter? What else might occur? Saint Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, gives us an idea of the differing impact of God’s judgement according to each person’s particular circumstances. He does this using images which in some way try to express the invisible, without it being possible for us to conceptualize these images—simply because we can neither see into the world beyond death nor do we have any experience of it. Paul begins by saying that Christian life is built upon a common foundation: Jesus Christ. This foundation endures. If we have stood firm on this foundation and built our life upon it, we know that it cannot be taken away from us even in death. Then Paul continues: “Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:12-15). In this text, it is in any case evident that our salvation can take different forms, that some of what is built may be burned down, that in order to be saved we personally have to pass through “fire” so as to become fully open to receiving God and able to take our place at the table of the eternal marriage-feast.

Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ’s Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy. It is clear that we cannot calculate the “duration” of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world. The transforming “moment” of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning—it is the heart’s time, it is the time of “passage” to communion with God in the Body of Christ. The judgement of God is hope, both because it is justice and because it is grace. If it were merely grace, making all earthly things cease to matter, God would still owe us an answer to the question about justice—the crucial question that we ask of history and of God. If it were merely justice, in the end it could bring only fear to us all. The incarnation of God in Christ has so closely linked the two together—judgement and grace—that justice is firmly established: we all work out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Nevertheless grace allows us all to hope, and to go trustfully to meet the Judge whom we know as our “advocate”, or parakletos (cf. 1 Jn 2:1).

A further point must be mentioned here, because it is important for the practice of Christian hope. Early Jewish thought includes the idea that one can help the deceased in their intermediate state through prayer (see for example 2 Macc 12:38-45; first century BC). The equivalent practice was readily adopted by Christians and is common to the Eastern and Western Church. The East does not recognize the purifying and expiatory suffering of souls in the afterlife, but it does acknowledge various levels of beatitude and of suffering in the intermediate state. The souls of the departed can, however, receive “solace and refreshment” through the Eucharist, prayer and almsgiving. The belief that love can reach into the afterlife, that reciprocal giving and receiving is possible, in which our affection for one another continues beyond the limits of death—this has been a fundamental conviction of Christianity throughout the ages and it remains a source of comfort today. Who would not feel the need to convey to their departed loved ones a sign of kindness, a gesture of gratitude or even a request for pardon? Now a further question arises: if “Purgatory” is simply purification through fire in the encounter with the Lord, Judge and Saviour, how can a third person intervene, even if he or she is particularly close to the other? When we ask such a question, we should recall that no man is an island, entire of itself. Our lives are involved with one another, through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others: for better and for worse. So my prayer for another is not something extraneous to that person, something external, not even after death. In the interconnectedness of Being, my gratitude to the other—my prayer for him—can play a small part in his purification. And for that there is no need to convert earthly time into God’s time: in the communion of souls simple terrestrial time is superseded. It is never too late to touch the heart of another, nor is it ever in vain. In this way we further clarify an important element of the Christian concept of hope. Our hope is always essentially also hope for others; only thus is it truly hope for me too. As Christians we should never limit ourselves to asking: how can I save myself? We should also ask: what can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them too the star of hope may rise? Then I will have done my utmost for my own personal salvation as well.

The makes purgatory something to look forward to!

Picturing God?

Holy Trinity of God, by Viktor VasnetsovThis image, “The Holy Trinity of God,” by Viktor Vasnetsov is a rather interesting image for Christians.

Some will say, with historical precedent, that this image of the Trinity is heretical because God the Father cannot be depicted in a human form. The proponents of a biblical and liturgical theology state that God the Father is invisible and unable to be depicted in matter. Jesus Christ was born of the indescribable Father, therefore the Father cannot depicted be in an image. Having said this, it has not stopped artists from attempting to show us the Father. The Russians are noted for this.

I happen to like this image but I understand the caution and even the rejection of the image. For many, this issue may an Eastern Christian matter and not a Western one. It is, however, not that easy to say that this is a matter for one portion of the Church and not another. There is something called the unity of faith.

The teaching comes from 7th Ecumenical Council in AD 787, Second Nicea which focussed on the place of iconography in the Church and the very heated controversy between the iconoclasts and the iconodules. No doubt I can’t deal with the whole of the Council but the teaching of the Church was formulated by Saint John of Damascus who said,

Concerning the charge of idolatry: Icons are not idols but symbols, therefore when an Orthodox venerates an icon, he is not guilty of idolatry. He is not worshipping the symbol, but merely venerating it. Such veneration is not directed toward wood, or paint or stone, but towards the person depicted. Therefore relative honor is shown to material objects, but worship is due to God alone.
We do not make obeisance to the nature of wood, but we revere and do obeisance to Him who was crucified on the Cross… When the two beams of the Cross are joined together I adore the figure because of Christ who was crucified on the Cross, but if the beams are separated, I throw them away and burn them.

The Second Council of Nicea formally taught as a result of the Damascene:

Icons are necessary and essential because they protect the full and proper doctrine of the Incarnation. While God cannot be represented in His eternal nature (“…no man has seen God”, John 1:18), He can be depicted simply because He “became human and took flesh.” Of Him who took a material body, material images can be made. In so taking a material body, God proved that matter can be redeemed. He deified matter, making it spirit-bearing, and so if flesh can be a medium for the Spirit, so can wood or paint, although in a different fashion.
I do not worship matter, but the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who through matter effected my salvation.

Now, where do we go from here? In my mind I think of this issue as very similar to the biblical prohibition from pronouncing he name of God (YHWH). Recall that Benedict XVI asked Catholics to respect this biblical discipline. Sadly, Catholics can have a rather bold and sometimes arrogant approach to some things…

Calling yourself Catholic?

12 Apostles of JesusIn CCD the other day a question we hear from time-to-time: why do the followers of Jesus call themselves “Catholic”?

The first written reference to the term “Catholic” is found in the early days of the second century with Saint Ignatius of Antioch, who as bishop, was arrested and brought to Rome by armed guards. This was the time of persecution of diverse practice of religion. Before his martyrdom, he wrote a letter to his fellow Christians in Smyrna (the city of Izmir in modern-day Turkey) in which he said, “Where the bishop is present, there is the Catholic Church.” Hence, the word “Catholic” comes from the Greek root meaning “universal.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the Church is catholic because “The Church is catholic: she proclaims the fullness of the faith. She bears in herself and administers the totality of the means of salvation. She is sent out to all peoples. She speaks to all men. She encompasses all times. She is “missionary of her very nature” (868).

True repentance not presumption

Saint Clement of Alexandria helps me to focus on what the Church has given for the 26th Sunday Through the Year: “The doors are open for all who sincerely and wholeheartedly return to God. Indeed, the Father is most willing to welcome back a truly repentant son or daughter. The result of true repentance, however, is that you do not fall into the same faults again, but utterly uproot from your souls the sins for which you consider yourself worthy of death. When these have been destroyed God will again dwell within you, since Scripture says that for the Father and his angels in heaven the festal joy and gladness at the return of one repentant sinner is great beyond compare. That is why the Lord cried out: ‘What I want is mercy, not sacrifice.’ ”

How close can I adhere to what Saint Clement is teaching? The other day I was speaking of the sin of presumption at a faith formation class –a concept that had vague recall from some of the participants. As the saint reminds, God is eager to welcome home a sinner with lots of mercy; that God will dwell within our soul with great vigor. The expectation is that the sinner reject sin. But what will happen if the love of sin is privileged more than the love of God?

Dom Lino’s book on Romano Bottegal there is a sentence which said: “To be called to Christianity, to the priesthood, to monastic life, is to be called to leave the figure (the image) – the teacher, the law – to enter into the reality (grace), the first and final intention of God – union with God and with the brothers, in a love that is personal, universal and humble.”

Where is the good news today? The good news today is that we have the possibility of beginning again – repentance/conversion – because this is what God wants for us: to have life and have life to the full! Christianity is the religion of the perpetual second chance.

About the author

Paul A. Zalonski is from New Haven, CT. He is a member of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, a Catholic ecclesial movement, and an Oblate of Saint Benedict. Contact Paul at paulzalonski[at]
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