All posts filed under: Essays

The Virgin Mary as “Eternal Woman”

The holier a woman, the more she is a woman. —Léon Bloy To call the Virgin Mary the “Eternal Woman,” as I do in the title of this essay, is, of course, to allude to the title of Gertrud von Le Fort’s famous book, The Eternal Woman, first published in German as Die Ewige Frau in 1933. In Sister Prudence Allen’s magnum opus, The Concept of Woman, she devotes two pages to a brief discussion of Le Fort (1876−1971), highlighting her personal and intellectual kinship with Edith Stein (1891−1942), whom Le Fort visited in the Carmel in Cologne and with whom she exchanged letters. Sr. Allen excerpts the following passage from one of Stein’s five extant letters to Le Fort, dated January 31, 1935: Dear Baroness, Our retreat ended this morning. A retreat in Carmel—all that’s lacking to make it heaven is one’s own holiness. My spiritual reading those days was your new book. I could not get to it earlier. Now at last I can thank you for this beautiful Christmas gift. I would …

Charles Péguy’s Difficult Hope

Charles Péguy died with a bullet through the head on September 5, 1914. The First World War was but a few months old. Péguy is impossible to really characterize. He has a way of defying summarization, and so too do his poems. There is much too much between the lines, in the meandering prose, in the life. He was French, born of peasants in Orléans in 1873, and he considered himself a child of the Republic that had lurched into existence somehow in the 19th century after a couple turns at empire and emperor. He was convinced that his generation was the last of the real republicans, whom he traced backward with an impracticable, zigzagging line from 1848 to 1830 to the first breath of the first revolution.[1] Péguy can be understood, insists on being understood, by knowing something of the Dreyfus Affair. He bound himself to the event tightly and inexorably, and refused to relinquish it.[2] One Alfred Dreyfus, a captain in the military, was convicted of treason and thrown in jail for life …

A Theological Critique of Economic Modernity’s Myths

Pope Francis frequently speaks of our irresponsible use of goods, the violence in our hearts, unchecked human activity, and how our current models of growth, of production and consumption are unsustainable. He tells us early in Laudato Si’ that the deterioration of nature goes hand in hand with deterioration of the culture, and that both share a cause: “Both are ultimately due to the same evil: the notion that there are no indisputable truths to guide our lives, and hence human freedom is limitless” (§6). He echoes St. John Paul II, who writes in Centesimus Annus: “Indeed, what is the origin of all the evils to which Rerum Novarum wished to respond, if not a kind of freedom which, in the area of economic and social activity, cuts itself off from the truth about man?” (§4). Similarly, Pope Benedict XVI’s 2008 social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, is structured around the belief that love must be firmly based on the truth about the human person (§1-10). Each Pontiff is concerned with a misunderstanding of what it means to …

Catholic Education and the Market’s Technocratic Paradigm

  I was recently in Scotland for a meeting of the Association of Catholic Institutes of Education (ACISE). As an organization, ACISE focuses on the interrelationship between religion and education primarily within European society. As a body, it exists to respond to the so-called “technocratic paradigm” that seems to have attached itself to educational institutions throughout the world. Such a technocratic paradigm reduces the act of education to learning outcomes and goals provided by the state, forgetting to form students in the dispositions of wonder, hope, critical inquiry, and a religious humanism that has marked the Western educational patrimony for generations. As an American interloper in the conversation, I experienced a bit of cultural disorientation. The American system of education has so radically separated religion and the state that it was nearly inconceivable for me to imagine a world in which the state determined the religious curriculum of the school. Yet, throughout Europe, as secularization continues particularly among the social elite, there is a sense that religious education is under attack by the state itself. …

Holy Saturday: Healing through the Crucified One

Difficulties: First, images that make sense poetically have to be coordinated within a narrative flow; this is something I attempt to do for my poem when I comment on it below. Second, what exactly constitutes healing in the Christian sense is made impossibly complex in light of a Crucified Savior who keeps His wounds after the Resurrection. Holy Saturday Oh beat slow, heart of creation – First light! First love! Revelation! First flesh found in Incarnation, Beat the blood to our salvation! Find so within the vein of God tireless tracks to faith untrod ‘til riven, wrecked, rent kavod of unstrung sinews, strums overawed. Clotted, untinctured, tear-sealed tomb, thrice holy still unholy wound. Once empty chamber – sin consume! Once-pierced heart – rise, beat, assume! Leave not me here, alone and free, a bloodless heart that beats for thee! Heart held in blood eternally – find Heart yet held in Trinity! These lyrics are about the longing for salvation. They are voiced by someone who has faith that the man from Galilee is not lost …

The Very Human Fears of the Saints

“Am I to stay here alone?” This question, posed by Servant of God Lucia Santos to the Blessed Mother during a 1917 Fatima apparition, introduced a raw, intimate urgency to their dialogue. Having just been informed that her two cousins and fellow seers, Jacinta and Francisco, would soon succumb to illness and pass into communion with God, Lucia learns of her own mission to remain on earth, continuing a hidden life of prayer and evangelization. Her immediate, reactionary question reveals a fundamental human, and particularly Christian, insecurity.[1] Created for communion with God and with one another, the fear of abandonment—of being left to face our existential realities alone—lingers in the recesses of the human heart, surfacing during times of insecurity, transition, and uncertainty. It is tempting, at times, to convince ourselves that saints like Lucia were somehow exempt from these human insecurities. Perhaps the saints were granted a sort of supernatural clarity to dispel crippling doubts and inhibitions, or a keen sense of spiritual sight that allowed them to identify and respond to human need, …

Our Children Might Return to the Church, but Our Grandchildren Most Likely Won’t

It is no surprise that the children of the Church are growing up and growing out of Church. What is surprising is that they are not returning. Worse still, they are not bringing their children. A priest once told me that he was not worried about kids going to college and starting their careers out of the Church, because eventually they too would have kids and that that is when they would return. That way of thinking about Church attendance and growth just won’t do anymore. The problem is not just that the Church is hemorrhaging in attendance[1]; rather, the underlying problem, the reason why church association is hemorrhaging is that the American church has consistently communicated to the younger generations that their formation, membership, and involvement is worth less than that of their parents, who by the way have the money. I am routinely surprised by how often we suppose that children are too uneducated, too unsophisticated to understand the depth of faith. Having grown up in a fairly anti-intellectual tradition, I came to …

Lead Us Not into Temptation

Next Wednesday commences the Church’s annual celebration of Lent. The feasting of Carnival season will give way to fasting, alms-giving, and prayer. The goal of this season is not merely to discipline ourselves for the festive celebration of Easter, as if “the best Lent ever” will give way to the “most excellent Easter.” Instead, during the season of Lent, we must come face-to-face with a fact about the human condition: Something is wrong with us. And perhaps more importantly, we can’t fix it. Christ’s temptation in the desert in both Matthew and Luke diagnoses our malaise. The Reformed philosopher, social scientist, and theologian Jacque Ellul provides an interpretation of this moment in Christ’s life, one that sees in these three temptations “the sum of the temptations that man can encounter.”[1] Jesus is first tempted to turn stones into bread, by the supposition that material needs are the most important dimension of human life. Christ’s responds to the Devil’s tempting by teaching that the divine word of obediential love is what is ultimately determinative of the …

Yes, Advent Is a Time of Asceticism

We all know that Advent means arrival and preparation. I would invite you to meditate with me about the prerequisites of the term and implications we hardly ever acknowledge. On November 8, the Church remembered Blessed Duns Scotus (d. 1308), one of the greatest thinkers she has ever produced. One of his key ideas was that God’s perfect intellect is mirrored in the limitless openness and receptivity of the human mind. For the Franciscan, such receptiveness was a sign of human dignity: humans receive those truths they cannot achieve by their own powers. This sounds complicated but leads to some simple conclusions: all true knowledge comes from an encounter and arises from the receptivity of our mind and heart (intellectus passibilis). If we apply Scotus’s insight to Advent, we might realize that our receptivity to the Incarnate Word is impeded by something in our lives and that perhaps we do not desire a real encounter with the real God but rather one with our self-constructed god. The root for this seems to lie at the …

Where Do Theology and Cognitive Psychology Intersect?

Both college educators and students are rushing to connect psychological, educational, and neuroscientific findings to learning outcomes. Students study psychological research such as C. Dweck’s academic growth mindset in order to develop their learning trajectories. Professors are immersed in a burgeoning market of academic pedagogy models that stress retention of information in addition to conventional assessment. Three influential examples include: Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, What the Best College Teachers Do, and Small Teaching.[1] These are indeed exciting developments. On the one hand, institutions of higher learning are challenging students as learners to cultivate integrative and appropriative methods for their own academic development and retention. On the other hand, faculty are ever lauded not only for the precise presentation of content, but also for fostering the critical and integrative skills that bridge collegiate learning into life and work. Concerning both, however, as any faculty or student will admit, these goals are much harder to actualize than to theorize. As researchers in the psychology and theology of memory, we wish to suggest how …