Tag Archives: Saints

Over This Your White Grave

GraceGrace Mariette Agolia

Undergraduate Fellow

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Over this your white grave
the flowers of life in white–
so many years without you–
how many have passed out of sight?

Over this your white grave
covered for years, there is a stir
in the air, something uplifting
and, like death, beyond comprehension.

Over this your white grave
oh, mother, can such loving cease?
for all his filial adoration
a prayer:
Give her eternal peace–

-Karol Wojtyla

Saint John Paul II, like so many of us, grappled with questions of human fragility and mortality, seeming meaninglessness in death, and the deep pain of losing a loved one.

Poland, 1921 – the infant Karol Jozef Wojtyla in the arms of his mother, Emilia Kaczorowska Wojtyla.

Karol Wojtyla, as he was known before he became pope, wrote this poem in Krakow, Poland in the spring of 1939.  His mother had died of heart and kidney problems ten years earlier, when Karol was just barely nine years old and had not yet made his First Communion.  After she died, Karol’s father took him to one of Poland’s Marian shrines, Kalwaria, close to their hometown of Wadowice.  It is likely that Karol’s lifelong devotion to Mary, the Mother of God, really began during that time and was strengthened amidst his grief at the loss of his own mother.

The pain of Karol’s loss is very much present in this poem – a relationship that was, a relationship that could have been so much more – yet her life was cut short by her illness and subsequent death.  Years after the event, he continues to reflect on his mother’s death and his own emotions.  Perhaps the reader is to interpret this whole poem as a metaphor for the place in Karol’s heart where the memory of his mother resides.

Each stanza of this poem begins with the words, “Over this your white grave,” which leads the reader into three striking images.  First, there appears an image of a white grave, on top of which is strewn white flowers.  Yet, second, there seems to be a certain covering or “veil” over the grave.  Third, the reader perceives an image of Karol standing over the grave, feeling deeply his love for his mother that still persists even after all these years without her physical presence in his life.

The color white plays a significant role in this poem as well, describing both the grave and “the flowers of life” which cover it.  White often symbolizes notions of purity, innocence, undying fidelity, respect, and peace, and it is frequently used to accentuate important moments in the course of the human life, such as birth, baptism, First Communion, marriage, and death.  In this poem, the use of the color white seems to convey a tone of reverence and tranquility in the presence of the beloved dead, and white seems to frame Karol’s devotion to his mother and his recollections of those pure, essential moments of life (“the flowers of life”) in which love was given and received.

While the color white may indicate aspects of the state of death, it may also point toward new life.  Memory and mystery come together in death and are transfigured in light of Christianity.  Karol writes about some sort of “veil” being lifted, almost like a burial shroud.  Perhaps the reader can interpret this as an image pointing toward the burial shroud being “lifted” from the body of Jesus in his Resurrection, revealing that this man, who underwent human suffering and death at its most horrific, conquered death and is risen with a transfigured body.  Like death, the Resurrection is something so beyond human comprehension.  Nevertheless, it uplifts us; it gives us hope.  Perhaps that is what Karol begins to see.  There is hope; there is something that breaks the bonds of death.  Death does not have the last word, and it is this hope that will give him peace.

Something intriguing happens in the last stanza of the poem.  In the first part of the stanza, Karol continues to address his mother using the first person, but then, he switches to the third person for the rest of the stanza, which is a prayer for eternal rest for his mother.  I suggest that this shift in address occurs because he has learned to let himself into the arms of his spiritual mother, Mary.  Her embrace has been one of utter consolation for the young Karol.  Throughout his adolescent years and the beginning of his priesthood, he was often seen praying the rosary, lost in contemplation before an image of Mary, or sometimes even lying prostrate on the floor before the tabernacle.

jp2maryThis entrustment of his life to Mary becomes a recurring theme throughout his life, especially during his papacy.  After he was critically injured in an assassination attempt, he visited Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal to express his gratitude for the protection of the Blessed Mother, placing the bullet with which he was shot into her crown.  He made several subsequent pilgrimages to various Marian shrines around the world, and he led an effort to consecrate the whole world to the protection of Mary.  He promoted the rosary as an essential form of devotional prayer, even giving to the Church the Luminous Mysteries to help us further meditate on the life of Jesus, imitate Mary in her pondering of God’s action in her life through the sending of His Son, and emulate her example of love and humility.  John Paul II’s papal motto was “Totus Tuus,” which means, “Totally Yours,” and is addressed to Mary, for in the act of entrustment of our hearts to her, she leads us to her Son, Jesus, who alone is the One to whom all our love is ultimately directed.

Let us, too, entrust ourselves and our loved ones, especially those who are sick, suffering, dying, or have passed on, to the maternal embrace of Mary.  For it is she who knows most intimately the Sacred Heart of our Lord Jesus.  It is she who carried God in the flesh at his most vulnerable state – as an infant in her womb and as a dead man taken down from the Cross and buried in the tomb, and it is she who carries the Church and all people, especially at their most vulnerable state.  It is she who understands the pain of human loss, and it is she who enjoys the fullness of life in God’s glory in heaven.  Let us be wrapped in her mantle, a veil which protects and uplifts us, and brings us ever closer to her Son who conquered death and gives new life.

Heaven Is Not A Goal (With a Short Discourse on College)

Leonard DeLorenzoLeonard DeLorenzo, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Vision and Student Engagement

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I have never been to Heaven, though I have been to Iowa. Iowa is not Heaven, but it may open to it. When Ray Kinsella built his Field of Dreams, he followed the seemingly nonsensical promise that turning his plowshares into baseball bats and his crop rows into foul lines would draw some untold company. But even as he built a destination for dreamers, the prophecy within the film—eventually spoken in the only voice that should ever deliver prophecy: that of James Earl Jones—reveals why the dream is for something other than the field itself. The thing that matters is not the place at journey’s end but to enjoy what you find there:

People will come, Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn into your driveway, not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door, as innocent as children, longing for the past. “Of course, we won’t mind if you look around,” you’ll say, “It’s only twenty dollars per person.” And they’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it, for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk off to the bleachers and sit in their short sleeves on a perfect afternoon. And find they have reserved seats somewhere along the baselines where they sat when they were children, and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game, and it’ll be as if they’d dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick, they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come, Ray.

I love the little throwaway line in the middle of this monologue where the mystical enjoyment of this game—on this field—is described as bringing the pilgrims enjoyment so wonderful that it will “be as if they’d dipped themselves in magic waters.” In Kinsella’s original book (which has somewhat bizarre religious overtones), this line is written like this: “…it will be as if they have knelt in front of a faith healer, or dipped themselves in magic waters where a saint once rose like a serpent and cast benedictions to the wind like peach petals,” (Shoeless Joe by Ray Kinsella). The contrast in images is startling, for a serpent rises up in order to strike with venom but in this case the rising up with the force of a serpent issues good-words that are as delicate, fragrant, and comforting as petals on the wind. I doubt Kinsella knew that he was basically describing Saint Juan Diego who as a child would have received a lecture from his father in which he was told “not to rise like a serpent and shoot out anger against the people, instead receive them in love,” (Our Lady of Guadalupe and Juan Diego: The Historical Evidence by Eduardo Chávez). juan diego

As a grown man, Juan fulfills and exceeds this instruction when, at Our Lady’s instruction, he rises up before the bishop to let petals fall from his tilma. Kinsella’s odd image suggests that one who embodies all the power of a striking serpent in order to bless rather than to curse is like a saint, and that the transformation of that power from fury to peace is like magic.

Imagine trying to teach a serpent to redirect all his instincts towards a new end. I imagine you would have to do nothing less than make him forget his former action before teaching him how to use the same power for a new action, one which is quite the opposite of his former one. That is what it would be like, say, for a soldier to wholly recast the power of his own efforts in favor of a new purpose—you know, like Ignatius of Loyola, who was first broken of his own ambitions in order to be re-educated for a new purpose. In service of that new purpose, Ignatius exercised no less passion than he did on the battlefield—i.e., he became the one who rose like a serpent not to strike down but to build up. Just so, the peasant Juan Diego takes on the serpent’s and soldier’s poise to strike with the blessing given to him from Our Lady. Perhaps Juan had to be given the soldier’s courage while Ignatius had to be given the peasant’s meekness. In either case, the union of opposites—“the meek soldier” and “the bold peasant”—is no less peculiar than a serpent offering benediction, which is so anomalous that only something like magic could explain it.

Which brings me back to that little throwaway line about being dipped in magic waters: You know who else imagined this kind of transformation in like terms? Dante. At the top of the Mountain of Purgatory—that place of transformation—Dante imagines two boundaries of water on either side of the Earthly Paradise. In truth, the two bodies of water are the same river that flow “from God’s own will” (Purgatorio 28:125), but on one side of the Earthly Paradise it is called Lethe and on the other it is called Eunoe. The River Lethe is a river of forgetfulness: as if by magic it “take[s] the memory of sin away,” (Purgatorio 28:128; cf. Inferno 14:136-138). John_William_Waterhouse_-_Dante_and_MatildaThese waters wash away all the prideful, envious, wrathful, slothful, covetous, gluttonous, and lustful urges, habits, and even consequences of such actions, leaving the one who emerges from the waters without memory. Every memory is taken away from the one who plunges into these waters because all of his memories—like that of a serpent for whom the instinct to strike with venom flows in every part of himself—were tinged with aspects of the sins that plague him. To be without memory, though, is to not be yourself, and to become yourself is the whole point of the purgatorial journey; therefore, on the other side of the Earthly Paradise, the River Eunoe flows to restore the memory of “all good done,” (Purgatorio 28:129; cf. 33:124-132, 142-145). All that power expended upon ulterior motives, slanderous thoughts and deeds, furtive games of rivalry, and acts of love muddied with undue self-regard… all of that power is restored and released for an holistic purpose: to praise the One who blesses and to serve the good of others. On the far side of Eunoe, the saint emerges with the power of a rising serpent speaking benedictions that are as fragrant, delicate, and comforting as petals on the wind.

Dante’s saints are free to praise and serve in the activity of Heaven, while Kinsella’s saints are free for what that dreamy field offers. For Dante, the saint is not simply defined as the one who passes from the Earthly Paradise to the Heavenly Paradise; rather, Dante’s saint is the one who enjoys the Heavenly Paradise. Likewise for Kinsella, the saints of baseball that he imagines are not made by coming to the Iowa field, but rather by enjoying the game they find there. Iowa isn’t Heaven because Heaven is not a goal, and Heaven is not a goal because gaining admission isn’t the point. Enjoying Heaven is the point.

John Henry Newman had a way of speaking of Heaven that made it seem rather un-enjoyable, at least at first glance. In one of his better-known sermons, he describes Heaven thusly:

Heaven then is not like this world; I will say what it is much more like—a church. For in a place of public worship no language of this world is heard; there are no schemes brought forward for temporal objects, great or small; no information how to strengthen our worldly interests, extend our influence, or establish our credit. These things indeed may be right in their way, so that we do not set our hearts upon them; still (I repeat), it is certain that we hear nothing of them in a church. Here we hear solely and entirely of God (“Holiness Necessary for Future Blessedness”).

For most of us—myself included—spending eternity in a church actually sounds pretty terrible. If Heaven is like a church, then maybe it is rather like baseball: it’s tedious, it’s repetitive, and it takes forever. That, in fact, is precisely Newman’s point. We tend to conceive of Heaven on our own terms, but we would do well to practice re-conceiving of ourselves in the God-given terms of Heaven. The language of this world is often the language of suspicion and duplicity; the schemes of this world are typically directed towards one’s self-promotion; and the credit we seek to accrue in this world is weighed in the laudations we earn or even the laudations we trick others into conferring upon us. A church—rightly conceived—is a place free of these games because it practices its participants in another game: learning to enjoy that place where a good we do not earn is given and where we delight in sharing that good with others. That place is Heaven. In the world, we practice springing our energies in poisonous maneuvers to either subtly or not-so-subtly advance ourselves even at the expense of others. In a church we practice taking the good of others as our own good. The energy expended is comparable but the purpose is not. In a church, the mighty learn how to wield their might in favor of the meek and the meek learn how to boldly lead the mighty in benediction.

Only once our memories are cleansed of past grievances, shame, and worldly ambition, may our memories be restored to new life in forgiveness, gratitude, and charity. In a way reminiscent of Augustine’s contemplation of the life of the saints at the conclusion of Book XXII of City of God, Newman encourages us to seek memories redeemed in mercy:

Let us thankfully commemorate the many mercies He has vouchsafed to us in times past, the many sins He has not remembered, the many dangers He has averted, the many prayers He has answered, the many mistakes He has corrected, the many warnings, the many lessons, the much light, the abounding comfort which He has from time to time given. Let us dwell upon times and seasons, times of trouble, times of joy, times of trial, times of refreshment (“Remembrance of Past Mercies”).

There is a lot to remember there, and remembering all of that would take all of our energy, all of the time. This activity would be so engaging that we would hand over all we think we’ve earned and all we think we’re due as if we were “pass[ing] over money without even thinking about it” in order to enjoy the peace we once lacked. Money, here, stands for all that worldly ambition procures and giving that up is precisely the admission price for a “perfect afternoon”.

To think about this in another setting, consider the typically unadvertised condition of a majority (or at least a significant minority) of college students, including and perhaps especially those who are currently enrolled at their elite “dream schools”. The problem of conceiving of Heaven as a goal is echoed in the perils of conceiving of college admission itself as a goal, especially since in the case of the latter we often train children and teens to cultivate ambition toward that end, to measure themselves according to admissibility, and to compete with each other for position and ranking. For those in the most prestigious and selective colleges, the ambitious, achievement-driven, metrics-obsessed, comparison-laden, goal-oriented behaviors that they all virtually had to cultivate in order to get into their “dream schools” are the very same habits that prevent them from enjoying college.

AdmissionWhen these students get to college, they keep often keep operating according to what they’ve been trained to value: the pursuit of accomplishments and the calculation of worth by inverse comparison to the merits of others. In short, their capacity to learn in order to grow, to venture even at the risk of failure, and to allow themselves to be seen as in process rather than finished products is dulled precisely because of how ‘the system’ (Newman’s “world”) shaped them in order to achieve admission to college and, moreover, what ‘the system’ continues to expect of them once they are in college. The antidote to the venom of the system is not to expect less of college students; in fact, the antidote is to expect more: they should be guided to be more fully human rather than little goal-gobbling achievement-machines, especially since little goal-gobbling achievement-machines eventually breakdown, whether during college or afterwards. (Full disclosure: I myself am a recovering goal-gobbling achievement-machine).

After all, you can’t enjoy a baseball game if you’re obsessed with how much everything costs, who has the best seat, and how to consistently “upgrade your experience,” just like you can’t enjoy Heaven if you keep thinking about how to get ahead, how to work the situation to your own advantage, or how to favorably compare your merits to those of others. In this regard, even elite Catholic colleges may not very much resemble Newman’s own idea of a university, which is certainly meant to cultivate virtue more than ambition, so that when the exorbitant tuition fees change hands it is not done with the consumer expectation that “I better get my money’s worth.” (Another note in the interest of full disclosure: I don’t think exorbitant tuition fees are okay.) What you should get when you gain admission is an education not for the sake of what you think you like but what will help you to enjoy life, unto life everlasting.

If we are to listen to the prophetic voice of James Earl Jones (as we always should), or that of Dante or of John Henry Newman, then we might come to imagine that if saints are indeed models, they are models not because of where they end up or what they achieve but because of who and what they become. The saints are grateful, they admire each other, they praise together, and they passionately enjoy all of this. The question of Iowa fields and (elite) colleges is also the question of Heaven itself: what are you learning to enjoy?

Follow Leonard DeLorenzo @leodelo2.


For a lovely reflection on the construction of a Cathedral, Field of Dreams, and Heaven, see Hope Feist’s blogpost from earlier this year.

The Memory of God

Jenny Martin
Assistant Professor, Program of Liberal Studies; Concurrent Assistant Professor, Department of Theology University of Notre Dame

Editorial Note: This post was originally delivered as a homily during Vespers on Wednesday, October 28, the feast of Sts. Simon and Jude. We are grateful for the author’s permission to publish it here.

For the past several years, I have led a freshman seminar on ancient Greek literature, which includes reading both the Iliad and Odyssey in full. In this context, my students and I talk a great deal about the nature of memory, and these Homeric epics in particular as books of memory. Not only was the oral recitation of these enormously long and detailed poems an impressive feat of memory in itself, but also the explicit themes of memory and forgetting are to the fore in terms of their content. It is most interesting to me in these discussions that for Homer, the relative merits and demerits of remembering or forgetting seem ambiguous.

Tsugumi Ota, Lotus Eaters
Tsugumi Ota, Lotus Eaters

Odysseus and his crew are constantly fighting against natural and supernatural forces that would have them forget themselves. His men eat Lotus Flowers and no longer remember their desire to go home, and the witch Circe detains the crew for a year with feasts and enchantments, moments of forgetting that are obviously problematic. But Helen puts nepenthe in the wine of Menelaus and Telemachus in order to dull the memory of their grief, which seems in some sense to be a mercy. The remembrance of family genealogies is crucial to establishing identity and friendship, yet many of Odysseus’ apparent memories of himself and his personal history turn out to be wholly contrived, works of fiction within a fiction constructed simply for strategy or effect. Furthermore, in a text that may ostensibly be about the virtue of remembering, it is perhaps doubly ironic that the Odyssey ends with Athena blotting out totally the community’s memory of Penelope’s numerous suitors whom Odysseus slays.

In both epics, but especially the Iliad, the heroes are all the time preoccupied with accumulating honor and glory for their heroic deeds, for bravado and courage in war, for acts of loyalty and patriotism, and so on: this drive for fame and personal honor motivates nearly every act, even or especially the most foolhardy, so again, it is difficult to tell if Homer is supporting or critiquing his culture’s preoccupation with being remembered as honorable.

Odysseus blinds the Cyclops
Odysseus blinds the Cyclops

Certainly, Odysseus’ rashest act and greatest mistake was his insistence on revealing his true name to the Cyclops Polyphemus: had he remained nameless, it is arguable that the god Poseidon would not have harried him so relentlessly. On his homeward journey in the Odyssey, Odysseus clings to a rock in the sea after shipwreck and laments that he should have died gloriously at Troy rather than have his deeds be forgotten with such an undistinguished death as drowning. It was not enough for the ancients that honorable deeds be performed; they must be witnessed and acclaimed by others or they could not, so to speak, be credited in the ledger books. In the Iliad, we see Achilles making the choice for an early, violent death in war with great honor and external praise over a long and happy life that is unremarked and unremarkable. And yet, when we come upon the shade of Achilles in the underworld in the Odyssey, he tells Odysseus that it would have been better in life had he been a poor, land-less peasant working in someone else’s fields. Mixed messages, to be sure.

Sts Simon and JudeOn this feast of the Apostles St. Simon and St. Jude, about which very little is known, I would like to praise not their glorious deeds, but rather draw out the virtue of letting oneself go unremarked: how honorable it is to engage in quiet, everyday work that is neither broadcast nor publicized, thanked nor recognized, remembered neither in the annals of history nor the vocalizations of the epic poet. What is recorded in the Scriptures about Simon the Zealot and Jude, also called Thaddeus, is actually rather spare: they are listed by name alongside the other apostles in the synoptic Gospels and in Acts, and Jude is given a single line in the Gospel of John and a short epistle of only 24 verses. Their names are inscribed and recalled, yes, but the many particulars of their daily work on behalf of the kingdom of God are not known to us, or to anyone. Furthermore, even their names can be misremembered if not sometimes outright forgotten, overshadowed in Simon’s case by the far more prominent Simon Peter, and in Jude’s, by the far more infamous Judas Iscariot. Indeed, the tradition of Jude being the patron saint of lost or impossible causes could possibly be traced to this very confusion: because few would pray to Judas called Thaddeus, horrified that they might inadvertently be praying to Judas Iscariot, when he was called upon, Jude would be willing to intervene in even the most desperate of circumstances.

Tradition holds that Simon and Jude suffered a martyr’s death together while preaching as missionaries in Persia, with their bones buried together in the same tomb. Psalm 116:15 tells us that in the sight of the Lord, the death of the faithful is not simply remembered, but is precious, even if anonymous or unremarked. Though the days of mortals may indeed be like grass that withers and fades, “the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting” (Ps 103:15–16). That our lives and our deaths are gathered up, recollected in the deep memory of God the Father, who is all love and all gift, is everything. So Christian believers in the security of the steadfast love of God and the gift of the Church can afford more than the ancient Greeks to be anonymous, can afford to work—even heroically—without always seeking out the praise or recognition of others. As the letter to the Ephesians teaches, our Christian community is a body, and of a body, and works on behalf of the body of Christ, all without insisting that our individual accomplishments, gifts, reputations, or names be recognized and recorded as preeminent.

With God, there is a mysterious calculus at work, an impossible calculus not of the order of this world—whether ancient or modern—in which what is erased from or torn out of the ledger books endures all the same, and is in fact written more indelibly the less we contend for its recognition. The Psalmist also witnesses to this mysterious phenomenon of God’s peculiar book-keeping (what French poet Charles Péguy calls with gorgeous lucidity a “strange arithmetic”) where tears and weeping are sown, but shouts of joy reaped (Ps 126), where what is sown in darkness is gathered up, re-collected, recollected, in a light not weakly contrived or invented by human beings as a measure of worth, but in the true and brilliant light which is the glory of God and its lamp the Lamb (Rev 21:23).

In both our going forth and our coming homeward, let us endeavor to remember that the lives of the saints are luminous not on their own merit and an insistence upon being remembered, but only insofar as they allow themselves to be more and more deeply transparent to Christ, which, perhaps paradoxically, allows them in this surrender of visibility to be more genuinely themselves.

The doxology that ends St. Jude’s brief letter recollects this source of strength we have that is not our own but is all gift, and we will allow him the benediction this evening: “Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen” (Jude 24–25).

St. Simon and St. Jude, pray for us.

Musical Mystagogy: St. Margaret Mary and the Sacred Heart

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Today marks the feast of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647–90), a Burgundian nun who experienced a series of visions from 1673 to 1675 that ultimately resulted in her petitioning Church authorities to institute a feast in honor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Because of her role in promoting devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, St. Margaret Mary's visions feature prominently in the stained glass windows of Notre Dame's Basilica of the Sacred Heart.
Because of her role in promoting devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, St. Margaret Mary’s visions feature prominently in the stained glass windows of the Lady Chapel in Notre Dame’s own Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

In addition to the feast itself, St. Margaret Mary promoted acts of devotion in honor of the Sacred Heart, chief among which was the reception of Holy Communion on the first Friday of every month, a devotion many still practice to this day. It is for her devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and her untiring efforts to spread that devotion to others that Margaret Mary Alacoque is honored as a saint, and so today’s musical piece will focus not on the saint herself, but on the object of her unwavering devotion: the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The devotion to the Sacred Heart is twofold: on the one hand, we honor the physical heart of Jesus, the pulsing heart of muscle and blood with its valves and chambers whose very existence encapsulates the mystery of the Incarnation—the heart that testifies that “the Word became flesh” (Jn 1:14); the heart that was pierced by a lance and poured forth the precious lifeblood of Him who loved unto the end. On the other hand, we also honor what the Sacred Heart of Jesus symbolizes: the sheer, unmerited gift of God’s unsurpassable, unfathomable love and mercy, offered without reservation to all who would receive it into their own hearts.

Today’s musical piece, the motet Improperium Expectavit by 18th-century Italian composer Giovanni Battista Casali, is a setting of the Offertory text for the feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, taken from Psalm 69 [68]:21–22b. Translated from the Latin, the text reads:

My heart expected reproach and misery
and I desired one who would grieve with me
and there was none:

I sought one to console me, and I found none:
and they gave me gall as my food,
and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.

The text of today’s piece draws attention to both the physical and the symbolic elements of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. From the symbolic standpoint, the heart of the one proclaiming the psalm—understood in the context of the feast as the Heart of Jesus himself—is broken; it is inconsolable, overcome with grief at the devastation of reproach and abandonment. And yet there is also an immense physicality in these lines. Hearing this passage from the Psalms in the voice of Jesus, we are reminded perhaps of his words from the Cross: “I thirst” (Jn 19: 28). Here is the one who hungers and thirsts to draw all into the communion of life he shares with the Father and the Spirit, and his longing is met with derision; his thirst for love is slaked with a drink of malice. We see the juxtaposition with stark clarity in the Reproaches for Good Friday: “I gave you saving water from the rock to drink, / and for drink you gave me gall and vinegar.”

To contemplate the Sacred Heart of Jesus is not simply to contemplate the overwhelming love that Jesus pours forth from his Heart; rather, it is to contemplate the mystery that Jesus pours forth his love for us even as we wound his Sacred Heart with our sins. We see this mystery in the way that the Sacred Heart is represented in visual art: pierced, surrounded with the crown of thorns, surmounted by the Cross which ultimately stopped its beating, and yet, even in the midst of these wounds, it is still ablaze, burning with divine love, the love of the God-man who longs for nothing more or less than perfect communion with his people.

We hear this mystery in Casili’s motet in the way that musical dissonance (clashing/grating of pitches) gives way to serene consonance (rest/resolution). This is the way that nearly all Western music operates at some level: tension arises in the music that is ultimately resolved. The dissonance somehow serves to help us appreciate all the more the consonance that resolves it. In this sense, consonance seems to purify the dissonance as the notes are brought into harmonious communion with one another in the movement toward resolution. This is what happens when we allow the dissonance of our sinfulness to give way to the love of the Sacred Heart: we ‘sour notes’ are brought into a radiant harmony with Jesus as we learn to sing with ever greater fidelity the hymn of self-giving love he intones from the Cross.

In contemplating with St. Margaret Mary Alacoque the Sacred Heart of Jesus, may we learn to give ourselves over to the ardent love of Christ as it blazes forth from his pierced Heart, that the dissonance within our own hearts may be melted away and dissolve into the consonant, radiant harmony of life in God; that, in the words of St. Paul from the proper reading for today, we may be “rooted and grounded in love, may have the strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:17b–19).

Joseph, Husband of Mary: Model of Fidelity

Tim KenneyTimothy J. Kenney
’14 MTS Candidate 

Boston College School of Theology and Ministry

What do you get when a high school theology teacher marries theology grad student?


A ton of religious art.

Get it? If not, a quick look around my apartment would show you that this isn’t just a bad joke, it’s the reality of what your friends think to buy when you major in theology. Outside of the dishware and bed sets that you register for at the domestic wonderland that is Bed, Bath and Beyond, unwrapping wedding presents can be a fun indicator of what your guests really think of you (I’m pretty rotten at giving original gifts and as such truly appreciate someone who possesses the skill). My wife Rylee and I soon discovered just how lucky we were in the company we keep. The general theme of gifts seemed to be religious art and wine and, lest our apartment resemble a bachelor pad, Rylee has insisted our décor emphasize the former rather than the latter. As such the holy statues, icons, nativity sets, and crosses that our friends and family sent our way have filled our little apartment with an intentionally Catholic décor, provided us with the opportunity to grow spiritually as we settle in domestically, and has made what were at first blank white walls radiate the comfort of home and Christ.

Throughout this time one image has begun to stand out above the rest. A particularly common theme, very appropriate as a wedding present for a young married couple, were images depicting the Holy Family. I have long had a love for Our Lady and Talladega Nights taught me the theological magnitude of the Baby Jesus. But as I’ve sat reading or writing on our couch, something else, or rather someone else, has increasingly drawn my attention from the icon hung on our wall. A figure generally relegated to the background has increasingly pressed forward and become the focal point of the image in my mind. More and more I have found myself drifting off in thought, eyes transfixed on the tall bearded figure of St. Joseph, lovingly embracing his wife and adopted son.

I can’t really claim to be unacquainted with St. Joseph. Having attended St. Joseph Grade School and St. Joseph High School, both of which are located in St. Joseph County and situated on the St. Joseph River, its safe to say I’ve heard of him once or twice. Even one of my favorite saints (evidence of 9 years of Holy Cross education), St. André Bessette, C.S.C.,  was known for his remarkable devotion to St. Joseph. And yet despite my best efforts and the cards being stacked completely in his favor, I’ve never really been able to connect with the world’s most famous carpenter.

This all began to change following our relocation to Massachusetts this August. The day after we were married, Rylee and I loaded everything we owned into a U-Haul truck. Romantic, I know. Then the next morning at 5 AM we rolled out of South Bend and headed for Boston. Before we had been married a month we had moved 1,000 miles across the country, settled in a new apartment, Rylee had started a new job, and I was knee deep in Karl Rahner, at work on my master’s degree. Talk about a whirlwind.

To say the process was at times disorienting would be a dramatic understatement. Trying to find any semblance of stability seemed impossible because everything about our new life together had to be handled in the short term, as temporary. Rylee and I were living in Boston, for now. I was working toward my MTS, for now. We were just starting out as a family of two, for now. But in what felt like less than a week the conversations among friends shifted from why we came to BC to where we wanted to do PhDs. I was just beginning the marathon that is grad school and had no real answer to the question, “What are you doing after this?” We had no idea where we would be in two years, let alone what I’d be doing at that point. But whatever the future held, it seemed impossible to see the MTS as anything but transitory, a waiting room for the real world that lay beyond.

On top of all this was the reality that I wasn’t just a student and this wasn’t just a continuation of my 4 years of college. I was a family man now and had as much of a responsibility to another person as I did to myself. This was one of the hardest places for me to find firm ground precisely because we were trying to figure out just what it meant to be a family when there are only two of us. I had so many wonderful examples in my life of what it meant to be a great father, but what I had failed to prepare for was how to be a great husband.

And so I sat, eyes locked on the image of Joseph. I didn’t seek him out, I didn’t know why my prayers turned to him. All I knew was that one night long after my wife went to bed exhausted from a day of teaching high schoolers, I sat up willing myself to read, increasingly aware that not only did academic success determine my livelihood, but also that of my family. My attention drifted upward, past the pages of the book in my hands to the far wall, and came to rest on Joseph, holding his wife with a strong, stable, and determined love that I knew was never overcome and never defeated by any adversity that came his way.

I finished my reading and went to bed. After I turned out my light, a lone image stood silhouetted against the white walls of our bedroom. Another image of the Holy Family, this one a beautiful wood carving, it sits atop our dresser and is the last thing I see every night before I shut my eyes. Carved from a single piece of wood, Joseph isn’t just the background; he is the canvas on which his family is grounded. Mary is carved from his side and the two are united as one. I paused for a moment as I looked at the statue, turned and put my arms around my wife. She is my stability. “This one at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23). Together with her, I will build my family. My vows to her, made before God, are the commitment of a lifetime and the focal point of my life’s work.

Today is the feast of St. Joseph, Husband of Mary. He was such an extraordinary husband that the Church proclaimed an annual feast to celebrate it. We don’t just remember him because he married an immaculate woman. We remember him because he lived out his vocation so completely that it brought him to God. He does not just blend in as the third person of the Holy Family. He shines out to husbands everywhere, holding up the example of how to fully commit oneself to the vocation and sacrament that is marriage.

In a time when nothing about where I am, what I am doing, or where my life is headed seems certain or stable, Joseph reminds me to look at the walls of this apartment, and most especially to the woman who made them a home, and remember that this is my vocation. Despite the fluidity the next few years may contain in terms of location and occupation, regardless of whether our family expands in 1 year or in 10, my commitment and my role is modeled for me perfectly in the life of St. Joseph.

St. Joseph, pray for us.

Keeping Patrick in St. Patrick’s Day

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Unless you spend your time hanging out under the proverbial rock, you’re probably aware that today is the feast day of a certain saint famous for his way with reptiles and for creating theological analogies using local foliage (albeit theologically problematic analogies, as we learn here). Yes, laddies and lassies, it’s St. Patrick’s Day. The day when pretty much everyone claims to have distant relatives from the Emerald Isle whether it’s true or complete blarney, because, as the saying goes, Everyone’s Irish on March 17th.

St. Patrick’s Day, like St. Valentine’s Day, has become more of a cultural phenomenon than a religious celebration here in the United States, so much so for the latter that the “St.” in “St. Valentine’s Day” (that is, the historical figure of St. Valentine) has been all but dropped from the consciousness of popular culture, leaving an almost entirely secularized celebration almost exclusively of romantic love, where chocolates, flowers, and bling express the extent of a person’s affections. With St. Patrick’s Day, we’ve at least retained the awareness that St. Patrick was, in fact, a real person, and that he was, in fact, a saint whose devotion to spreading the Gospel impacted an entire nation, but nowadays—or at least on most college campuses—it seems that the celebration of his feast is simply an excuse to indulge in a celebration of all things stereotypically Irish. . . or perhaps more accurately, just the one thing that many people associate with Ireland. In other words, St. Patrick’s Day has become an excuse to drink. Heavily. And not just on the actual day, either—parades and parties take place on the weekend before St. Patrick’s feast day, providing revelers who believe that “Everyone is Irish March 17th” with plenty of opportunities to drink too much, get in a fight or two, and most certainly wake up the next morning with the world’s worst hangover. It seems strange to me that a feast in honor of someone known for sanctity and courage and virtue has given rise to celebrations that generally cultivate none of these things. Somehow, I think, we’ve missed St. Patrick’s boat.

Having spent two of the happiest years of my life living in Ireland, I learned from the locals that the current shape of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Ireland are largely due to the way it’s been perceived and celebrated here in the United States. It’s only in relatively recent years that St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Ireland have begun to resemble the drunk-fests they’ve become in the States, in part because so many Americans have begun traveling to Ireland to celebrate the holiday there—the streets of Dublin were thronged with my fellow Americans on the St. Patrick’s Day I spent there. Prior to this recent trend, though, St. Patrick’s Day was (and still is) a national holiday and holy day of obligation in Ireland, one that, until recently, was celebrated simply: one would attend Mass at the local parish and take the day off from work or school, and perhaps celebrate with a “session,” an evening of music, poetry recitations, and story-telling.

Indeed, far more enjoyable to me than the parade and the pubs was the incredibly beautiful celebration of the Mass for St. Patrick’s Day that I attended at St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral in Dublin in 2011. The incredibly rich cultural heritage of this small country was represented both linguistically—readings and prayers were proclaimed in both English and Irish, and musically—traditional Irish singing and instrumental music resounded through the church as Irish dancers processed in front of the celebrants.

A Mass rock outside the village of Kildorrery, County Cork, where the Irish would secretly celebrate the Mass during penal times, using the rock as an altar. Many such Mass rocks exist throughout Ireland.

This is Ireland: a country whose resilient people truly are the salt of the earth, whose inimitable language and music and prayer intertwine with all of the intricacies of a Celtic knot. A country where the faith persisted in spite of centuries of oppression. A country where that faith persists still, in spite of a threat more insidious than oppression.

The seeds scattered by St. Patrick blossomed in the rich soil of the land of a thousand shades of green, so much so that Ireland became known as the “Land of Saints and Scholars.” Now, though, with the secularization of recent decades, coupled with the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger, it seems that the Catholic identity of Ireland is more akin to a stereotype or cliché than a reflection of reality. Mass attendance has diminished greatly, and the various sacramental moments of a Christian life are often seen as mere rites of passage. Perhaps the most devastating development of recent years has been the revelation of abuse inflicted on the innocent by members of the clergy in Ireland. Just as the sanctity of one man brought a nation to the faith, so too have the sins of a few rocked that nation’s faith to its core. Thankfully, the light of faith has by no means been extinguished in Ireland; there are still many who live the Gospel each and every day of their lives. However, the reality is that the Catholic Church in Ireland is suffering, as she is suffering in many places throughout the world.

Which is why I think it’s more important than ever for people to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, in Ireland, in the United States, throughout the universal Church—not by using his feast as an excuse to indulge in drunkenness and debauchery, but by giving thanks for his witness, imitating his courageous example, and asking his continued intercession for those who live in the land he helped to evangelize.

The Book of Kells' famous Chi Rho, symbol of Christ
The Book of Kells’ famous Chi Rho, symbol of Christ

Like each and every one of the saints’ feast days, St. Patrick’s Day presents us with a vivid example of a particular life, lived at a particular place and time, in which the Word of God—Jesus Christ—took root, became flesh. By allowing that Word to take root in his heart, and by giving his life over to sharing that Word with others, St. Patrick changed the course of history for the nation of Ireland, and the Irish missionaries inspired by his example in turn helped to bring the Catholic faith to the United States of America. Anyone engaged in the work of the New Evangelization ought to see in St. Patrick not a cultural cliché, but a companion on the journey of discipleship and an ally in the effort to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19). Ultimately, the story of St. Patrick and the impact he had in Ireland is an incredible example of the way in which Jesus Christ, who is “the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow” (Heb 13:8), continues to take flesh in the hearts of those who are open to encountering him, and he does this within the particularities of their own lives and cultures. By allowing Christ to take flesh in his heart, St. Patrick made his own the words of St. Paul—“I now live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20), yet he did so in a uniquely Celtic voice, as we see in the lyricism of the prayer for which he is most famous. Today, or this weekend, or whenever we celebrate all things Irish by raising our voices in prayer and song, kicking up our heels in a jig or a reel, attending parades, eating corned beef and cabbage, donning our favorite green woolen sweater, and yes, even perhaps raising our pints of Guinness (it is a celebration, after all, and everything in moderation), may we honor St. Patrick by looking to this great patron saint of Ireland more than anything else as an example of a life lived in Christ for others, and may we echo the final lines of his prayer with courage and fidelity, wherever our lives may take us:

Christ with me.
Christ before me.
Christ behind me.
Christ within me.
Christ beneath me.
Christ above me.
Christ at my right.
Christ at my left.
Christ in my lying down.
Christ in my sitting.
Christ in my arising.
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me.
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me.
Christ in every eye that sees me.
Christ in every ear that hears me.

Three Things We’re Reading Today: Martyrdom, Adoption, and Silence

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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1. Today the Church honors the martyrs St. Andrew Dung-Lac and his companions. Anna Keating at The Catholic Catalogue offers a brief reflection on these brave souls, followed by a brief video posted by the Apostleship of Prayer in 2008. The video draws further attention to the continued persecutions faced by Christians in Asia by holding up the life of Servant of God Cardinal François-Xavier Nguyên Van Thuán (1928–2002), reminding us that persecutions and martyrdoms are not a thing of the past, and that we as a Church must continue to pray for those who are not only enduring but also perpetrating such persecutions. St. Andrew Dung-Lac and companions, pray for us.

2. As we near the end of National Adoption Awareness Month, Elizabeth Kirk, J.D. offers profound insights about the ways in which adoption can teach everyone about the very nature of family in her article “Is Adoption Second-Best to a ‘Real Family’?”

…adoption is a particular calling (perhaps out of the circumstance of infertility, perhaps not) and not a second-best way of building a family.  This reminds us that parenthood is not simply a natural consequence of biology, but rather the occasion for all fathers and mothers to serve God through the children entrusted to them.

3. Finally, NPR’s Guy Raz’s interview “What We Learn When We Find Silence” profiles environmentalist John Francis, who voluntarily stopped talking in 1973 and only began speaking again after 17 years. Francis describes what led him to his unexpected vow of silence, and how it changed him.

I used to listen to someone just enough to think I knew what they were going to say and then I would stop listening, and then I would start thinking about what I was going to say back to show them that they were wrong, or that I could say that better or, look how smart I am, you know?

Insights well worth stopping for a moment to consider in silence as we enter the hustle and the bustle of the holiday season, and more importantly, as the Church enters the sacred season of Advent, preparing for the night when we will marvel together, “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is giv’n.”

Three Things We’re Reading Today: St. Cecilia, First Nations, and Millennials

TimOMalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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1) For the feast of St. Cecilia (November 22nd), read Rick Becker’s reflection at Catholic Exchange on St. Cecilia and Paul Simon:

Over the centuries, as these words were picked up and incorporated into liturgical prayers in various ways, they were truncated and misapplied. The old Catholic Encyclopedia speculates that “possibly the cantantibus organis was erroneously interpreted of Cecilia herself as the organist. In this way the saint was brought into closer relation with music.”

In time, artists began depicting Cecilia as seated at an organ and singing her lungs out – still her predominant iconography to this day. And then, in 1584, the clincher: The Roman Academy of Music adopted St. Cecilia as its patroness, and the die was cast. The entire universal Church soon embraced her as the special celestial intercessor for all musicians.

Sure, it’s all due to a misunderstanding and misattribution, but so be it. She has taken to the role quite admirably by all accounts, and, who knows? – maybe she really was an accomplished vocalist and musician. In any case, even if her singular role in heaven doesn’t match up exactly with her earthly journey, the mismatch doesn’t impinge on her ability to be a special friend and advocate for all those musically inclined.

I’d like to suggest we do something similar with Paul Simon’s song, despite its saucy theme. It’s a shame to avoid what is manifestly a buoyant, joyful tune – just the kind of music you’d want to revel in on St. Cecilia’s special day. It’s such a fun song, and hard not to tap your foot to it – the melody bounces along, and the accompanying grungy percussion along with Simon’s xylophone counterpoint give it an upbeat, happy feel. Can we spin it in such a way as to mute its offensive storyline?

2) NPR has a piece by Sylvia Poggioli on a recently restored painting at the Vatican (The Resurrection by Pinturicchio) depicting the first known image of Native Americans:

The fresco, The Resurrection, was painted by the Renaissance master Pinturicchio in 1494 — just two years after Christopher Columbus first set foot in what came to be called the New World.

Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, told the Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano that after the soot and grime were removed, in the background, just above the open coffin from where Christ has risen, “we see nude men, decorated with feathered headdresses who appear to be dancing.” One of them seems to sport a Mohican cut.

The image dovetails with Columbus’ description of having been greeted by dancing nude men painted black or red.


Though, Piggioli is quick to analyze the potential power dynamics of the image (the Pope as longing for the spoils of the new world), there is a deep theological meaning behind a piece of artwork depicting not only the Resurrection but early, Native Americans as somehow involved in the scene of Christ’s Resurrection.

3) The Atlantic Monthly does an analysis of why it’s hard for millennials to find a place to live and work. Worth reading, especially for those interested in parish demographic trends:

The Dayton-SF dilemma isn’t about Ohio vs. California. It’s about a broader dilemma for young workers and, in particular, young couples looking to buy a home, raise children, and achieve the American Dream. The cities with the least affordable housing often have the best social mobility. And the cities with the worst social mobility often have the most affordable housing. When good jobs for the middle class and affordable homes are living in different cities, it represents a slow-motion splintering of the American Dream.


Perspectives for All Saints Day

On this Solemnity of All Saints, we would like to present a compilation of past wisdom shared on this particular feast here on Oblation. As the saints offer us examples of God’s love concretized in rich and varied lives, so each of the posts below holds up different facets of this rich feast.

First, Timothy O’Malley presents sainthood as a gift of witness for the Church and the world in “The Vocation to Sainthood: The Transfiguration of Our Humanity.”

Second, Katherine Mahon reflects on the celebration of the feast of All Saints Day itself in “‘All Holy Men and Women”: The Example of the Saints.”

Finally, Ben Wilson contemplates the lives of the saints as individually and collectively presenting a rich icon of the inexhaustible love of Christ in “The Mosaic of Christ: A Reflection on All Saints Day.”


Blessed be God in his angels and in his saints!

Moral Community and the Saints

SamuelBellafioreSamuel Bellafiore

Music, Philosophy ’15

Undergraduate Fellow

New visions of moral community have arisen in recent years. These views, which often include a troubling redefinition of the person, identify moral community as the collection of thinking, reasoning, problem solving and independently acting persons. At the heart of these views lies a curious assertion: If you are not currently a person and thus a community member, the moral community has no responsibility for you. [1] Many problems, not worth enumerating here, immediately ensue.

One problem that is worth mentioning: no one would dare implement this consistently. For instance, when we talk about environmental policy, we talk about conserving the earth not only because it is valuable in itself but because we have a responsibility to leave future generations a healthy environment. We’re aware that if we don’t care for the earth, we perpetrate a grave crime on our descendants. Our descendants can’t be persons now. They don’t even exist. Yet we intuitively recognize our responsibility to them.

The communion of saints even better belies the modern pretend about what makes moral community. The saints provide a framework for considering what the scholar of the law asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” For whom am I responsible? The saints’ lives and our relationship to the saints show us how responsibility stretches throughout time.the-forerunners-of-christ-with-saints-and-martyrs-fra-angelico

The saints strove for holiness out of love for Christ, not to inspire us, but in following after Christ they passed Him on to those who came after them. Intentionally or not, they left a witness that time and distance cannot efface. They were doing what Christ did first and did in the highest degree: “leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps.” (1 Peter 2:21)

Some saints, like Francis of Assisi and Mother Theodore Guerin, lived lives of obvious service. They manifested their life’s goal of loving Christ and handing on what they had received. This often took the form of service to and solidarity with the poor. Others like St. Bruno of Cologne left less apparent examples. St. Bruno founded the Carthusians, one of the strictest monastic orders. He spent much of his life in silence and solitude and generally is remembered for, well, very little.

The Church recently celebrated all these saints’ feasts. Whatever these saints did, the Church receives their fruits. Their charity, sacrifice, prayer and tending the deposit of faith enable our Christian life today. We’re told the blood the martyrs is the seed of Christians. Plants cannot grow without seeds, so the saying suggests that without the martyrs’ blood, you and I might not be Christians. There might not be Christians. If the martyrs didn’t die but we still became Christians, we wouldn’t be the same Christians. This goes for all the saints. Over time their charity became charity toward us. Their prayer didn’t benefit only those around them but us too. Their sacrifices likely bear small, unnoticed fruits even today. By living and dying well, the saints cared for us.

We might even say if these saints had not lived their lives of holiness, they would have been derelict not only to their contemporaries but to anyone who came after them. Living their vocation, while foremost an act of loving God, also turns out to be a kind of responsibility to their present and future neighbors. In his Meditations on Christian Doctrine, Blessed John Henry Newman hints at this:

I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes…if, indeed, I fail, He can raise another…Yet I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.

In God’s providence He can raise another, but it is awfully difficult to replace a link in a chain that’s already taut.

By fulfilling their vocations, the saints were kind to us. We shouldn’t give our descendants any less. But the people we call “saints” were humans first, people with loves, frustrations and faults. They became saints. The only way to give the future Church what the saints gave us is to become saints. They show on an ecclesial level what is true globally, that community is not confined to our lifetimes. The saints show that when I act my action does not pertain to me alone. Nor do I influence only the person next to me. What I do, the way I live, may bear a fruit I never see or could never know.

The saints gave something to us. We must give something to our descendants. Then can we ask if we must do something for the saints? What is the relationship between our generation and the ones that preceded us?

Philosophy's favorite mustache.
Philosophy’s favorite mustache.

None other than Friedrich Nietzsche, whose time in a Rome hotel once overlapped with Thérèse of Lisieux’s, provides helpful thoughts on this topic. His second essay in On the Genealogy of Morals calls the relationship between the present generation and its forefathers one “where we modern men have perhaps have the greatest difficulty in grasping its relevance.” (trans. Douglas Smith) He posits the present generation always sees its relationship to ancestors as that of debtor to creditor, except that the debtor can never fully repay the debt. He dislikes this. “A debt is recognized,” he says, “which gnaws incessantly by virtue of the fact that these forefathers, in their continued existence as powerful spirits, never cease to grant the race new advantages and advances in strength.”

It’s an idea you could take too far. Seeing the saints this way would mean seeing them as dominating, menacing forces but there’s a relatio180px-Teresa13anninship between Nietzsche’s point and the saints. The saints’ lives did not end at their deaths. By their heavenly intercession with
God, their lives continue now with even greater efficacy. Their power is the kind Nietzsche despises most — the power of the God who becomes weak and dies on a tree — but he is still right that we have to reckon with our relationship to them, what they have done and still do for us. We might wonder, Should we be trying to repay the saints? Do we have an obligation to them?

 We might as well ask if we should try to repay God. Indeed, that is what we should do. Our relationship to the saints is more like our relationship to God than to our descendants: What we do now may can be an act of kindness to our descendants. But our responsibility, if any, to the saints and to God can be one only of responding in thanksgiving. We’re not the first to ask whether we should try to repay God. The Psalmist did when he inquired, “How can I make a return to the Lord for his goodness to me?” (Psalm 116:12) The question is in part rhetorical. Making this return is impossible, for what God has given is infinite and infinitely more than we could ever give.adorationofthelamb-jvaneyck1

But the Psalmist continues. “I will raise high the cup of salvation and call on the Lord’s name.” Of ourselves, there is no adequate repayment we can give to God. His gifts of love are not loans requiring repayment. But we can render Him the thanksgiving He Himself enables. The Roman Missal says, “although you have no need of our praise, yet our thanksgiving is itself your gift” (Common Preface IV). We can offer Him the Eucharist, the bread of life and cup of salvation, but this gift we offer is not ours at all. What we can give Him only what is His already.

So with the saints. If there is any payment we can render them, it is our small participation in the liturgy of heaven, where contemplation and charity are entirely one. “Repaying” the saints, if such a thing is real, is this: living our vocations, receiving and giving life as members of Christ’s Church. If we do this we serve the entire Church, the Bride who is universal over the earth, across time and in heaven. For we are in communion, Christ the Son of the living God.

Yet she on earth hath union
With God the Three in One,
And mystic sweet communion
With those whose rest is won,
O happy ones and holy!
Lord, give us grace that we
Like them, the meek and lowly,
On high may dwell with Thee.


[1] see, for instance, Mary Ann Warren, On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion or Peter Singer, Practical Ethics