Sunday, January 18, 2009

Miracles of Saint Columba

I recently finished reading Life of St. Columba (Richard Sharpe trans., Penguin Classics ed.) by St. Adomnan of Iona.  Iona, as I have previously described, is an unmistakably "thin place" where one can go to reflect upon, and hopefully hear, the Lord.  It is a tiny isle (1 mile wide by three miles long) ruggedly lying exposed to the high seas off the west coast of Scotland.  It is here that St. Columba brought Christianity to the Pictish people from Ireland.  St. Adomnan, his biographer, was a later successor to the Abbacy of Iona.

The Iona Abbey, from the Iona Community Website

St. Adomnan's biography of St. Columba (d. 597), by far the most complete offered by antiquity, was written a century after the holy missionary's death.  It is particularly noteworthy for its descriptions of the prophetic and miraculous powers that he possessed.

When I picked up the book, I did not know whether to believe the nearly 100 miracles described. St. Columba is said to have walked on water, raised the dead, and described future (as well as contemporary but distant) events with great accuracy. So many and profound were the miracle accounts that I came to think they had to be embellishments. But still, there were simply far too many of them for me to think they were wholly baseless.

Two accounts from the book seemed worth highlighting here.  The first caused the speculation that St. Columba himself encountered the Loch Ness Monster:
On another occasion also, when the blessed man was living for some days in the province of the Picts, he was obliged to cross the river Nesa (the Ness); and when he reached the bank of the river, he saw some of the inhabitants burying an unfortunate man, who, according to the account of those who were burying him, was a short time before seized, as he was swimming, and bitten most severely by a monster that lived in the water; his wretched body was, though too late, taken out with a hook, by those who came to his assistance in a boat. The blessed man, on hearing this, was so far from being dismayed, that he directed one of his companions to swim over and row across the coble that was moored at the farther bank. And Lugne Mocumin hearing the command of the excellent man, obeyed without the least delay, taking off all his clothes, except his tunic, and leaping into the water. But the monster, which, so far from being satiated, was only roused for more prey, was lying at the bottom of the stream, and when it felt the water disturbed above by the man swimming, suddenly rushed out, and, giving an awful roar, darted after him, with its mouth wide open, as the man swam in the middle of the stream. Then the blessed man observing this, raised his holy hand, while all the rest, brethren as well as strangers, were stupefied with terror, and, invoking the name of God, formed the saving sign of the cross in the air, and commanded the ferocious monster, saying, "Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed." Then at the voice of the saint, the monster was terrified, and fled more quickly than if it had been pulled back with ropes, though it had just got so near to Lugne, as he swam, that there was not more than the length of a spear-staff between the man and the beast. Then the brethren seeing that the monster had gone back, and that their comrade Lugne returned to them in the boat safe and sound, were struck with admiration, and gave glory to God in the blessed man. And even the barbarous heathens, who were present, were forced by the greatness of this miracle, which they themselves had seen, to magnify the God of the Christians.
(Medieval Sourcebook: Adamnan: Life of St. Columba; Penguin, at II 27, p. 175).

The second tells of his raising a boy from the dead:

At the time when St. Columba was tarrying for some days in the province of the Picts, a certain peasant who, with his whole family, had listened to and learned through an interpreter the word of life preached by the holy man, believed and was baptized the husband, together with his wife, children, and domestics.

A very few days after his conversion, one of the sons of this householder was attacked with a dangerous illness and brought to the very borders of life and death. When the Druids saw him in a dying state they began with great bitterness to upbraid his parents, and to extol their own gods as more powerful than the God of the Christians, and thus to despise God as though He were weaker than their gods. When all this was told to the blessed man, he burned with zeal for God, and proceeded with some of his companions to the house of the friendly peasant, where he found the afflicted parents celebrating the obsequies of their child, who was newly dead. The saint, on seeing their bitter grief, strove to console them with words of comfort, and exhorted them not to doubt in any way the omnipotence of God. He then inquired, saying, "In what chamber is the dead body of your son lying?" And being conducted by the bereaved father under the sad roof, he left the whole crowd of persons who accompanied him outside, and immediately entered by himself into the house of mourning, where, falling on his knees, he prayed to Christ our Lord, having his face bedewed with copious tears. Then rising from his kneeling posture, he turned his eyes towards the deceased and said, "In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, arise, and stand upon thy feet." At the sound of this glorious word from the saint, the soul returned to the body, and the person that was dead opened his eyes and revived. The apostolic man then taking him by the hand raised him up, and placing him in a standing position, d him forth with him from the house, and restored him to his parents. Upon this the cries of the applauding multitude broke forth, sorrow was turned into joy, and the God of the Christians glorified.

We must thus believe that our saint had the gift of miracles like the prophets Elias and Eliseus, and like the apostles Peter, Paul, and John, he had the honour bestowed on him of raising the dead to life, and now in heaven, placed amid the prophets and apostles, this prophetic and apostolic man enjoys a glorious and eternal throne in the heavenly fatherland with Christ, who reigns with the Father in the unity of the Holy Ghost forever.

(Medieval Sourcebook: Adamnan: Life of St. Columba; Penguin, at II 32, p.179).

Maybe we don't see such miracles today because our modernist minds lack the broad faith that these ancient, new converts possessed. Also, perhaps the missionary nature of St. Columba's work was an element of God's providentially willing to make miracles happen through this man. It was interesting for me to finish this book around the same time that I read Fr. Amorth's book on exorcism, as it helped to remind me of spiritual realities that lie beyond the perception of my own senses. 

Why start from the premise that Adomnan was a liar? I give him the opposite presumption. St. Columba, ora pro nobis.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Universal Priesthood

A common argument used against the priesthood of the Catholic Church is that a select cast of priestly mediators is no longer needed on earth, since all Christians are part of a "holy priesthood," and since Christ's mediatory sacrifice is sufficient once and for all.

The second part of the argument is based on a misunderstanding of the mediation provided by the Catholic priest, specifically, the re-presentation of Christ's once-and-for-all sacrifice on Calvary (see Fr. James T. O'Connor, The Hidden Manna (2d ed. 2005)). As there is no presentation of, or mediation by a new sacrifice, Christ's perfectly sufficient sacrifice suffers no derogation. Thus, I will focus on the other part of the argument, which sees a priestly cast as contrary to the Bible's description of a priesthood of all believers.

This view is founded on 1 Peter 2:4-5, where the Apostle says, "As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him — you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (NIV)"

But a general priestly office (held by all believers) excludes a particular priestly office no more than the general "offering" of "spiritual sacrifices" excludes the particular offering of Christ's sacrifice on Calvary. In fact, that a general priesthood can exist along with a particular priestly cast is proven by the Pentateuch. Exodus 19:3-6, depicts Moses receiving a message from the Lord for the house of Jacob and the people of Israel: "Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." But the existence of this general priesthood of all of God's people did not bar David from raising up a priestly tribe as described in 1 Chronicles 23 ff.

I am a layman. I do not know whether, in the development of eucharistic and episcopal doctrine, the eventual use of the word "priest" was the perfect choice. But I do know that the arguments against its use suffer from the aforesaid deficiencies. I also know that the classical Protestant term "minister" itself implies some mediation -- it means (in its verb form) "to administer or dispense." The Reformed minister dispenses God's grace via the word and sacraments. The very act of dispensing what is not one's own is a mediatory act. Therefore, if some human mediation denies Christ's sole mediation, then out with that term too.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Exorcism: a Study on Faith and Matter

Fr. Gabriele Amorth's An Exorcist Tells His Story was not precisely what I expected, but entirely worth the read. I expected the book to be a series of sci-fi-like accounts of demon encounters and exorcisms. Instead, it was a masterful blend of describing the exorcist's practice, giving vignettes of demonic encounters, and articulating the theological realities at play during these encounters.  The need for exorcisms is great, Fr. Amorth explains, even if encounters with actual demons are rare.  

I was struck, in reading this book, by the dependent relationship between spirit and matter. This is a perspective that is absent in Reformed groups, but perhaps more active in Pentecostal sects. The Reformed view tends to see matter as either leading to idolatry, as our attraction to it grows and replaces our spiritual devotion to Christ, or irrelevant. Either way, the matter itself is not seen as possessing a spiritual quality; the concern is over our negative spiritual persuasion toward matter. 

But in conducting an exorcism, matter is highly relevant, and demonstrative of spirital truth. At one point Fr. Amorth attributed 10% of the efficacy of an exorcism to the sacramental objects used (e.g., holy oils and water, his stole, or the laying on of his hands).  The remainder of an efficacious exorcism he attributed to the victim's participation in the sacramental life of the Church, the victim's prayerfulness, the prayers of his family and community, and the faith of those involved in the exorcism in Christ's power over real demons.  In this way the spiritual quality of blessed matter is neither denied nor magnified to the derogation of the need for faith and prayer.

I see a close analogy between the small but essential role of matter in exorcisms to the small but efficacious role of other matter in Catholic practice.  When the Church extols the virtues of relics, blessed icons, or the like, the Protestant sees nothing better than superstition (and perhaps even idolatry).  "How can some silly piece of bone make a faithless house safe from harm?", we might ask.  If the analogy to Fr. Amorth's expertise with exorcisms holds, the answer is that the relic will likely not be efficacious absent some faith.  

Fr. Amorth rounds out his book with a frank tongue-lashing of those within the Catholic Church (especially bishops) who have neglected its own instruction on providing an exorcist in each diocese.  He attributes this failure to such causes as a lack of belief that demons are real in practice, and to fear of retribution from demons that are exorcised (which results from a lack of faith in God's protection).  But the biblical and patristic account of the demon world, which he forcefully articulates, puts the strange reality of demons before us. Denial of their continuing reality by one committed to Scripture and tradition seems inexcusable.  

Of particular interest to this ecumenist was Fr. Amorth's expressions of solidarity with Protestants who believe in demons and practice exorcism.  He expresses with admiration their faithfulness in this regard, while simultaneously castigating those within Catholicism who have here departed from 'the Christian faith.'  

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus

I have mentioned Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and the journal he edited, First Things, on numerous occasions.  He and it have been inspirational in my consideration of the Catholic Church and ecumenicity.

Sadly, he entered into his rest today, after a brief return bout of cancer.  May the Lord give him rest in peace.

His article on death has been posted on the First Things website.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Denominational Marketplace

This month's Christianity Today contains a provocative article entitled Jesus Is Not A Brand (Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, p.20, Jan. 2009).  In it, the author analyzes the conflation of evangelism with sales marketing.  He states:
The de-churched nature of our theology makes evangelism hard to do without seeming salesy, because churchless evangelism unavoidably promotes a consumerist soteriology.  When it's just you and Jesus, you (the consumer) "invite him" (the product) "into your heart" (brand adoption) and "get saved" (consumer gratification).
Id. at p.22.

While distinct from the main focus of Wigg-Stevenson's discussion, his painting of religious decisions in the light of the American consumerist mentality provides insight into the denominational marketplace as well. The reactions I have received from fellow Reformed Christians to Catholicism's arguments are understandable when viewed through the consumerist lens: "I would agree with them if it weren't for their adoption of doctrine X," or "I just can't stomach the Catholic culture."

The presumption in these conversations seems to be that I was dissatisfied with my present ecclesial selection, so I returned to the denominational marketplace to see if I could find a better fit.  We happen to live in an era where many can be 'choosers.'  As choosers, we approach the ecclesial buffet and ponder what is the best fit for our meal tastes.  And being used to making choices catered to our particular predilections, we are (no doubt) hesitant to set our tastes to one side when choosing or re-choosing church.  

To use another analogy to describe the reactions I get when discussing Catholicism's claims, it is as if my brethren respect the reasons a minivan might meet my needs, but see that such an automobile would clearly fail to meet their own.  A van's fundamentals would be inadequate for the task at hand; it would be the wrong choice for them.  Many may even think it is the wrong choice for me (or anyone at all); my point is that they are prepared to respect some positive aspects of the minivan, even if they believe its purchase is the wrong choice from the market.

But those who have presumed that my momentum toward the Catholic Church began its course because I desired high-church over low-, unity over adherence to truth, holiness over anti-Pelagianism, or whatever other motive is attributed to my market selection, are badly mistaken.

The fallacy, I believe, is in conceptualizing the sects of Christianity as market choices of varying merit (or worse, as fungible commodities), instead of fragmented pieces of one body, badly in need of organic unity.  I am not close to leaving my present denominational market choice because of deficiencies in the choice qua choice.  The terms of that analysis are entirely wrong.  I encountered truth-claims that conflicted with my denomination's truth-claims, and which my denomination's teachings could not resolve (viz., the post hoc answering of the Canon Question, and the absence of authority to be a schismatic church).

There is no market choice to make.  Minivans and station wagons are both types of automobiles. They both get passengers and cargo to a destination.  Corn and rice are both types of side dishes that can nourish the body.  One of those could be a less desirable choice, a bad choice, or even a wrong choice for one, many or all people.  But if the Catholic ecclesiological view is entertained, we could view the buffet as containing one dish of real food, and other dishes that are not food at all (a few options may even be poisonous). 

My challenge in explaining the claims of Catholicism and its critiques of the Protestant Reformation is in avoiding the impression that I simply find Catholicism preferable to competing choices such as the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).  (A conclusion with which they can simply and readily disagree.)  Rather, the discussion must demonstrate that Catholicism claims itself to be without competitor, the one Church to which we are all called to be in communion.  

Like all bold assertions, this is a difficult one to make. Discussing the merits of our respective sects, and then explain away our conflicting conclusions as being the result of weighing various qualities in different ways, would make for a much more comfortable conversation.  But the language of market choosing misconstrues our burden to seek unity.