Commitment, Continuity, and Conversation

I keep this older posting at the head of my blog, outlining the viewpoint of all that follows. The particular spirituality of the Appalachian Riders for our Lady is based on our three foundational principles of commitment, continuity and conversation in addition to the general Catholic evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, obedience and stability adapted to a lay context. The Riders strive to promote a conversational culture, authentically Christian and Catholic, in the midst of a world largely lacking culture of any sort.  Our vows of commitment, continuity, and conversation do not necessarily mean that we have any natural inclination or talent in these areas. My own investigations center around the apparent paradox of Christologies seeming to be close together when their related Ecclesiologies are far apart. My booklist (each Rider, during their novitiate, settles on at most 24 books) is:

  • Bible, unabridged Revised Standard Version
  • The Liturgy of the Hours, unabridged
  • Isaiah commentary; Brevard S. Childs
  • The Confessions; by Saint Augustine
  • Selected Writings; St Thomas Aquinas
  • Dante’s Divine Comedy; Anthony Esolen
  • Fifteen Plays; by William Shakespeare
  • Complete English Poems; John Donne
  • Pride and Prejudice; by Jane Austen
  • Great Expectations; Charles Dickens
  • Collected Poems & Prose; Robert Frost
  • Jesus of Nazareth; Pope Benedict XVI
  • Gospel in Pluralistic Society; Newbigin
  • Paul & God’s Righteousness; NT Wright
  • Gospel of Matthew; E. Sri & C. Mitch
  • History of the Church; James Hitchcock
  • Enchiridion Symbolorum; Denzinger
  • Compendium of the Catholic Catechism

My booklist starts with Scripture, centered in the Psalms, and continues its intertwining of history, poetic literature, and philosophy broadly considered up to contemporary times. Essential to the culture of the Appalachian Riders for our Lady is participation in daily Mass at our particular parishes (7am Mass at St Ambrose in Salt Lake City  in my case) and our encouragement of increasing use of the Liturgy of the Hours. I also participate, as a matter of hospitality, in the RCIA program at St Ambrose.  Riders also try to form connections outside the Catholic Church (in my case, with St John’s Anglican, to which my wife belongs). I also like to participate, on occasion, in Masses at our Cathedral of the Madeleine.


Thomas Gwyn and MaryAlice Dunbar

Christian Perspectives

I want to commend the Catholic perspective to you. Of course, that raises several questions:

  • Is it reasonable to speak of THE Catholic perspective?
  • Is my characterization of this perspective warranted?
  • Can one also speak of THE Protestant perspective, especially given the range of protestant ecclesial bodies?

I propose that the protestant perspective is that the Christian life is best lived and considered from the primary viewpoint of the individual or, at most, the congregation. On the other hand, I commend the Catholic perspective: the Christian life is best lived and considered from the primary viewpoint of the universal Church, extended in spacetime and militantly subsisting in the Catholic Church whose head steward is the bishop of Rome. After addressing those preliminary questions, I intend to commend the Catholic perspective in three aspects:

  • better able to cope with adversity
  • more resources for spiritual formation
  • closer alignment with the scriptural canon

All these points are controversial; however, I intend not to argue for them but rather to chew on them.  The difference between a primarily individual perspective and a primarily ecclesial perspective also has a significant political component since the State desires no competitor to its hegemony (see, for example, Alan Jacobs biography of The Book of Common Prayer which documents how this worked out in England) and hence is inclined to favor an individual perspective which it can divide and conquer.

I’m also assuming that the more alive an entity, the more applicable the principle that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. In addition, whenever possible I’d like to phrase matters sociologically rather than ecclesiologically. A major advantage of a perspective more social than individual is that one can ‘check one’s answers’ — the boredom of, for example, discussion about end-time scenarios or sectarian doctrine being that one can not check one’s theory in one’s day to day life and interactions with others as one can, on the other hand, regarding ethics and how to live in community.

On a personal level, I think the core of the Protestant error centers on the attempt to place faith above love (see Luther’s commentary on Galatians) contra Saint Paul and the Catholic tradition.

Regarding hospitality, of course folks gather at various times for diverse purposes both social and spiritual. Here’s the weekday Mass schedule at the Cathedral of the Madeleine:

Monday through Friday

  • 7:30 AM Lauds
  • 8:00 AM Mass
  • 5:15 PM Mass
  • Vespers after the 5:15 PM Mass
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Philosophical Reflection

It is not irrelevant that, from the standpoint of Catholic teaching, philosophical reflection and enquiry are activities of crucial importance for human beings in every culture.  This puts Catholic teaching seriously at odds with the dominant culture of secularized modernity, for which philosophy is generally understood as just one more specialized form of academic activity, important perhaps for those whose interests incline them toward that sort of thing, but something that has little relevance to practical affairs, somethning that can be safely be ignored by the huge majority of humankind, that is in no way an indispensable part of an adequate education.  Yet it is the claim of the church that these attitudes toward philosophy themselves have philosophical presuppositions, presuppositions that, if left unarticulated and uncriticized, make it impossible to think purposefully and rigorously about those existential questions to which the acknowledgement of God’s self-revelation provides the only adequate response.. The tasks that confront Catholics in the face of this cultural challenge are both theological and philosophical.  For philosophical enquiry is needed “to clarify the relationship between truth and life, between event and doctrinal truth, and above all between trancendent truth and humanly comprehensible language.” So concludes the seventh and last chapter of the encyclical [Fides et Ratio: On the relationship between Faith and Reason]  — pp120-121 in Alasdair MacIntyre’s “God, Philosophy, Universities – A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition”

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August 1914

The first three paragraphs of Aleksandr Solzenitsyn’s novel, August 1914:

They left the village in the clear dawn light. As the sun rose the mountains were dazzling white with dark blue hollows, every indentation could be seen. amd they looked so close that a stranger might have thought them a two hours’ drive away.

The Caucasus loomed huge and elemental in a world of small manmade things. If all the people who had ever lived had opened their arms as wide as they could to carry all that they had ever made, or ever thought of making, and piled it up in swelling heaps, they could not have raised such an unbelievable mountain range.

The road from the village to the station kept the mountains continually before them as though those snowy expanses, those bare crags, those shadows hinting at invisible ravines were their destination. But from one half hour to the next, as the snow began to thaw on the lower slopes, the range seemed to part company with the earth, and its upper third hung suspended in the sky. It became shrouded in mist, so that there were no ribs or seams to show that these were mountains, and they saw instead what looked like a vast white cloud bank. This broke into fragments indistinguishable from real clouds. Then they too were washed away. The range disappeared as though it had been a celestial mirage, and wherever they looked they saw only grayish, heat-blanched sky. They drove on till noon and beyond, for more than fifty versts, without changing direction, until the grant mountains retreated as rounded foothills closed in–the Camel, the Bull, the bald Snake, and the wooded Iron Hill.

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Solzhenitsyn and Modern Literature

From a 1990 article, on Solzhenitsyn and Modern Literature:

In a narrower context, August 1914 in its new augmented form is simply a great historical novel, one of the great narratives of public and private life in the twentieth century. In its insistence on the importance of individuals and individuality in history, and on the conditioned and conditional but real freedom that individuals possess, it undermines the extremes of social determinism and post-moral, anarchistic individualism—the extremes of Marxism or Structuralism and of the radical, post-moral, “self-reliant” individualism promoted by Carlyle, Emerson, Nietzsche, Ayn Rand, Norman Mailer, and other “imperial selves.” If Solzhenitsyn has helped give back to Russian readers their real history, obscured and lied about for so long by Communist propaganda, he has also given to Western readers something equally precious—an unforgettable example of the moral imagination at work, with the resources of, and in the light of, the Judeo-Christian tradition. In contrast to our avant-garde Establishment, Solzhenitsyn is no degenerate son, no “connoisseur of chaos.”

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Catholic Liturgy and Prayer

Hans Urs von Balthasar’s book ‘Prayer‘ gives a broad theological account of Christian prayer, particularly contemplative prayer.  However, it should be noted that the Liturgy of the Hours is at the foundation of Catholic prayer since priests and those in religious orders pray it daily. It’s important to keep this in mind when reading Batthasar’s book.

If one searchs this blog for ‘liturgy’, one will find various postings related to the Liturgy of the Hours, aka Divine Office, aka Breviary.  The full four volume edition is more useful than various abbridgements which often wind up distorting the basic nature of the Breviary. In my opinion, lay faithful should also resist the anxiety of the overly scrupulous and feel free to pick and choose from the full Liturgy of the Hours in their daily prayer. This will, in the long run for at least some people, be more useful that trying to do everything all at once, especially if one does not have supporting community praying the daily office.

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Archbishop John Wester on majority SCOTUS decision

Archdiocese of Santa Fe, Most Rev. John C. Wester:

Today the Supreme Court of the United States decided state marriage bans are
unconstitutional, meaning all states will perform and recognize same-sex marriage.
This decision, though significant, does not conclude debate over the definition
of marriage; we would like to affirm the following pastoral response.

As Catholics, we seek to uphold our traditional belief in marriage as a sacrament,
a well established and divinely revealed covenant between one man and one
woman, a permanent and exclusive bond meant to provide a nurturing
environment for children and the fundamental building block to a just society.
At the same time, we respect the dignity of all persons, not wishing to undermine
their pursuit of happiness but only to preserve and defend the gift of marriage as
divinely revealed in scripture and in natural law. Although we respectfully
disagree with those who would define marriage otherwise, we firmly hold that all
persons are loved by our compassionate God and deserve the respect and
dignity that is inherently theirs as human beings.

We acknowledge the right of our nation’s highest court to provide for a well
ordered society by establishing laws that protect the common good and safeguard
the civil and contractual rights and privileges of its citizens. At the same time, we
urge our lawmakers and judges to respect those institutions that are beyond state
and federal jurisdiction, institutions such as sacramental marriage that transcend
civil law and whose origins precede the existence of the state and go beyond its

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Hope then is a Gift

“Life and death are at war within us.  As soon as we are born, we begin at the same time to live and die.

Even though we may not be even slightly aware of it, this battle of life and death goes on in us inexorably and without mercy.  If by chance we become fully conscious of it, not only in our flesh and in our emotions but above all in our spirit, we find ourselves involved in a terrable wrestling, an agonia not of questions and answers, but of being and nothingness, spirit and void.  In this most terrible of all wars, fought on the brink of infinite despair, we come gradually to realize that life is more than the reward for him who correctly guesses a secret and spiritual ‘answer’ to which he smilingly remains committed.  This is more than a matter of ‘finding peace of mind,’ or ‘settling religious problems.’

Indeed, for the man who enters into the black depths of the agonia, religious problems become an unthinkable luxury.  He has no time for such indulgences.  He is fighting for his life.  His being itself is a foundering ship, ready with each breath to plunge into nothingness and yet inexplicably remaining afloat on the void.  Questions that have answers seem, at such a time, to be a cruel mockery of the helpless mind.  Existence itself becomes an absurd question, like a Zen koan: and to find an answer to such a question is to be irrevocably lost.  An absurd question can have only an absurd answer.

Religions do not, in fact, simply supply answers to questions.  Or at least they do not confine themselves to this until they become degenerate.  Salvation is more than the answer to a question. To emerge alive from a disaster is not just the answer to the question, ‘Shall I escape?’

Everything hangs on the final issue, in the battle of life and death.  Nothing is assured beforehand.  Nothing is definitely certain.  The issue is left to our own choice.  But that is what constitutes the dark terror of the agonia:  we cannot be sure of our own choice.  Arew we strong enough to continue choosing life when to live means to go on and on with this absurd battle of entity and nonentity in our own inmost self?

The roots of life remain immortal and invulnerable in us if we will continue to keep morally alive by hope.  Yet hope in its full supernatural dimension is beyond our power.  And when we try to keep ourselves in hope by sheer violent persistence in willing to live, we end if not in despair in what is worse–delusion.  (For in reality such delusion is a despair that refuses to take cognizance of itself.  It is the merciful form which cowards give to their despair.)

Hope then is a gift.  Like life, it is a gift from God, total, unexpected, incomprehensible, undeserved.  It springs out of nothingness, completely free.  But to meet it, we have to descend into nothingness.  And there we meet hope most perfectly, when we are stripped of our own confidence, our own strength, when we almost no longer exist.  ‘A hope that is seen,’ says St. Paul, ‘is no hope.’  No hope. Therefore despair. To see your hope is to abandon hope.

The Christian hope that is ‘not seen’ is a comunion in the agony of Christ.  It is the identification of our own agonia with the agonia of the God Who has emptied Himself and become obedient unto death.  It is the acceptance of life in the midst of death, not because we have courage, or light, or wisdom to accept, but because by some miracle the God of Life Himself accepts to live, in us, at the very moment when we descend into death.

All truly religious thought claims to arm man for his struggle with death with weapons that will ensure the victory of life over death.

The most paradoxical and at the same time the most unique and characteristic claim made by Christianity is that in the Resurrection of Christ the Lord from the dead, man has completely conquered death, and that ‘in Christ’ the dead will rise again to enjoy eternal life, in spiritualized and transformed bodies and in a totally new creation.  This new life in the Kingdom of God is to be not merely a passively received inheritance but in some sense the fruit of our agony and labor, love and prayers in union with the Holy Spirit.  Such a fantastic and humanly impossible belief has generally been left in the background by the liberal Christianity of the 19th and early 20th centuries, but anyone who reads the New Testament objectively must admit that this is the Doctrine of the first Christians.  Indeed, Christianity without this fabulous eschatoalogical claim is only a moral system without too much spiritual consistency.  Unless all Christianity is centered in the victorious, living, and ever present reality of Jesus Christ, the Man-God and conqueror of death, it loses its distinctive character and there is no longer any justification for a Christian missionary apostolate.  In point of fact, such an apostolate without the resurrection of the dead, has tended to be purely and simply an apostolate for western cultural and economic ‘progress,’ and not a true preaching of the Gospel.”    — Thomas Merton, The New Man, pp3-6.

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