Archive for December, 2012

2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 4,000 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 7 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.


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“No! no!” said Bilbo. “I didn’t mean that. I meant, is there no way round [Mirkwood]?”

“There is, if you care to go two hundred miles or so out of your way north, and twice that south. But you would get a safe path even then. There are no safe paths in this part of the world. Remember you are over the Edge of the Wild now, and in for all sorts of fun where you go. Before you could get round Mirkwood in the North you would be right among the slops of the Grey Mountains, and they are simply stiff with goblins, hobgoblins, and orcs of the worst description. Before you could get round it in the South, you would get into the land of the Necromancer; and even you, Bilbo, won’t need me to tell you tales of that black sorcerer. I don’t advise you to go anywhere near places overlooked by his dark tower! Stick to the forest-track, keep your spirits up, hope for the best…” (121)

J.R.R. Tolkein, The Hobbit

For Numa himself also, to whom no prophet of God, no holy angel was sent, was driven to have recourse to hydromancy, that he might see the images of the gods in the water (or, rather, appearances whereby the demons made sport of him), and might learn from them what he ought to ordain and observe in the sacred rites. This kind of divination, says Varro, was introduced from the Persians, and was used by Numa himself, and at an after time by the philosopher Pythagoras. In this divination, he says, they also inquire at the inhabitants of the nether world, and make use of blood; and this the Greeks call νεκρομαντείαν. But whether it be called necromancy or hydromancy it is the same thing, for in either case the dead are supposed to foretell future things… let him who does not desire to live a pious life even now, seek eternal life by means of such rites. But let him who does not wish to have fellowship with malign demons have no fear for the noxious superstition wherewith they are worshipped, but let him recognize the true religion by which they are unmasked and vanquished. (VII.35)

St Augustine of Hippo, bishop, The City of God

In the recent adaptation of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, a good bit has been given over to the role of “the Necromancer,” a character who only receives two rather short references in the book itself (p. 30 and above), but what is understood to another name for Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor. Necromancy, the communication with and divination by the dead, has often been called “the dark arts,” an brilliant corruption of necro- [corpse], into nigro- [black].

And yet there is that space in the creed where we affirm the Communion of Saint, that is the Church on Earth and in Heaven: “At the present time some of [Christ’s] disciples are pilgrims on earth; others have died and are being purified, while still others are in glory, contemplating ‘in full light, God himself triune and one, exactly as he is.”‘

There is something more, much more, in the Communion of Saints than divination, asking for petty insight into the future or about cheap worldly cares. By the light of faith we do not look to or into the future, nor is divination what hope is. The Saints who are already dwell in the Heavenly reality gaze on the God, triune and one. The Saints of the earthly realm see by faith, keeping watch for Christ, for they know not when the master of the house returns. The light of faith and the assurance of hope only make the earthly pilgrim ready.

“Being more closely united to Christ, those who dwell in heaven fix the whole Church more firmly in holiness…. They do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, as they proffer the merits which they acquired on earth through the one mediator between God and men, Christ Jesus…. So by their fraternal concern is our weakness greatly helped.”

As for our dead – those who are still being purified in the hope of the heavenly reality – it is they who rely on us, not us on them by divination, necromancy or otherwise. It is by our prayers and intercessions, and thusly by the great merits of Christ, our mediator and redeemer, for their sins are forgiven before judgment. Our prayers for our dead ultimately arise from charity, which in turn draws us closer to the Triune God.


Jules Eugene Lenepveu, “The Martyrs in the Catacombs” (1855)


n., the art of predicting the future by supposed communication with the dead; (more generally) divination, sorcery, witchcraft, enchantment. See black magic.

[Classical Latin necromantīa, evocation of the dead, a name for the part of the Odyssey (Book XI) describing Odysseus’ visit to Hades (recorded as a variant of necyomantea (cf. necyomancy) in some MSS. of Pliny), in post-classical Latin also the art of predicting the future by supposed communication with the dead (3rd cent.) < Hellenistic Greek νεκρομαντεία, the art of predicting the future by supposed communication with the dead (first in Origen, 3rd cent. a.d.) < Ancient Greek νεκρο, corpse + μαντεία, divination]

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I was gifted a bottle of Scotch on the occasion of becoming a father. Dalwhinne 15. Dalwhinnie, the town where the distillery is located, is smack in the middle of Scotland, not very close to anything of note like Edinburgh nor Glasgow. It’s about level with Aberdeen, which means it’s in the north, but it’s due south from Inverness. On a map, Dalwhinnie, Aberdeen, and Inverness from a perfect right triangle; Dalwhinnie at the perfect angle.

But I really don’t know anything about Scotch Whisky. In the order of whisk(e)y, Scotch is a close third to Irish Whiskey, which is a distant second to Bourbon. But I appreciate Scotch, because you are supposed to appreciate Scotch. I’m having one now. Dalwhinnie 15 in a small rocks glass with one cube that I let dissolve before my first sip. I didn’t make any of that up, and I didn’t create the way you drink a Scotch. I know there are those who drink Scotch on the rocks, a full handful of cubes to chill out the burn. Others think even a hint of water or ice might soil the purity of “Scotch Neat”. But I’ve always opened up Scotch, or Bourbon for that matter, with a little bit of water, or a cube. A cube is easy.

Whiskey, like all drinking, didn’t come easy for me. It eventually got too easy, but it didn’t come easy. Sneaking beers, airplane bottles, full Jack Daniels fifths out of a friend’s father’s coat closet. We never liked it. It was a drink that came only after rough pulls and mixing a little less the next time you tried it again.

Dalwhinnie 15 is a “smooth” Scotch, whatever that means. Because it was given to me as a gift I have shared it with most of the guys who have come by, usually with their wives, to bring us meals during these first few weeks of parenthood. After we briefly spend time in the living room with Laura and Mary Margaret, I usually offer the man a drink, and his eyes light up when I take the bottle out of its simply stated box. Usually we have only one, though sometimes two. I’ve only had two (not including this one) without a mate.

[I have offered it to Laura; she’s never been a fan of Scotch.]

We go out go out to the front porch or the front yard, remark about the leaves, look down at our dram and say how “smooth” Dalwhinnie drinks. Unlike some Scotches at bars, whose well is a blend, Dalwhinnie is a single malt, that is, from a single distillery. I haven’t had many blends with the exception of J&B, the preferred Scotch of Spain. I didn’t drink much J&B in Spain; I didn’t drink much at all on the Camino – the hangovers were too costly and beer replenishes calories. No, I drank J&B one summer, when my friend Graham returned from his summer of taking high-schoolers to Salamanca, and we’d pony up to this kitchen table: two men, one bottle, and one had to die. Or two. But we were drinking J&B in large glasses, full of ice, and we were getting hammered. Scotch on the front porch to celebrate your daughter’s inception is not pints of iced-down J&B.

For my 29th birthday I received a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label, a blend, but a good blend. Johnnie Walker, despite sounding like it was distilled in Tennessee, is product in Ayrshire, not far from where Kilmarnock plays Celtic. I’d have a glass, on the rocks, every Sunday night while Laura and I watched Mad Men, back when we had cable. I learned there, like most drinking, that drinking is hard work. Like most things

It was on this bottle that I learned Scotch. Or at least blended Scotch, which to many may mean miseducation. But I did learn that if I gulped down too much in one swallow, a fire would mark the back of me throat. So I learned to sip Scotch and not to gulp.

Now some like the burn. I think the tequila culture, the rugby players I used to drink with on Thursday night, taught me that some like the burn. The burn, like good holy water, excises the lesser demons, all the while killing off the the good that is nestled in your brain. Most of these guys were drinking like rosters fighting over a hens in the yard, so it wasn’t real, but just a projection of what they had been doing on the pitch just hours before. Not that there’s anything wrong with this. Jesus Christ turned water to our wine and so it seems there is a certain eternal blessing on the drink-act, provided we remember later turned our wine into his blood.

Theology and drinking, specifically high-ball gin drinks and bourbon – lots of bourbon – was how I came to understand the passage from death into new life. I didn’t drink much in college, to tell the truth; I certainly drank less than I tried to in high school. It was not until my junior year of college were I learned that a good bourbon lasted the night. There my drinking was catechized, arranged into a discipline that served the conversation, not muddled it. Through bourbon I began to see the world still as a damned mess, but as a beautiful damned mess being put back together — over glasses of bourbon.

“The pleasure of knocking back bourbon” wrote Walker Percy, “lies in the plane of the aesthetic but at an opposite pole from connoisseurship. My preference for the former is or is not deplorable depending on one’s value system—that is to say, how one balances out the Epicurean virtues of evocation of time and memory and the recovery of self and the past from the fogged-in disoriented Western world. In Kierkegaardian terms, the use of Bourbon to such an end is a kind of aestheticized religious mode of existence, where as connoisseurship, the discriminating but single-minded simulation of sensory end organs, is the aesthetic of damnation.”

Connoisseurship is like that Augustine’s first foe, Donatism, those ancient schismatics who though they, through a second baptism, could discern a pure(r) body of Christ from the muddled City that lay before them. Knocking back Scotch or Bourbon or Dixie Beer is not about discernment alone, but about a table, a glass, and a mate.

Dalwhinnie Distillery

Dalwhinnie Distillery in Highland, Scotland

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If this be true, doubtless also the providing for the interment of bodies a place at the memorials of Saints is a mark of a good human affection towards the remains of one’s friends: since if there be religion in the burying, there cannot but be religion in taking thought where the burying shall be. But while it is desirable there should be such like solaces of survivors, for the showing forth of their pious mind towards their beloved, I do not see what helps they be to the dead save in this way: that upon recollection of the place in which are deposited the bodies of those whom they love, they should by prayer commend them to those same Saints, who have as patrons taken them into their charge to aid them before the Lord. Which indeed they would be still able to do, even though they were not able to inter them in such places. But then the only reason why the name “memorials” or “monuments” is given to those sepulchres of the dead which become specially distinguished, is that they recall to memory, and by putting in mind cause us to think of, them who by death are withdrawn from the eyes of the living, that they may not by forgetfulness be also withdrawn from men’s hearts. For both the term memorial most plainly shows this, and monument is so named from monishing, that is, putting in mind. For which reason the Greeks also call that μνημεῖον which we call a memorial or monument: because in their tongue the memory itself, by which we remember, is called μνήμη. When therefore the mind recollects where the body of a very dear friend lies buried, and thereupon there occurs to the thoughts a place rendered venerable by the name of a Martyr, to that same Martyr does it commend the soul in affection of heartfelt recollection and prayer. (6)

St Augustine of Hippo, bishop, “On the care to be had for the dead” [De cura pro mortuis gerenda]

As some of you know, I am writing my Master’s thesis on the topic of Christian burial. I wanted to write about something — an action with a liturgy — that both Christians and pagans do, but that Christians do in a particularly Christian way. The two actions that immediately came to mind were marriage and burial. In truth burial seemed more interesting and less documented than marriage, and when I raised the idea to my advisor, he seemed very interested in the idea, too.

Burial is a difficult topic for many of us because it is necessarily associated with death, usually the death of a loved one. But, I think, burial and the liturgies associated with burial are not a necessary evil, as some might say, but a necessary good. Burial is less about “saying goodbye” for the living as it is a space of hope and prayer for the dead. The corpse (and we should call it a “corpse” instead of a “body” since the body is the place of both flesh and soul; a corpse has given up the soul) is laid to rest in the ground with prayers and tears: our prayers for the soul unto heaven and its rest in hope of heaven, and our tears as our expression of charity for the departed and expiation of our own sins.

The tomb itself is a monument, as Augustine above mentions, a memorial, not necessarily for what the departed did  in her life, but as a reminder to the living to pray for her. This is why we light candles as we say their names, place flowers by the altar in their memory, pray their names on All Souls, and visit their monuments yearly, monthly, or weekly. We pray their names by these markers, not as some emotional attachment to what they did in their lifetime, but as a hope for where they are and where they are going.

Richmond, Weeping

George Richmond, “A Figure weeping over a grave” (1827)

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Although the numbers of Christians were few in relation to the empire as a whole, the new movement was beginning to lay the foundations for a Christian culture. And by culture I do not mean primarily what we call high culture, but the “total harvest of thinking and feeling,” to use T.S. Eliot’s phrase – the manners, morals, customs, and arts; the pattern of inherited meanings and sensibilities embedded in rituals, rules, and language; the institutions, practices, persons, and stories that order and inspire the behavior, affections, and thoughts of a people. (54)

Robert Louis Wilken, The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity

See also Wilken’s article “The Church as Culture” (First Things2004):

“Culture lives by language, and the sentiments, thoughts, and feelings of a Christian culture are formed and carried by the language of the Scriptures. St. Augustine, for instance, believed that there was a distinctively Christian language, what he called the Church’s way of speaking (ecclesiastica loquendi consuetudo). He considered the term “martyr” (witness) to be a word sanctioned by the Bible (notably in the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles) and hallowed by early Christian usage. It would be “contrary to the usage of the Church,” said Augustine, to replace it with the conventional Latin term for hero, virSalvator (savior) is also a biblical word with pronounced Christian overtones: natus est vobis hodie Salvator, qui est Christus Dominus. In conventional Latin salus meant health, not salvation. Christians, however, coined the words salvare (to save) and salvator (savior); in doing so they began to create a Christian language formed by the Scriptures.”


n., the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought.

[from Latin cultūra, from cultus, of colere, to till; inhabit]

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The following was printed in parish bulletins throughout the Diocese of Raleigh (pdf) :

Since late January the Church has been engaged in intense public debate about the federal mandate that some of its institutions must, directly or indirectly, provide health insurance that includes contraception to any employees who want it. The latest installment occurred yesterday (March 1), when the Senate voted 51-48 to reject an amendment to the mandate that would have permitted employers to refuse, for religious or moral reasons, to supply or pay for such coverage.

In one corner have been our bishops, who have taken the line that the mandate should be resisted because it attempts to force the Church to do something its doctrine judges immoral. They are supported in this by some representatives of other Christian churches, by some Jews, and by some secular people.

In the other corner have been those who say that the provision of contraception to those who want it is essential for the proper care of women’s health, and therefore belongs to the common good. Those who seek exemption from providing it are, according to this line of thought, themselves immoral and should be constrained by law to do the right thing.

There are a number of difficult questions wrapped up in these debates. Among them, one stands out as most pressing. It is: How should we Catholics think and act when the agencies of the state attempt to force us, whether individually or collectively, to act against what we hold both true and dear? On this, we can say two things with confidence, one about ourselves, and the other about America.

The first, about ourselves, is that the state has no real power in such matters, and we need to encourage one another to act as if we believe that to be true. The state can use its legislative and judicial machinery, of course; but the worst it can do is punish. Our consciences and our fidelity to the church we believe to be Christ’s are beyond the state’s reach. This is what contemplation of the church and its history with various pagan states shows us. It is a matter for serene confidence.

The second, about America, is that we are not only Catholics, but also American Catholics. That means we should love America with the love appropriate to her. She is not the church, and she has no special place in the eyes of the Lord. But America is where we live, and so we love her. Loving her means wishing her well and hoping for her good. It means praying for her, and publicly offering her, in humility and lament, our best understanding of what is good for her. One thing that is good for her is the flourishing of her churches, and ours among them. We should, each of us, now in this difficult and interesting time, be doing what we can to help our country see what that means.

Paul J. Griffiths
Warren Chair of Catholic Theology at Duke Divinity School
St. Thomas More Parish, Chapel Hill, NC,
Drafted 2 March 2012

Anton van Dyck, Emperor Theodosius Forbidden by St Ambrose To Enter Milan Cathedral (1619)

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Holiness had to be brought to man by the humanity assumed by one who was God, so that God might overcome the tyrant by force and so deliver us and lead us back to himself through the mediation of his Son. The Son arranged this for the honour of the Father, to whom the Son is clearly obedient in all things.

The Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep, came in search of the straying sheep to the mountains and hills on which you used to offer sacrifice. When he found it, he took it on the shoulders that bore the wood of the cross, and led it back to the life of heaven.

Christ, the light of all lights, follows John, the lamp that goes before him. The Word of God follows the voice in the wilderness; the bridegroom follows the bridegroom’s friend, who prepares a worthy people for the Lord by cleansing them by water in preparation for the Spirit.

We needed God to take our flesh and die, that we might live. We have died with him, that we may be purified. We have risen again with him, because we have died with him. We have been glorified with him, because we have risen again with him.

St Gregory Nazianzen

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