Category Archives: philosophy

Poor in Spirit

Christmas is a time of poverty. The Spirit of Bethlehem is one of smallness, of tiny new beginnings that open our minds to the infinite largeness of Incarnate Wisdom. The Christ Child heals us of our presumption. The New Born shows us that we simply don’t know what God has in store. His impoverished delivery stops us in our tracks. We stand like beasts in a stable, our knowledge, our understanding, our science, our facts, our truths stripped of eternal value. All that remains, whether we’re shepherds or kings or someone in between, is for us to nod along with the tiny beat of the drummer boy offering his seemingly meaningless gift. Let’s welcome Christ Jesus, Innocence itself, by being poor with Him. Let’s let go of preconceived notions of having control. To stand before the Lord in our nothingness is worth more to Him than any amount of gold, frankincense or myrrh. Our humility before the bright light is pure praise and prayer to the One Who offers us everything.

—Howard Hain

Mary’s Mother

by Howard Hain

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Albrecht Durer, “Virgin and Child with Saint Anne”, ca. 1519 (The Met)

Christmas is a time for grandmothers.

They bake and cook and decorate. Their homes become mini North Poles, diplomatic outposts of Santa’s Castle.

At its core, Christmas is of course all about Jesus. All about Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. All about the Holy Family.

The Holy Family is an extended family though. And it doesn’t stop at grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, or even cousins and distant cousins.

Just ask Saints Joachim and Anne, Zechariah and Elizabeth, or John the Baptist—not to mention all the unknown relatives whom the child Jesus surely encountered throughout His Galilean days. Ask any one of them about the far-reaching ripple effects of family grace.

Those touched by Jesus have a tendency to appear bigger than life.

Look at Santa Claus.

Most of us are aware that he is really Saint Nick.

But do we stop to wonder who Mrs. Claus really is?

I think she’s Saint Anne.

After all, Mrs. Claus is seen as everyone’s grandmother, especially when it comes to holiday cheer. But when it comes to truly celebrating the birth of Jesus, it is through Saint Anne that we approach the gates of Christ’s Nativity.

Mary’s Mother holds a special key. She is first among grandmas, first among those who pinch chubby cheeks, who pass along one more extra sugary treat.

———

Saint Anne help us. Speak to us. Show us how to be grand parents to all those around us, especially the little ones. Stir up the spirit of Advent. Bake away the holiday blues. Cook up a dish of Christmas love that only your hearth can serve.

———

Come one, come all, to the home of Saint Anne. Come with me to Grandma’s house for a holiday visit. Taste and see. Enter her kitchen, where the hot chocolate can always fit a little more whipped cream, where you hear the constant refrain: “eat…eat…eat…”

At Grandma’s your plate is never empty.

Her table is continually set.

She always sees Jesus as having just been born.

She is always wrapping Him up tightly in swaddling clothes.

It is simply grand.

To Grandma, Jesus is always an innocent child.

And she can’t help but see Him deep within both you and me.


(Dec/21/2017)

Howard Hain is a contemplative layman, husband, and father. He blogs at http://www.howardhain.com


Web Link: Metropolitan Museum of Art. Albrecht Durer, “Virgin and Child with Saint Anne”, ca. 1519

 

Broken Baby Jesus

by Howard Hain

(Note: This post was originally published on December 24, 2011.)

broken-baby-christ-2-1


We have not put up a tree in years.

For nearly a decade we have been moving—no longer than two years in any one house and no less than ten different not-so-humble abodes. Between and during the moves we were very much engaged with the world. A seemingly endless movable beast.

This December marks one year in our current house. I am happy to say it is our home. The Lord has blessed us with great peace. And with that peace comes a tree. A simple, well-shaped tree. Fittingly, a dear friend offered it to us as a gift.

Francesca could not be more ready to be initiated into the act of trimming. Before the tree arrived, her two-year-old fingers pointed out every tree, artificial or real, that graced the pages of a holiday flyer or the commercial floor of a Rite Aid or Dollar Store.

Up the stairs came the evergreen, into the old stand that has been in storage since my father last used it several decades ago. I cut off the mesh and out popped the branches.

We hung the lights and old glass ornaments that my mother-in-law washed a few days before.

The main attraction for Francesca was the Nativity.

Not since St. Francis of Assisi assembled the first Nativity in Greccio in 1223, has there been such admiration for each and every witness who Our Lord assembled to adore His Son that first Christmas two millennia ago. Francesca kissed and hugged every shepherd, sheep, donkey, angel, and king. Most of all she adored the Holy family, calling Mary and Joseph, Ma-ma and Da-da, respectively. And Jesus, He was simply called: “ba-be.”

She carried them around the apartment. I did not want to ruin her fun, but they are ceramic. I explained a few times to be very careful.

“Gentle, Francesca…gentle…”, I harked a host of times.

Boom. To the wood floor went the shepherd. Amazing, grace held him intact. I took that as a great sign to put an end to her carrying the animals, angels and representatives of mankind.

I was fixing my coffee when I turned to see Francesca with Baby Jesus in her tiny hands. But He is so small, so tiny, what harm could come from holding Him? So I let her get away with carrying the Savior.

As I stirred my spoon Christ crashed to the floor, the tile floor. Francesca immediately looked at me, as if expecting all hell to break loose. I think I sighed but that was about all. It is Christmas, right? And it is, after all, only a ceramic figure purchased at Target.

After assuring Francesca not to worry and guiding her toward a few coloring books in the living room, I bent down to retrieve the broken Christ.

———

St. Francis was told by a Crucifix in an old abandoned chapel: “Restore my Church.”

In my small one-bedroom apartment, I found Baby Christ, broken into exactly three: The Head, the Torso, and the Crossed Legs.

“Restore the Trinity,” was spoken to me.

———

For half of my forty years I can honestly say I have tried to pursue Truth, wherever it lie. In philosophy, in scripture, in literature, in art, in nature, in history…

Now, the entire Gospel of Christ lie naked on my kitchen floor.

We separate, we distinguish, we categorize, we breakdown. The Fall of Adam was a fall into denomination.

Christ’s body is One. His Church cannot be broken. Only mere men can get things so wrong.

I think of the great “Angelic Doctor” of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas, who after spending a lifetime in unparalleled pursuit of human understanding, said after glimpsing a vision of what Our Lord has in store for those who love God:

“All that I have written seems like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me.”

Yes… “straw”…my brother Thomas…merely straw. Straw that lines the manger within which Our Savior is laid bare.

———

It is tradition to leave the crib empty until Christmas morning. Only then do we place the figurative baby Jesus into the scene, after all until that moment he was not yet brought forth from Mother Mary’s womb.

This Christmas morning I will glue together a Broken Baby Christ. The Head, the Torso, and the Crossed Legs will again be One.

Like the world after the birth of Christ, I will never be the same.

For what has now been revealed to me, no fall can break apart.


 

Howard Hain is a contemplative layman, husband, and father. He blogs at http://www.howardhain.com

 

The Yet Empty Stable

by Howard Hain

There’s a little stable not too far from here.

It sits in a church that has seen better days.

The parish is poor and the people seem to disappear.

But a few persistent peasants won’t stay away.

I love it there.

The priest is wonderfully uncertain.

He is afraid of God.

He instinctively bows his head at the mention of the name.

He knows how little he is in front of the great star.

I imagine he was involved in setting the stable.

It is a good size, on the relative little-stable scale.

It is surrounded by ever-green branches.

Probably snipped from the few Douglas Firs placed around the altar and yet to be trimmed.

The stable itself is composed of wood.

A little wooden railing crosses half the front.

A single string of clear lights threads through the branches laid upon the miniature roof.

They are yet to be lit.

I love it there.

I kneel before the empty scene.

For as of yet, not a creature or prop is present.

Not an ox or a goat, not a piece of hay or plank of fencing.

Not even a feeding trough that is to be turned into a crib.

No visible sign of Joseph and Mary, nor a distant “hee-haw” of a very tired donkey.

I wonder if I could get involved.

Perhaps I could slip into the scene.

There’s a darkened corner on the lower left.

In the back, against the wall.

I could hide myself within the stable.

Before anyone else arrives.

I don’t think they would mind.

I’d only be there to adore.

To pay homage to the new born king.

I might even help keep the animals in line.

Yes, a stagehand, that’s what I can be!

I know there’s no curtain to pull.

That’s to be torn in a much later scene.

But to watch the Incarnation unfold from within!

That’s what I dream.

To see each player take his and her place.

To see the great light locate the babe.

To watch the kings and shepherds stumble onto the scene.

Hark! To hear the herald angels sing!

O the joy of being a simple farmhand.

Of being in the right place at always the right time.

Of course though I wouldn’t be alone.

In that darkened corner, also awaiting the entire affair, there are many others.

Most I don’t know by name.

Too many in fact to even count.

But a few I know for sure.

For certain, present are those few persistent peasants who won’t stay away.

And of course there’s that wonderful anonymous parish priest.

The one who helped set into place this yet empty but very expectant stable.

The one whose fear of God is so clearly the beginning of wisdom.


(Dec/16/2016)

Howard Hain is a contemplative layman, husband, and father. He blogs at http://www.howardhain.com

Hummingbird and Passionflowers

by Howard Hain

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Martin Johnson Heade, “Hummingbird and Passionflowers” (ca. 1875-85) (The Met)

The delicate little bird that resides within each of us.

It hops to and fro. It stands startlingly still.

Very often we are the very ones who chase it away.

But it doesn’t fly far.

Just to the closest branch, that’s just beyond our reach.

And it looks back at us, as if to ask, “Why are you afraid?”

The tiny head of a tiny bird, slightly cocked to the side—a question mark floats from its beak.

It longs to return, to live within us, to build a nest, to raise its young.

But it doesn’t rush back.

No, it waits.

It waits for us to ask for it to return.

It’s a patient creature, that tiny bird.

One may be tempted to say it’s not very smart, but that’s not it at all.

It’s simple. It’s holy. It knows who it is. It’s not afraid of the fall.


Howard Hain is a contemplative layman, husband, and father.


Web Link: The Met Museum. Martin Johnson Heade, “Hummingbird and Passionflowers” (ca. 1875-85)

Faith and Providence

“Faith and Providence”
Contemplating Matthew 9:2
Thursday of the Thirteenth Week in Ordinary Time
©️2021 by Gloria M. Chang

He entered a boat, made the crossing, and came into his own town. And there people brought to him a paralytic lying on a stretcher. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Courage, child, your sins are forgiven.” At that, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” Jesus knew what they were thinking, and said, “Why do you harbor evil thoughts? Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic, “Rise, pick up your stretcher, and go home.” He rose and went home. When the crowds saw this they were struck with awe and glorified God who had given such authority to human beings.

Matthew 9:1-8

The faith of friends
Heaven’s will bends?

The couplet ends in wonder because theologians themselves debate the workings of divine providence. How can God be both “immutable” (lacking imperfection) and also be moved by the prayers of the faithful? Does prayer change God?

Any attempted solution comes from a “perspective,” which by definition is limited. From the perspective of time, observers mark the changes of being and becoming, and it appears that prayer changes God. 

From the “perspective of eternity” (a contradictory notion), God is “the simultaneously-whole and perfect possession of interminable life” (definition of Boethius as quoted by St. Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologica 1.10.1). Accordingly, God does not change.

Eternity and time, primary and secondary causes, find their convergence in God beyond all concepts and “perspectives,” even beyond the concept of God. 

In Aquinas’ classic solution, prayer fulfills God’s unchangeable will from all eternity (ST 2-2.83.2c). 

St. Thomas realized at the end of his life, however, that all words fail to circumscribe the uncircumscribable: “All that I have written seems like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me” (December 6, 1273 after a mystical experience).

St. Justin, Philosopher and Martyr (c.100-165 AD)

Justin-Martyr
Justin Martyr

We need Christians today like St. Justin, the 2nd century philosopher we remember June 1. “We need to make our teaching known,” he said. Still true today.

In Justin’s time, philosophers were the mentors and teachers of Roman society and were welcomed in the forum and private homes of the Roman world. St. Paul addressed them in Athens with limited success.

Born in Nablus in Palestine of Greek parents, Justin studied all the philosophers of his time in Alexandria, Athens and Ephesus. It may have been in Ephesus around the year 130 that he encountered Christianity when, walking along the seashore, he met an old man who told him the human heart could never be satisfied by Plato but “the prophets alone announced the truth.”

“After telling me these and other things…he went away and I never saw him again, but a flame kindled in my soul, filling me with love for the prophets and the friends of Christ. I thought about his words and became a philosopher..” (Dialogue 8)

Justin was influenced, not only by Christian teaching, but also by the example of Christians he met:

“I liked Plato’s teaching at first and enjoyed hearing evil spoken about Christians, but then I saw they had no fear of death or other things that horrify, and I realized they were not vicious or pleasure-loving at all.” (Apology 2,12)

Forum q
Ruins of the Roman Forum

As a philosopher Justin championed the cause of Christians who were increasingly being attacked by society. Donning a philosopher’s cloak he taught and wrote in Rome about the year 150 AD. He was a new kind of Christian, a Christian philosopher engaging Roman society on its own terms. He gave Christianity a Roman face and voice.

Justin defended Christians against the charge they were atheists and enemies of the Roman state. Christians were good citizens, he wrote, who pray for Rome, though they don’t worship in temples, who had no statues of gods or who did not participate in the religious rites of the state.  Justin’s writings give us a unique picture of 2nd century Christianity and early Christian worship.

In his “Dialogue with Trypho, the Jew” Justin offered the traditional Christian defense of Christianity to a Jewish antagonist. The Jewish prophets predicted the coming, the death and resurrection of Jesus, Justin argues.

In the documents of Vatican ii, Justin is recognized as an early example of Christian ecumenism. (Evangelium Nuntiandi 53) Through the Word of God all things came to be, he said.  The Word became flesh in Jesus Christ, but Justin linked the biblical Word to the Logos of the philosophers. “Seeds of the Word” were scattered throughout the world, Justin claimed. Every human being possesses in his mind a seed of the Word, and so besides the prophets of the Old Testament, pagan philosophers like Heraclitus, Socrates and Musonius lead us to Jesus Christ, Justin said. (Apology 1,46)

A prolific writer and teacher, Justin was an early Christian intellectual using his talents to promote his faith, Unfortunately only three of his writings come down to us. Other Christian intellectuals followed him, using the tools of philosophy, to dialogue with the Greco-Roman world.

Finally, rivals in Rome pressed charges against Justin as an enemy of the state and he was  brought before a Roman judge along with six companions. Sentenced to death, they were beheaded probably in the year 165 AD. The official court record of their trial  still survives.

Seeds of the Logos

Vincent van Gogh, Sower, 1888

Friday of the Third Week in Ordinary Time (Year I)

Hebrews 10:32-39; Mark 4:26-34

The Word through whom the world came to be knew his creation intimately (John 1:3). Earth, air, soil, and water that composed his own body were fashioned in the beginning by the Spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters (Genesis 1:2). That same life-giving Spirit keeps the world continually in being and becoming like a never-ending song.

He said, “This is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how. Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once, for the harvest has come.”

Mark 4:26-29

Seeds of the Logos waft through the universe by the Breath of the Sower and grow by the mysterious life-giving energy of the Spirit. In the language of science, organic life emerged from inorganic matter though it knows not how. Spirit has not entered the vocabulary of science, but without it life’s mystery eludes empiricism. Spirit and matter interpenetrate, according to Genesis.

In Adam, organic life becomes conscious of itself as a person in communion with other persons and all living beings. Homo sapiens (“wise human being”) is matter awake. 

The Light, which enlightens everyone, scattered seeds of truth throughout the universe in preparation for his coming (John 1:9). All truth in the Law and the Prophets of the Old Testament and in pagan philosophy originated from the Logos and dispersed by the Spirit. Knowledge of divinity and the natural law are accessible to all (Romans 1:20; 2:14-15).

He said, “To what shall we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable can we use for it? It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth. But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.”

Mark 4:30-32

The mustard seed is the personal cosmos in the image of the Logos. Sown “in the beginning,” it grew inorganically, organically, and spiritually by the Breath of God. Seeds of wisdom (sapientia) prepared homo sapiens to receive the Word made flesh. 

Those who received the Word and became one with the Word followed the pattern of his life. 

Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.

John 12:24

Remember the days past when, after you had been enlightened, you endured a great contest of suffering.

Hebrews 10:32

The seed of the Logos, growing into the theandric organism of the Blessed Trinity, must break to release the deifying energy of grace.

We are not among those who draw back and perish, but among those who have faith and will possess life.

Hebrews 10:39

-GMC

Children of One Womb

Icon of the Theotokos

Wednesday of the First Week in Ordinary Time (Year I)

Hebrews 2:14-18

Out of the womb I have begotten you before the morning star.

Psalm 110:3 (Interpreted by St. Athanasius, Deposition of Arius 3)

He who consecrates and those who are being consecrated all have one origin. Therefore, he is not ashamed to call them “brothers.”

Hebrews 2:11

All men are my brothers from the same womb, all things my companions.1

Zhang Zai (Chang Tsai, 1020-1077)

Jesus Christ fulfilled the highest intuition of the sages that we are all family. Without departing the eternal Womb of the Father, the Son of God was born of the Virgin Mary into our world to gather all people to himself. 

The God-man’s paternal and maternal origins resonate with the natural philosophy of Neo-Confucianist philosopher Zhang Zai who called Heaven “Father” and Earth “Mother.” Heaven and Earth constitute the whole of reality, the Universe which is fundamentally loving, nurturing, and benevolent. Zhang Zai was influenced by the ancient cosmology of China which characterized the Tao (“Way,” universal principle, Logos) as a mother. The Tao is gentle, kind, merciful, yielding, and sacrificial.

Although the book of Hebrews, full of references to Israelite temple worship, priesthood, and  customs sounds very foreign to cultures of the East, the extraordinary humility and love of Christ strike a deep chord.

Now since the children share in blood and flesh, he likewise shared in them, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life. Surely he did not help angels but rather the descendants of Abraham; therefore, he had to become like his brothers in every way, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest before God to expiate the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

Hebrews 2:14-18

Christ is the perfect icon of the Tao made flesh:

Nothing in the world is softer or weaker than water
Yet nothing is better at overcoming the hard and strong
This is because nothing can replace it

That the weak overcomes the strong
And the soft overcomes the hard
Everybody in the world knows
But cannot put into practice

Therefore, sages say:
The one who accepts the humiliation of the state
Is called its master
The one who accepts the misfortune of the state
Becomes king of the world
The truth seems like the opposite 

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, chapter 78 (translated by Derek Lin)

The “king of the world,” crowned with the “glory and honor” of his sacrificial death on the Cross (Hebrews 2:9), is our gateway to union and communion.

Heaven, earth, and all human persons are called to oneness in the Womb of the Father, through the Son, and in the Holy Spirit.

-GMC

1 Fung Yu-Lan, The Spirit of Chinese Philosophy, trans. E. R. Hughes (Boston: Beacon Press, 1947), 175.

No Person is an Island

In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe, who is the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being, and who sustains all things by his mighty word.

Hebrews 1:1-3a

In the previous post, God from God, Light from Light, a development in understanding the being of God was seen in the exegesis of Hebrews 1:3 by Origen and St. Gregory Thaumaturgus. The statement that Christ is “the very imprint,” seal, stamp, impression, or image (charakter, χαρακτήρ) of the Father’s hupostasis (ὑπόστασις) was stretched beyond its original conceptual boundaries (being, essence, nature, substance) to include the notion of person.

But since He is called by the apostle not only the brightness of His glory, but also the express figure of His person or subsistence, it does not seem idle to inquire how there can be said to be another figure of that person besides the person of God Himself, whatever be the meaning of person and subsistence.1

Origen (fl. c. 200-254)

For He is the brightness of His glory, the express image of His Father’s person.2

St. Gregory Thaumaturgus (fl. c. 248-264)

Later Fathers picked up their thread and contemplated Hebrews 1:3 in a new, personalistic light beyond Greek philosophical categories.

For the apostle says that the Son is the express image of the person of the Father.3

St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-394)

I believe that there is one God the Father and one Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father. Also that there is one Lord Jesus Christ, only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages, brightness of his glory and express image of the Father’s person…4

Theodoret of Cyr (c. 393-466)

St. John Chrysostom (fl. 386-407), while recognizing that God is utterly beyond thought and conception, embraces the personalistic turn: 

For instance, that God is everywhere we know, but how we do not understand. That there is a certain incorporeal power, the cause of all our good things, we know, but how it is or what it is, we know not. We speak and do not understand! I said that he is everywhere, but I do not understand it. I said that he begot from himself, and again I know not how I shall understand it… 

And to show you that even Paul is weak and does not put out his illustrations with exactness, and to make you tremble and refrain from searching too far, hear what he says, having called him Son and named him Creator, “who being the brightness of his glory and the express image of his person.”5

St. Athanasius (fl. 325-373), among others, retains the original Greek meaning of hupostasis in Hebrews 1:3, which suits his defense of the Son’s consubstantiality (“one in being”) with the Father:

Therefore, he is true God, existing consubstantially (homoousios) with the true Father, while other beings to whom he said, “I say, ‘you are gods,’” have this grace from the Father only by participation in the Word through the Spirit. For he is the “very stamp” of the Father’s “being,” and “light” from “light,” and the “power” and true “image” of the Father’s substance.6

Both interpretations of hupostasis approach but do not encompass divinity, for being and person are not bounded concepts but fluid, dynamic, interpenetrating realities.

This survey of patristic commentary on Hebrews 1:3 reveals a new revolution in the history of metaphysics.

What God is (being/nature) and Who God is (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) interpenetrate in an indivisible perichoresis (“dance”) without borders.

The notion of “person” is permeable and bursts the bounds of Hellenistic individual substance.

To be a person is to be in all other persons. No person is an island.

-GMC

1 Origen, In Principiis, Book I, Chapter 2, 8.

2 St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, Epistles on the Arian Heresy and the Deposition of Arius, To Alexander of Alexandria, 12.

3 St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Faith.

4 Theodoret of Cyr, Letter 83.

5 St. John Chrysostom, On the Epistle to the Hebrews 2.1.

6 St. Athanasius, Four Discourses Against the Arians 1.3.9.

The last four quotations are from Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Hebrews, Erik M. Heen and Philip D. W. Krey, editors, and Thomas C. Oden, general editor (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 12-15.