Wednesday, January 29, 2020

“True and Living Friendship Can Not Thrive Amid Sin” ~ Saint Francis de Sales and the crisis of post-Christian friendship

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A lamentable feature of modern post-Christian life in the West is the inability of many people to form strong, lasting friendships. This observation has popped up with increasing frequency in the secular media, particularly as it relates to the Millennial generation. A recent poll that made the rounds last year indicated that 22% of Millennials who responded said that they had no friends at all, 27% said that they had no close friends, and 30% said that they had no best friends.

The article accompanying the poll suggests that social media usage has been a major driver of this phenomenon. Online "friends" may be myriad, but they are also distant and illusory—not really friends at all in the traditional sense. Most young people seem to understand that implicitly.

As families shrink, and young people grow up without knowing the joys of a multitude of siblings and cousins, this lack of friends means that more and more people are feeling isolated, lonely and are lacking any sort of social safety net to help them when they encounter financial, health, or emotional problems.

But this sad dilemma should not be left at the doorstep of social media alone. Rather, I posit that the problem is at least partially due to a general loss of the traditional Christian virtues as a given among most people, and the tendency to fill that void by congregating together based on vain and trivial interests or worse, outright sinful desires and activities. As St. Francis de Sales taught in his excellent work, Philothea: Introduction to the Devout Life, such trivialities can never form the basis of a true friendships. Instead, true friendship requires that we bear with the trivial, actively discourage the sinful, and encourage virtue in our friends. It should go without saying that the same should be true of married couples and family members.

In Philothea, Saint Francis explains the difference between true and false friendship in great detail:
“Friendship demands very close correspondence between those who love one another, otherwise it can never take root or continue. And together with the interchange of friendship, other things imperceptibly glide in, and a mutual giving and receiving of emotions and inclinations takes place; especially when we esteem the object of our love very highly, because then we so entirely open our heart to him, that his influence rules us altogether, whether for good or evil.”
The distorted modern concept of “love” is often rendered as being unconditional and all-accepting. That is, we are enjoined to demonstrate our love for each other by accepting, celebrating, or even adopting the faults and sins of our friends and family members. Saint Francis continues, saying, to the contrary:
“Of course we should love him notwithstanding his faults, but without loving those faults. True friendship implies an interchange of what is good, not what is evil….Saint Gregory Nazianzen tells us how certain persons who loved and admired Saint Basil were led to imitate even his external blemishes, his slow, abstracted manner of speaking, the cut of his beard, and his peculiar gait. And so we see husbands and wives, children, friends, who, by reason of their great affection for one another, acquire—either accidentally or designedly—many foolish little ways and tricks peculiar to each. This ought not to be, for everyone has enough imperfections of their own without adding those of anybody else, and friendship requires no such thing. On the contrary, it rather constrains us to help one another in getting rid of all sorts of imperfections. Of course we should bear with our friend's infirmities, but we should not encourage them, much less copy them.”
It should be pointed out that St. Francis is only talking about small flaws here—personal idiosyncrasies and imperfections. As to actual sinful behaviors and desires, he speaks without any equivocation: these should never be encouraged or tolerated in our friends. To do so renders the friendship a perverse fiction that can not be maintained without considerable self-deception:
“Of course, I am speaking of imperfections only, for, as to sins, we must neither imitate nor tolerate these in our friends. That is but a sorry friendship which would see a friend perish, and not try to save him, would watch him dying of an abscess without daring to handle the knife of correction which would save him. True and living friendship cannot thrive amid sin....Friendship will banish a casual sin by brotherly correction, but if the sin be persistent, friendship dies out—it can only live in a pure atmosphere.”
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As to those who attempt to lead their friends into sinful behavior, St. Francis says adamantly that we should not consider anyone who does so a friend:
“Much less can true friendship ever lead any one into sin. Our friend becomes an enemy if he seeks to do so, and deserves to lose our friendship, and there is no surer proof of the hollowness of friendship than its profession between evil-doers. If we love a vicious person, our friendship will be vicious too. It will be like those to whom it is given. Those who draw together for mere temporal profit, have no right to call their union friendship. It is not for love of one another that they unite, but for love of gain.” [de Sales: Philothea, Part III, Chapter 22]
In a previous chapter, St. Francis describes what a true friendship should look like:
“Love every one with the pure love of charity, but have friendship only with those whose interactions are good and true, and the purer the bond which unites you so much higher will your friendship be. If your relationship is based on science it is praiseworthy, still more if it arises from a participation in goodness, prudence, justice and the like. But if the bond of your mutual liking be charity, devotion and Christian perfection, God knows how very precious a friendship it is! Precious because it comes from God, because it tends to God, because God is the link that binds you, because it will last forever in Him. Truly it is a blessed thing to love on earth as we hope to love in Heaven, and to begin that friendship here which is to endure for ever there. I am not now speaking of simple charity, a love due to all mankind, but of that spiritual friendship which binds souls together, leading them to share devotions and spiritual interests, so as to have but one mind between them. Such as these may well cry out, ‘Behold, how good and joyful a thing it is, brethren, to dwell together in unity!’” [de Sales: Philothea, Part III, Chapter 22]
Today, January 29, is the feast day of St. Francis de Sales on the traditional calendar. This great saint and Doctor of the Church had many profound things to say about friendship, love, and other aspects of life that are sadly forgotten today. Click here to read more from his Philothea: Introduction to the Devout Life.

Of course, this is a book that every Catholic should have on their bookshelves, so go ye and order a copy here.

Monday, January 27, 2020

"The Actual Remains of the Great Doctor Were Conveyed to the Imperial City" ~ January 27, Feast of the Translation of Relics of Saint John Chrysostom

The translation of the relics of Saint John Chyrsostom to the Church of the
Holy Apostles in Constantinople, taken from the 11th century work known
as the Menologion of Basil II, now contained in the Vatican Library.
On this date in AD 438, the remains of Saint John Chrysostom were returned to Constantinople to be re-buried following a pious procession and public honors granted by the Emperor Theodosius II and his sister, Saint Pulcheria.

Saint John had been exiled from Constantinople in AD 404 after getting on the bad side of the Empress Eudoxia and squabbling with political and religious factions in the capital. He eventually perished in exile in the city of Comana in eastern Asia Minor.

About thirty years later, one of John’s disciples became patriarch of Constantinople. This man was Saint Proclus who offered a moving homily praising his mentor. This speech, and the apparent sympathy it generated among the people, convinced Theodosius II to command that the relics of St. John be allowed to return from exile. By this act, Proclus and Theodosius II reconciled the Christian factions in Constantinople which had remained bitterly divided since John’s banishment.

Following is a contemporary account of the event from the 5th century historian Socrates Scholasticus:
Proclus the bishop brought back to the Church those who had separated themselves from it on account of Bishop John's deposition, he having soothed the irritation by a prudent expedient. What this was we must now recount. Having obtained the emperor's permission, he removed the body of John from Comana, where it was buried, to Constantinople, in the thirty-fifth year after his deposition. And when he had carried it in solemn procession through the city, he deposited it with much honor in the church termed The Apostles. By this means the admirers of that prelate were conciliated, and again associated in communion with the [catholic] Church. This happened on the 27th of January, in the sixteenth consulate of the Emperor Theodosius. [Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, Book VII, Chapter 45]
More details of the actual translation of the relics, including how they were personally welcomed to the capital by Theodosius II and his sister, Saint Pulcheria, may be found in the 5th century Ecclesiastical History of Theodoret of Cyrrhus, as follows:
At a later time the actual remains of the great doctor were conveyed to the imperial city, and once again the faithful crowd turning the sea as it were into land by their close packed boats, covered the mouth of the Bosphorus towards the Propontis with their torches. The precious possession was brought into Constantinople by the present emperor, who received the name of his grandfather and preserved his piety undefiled. After first gazing upon the bier he laid his head against it, and prayed for his parents and for pardon on them who had ignorantly sinned, for his parents had long ago been dead, leaving him an orphan in extreme youth, but the God of his fathers and of his forefathers permitted him not to suffer trial from his orphanhood, but provided for his nurture in piety, protected his empire from the assaults of sedition, and bridled rebellious hearts. Ever mindful of these blessings he honors his benefactor with hymns of praise. Associated with him in this divine worship are his sisters [Pulcheria, Arcadia and Marina], who have maintained virginity throughout their lives, thinking the study of the divine oracles the greatest delight, and reckoning that riches beyond robbers' reach are to be found in ministering to the poor.[Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History, Book V, Chapter 36]
Later sources have claimed that when the coffin of St. John was opened, his body was found to be incorrupt. I have not been able to discover any ancient references to this miraculous event. However, there is an anonymous late medieval Russian source entitled Dialogue on the Shrines and Other Points of Interest in Constantinople, which says the following:
The tomb of St. John Chrysostom, however, is at the high altar in the sanctuary of Saint Sophia, and is covered with a slab worked in gold and precious stones. [His body] was still whole, and reposes there as if alive. There is nothing dismal about his vestments or hair, but to this day [the body] exudes a strong sweet fragrance. [Majeska: Russian Travelers to Constantinople in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, pg. 134]
It is said that the incorrupt ear of St. John may be found at a monastery on Mount Athos. Also at Mount Athos is a relic purporting to be the incorrupt right hand of St. John as pictured below.

A relic believed to be the right hand of St. John Chrysostom.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

"Never was the encouragement of the gods more sure..." ~ The elevation of Honorius as Co-Augustus, January 23, AD 393

Image of Honorius from the consular diptych of Anicius Petronius Probus, AD 406.
January 23 is the anniversary of the elevation of Honorius as Co-Augustus of the Roman Empire by his father, Theodosius the Great. He was a mere boy of nine years-old at the time. Theodosius raised him in AD 393 on the eve of his great conflict with the Western usurpers, Eugenius and Arbogast which would culminate in the Battle of the River Frigidus. After winning the battle and reunifying the empire, Theodosius soon fell ill. On his deathbed, he bequeathed the empire to his two sons, dividing it between Arcadius in the East and Honorius in the West.

Knowing that a boy of eleven could not possibly rule the Western Empire, Theodosius provided Honorius with a supremely capable protector – the half-barbarian general, Stilicho. It was well that he did so because even as he matured, Honorius proved to be among the most inept men ever to attain the imperial purple. In modern parlance, he seemed to be something of a doofus.

The late-Roman Latin poet and panegyricist, Claudian, has provided an obsequious, ridiculous, and unintentionally ironic description of the elevation of Honorius, followed by a stylized oration delivered by Theodosius to his young son offering advice. I will excerpt parts of it below, but when reading it, it is well to remember that Claudian was writing as much for Stilicho as he was for Honorius—if not more so. The poem was written as a Panegyric on the Fourth Consulship of Honorius in AD 398, a mere five years after his elevation. Honorius would have been fourteen at the time, having ruled the West in his own right for three years. Perhaps Claudian still had hope that the young prince would grow out of the indecisive fecklessness which was, no doubt, already beginning to show itself. 

First, we see that the elevation of Honorius was apparently accompanied by a strange astral phenomenon. The allusions to the pagan pantheon and heavenly omens would likely not have seemed strange to a Late Roman Christian prince like Honorius:
Thou, then Caesar, didst become emperor and wert straightway made equal with thy brother. Never was the encouragement of the gods more sure, never did heaven attend with more favoring omens. Black tempest had shrouded the light in darkness and the south wind gathered thick rain-clouds, when of a sudden, so soon as the soldiers had borne thee aloft with customary shout, Phoebus scattered the clouds and at the same moment was given to thee the sceptre, to the world light.…Even at midday did a wondering people gaze upon a bold star ('twas clear to behold) — no dulled nor stunted beams but bright as Boötes' nightly lamp. At a strange hour its brilliance lit up the sky and its fires could be clearly seen though the moon lay hid. May be it was the Queen mother's star or the return of thy grandsire's now become a god, or may be the generous sun agreed to share the heavens with all the stars that hasted to behold thee. The meaning of those signs is now unmistakable.
Then follows Theodosius’s lengthy speech as crafted by Claudian. It includes the following interesting passage which sounds almost didactic in nature as if intending to educate and overawe Claudian's audience who may not have been particularly well versed in Roman history:
“Show no scorn of thine inferiors nor seek to overstep the limits established for mankind. Pride joined thereto defaces the fairest character. They are not submissive Sabaeans whom I have handed over to thy rule, nor have I made thee lord of Armenia; I give thee not Assyria, accustomed to a woman's rule. Thou must govern Romans who have long governed the world, Romans who brooked not Tarquin's pride nor Caesar's tyranny. History still tells of our ancestors' ill deeds; the stain will never be wiped away. So long as the world lasts the monstrous excesses of the Julian house will stand condemned. Will any not have heard of Nero's murders or how Capri's foul cliffs were owned by an agèd lecher [that is, Tiberius]? The fame of Trajan will never die, not so much because, thanks to his victories on the Tigris, conquered Parthia became a Roman province, not because he brake the might of Dacia and led their chiefs in triumph up the slope of the Capitol, but because he was kindly to his country. Fail not to make such as he thine example, my son.”
Claudian goes on at length about the heroes of the Roman Republic, but then puts the following response into young Honorius’s mouth which, frankly, must have seemed absurd to his audience. One can almost hear the barbarian federate troops snickering:
"All this will I do, so God favor my attempts. The peoples and kingdoms committed to my care shall find me not unworthy of thee nor of my brother. But why should I not experience in action what thou hast taught in words? Thou goest to the wintry Alps: take me with thee. Let mine arrows pierce the tyrant's body, and the barbarians pale at my bow. Shall I allow Italy to become the prey of a ruthless bandit? Rome to serve one who is himself but a servant? Am I still such a child that neither power profaned nor just revenge for an uncle's blood shall move me? Fain would I ride through blood. Quick, give me arms. Why castest thou my youth in my teeth? Why thinkest me unequal to the combat? I am as old as was Pyrrhus when alone he o'erthrew Troy and proved himself no degenerate from his father Achilles. If I may not remain in thy camp as a prince I will come even as a soldier."
Returning to the present, Claudian declares that Theodosius’s prayers for his son have been answered in full...but not merely in the person of his son alone...
Behold now, great father, in whatsoever part of heaven thou shinest, be it the southern arch or the cold constellation of the Plough that has won the honour of thy presence; see, thy prayer has been answered; thy son now equals thee in merit, nay, a consummation still more to be desired, he surpasseth thee, thanks to the support of thy dear Stilicho whom thou thyself at thy death didst leave to guard and defend the brothers twain. For us there is nought that Stilicho is not ready to suffer, no danger to himself he is not willing to face, neither hardships of the land nor hazards of the sea.
The above excerpts were taken from here: Panegyric on the Fourth Consulship of Honorius.

There is much more to tell about the eventful but ultimately disastrous reign of Honorius, but let one anecdote recorded by Procopius in his Vandalic Wars about the sack of the city of Rome in AD 410 serve to indicate how sadly incapable he eventually proved to be:
Emperor Honorius in Ravenna received the message from one of the eunuchs, evidently a keeper of the poultry, that Rome had perished. And he cried out and said, "And yet it has just eaten from my hands!" For he had a very large cock, Rome by name; and the eunuch comprehending his words said that it was the city of Rome which had perished at the hands of Alaric, and the emperor with a sigh of relief answered quickly: "But I, my good fellow, thought that my fowl Rome had perished." So great, they say, was the folly with which this emperor was possessed. [Procopius: The Vandalic Wars, Book III, Chapter 2]
Honorius feeding his fowl in The Favorites of the Emperor Honorius
by John William Waterhouse (1883).

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Saint Maurus Walks on Water ~ As told by Pope Saint Gregory the Great

Saint Maurus rescues Saint Placidus by Bartolomeo di Giovanni, ca. AD 1485.
In about AD 530, when Italy was ruled by the unstable successors of the Ostrogothic king Theodoric immediately prior to the Byzantine re-conquest, many noblemen of Rome entrusted their young sons to Benedictus, a holy monk who lived in the mountains of nearby Subiaco. One such boy was Maurus who is identified by Saint Gregory the Great as the son of a noble named Evitius. Another was Placidus, who was brought by Tertullius, a senator.

These two were among earliest disciples of a man who would be known to history of St. Benedict of Nursia.

Writing about 60 years after the fact in his Dialogues, Pope Saint Gregory the Great tells us that Maurus, “growing to great virtue, began to be his master's coadjutor.” Maurus is mentioned as part of several episodes in Gregory’s biography of Benedict as contained in the Dialogues. The best known of these anecdotes runs as follows:
On a certain day, as venerable Benedict was, in his cell, the foresaid young Placidus, the holy man's monk, went out to take up water at the lake, and putting down his pail carelessly, fell in himself after it, whom the water forthwith carried away from the land so far as one may shoot an arrow. The man of God, being in his cell, by and by knew this, and called in haste for Maurus, saying: "Brother Maurus, run as fast as you can, for Placidus, that went to the lake to fetch water, is fallen in, and is carried a good way off." 
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A strange thing, and since the time of Peter the Apostle never heard of! Maurus, craving his father's blessing, and departing in all haste at his commandment, ran to that place upon the water, to which the young lad was carried by force thereof, thinking that he had all that while gone upon the land: and taking fast hold of him by the hair of his head, in all haste he returned back again: and so soon as he was at land, coming to himself he looked behind him, and then knew very well that he had before run upon the water: and that which before he durst not have presumed, being now done and past, he both marveled, and was afraid at that which he had done.
Coming back to the father, and telling him what had happened, the venerable man did not attribute this to his own merits, but to the obedience of Maurus: but Maurus on the contrary, said that it was done only upon his commandment, and that he had nothing to do in that miracle, not knowing at that time what he did. But the friendly contention proceeding of mutual humility, the young youth himself that was saved from drowning did determine: for he said that he saw when he was drawn out of the water the Abbot's garment upon his head, affirming that it was he that had delivered him from that great danger. 
Saint Maurus would later become famous in his own right. According to tradition, he was sent by Benedict, in company with several other monks, to found a community in the kingdom of the Franks nearby the Loire River. This became Glanfeuil Abbey and the village which grew up around it became known as Saint-Maur-sur-Loire. In the late 19th century, archaeological excavations were undertaken around the modern abbey, which had been destroyed and rebuilt several times over its history, revealing Gallo-Roman sub-structures.

Sadly, the modern abbey was abandoned in 1901 after the monks were driven out of France. It now seems to be privately owned without much external evidence of what it once was. Alas.

On the traditional calendar, the feast of Saint Maurus is commemorated on January 15 along with that of Saint Placidus. These saints are often confused with others of the same or similar names.