Saturday, May 31, 2008

Definition of Sloth

Last month I commented upon St. Thomas' discussion of the seven capital vices. I said at that time that I was thinking about doing separate posts on each of them. Rather than do that, though - given my recent busyness, and given that the other six are reasonably well understood - I'm only going to briefly discuss slothfulness.

The modern meaning of "sloth" is not what is meant by St. Thomas when he uses the word, although there is something of a relation between the two. He does not mean mere laziness or sluggishness - the sort of thing that might bring to our minds the animals called sloths. The vice known as sloth "is sadness about one's spiritual good, on account of the attendant bodily labor..." (ST I-II Q84 A4). Elsewhere he expands upon this:
Sloth, according to Damascene (De Fide Orth. ii, 14) is an oppressive sorrow, which, to wit, so weighs upon man's mind, that he wants to do nothing; thus acid things are also cold. Hence sloth implies a certain weariness of work, as appears from a gloss on Ps. 106:18, "Their soul abhorred all manner of meat," and from the definition of some who say that sloth is a "sluggishness of the mind which neglects to begin good" (ST II-II Q35 A1).
So sloth isn't simple laziness - a vice in itself - but rather, it is a sorrow or sluggishness about doing good that prevents one from doing it. If a thief wants to quit stealing, but he thinks to himself that it would be too hard to give up his larcenous ways and get a real job to provide for his needs...that's sloth. I suppose the story from St. Bede I retold recently might be another example of this vice: the wicked man despaired of being able to repent...and so he didn't, to his own destruction.

And that very story gives us a good example of why we must be careful not to give into this sin. If it gets a grip upon us, we may very well find ourselves saying that the good we need to do in order to be reconciled to God is too much.

St. Bede and Catholic Continuity

One thing that has occurred to me while reading the Ecclesiastical History is that St. Bede is a Catholic. That might seem like a silly observation. In one sense it's a pretty obvious one, given the alternatives (none, for him in the British Isles), and given the fact that the Church has canonized him and named him a Doctor of the Church. But in another sense I think it's useful to point it out anyway.

As I read EH I realize that I am reading the work of a Catholic. It's not primarily a theological or doctrinal work, but when these subjects come up, the perspective taken is a Catholic one, and it's entirely clear that St. Bede thinks and writes as a Catholic throughout. His writing doesn't conflict with St. Augustine; it doesn't conflict with the Councils; it doesn't conflict with Trent; it doesn't conflict with Vatican II. The same tapestry of belief is to be found in St. Bede as elsewhere in the history of the Church.

I guess the point is that St. Bede provides testimonial evidence contradicting the ridiculous claims made by those who like to pretend that the Church's history has been one of degeneration, or of discontinuity. No. Wrong. Growth? Yes. Development in understanding? Certainly. Contradiction? No. The Church teaches the same Gospel today that it taught in the 1500s, that it taught in the 1200s, that it taught in the 700s, and 300s, and from the very beginning.

Another Bede influence on Tolkien

This one was a bit surprising, since the story in Tolkien struck me as pretty imaginative.

St. Bede reports the events of a certain foolish man who lived wickedly. His companions frequently urged him to repent, but he ignored them. It happened eventually that he became ill, and his friends became all the more fervent in their efforts to persuade him, but he replied that if he repented out of fear of death then people would charge him with doing something that he wouldn't have done when healthy.

Silly man.

His illness got worse. At last an occasion came when he was visited by two angels. They showed him a beautiful tiny book - a book containing every good deed he had ever done. There were very, very few of them.

Then an army of demons appeared, and they showed him "a volume of enormous size and almost unbearable weight, horrible to behold," which contained a record, "in hideous handwriting," of every sin of thought and word and deed that he had ever committed. The demons asked the angels, "Why do you sit here since you know that this man is certainly ours?"

"You speak the truth," said the angels; "take him away to help make up the number of the damned."
Then two very wicked spirits who had daggers in their hands struck me, one on the head and one on the foot. These daggers are now creeping into the interior of my body with great torment and, as soon as they meet, I shall die and, as the devils are all ready to seize me, I shall be dragged down into the dungeons of hell.
The similarities here to Frodo's experience on Weathertop with the blade of the Nazgul are pretty obvious.

I think this man's experience also sounds a warning to us all that I have discussed before. The life that we lead now will make it easy or hard for us to be faithful to God. The fact that we might be given a last chance to repent doesn't mean that we'll take it. We need to live lives of repentance now, when we have the chance, because there may not be another one.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Bede and Tolkien

No, I don't suppose that there is any particular connection between the two other than as fellow Catholics. But I've stumbled across a few references while reading St. Bede that were amusingly interesting to me (and maybe no one else).

The office of "thain" is apparently ancient in England. St. Bede refers to one in II.9, named Lilla, who saved the king's life by taking a poisoned sword for him. According to notes in this edition of EH, a "thegn" (apparently the old Anglo-Saxon spelling) would have been not necessarily a bodyguard (as this little anecdote might suggest to a modern reader) but a member of the royal household; describes the thegn or thain as a "minor noble."

The poisoned sword that Lilla took for king Edwin was thrust by the assassin Eomer. Ha! (laughing not at or even near the honorable Lilla, but rather at Tolkien's source of a name).

Lastly, in II.5 Bede refers to a Kentish dynasty surnamed Oisc as oiscingas. So we see in these references that if I had known for all these years a little more English history, I might have known better how much Tolkien drew upon it in crafting The Lord of the Rings. Although I find it hard to imagine any sense in which Eomer son of Eomund has anything in common with an assassin except possibly in the twisted mind of Saruman :-) But I do find it interesting that the "ingas" suffix used in reference to a dynasty isn't something that Tolkien invented at all (as I thought) but is something he took from his own heritage.

Three-Three-Three Posts in One

I have been a bit busy for a few weeks!

I finished reading von Balthasar's The Threefold Garland. It's a very fine collection of scriptural meditations on the mysteries of the Rosary (minus the luminous mysteries promoted by John Paul II later).

By way of wrapping up what I was saying in earlier posts concerning other of his works, this one reflects his intention of going back to the sources: he sticks to the Bible in talking about the mysteries. In this case it works, considering the narrow focus of the book. But like I was saying before: it's silly in my opinion to insist upon ignoring the good that can be found elsewhere than in the sources. I would assert that St. Thomas' exposition of the Hail Mary is no less valuable than von Balthasar's. Shall we just ignore a doctor of the Church? No thanks.

I guess by way of concluding that topic I'd say that there is good to be found in von Balthasar's work, but I'm not going to ignore 2000 years of theological treasure as he suggests. And at this stage in my humble theological growth I'd say that digging the good out of von Balthasar is far more work than, say, digging it out of St. Thomas, or St. Augustine, or St. Bede (or Chesterton or Belloc, though they weren't theologians).

Since finishing up with vB, I've read Bainton's Medieval Church. It's a short little book and so nothing more than introductory. Bainton has an engaging style. This particular book is different from other stuff of his that I've read (I'm thinking of his two-volume history of the Church) in that (literally) half of it consists of selections from primary source documents - and in my view that's two-thirds (or maybe more) of the value of the book. On the whole my impression of Bainton is positive, though I think at times he is a bit cynical about the Church - which is unsurprising, since he was Protestant. But he doesn't seem to me to be anti-Catholic at all.

The one serious objection I had to the book involves his portrayal of Thomism. He describes it as "more nearly in line with the ancient Stoics" than with Aristotle (p. 58)! I wonder what he'd been reading, but it certainly wasn't the Summa Theologica. He goes on to say (p. 59) that faith and knowledge are "mutually exclusive" but not antithetical. "Mutually exclusive" seems to me to be saying way too much, and I can't help wondering whether Francis Schaeffer got his botched ideas about Aquinas from reading this book (since he obviously didn't read Aquinas). Now Bainton does acknowledge that we can by means of reason "elucidate" what God has revealed - but that seems to me to turn mutual exclusivity on its head. It may be that Bainton is simply giving poor expression to the fact that there are some things we can know only by means of revelation: we cannot reason our way to a knowledge of the Trinity, for example.

Yesterday I started reading St. Bede's Ecclesastical History. The Oxford edition that I'm reading includes a wealth of notes, but I have a serious complaint about this.

(Reginald mounts a hobby horse)

The notes in the book are all at the end of the book. This is really, really, really, really annoying for the serious reader. It's inexcusable. Footnotes! We want footnotes! Publishers: It's a tremendous disservice to the reader and to the author to force us to flip back and forth. It's nothing more than laziness and trying to save a buck on publishing costs. Please stop. Bring back the good, honest, useful footnote. Thank you.

Okay, I digressed :-)

Setting aside the publisher's grotesque presentation on this score, it's a good volume, and St. Bede is an engaging author.

Looking ahead, I expect to be spending a fair amount of time reading history (mostly medieval history) in the coming months. Aside from the Cambridge Medieval History (the "short" version for me, a non-specialist - but it's still two big hardcover volumes) I've got stuff on Charlemagne, The Deeds of Frederick Barbarossa by Otto of Friesing, a few other miscellaneous things on medieval church history and theology, a few volumes of Pelikan, etc. The work of fixing my pitiful formal education continues :-) Onward!

Oh - lest I forget - I also read Belloc's Characters of the Reformation during my absence from the blog. I'm not sure that he hasn't occasionally got things wrong (his portrayal of Cranmer seems a bit self-contradictory for example - but maybe that is simply a reflection of Cranmer himself), but at the worst it's a refreshing alternative to the standard portrayal of the Reformation.