Some Fundamental Principles of Catholic Theology


Reconciliation

As was said earlier, the Church is Christ's Mystical Body. Now a body is a unity. In other words, the parts of the body are not isolated units unto themselves; rather, they are parts of the whole, and they exist to serve and maintain the integrity of the whole. When a part of the body is injured, such as a stubbed toe, it is the one whole organism that feels the pain; the one person has been injured. All injury is, strictly speaking, injury of a part or parts. But we do not say that the part has been injured, but that the person has been injured. If we speak of the part as injured, it is always in relation to the whole, i.e., "my toe", or "I hurt my toe". So too for Christ's Mystical Body, the Church. All members of the Church are members of a living body. Sin affects the entire body, just as an injured part affects the entire organism. That is why sin is a public affair, and never a private matter between God and the sinner. If sin only affected one's relationship with God, then perhaps a person could make a case against the need to confess to a priest. But the priest represents the Church, and absolution (release) is forgiveness in the name of Christ's Mystical Body:

"And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained" (Jn 20, 22).

For if my sin affects every member of Christ's body, then I must seek reconciliation to the Church as well as to God. I must seek forgiveness from every member of the Church. But this is not possible. That is why the priest acts in the name of the Church in absolving a person from sin. In being reconciled to Christ's body, I am reconciled to Christ, and in being reconciled to Christ, I am reconciled to God. The graces received in the sacrament of reconciliation strengthen us to eventually overcome the sins that we currently struggle with.

Interestingly enough, there is one sin that cannot be forgiven, namely, blasphemy of the Holy Spirit: "Therefore, I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come" (Mt 12, 31-32). This has always been a source of wonder for theologians throughout the ages. According to Catholic theological tradition, there are six ways to blaspheme the Holy Spirit. These are despair, presumption, final impenitence, obstinacy, resisting the known truth, and finally envy of another's spiritual good.

To sin against the Holy Spirit is to take pleasure in the malice of sin for its own sake. The reason that such a sin cannot be forgiven is that the Holy Spirit is the source of the remission of sins, and the six ways of blaspheming the Holy Spirit are sins that are directly contrary to the remission of sins. For there are certain effects of the Holy Spirit that work to prevent the choosing of evil, such as the theological virtue of hope, the gift of fear, openness to truth, a healthy sense of shame, delight in the good fortune and blessings of another, etc. Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit results from a special contempt of one or more of these effects.

First, consider despair. I once taught a student who chose not to receive the sacrament of Reconciliation when the opportunity arose during a week in Lent. There is nothing terribly unusual about this. But I decided to ask him why he chose not to take advantage of the opportunity. It was his reply that frightened me. He said that there is no way that God would forgive him for what he had done. I tried to argue with him, but he kept insisting that God could not possibly forgive him his sin. He wouldn't tell me what his sin was, but I spent a great deal of time trying to convince him that there is nothing we can do that God will not forgive, as long as we approach him with contrition (sorrow for sin) and ask for forgiveness. He finally decided to receive the sacrament.

Now, this was not an instance of the despair that is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, because he was forgiven of his sins. This was a case of unbelief. After listening to some basic truths of the gospel, he chose to believe (faith) and to hope, and so he cooperated with divine grace, which was moving him to repentance. But the despair that is an instance of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is similar. The difference is that the person has contempt for the mercy of God -- most probably because he has never shown mercy to another in his life -- and so he persists in his despair of the divine mercy. Such a person will not seek forgiveness with a contrite heart, because he chooses to believe that his sin is too great for God to forgive. Hence, he will not receive it, for the conditions of the remission of sins are contrition and the asking of forgiveness.

We must always remember that our sins are never too great for God to forgive. Fear of this despair is the reason why we say, at the end of the Hail Mary: "pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death". According to some of the great saints and doctors of the Church, our final hour will be the most difficult hour of our lives; for it is at this hour that the forces of hell will be unleashed against us, bringing to our awareness all the sins that we have committed throughout our lifetime, in order to induce us to finally despair of the mercy of God. Prudent indeed it is to beseech the Blessed Mother to intercede for us during this final and most difficult hour.

Presumption is the opposite of despair. Many years ago when teaching in a rather difficult area of Toronto, I would often engage in conversation students who were regular drug dealers. I don't believe it is possible to reason with a drug dealer. They operate on a very low level of "conscience", and so if one is going to have any success in getting a drug dealer to change his ways, one has to be willing to sound like a fundamentalist preacher. And so I would talk to them about hell and eternal punishment in a way that would frighten any other person of normal conscience. And what I discovered in the course of my conversations with these kids is that they were convinced that they would be forgiven for all their sins, because "God forgives all sins". These kids had total contempt for the law of God, and they had no fear of God, because somehow they got it into their heads that God was some giant "doormat" in the sky who automatically forgave all sins, without any requirement on the part of the sinner. Such people will not seek God's forgiveness, because they "presume" that they already have it, despite their criminal lifestyle. To die in such a state of contempt for the divine justice is to die condemned.

When we consider the inordinateness and shamefulness of our sins, we are aroused to repentance. But impenitence resists this grace. It is final impenitence that is a sin against the remission of sins. A priest friend of mine was called to a scene in which a university student jumped off a building, breaking her back and probably every other bone in her body. It was clear from her style of dress and the words she was uttering that her suicide was part of a satanic rite of some kind. She was not going to live, and so he asked her, as part of the anointing rite, if she was sorry for all her sins. Her reply was a sardonic laughter. She spent her final minute mocking the priest and everything he had to offer.

The lure of sin is very deceptive. It is nothing but an empty promise. There is no benefit that comes from sin that cannot be had through virtue, along with so much more. In fact, whatever goods we sacrifice in this life for the sake of the kingdom of God will be possessed in their perfect goodness when we possess the Supreme Good in heaven. A consideration of the very small benefit that is sought in sinful acts tends to prevent the will from being hardened in sin, but this consideration is removed by obstinacy, whereby a person hardens his purpose by clinging to sin.

If a person loves sin for its own sake, he will hate truth, for the truth will always witness against him. Resistance of the known truth is a freely chosen posture that prevents a person from allowing the work of the Holy Spirit to be accomplished within him. This posture is far more widespread than we might tend to imagine at first. Recall the question Pontius Pilate addressed to Jesus: "What is truth?" (Jn 18, 38). The Truth was standing directly in front of him, and it was this Truth that he chose to crucify. Pilate's skepticism has become the cultural norm in the western world. Hence, the current popularity of Deconstructionism, which denies that there is any such thing as a universal or absolute truth. Deconstructionism embraces a kind of Perspectivism that maintains that all we have in the world are myriads of perspectives, and that something is true only within the relative framework of a particular point of view. Such perspectives are merely human constructs, built up in order to make sense of a world intrinsically absurd and unintelligible. Ultimately, truth is a fiction. Such a philosophical standpoint leaves us free to adopt any perspective we desire, in particular the one that allows us to continue in the lifestyle of our choice, regardless of how sinful that lifestyle might appear to a particular longstanding religious tradition.

Every person has sufficient grace to avoid sin in his life. Whenever we experience the impetus of divine grace within us, for example, the desire to pray, or to attend Mass on a regular basis, to fast, or to perform some act of charity, etc., it is so utterly important that we not neglect it so as to render it sterile, but cooperate with it and allow the grace to come to fruition. Sometimes it is just sloth that renders these graces sterile. But the assistance of inward grace can also be rejected through envy of another's spiritual good. This is difficult to explain, but envy is a desire that a person be deprived of the good that is his. It is followed by a secret delight at another's misfortune. Now, in order to grow in the grace of God, we need the help of others. Their special charisms exist for the building up of the Body of Christ, the Church. If we envy their spiritual good by virtue of inordinate self-love, we will inevitably reject their help and the benefits that accrue to us through their charisms. This is a temptation that everyone on the road of the spiritual life will experience. If you have enough faith to pray, be sure to pray that you be delivered from even the slightest movement of envy. For God offers us great gifts, but always through the instrumentality of sinful and unworthy human beings. Envy closes the doors on these gifts. For we must learn to get past the obnoxious and annoying traits of human beings in order to benefit from their blessings and charisms. If we don't, we annihilate the grace that moves us forward and carries us to greater heights.

Why a person chooses to fix himself against the very source of the remission of sins is mysterious. But the decision to do so, we can be assured, is entirely free, for it is impossible to choose (and persist in that choice) a course of action that eternally determines one's fate on the basis of a decision that was not enlightened and deliberate, that is, entirely free. Genuinely free-choices present a certain impenetrable darkness to the human mind because they are self-caused, as opposed to being caused by something outside the choosing subject. But we can at least be certain that God "wills everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim 2, 4). Hence, we can be sure that each person is given sufficient grace to become a vessel in the hands of the potter. Free-choice is the ability of the vessel to choose to crumble under the potter's touch in order to be something other than what He intends it to be.

Anointing of the Sick

Sickness and death are part of the fallen human condition. The kind of death that awaits all of us, or even more accurately, that comes for us all, is a result of that mysterious wound called Original Sin. We experience death as a descent into something dark and unknown. It is the breakdown and disintegration of the human person, and it manifests to us the deepest truth about ourselves, namely, that ultimately we have no power: "You are dust, and to dust you shall return" (Gn 3, 19). That is one reason why death is so necessary in a fallen world. Human beings are dull of mind, and we are slow to learn. Very few of us will learn this profound lesson on the truth of our total indigence prior to death's coming, and only those who have hardened themselves into the worst enemies of truth will undergoe death without learning its most important lesson.

Death in itself is anything but a happy state, and yet St. Joseph is the patron saint of a happy death. "How can death be happy?" asked one of my students. This is not easy to explain, but we may be able to get a glimpse of what it means to die happy by focusing on its preliminary, namely sickness. There is a real difference between spiritual/psychological suffering and physical suffering. The wost suffering is, without a doubt, spiritual suffering. Depression, loneliness, or the pangs of guilt, paranoia, for example, are far more difficult to live with than a body racked by the pain of cancer or some other horrible physical illness. A person can undergoe the worst physical pain and at the same time experience, deep within himself, a profound peace, a fullness, a radiating warmth. Certainly there is no separation between soul and body, but there is a distinction. That is why the very idea of a happy death is not unthinkable.

In joining Himself to a human nature, the Second Person of the Trinity joined Himself to every human person. In other words, he entered into the depths of human suffering. Jesus tasted darkness and human pain, that is to say, God the Son, who is eternal, entered our darkness. And so it is true that in the very depths of our own personal suffering, someone is there. We never suffer alone, even though it may seem like we do. In the midst of suffering, we can find, if we areopen and looking, the eternal Person of the Son, who can illuminate our darkness. In fact, to find Him there is already to be illumined. All the saints have found Him there. That is why stories of saints who have embraced suffering, who were not afraid of it, or accounts of some who have actually willed it, are not instances of neurotic perversions. Rather, they can only be understood in light of this theological implication of the Incarnation.

The sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick strengthens us and enables us to discover Christ in the midst of sickness and dying. It allows us to more readily join our sufferings to the suffering of Christ. Oil is the matter of this sacrament, and oil, as we have seen, is a natural sign of joy, blessing and strength. It is through this anointing that we are given the grace that will enable us to bear our sufferings bravely -- even joyfully -- , and we are given the grace that will strengthen and console us in the face of death, and finally, it grants us forgiveness of sins.

Holy Orders

Holy Orders is the sacrament through which men are given the power to carry out the sacred duties of deacons, priests, or bishops. It is the bishop who has the fullness of Orders (the fullness of the priesthood), and a priest has a sharing in the ordination of the bishop. A priest acts in the bishop's name, whereas a bishop acts in his own name, as a successor of the Apostles. A priest does not have the fullness of Orders; he cannot ordain anyone to the priesthood. So a priestis really a servant of his bishop. Those priests who act in their own name have lost a sense of what their priesthood really is in relation to their bishop.

When a man is ordained to the priesthood, he is given the power to transubstantiate, that is, to change ordinary bread and wine into Christ's body and blood. A priest is one who offers the Sacrifice of the Mass. As we said earlier, the Mass is the sacrifice of the cross made present in the "now" whenever and wherever Mass is celebrated validly. On Calvary, the priest and the victim were identical. Christ was the priest who offerred the sacrifice to the Father, and Christ was the victim (the Lamb of God) who was offerred. If this is true, and if it is true that the Mass is the same sacrifice of Calvary, then it follows that the priest does not act in the place of Christ, but rather in persona Christi, that is, "in the person of Christ". In other words, when you and I attend an ordinary Mass, it is not the priest whose name you know who is offering the sacrifice, but Christ who offers the sacrifice. And the victim that he offers is Himself.

That is why women are not ordained priests. A woman is a symbol of the Church, that is, creation redeemed. The Church is female. She is the Bride of Christ and the Mother of all Christians, laboring and giving birth to children of God through baptism. Christ the bridegroom (Mt 25, 1-13) shed his blood for his Bride, the Church. It was not the Church who offerred herself for her bridegroom. Yet this is what is suggested in the image of a woman offering the Sacrifice of the Mass. At the risk of oversimplifying a complex issue, the non-ordination of women has to do with the sacramental symbolism of the priesthood, and nothing more. If ordination to the priesthood had anything to do with superiority or holiness, there would be few male priests and most of them would be women, for there are two thirds more female saints than male saints. As Aquinas said, women make better saints than men.

Matrimony

Matrimony is the sacrament through which a baptized man and a baptized woman join themselves in a one flesh union until death severs it. As a sacrament, it is a source of divine grace that enables them to be loving and faithful spouses to one another and good parents to their children. We've already called attention to the fact that Christ is the bridegroom and the Church is his Bride. As such, marriage is a sign of the love that Christ has for his Bride, the Church. One cannot naturally love one's spouse as Christ has loved the Church. We must be given the grace to do so. Matrimony channels the grace to love with a supernatural charity. Christ said that "The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve..." (Mt 20, 28). And so if men have a duty to love their wives as Christ loves the Church (Eph 5, 25), then it is the role of the man not to be served by his wife, but to serve his wife throughout his married life.

Because marriage is a joining of male and female into one body, marriage is essentially a community of love and life -- for life is generated as a result of the physical union of husband and wife. Love is essentially unitive, it tends to union (i.e., handshake, hug, kiss, etc.). But genuine love is also effusive. It inevitably seeks to communicate goodness to another, to have another (the beloved) participate in the goodness that the lover enjoys. The love between husband and wife, if genuine and not selfish, will tend to love another human being into existence; for the couple will desire to communicate the goodness of their relationship to another human being, and this child will be the fruit of that love and a living witness and expression of their one flesh union.

All marriages that take place in the Church are presumed valid, unless proven otherwise. But why are some marriages annulled? There are various impediments that render a marriage invalid. The most obvious impediment is coercion. The consent to marry must be freely given, and so coercing a person to marry another cannot result in a valid marriage. Psychological immaturity is also an imprediment. Some couples simply have no idea what marriage entails and do not have the strength of character to make the committment that marriage requires. Having a previous marriage that is not annulled is probably the most frequent impediment today. Another impediment which also violates the requirement of free consent is sometimes called fraud. The person you end up marrying may turn out to be someone entirely different than the person you thought you married. He or she may have kept hidden certain aspects of themselves that had you known about would have influenced your decision to marry him/her. Or, he or she may not have known about certain aspects of themselves that had you known would have affected your decisionto marry him/her. No one is forced to live under such conditions.

The deliberate intention not to have children renders a marriage invalid. This is not the same as infertility (the inability to conveive a child). It refers to a decision to close one's marriage to new life. It is an act of the will. This renders a marriage invalid because marriage begins with the intention to become one body. To intend not to conceive is to intend that sperm and egg never meet. Such a couple do not will a complete one flesh union. In other words, they do not intend to marry in as much as marriage is a joining of two into one body. Finally, in order for a marriage to be valid, the couple must intend a permenant and exclusive union, and so a couple that leaves an opening for divorce do not establish a valid marriage.

A Note on Non-Christian Religions

Many students wonder where the great religions of the world fit into this theological scheme of things. This is not an easy topic to deal with, and when doing so we tread upon very murky territory. There are very few cut and dried answers here. But I would like to call attention to a few points.

First, if Jesus is who he claims to be, then it follows irrefutably that he is everything that every religion is looking for. What exactly does this mean? This is where we have to be careful. Does it mean that non-Christian religions are false? No, it does not. Let me explain.

When carefully studying the religions of the world, we notice that one religion in particular stands out from all the others, and this is the religion of Judaism. In Judaism, God takes the initiative and reveals Himself to Abraham. The other great religions do not claim to be anything more than man's word about God. It is true that Islam claims that the Koran was given to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel, but the content of the Koran does not require an act of faith as such, that is, an assent of the mind to truths that transcend the grasp of human reason. The content is accessible to human reason. In this sense, Islam is the perfect natural religion. The religions of the world are packed with profoundly insightful truths about God and human nature. But the claim of Judaism is unique. Here, God establishes a covenant with Abraham and promises that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars of the sky, and that in him all nations will find blessing.

Judaism is a historical relationship, a covenant, one that was initiated by God. It is a revealed religion, and not a natural one. Christianity is rooted in Judaism, and it too claims to be a revealed religion. In fact, Christianity believes the covenant established by Christ at the Last Supper is the new covenant foretold by Jeremiah and Ezekiel: “The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Jer 31, 31; ). No other religion makes such claims. And so we must be sure to approach these religions on their terms, and not on our terms. We need not demand from them anything more than what they claim to offer. When we adopt this approach, we allow these religions to enrich our lives and actually help us to understand our own faith better.

Consider that Jesus said: "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life" (Jn 14, 6). Moreover, in his letter to the Colossians, Paul says that it is Christ in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col 2, 3). If this is true, then the more I know Christ, the more readily will I be able to discover the real truths in the religions of the world. Or, consider this from another angle. In me one does not find the fullness of the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, but only in Christ. And so there is a kind of mutual conditioning that occurs in the life of a true believer in regards to the world religions. If I love Christ, in whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, then I will love all that is true in the world religions, and I will reject nothing that is true and good. Since that fullness lies hidden in Him -- not in me -- then these other religions can help me to discover truths that I already have potentially, but which lie hidden in the Person of Christ, truths which I would otherwise have overlooked.

Who can deny the truth of the fundamental insights of Buddhism, for example? That the suffering of this world is caused primarily and for the most part by inordinate desire? What Christian is not impressed by the beautiful tales on almsgiving found in The Sayings of Muhammad, for example? What Christian cannot find tremendous food for thought and inspiration in The Upanishads, the Tao Te Ching, the Dhammapada, the writings of Chuang Tzu or Confucius, or from The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin? Christ does not render these treasures superfluous. Rather, he opens us up to their true splendor, and through them we can indeed come to know ourselves better, and know Christ better; for if Christ is the Truth, then he is the source of all the truths we find in them. Thus, knowing these truths helps us to know their source more perfectly.

But if Christ is the source of grace, can a non-Christian be in a state of grace? Strictly speaking, it is not possible to know with certainty if anyone in particular is in a state of grace, including ourselves. When asked if she knew she was in God's grace, St. Joan of Arc replied: "If I am not, may it please God to put me in it; if I am, may it please God to keep me there" (Acts of the trial of St. Joan of Arc). But just as truth is found among the nations, so too is grace (Ad Gentes 9). For there is no doubt in my mind that the Mahatma Gandhi was a much greater man that I will ever be. We all know Muslim students in our schools that pray and fast faithfully every day during the month of Ramadan. How is it possible for a Muslim teenager to be so devoted to God and faithfully carry out such personal sacrifice and not be in a state of grace?

Being in the state of grace is not about having correct theology or knowing specific truths. A Muslim may respond to the movements of interior grace to a much greater degree than the lukewarm Catholic, who is so indifferent to the demands of his religion that he does not even bother to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, let alone an entire month of the year. If Christianity is the right religion, Catholics may have more cause for fear and concern, for they will have a great deal more to answer for on the Day of Judgment. If I have been given much more than Mohandas K. Gandhi, what excuse do I have for giving back to God so much less than he did? If you have been baptized, confirmed, given the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity as well as the seven personal gifts of the Holy Spirit, the grace of regeneration, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the opportunity to receive forgiveness of sins and the grace to overcome those sins in the future, strength in sickness, graces in matrimony, the revelation of the Old and New Testaments, sacramentals and the lives of the saints, how are you going to render anaccount for the fact that your life is outwardly no different than the average Hedonist, while the Muslim student who sat next to you all year prayed five times a day facing the East, gave a rather large percentage of his income to the poor, and did not allow even a drop of water to pass between his lips during daylight hours for an entire month of the year, without even half of the resources you were given? All I know is that I wouldn't want to be there when you try. I'll be too busy worrying about my own account.

It seems to me that the world is centuries away from real unity and religious peace, and I believe that the two extremes of religious self-righteousness -- an attitude which we tend to encounter among Christians and Muslims of the fundamentalist stripe -- and Restricted Indifferentism, made popular by Rousseau, which regards all religions as on a par, each one leading to the same destination, do not serve the ends of religious peace. The former -- at least with regard to Christians -- fails to grasp the positive implications of the Incarnation of Truth, while the latter is a subtle denial of the claims of Judaism and Christianity. It seems to me that Catholics can only be front-runners in the movement towards religious dialogue. And this dialogue cannot be genuine if there is a relinquishing of our convictions or a watering down of the contents of faith. Genuine dialogue (dia logos) is a movement towards the Logos, and the Logos is the measure of what eachof us has to say. "In arche erin Logon" (In the beginning was the Word). Arche is the foundation of the real, the source and origin of things. This is what all of the Greek natural philosophers were seeking, which is why theology can and has benefited so much from their discoveries. And so arche (beginning) does not mean "beginning" as in the temporal beginning of a motion. It refers rather to the beginning of a principle, and a principle is that upon which something depends. The reason behind everything that is, is the Word (Logos), who is in God and who is God. He became flesh and dwelt among us. By loving and embracing this Word more intimately, we make ourselves more able to enter into genuine dialogue. The world religions are there for us, and we are there for them. Our only duty is to enter into dialogue, not to direct this great conversation to an end that we have envisioned. This conversation and where it will lead is too great for us to comprehend. The Logos will govern the movement and direction of the dialogue, for everything depends upon the Logos. It is up to us to simply become a part of the current of that discussion. When we try to control it, we begin relinquishing essential tenets of our faith, and this renders dialogue impossible. We end up creating an artificial unity, which does not, will not, and cannot last.


Notes

1 Angels are not eternal. Only God, who is pure Act of Being, is eternal. But the duration proper to pure spirits is traditionally referred to as eviternity. "Each time for example that an angel turns his thought toward a new object, he marks so to speak the indivisible aevum, in which he remains forever, of the initial point and of the final point of an operation which, in the immobility of an instance which endures, coincides with a certain flow of our time" (Jacques Maritain, On The Church of Christ, 47). In short, the angelic intellect does not depend upon data from the senses, as does the human intellect. As Aristotle pointed out: "Nothing is in the intellect that is not first in the senses." The angelic mind is unencumbered by matter. [Back]

2  St. Gregory the Great, Pseudo-Dionysius, and St. Thomas Aquinas all speak of the hierarchies of angels. Aquinas points out that it is inevitable that the multitude of angels should form a hierarchy; for each angel is its own species. This is true because an angel has no matter, and matter is one of the principles of individuation. It is quantified matter that enables a form to exist in a multiplicity of instances, just as the one form of a cookie cutter can be multiplied into many instances through the matter of the dough. But if an angel has no matter, that which distinguishes one angel from another is located in the form. Hence, one angel is formally (specifically) different from another, as one number is formally different from another number. And just as one number will be either higher or lower than another number, so too is one angel either higher or lower than another angel. All human beings are equal because all humans have the same nature, and each one is different not by virtue of our form, but on the basis of our matter.

Tradition speaks of three hierarchies of angels, each composed of three "choirs." The highest angels are the Seraphim. The name "seraphim" means "carriers of fire." Scripture speaks of God as a "consuming fire" (Heb 12, 29). Fire is a symbol of the divine love. If one gets too close to a fire, one will inevitably catch fire. The seraphim are so close to God that they are "on fire" with the divine love. Pseudo-Dionysius writes: "For the designation seraphim really teaches this -- a perennial circling around the divine things, penetrating warmth, the overflowing heat of a movement which never falters and never fails, a capacity to stamp their own image on subordinates by arousing and uplifting in them too a like flame, the same warmth. It means also the power to purify by means of the lightning flash and the flame. It means the ability to hold unveiled and undiminished both the light they have and the illumination they give out. It means the capacity to push aside and to do away with every obscuring shadow." The Celestial Hierarchy 7, 1

The word "cherubim" means "fullness of knowledge". These highly intelligent creatures are below the seraphim because love is greater than knowledge. "The name cherubim signifies the power to know and to see God, to receive the greatest gifts of his light, to contemplate the divine splendor in primordial power, to be filled with the gifts that bring wisdom and to share these generously with subordinates as a part of the beneficent outpouring of wisdom." loc. cit.

The angels of the third choir on the first hierarchy are called the thrones. They are characterized by their super eminent humility. Dionysius writes: The title of the most sublime and exalted thrones conveys that in them there is a transcendence over every earthly defect, as shown by their upward-bearing toward the ultimate heights, that they are forever separated from what is inferior, that they are completely intent upon remaining always and forever in the presence of him who is truly the most high, that, free of all passion and material concern, they are utterly available to receive the divine visitation, that they bear God and are ever open, like servants, to welcome God. loc. cit.

The middle hierarchy is made up of the Dominations, Celestial Virtues, and Powers. The angles of the first hierarchy enlighten all the angels of this second hierarchy. They "pour out" all they have received from God, thereby elevating them as much as they are able. The lowest hierarchy are composed of the Principalities (guardians of nations), archangels (guardians of leaders of state, bishops, and important personages), and angels (guardians of ordinary people). These angels are elevated by the outpourings of the angels of the second hierarchy. The angels on the lowest hierarchy are intimately involved in human affairs, even thought we are largely unaware of it. It is in this way that they share in the sheer generosity of divine providence, as God's gifts go largely unacknowledged, so too the activity of the angels among us. [Back]

3 Dictionary of Biblical Theology: New Revised Edition. New York: Seabury Press, 1973. s.v. "Satan" [Back]

4 Note how the miracles of Christ begin with his spoken word: "He woke up, rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Quiet! Be still!"; "He took the child by the hand and said to her, "Talitha Koum,", which means, "Little girl, I say to you, arise!"; "When it was evening, they brought him many who were possessed by demons, and he drove out the spirits by a word and cured all the sick, to fulfill what had been said by Isaiah the prophet." The divine nature speaks real being into existence. This is not possible for any creature whose essence is distinct from its existence. Jesus' human nature does not have an act of existing that is distinct from his divine nature. Jesus is one Person, not two. And so creation can only obey the voice of Christ. For he is the Word through whom all things came to be. The very existence of things depends entirely on this Word. [Back]

5 The sacrifice of the cross is the visible and historical expression of the Son's love for the Father. It is a visible expression of the inner life of the Triune God. The Father and the Son, as was pointed out, are really distinct (not separate). The Father knows Himself through His word (Son), for the Son is the perfect image of the Father. Recall that all the perfections attributed to God are identical to His existence. For example, God does not have justice, love, or beauty. Rather, God is His Justice. He is Essentially Good and Beautiful, and God is His Love. For there is no composition in God -- otherwise God would be related to these added perfections as potency is related to act. But God is pure Act of Being. Similarly, the Word by which the Father knows Himself is identical to His Existence. Hence, Father and Son are one nature. Now, the Father loves what He knows, namely the Son. The Son in turn loves the Father. The love by which the Father loves the Son, and the love by which the Son loves the Father, is also identical to the divine nature. Hence, the mutual love of the Father and the Son is infinite, divine, and thus personal. It is a love that is a distinct Person of the Trinity, the Third Person of the Trinity, namely, the Holy Spirit. [Back]

6 Sometimes Mass can come across as boring. The priest fails to prepare his homilies, the singing is bad, the music chosen in poor taste, etc. But Mass is not entertainment, and we have become a very passive people, thanks to the entertainment industry and television. The Mass is an active celebration of Christ's death and resurrection. If we truly believe that Christ is present in the Eucharist, it will not matter that the homily is terrible or the singing horrible. What alone matters is that we are going to receive the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ in his perfect and eternal act of self-giving to the Father, and we are literally going to receive this down our throats. There is no greater privilege than to be invited to his table. [Back]

1, 2, 3,