Thursday, September 21, 2006


Sunt quaedam nocitura impetrantibus, quae non dare sed negare beneficium est; aestimabimus itaque utilitatem potius quam voluntatem petentium.

There are certain gifts that do harm to those who obtain them, and the benefit is in withholding these gifts rather than in giving them; we shall therefore consider the advantage of the petitioner rather than the desire.

- Seneca's De Beneficiis, 14:1 (ESS III:74-75)

The question that faces every person who holds something desired by another is this: Shall I give it or withhold it? Of course, Christians everywhere argue that it is morally encumbant upon the followers of Christ to give liberally to those who have need. Where people are hungry, Christians are required by Christ's own commands to give food. Where people are sick, to give medication and care. Where people are in prison, to visit them.

Wherever there is need, the Christian is required to provide for this need. Once upon a time, the matter of communing at the Altar of Our Lord was a matter of need. A pastor examined the petitioner as a doctor might (see last post) and determined whether or not the petitioner had a need for the Gospel, keeping in mind that only those who are repentant are in need of the Gospel, while those who are unrepentant are only harmed by the Gospel.

Those days are long past, however, and now the entire matter of who shall approach the Altar is one of individual desire. Appropriately, Seneca is not talking about need any more than churches are talking about need, but rather voluntas - "desire" or "wish."

What is the moral landscape when the desire presented is a desire for something dangerous or deadly to the petitioner?

A mother who gives her child a gun to play with will have a hard time arguing in a court of law that her child is responsible for shooting himself and not she, and this on the basis of her child's expressed desire to play with the gun. She was a kind and good mother, always giving her child what he desired, and should not be held accountable for the unfortunate, though predictable, way that things turned out. Of course, any reasonable person would find this a laughable defense.

When someone desires something dangerous or deadly, the morally upright action is no longer satisfying the desire, but withholding the desire.

Unfortunately, the common Christian practice of the Lord's Supper has become unreasonable and morally reprehensible. Christians are taught that the bread and wine of the Holy Sacrament are potentially deadly to those who eat and drink unworthily, that is, without recognizing the true body and blood of the Lord in the meal (1 Cor 11:27-30). When those who do not recognize the body (and the Greek vocabulary here does not allow "body" to be identified with the congregation, as many Protestants assert), participate in the Lord's Supper, they do so to their harm.

Are Christian congregations that grant the desired bread and wine to those whom it will harm doing good or evil?

Even Seneca, a pagan philosopher and moralist, makes it clear that congregations are committing a morally reprehensible act in distributing this meal to those who may be harmed by it. While such congregations may point to their free distribution of the meal as a sign of their goodwill and universal love, the act reveals quite the opposite about their moral character - if, that is, they actually believe Saint Paul's words.

It all rests on this: is Holy Scripture correct when it attributes dangerous or even deadly characteristics to the Holy Sacrament, or is Saint Paul (and Holy Scripture) in error?

Finally, a congregation is caught in a "knight's fork:" either the congregation is morally deficient in that it is freely giving dangerous and deadly gifts to those who may be harmed by them, or the congregation does not believe that Scripture's statement concerning the danger attached to Holy Communion is actually true.

- Lucilius

Which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
-The Gospel of Saint Matthew (7:9-11, ESV)

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


“Nihil magis,” inquit ille Socrates, aut aliquis alius, ius cui idem adversus humana atque eadem potestas est, “persuasi mihi, quam ne ad opiniones vestras actum vitae meae flecterem. Solita conferte undique verba; non conviciari vos putabo sed vagire velut infantes miserrimos.” Haec dicet ille, cui sapientia contigit, quem animus vitiorum immunis increpare alios, non quia odit, sed in remedium iubet.

“Upon nothing,” says a Socrates, or some other person who is able and powerful to deal with human adversities, “am I more resolved than not to change my course of action on the basis of your opinions. Drag out all the usual arguments and pile them on; I will not consider you to be abusing me, but rather to simply be crying like pathetic infants.” Thus speaks he who has wisdom, whose soul, being itself free from all vices, bids him rebuke others, not because he hates them, but in order to cure them.

- Seneca’s De Vita Beata, XXVI:4-5 (ESS II:172-173)

The metaphor of medicine has long been applied to spiritual correction. Pagan Seneca makes use of the image here, using the word “cure” or “remedy.” A common German term for priests and pastors is Seelsorger, or “soul-healer.”

Of course, not all who require the help of a doctor necessarily welcome the care they need. Often the doctor’s remedies are unpleasant. Only the clear understanding that such unpleasant remedies in the present will provide soundness in the future allows the average patient to stoically take his medicine or endure his unpleasant regimen.

Of course, not everyone is a Stoic.

Many are the patients who do not understand the seriousness of their illness. Many are they who do not have the faith in their doctor necessary to believe in future days of better health. Many are they who feel that the future benefit is not worth the present unpleasantness, and what is life but a series of present moments?

Seneca epitomizes all these in the worst, most foolish form of patient a doctor may encounter: a miserable infant. There is no reasoning with an infant.

The infant heaps abuse on the doctor, screams at him, flails about – all because the infant does not understand what the doctor is doing or why. All the infant knows is that someone is hurting him, and he simply tries to defend himself, lashing out instinctively like an animal. The infant does not understand that the pain the doctor inflicts is in the infant’s best interest. The infant, who lacks reason, cannot imagine any motive but hatred behind such unpleasant treatment, and yet the healer has only the infant’s health in mind.

What if the doctor’s unpleasant assistance were to be repelled by the infant’s screaming?

Of course, no doctor worth his salt would be so easily deterred. After all, the doctor knows what the infant’s best interest is; the infant is unreasonable. No, the doctor will rather go to even more unpleasant lengths to ensure the child’s health, if that is what it takes, while the child screams all the more loudly.

A good healer must stay his course and deliver the regimen of care, regardless of the unreasonable screaming of his infant patient.

Like the doctor, the Christian must remember that he is delivering an unpleasant remedy to an unreasonable patient. “This is for your own good,” are wasted words, just as they would be wasted on the unreasoning and beast-like infant. No, the Christian must purse his lips and endure all manner of abuse if he truly desires the health of his patient.

It is the unfaithful Christian and the unfaithful doctor who cares more for his own immediate comfort than the future health of a sick patient.

How cruel it would be to refuse medical care to pitiful, sick infants simply because they scream and flail at their caregiver! So cruel would it also be for Christians to refuse spiritual care to pitiful, sin-sick men and women simply because they cannot understand their own need.

The faithful Christian, particularly those in the distinct vocation of Seelsorger, “soul-healer,” must stoically press forward with the unpleasant regimen of care for those entrusted to his healing ministrations. He must not be deterred by those who, like pitiful unreasoning infants, heap abuse upon him. If he will love his people, he must do what must be done with mouth and shoulders set. This necessary stoicism is well-taught by Our Seneca.
If you want to be a soul-healer, steel yourself for abuse from unreasonable patients. Rehearse the words now so that they may be ready on your lips:

Upon nothing am I more resolved than not to change my course of action on the basis of your opinions. Drag out all the usual arguments and pile them on; I will not consider you to be abusing me, but rather to simply be crying like pathetic infants.
- Lucilius

[The saints of old] suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated – of whom the world was not worthy.
- The Epistle to the Hebrews (11:37-38, ESV)

Wednesday, September 06, 2006


Necesse est opprimant onera, quae ferente maiora sunt. Quaedam praeterea non tam magna sunt negotia quam fecunda multumque negotiorum ferunt. Et haec refugienda sunt, ex quibus nova occupatio multiplexque nascetur.

Burdens that are too heavy for their bearer must necessarily crush him. There are certain undertakings, moreover, that are not so much great as they are prolific, and thus lead to many fresh undertakings. You ought to avoid those that give birth to new and multifarious undertakings.
-Seneca’s De Tranquillitate Animi 6:4 (ESS II:234-236)

This phrase in the Latin fascinates me because of the word nascetur: “they are born.”

Ever adopt a dog? Well, it is quite a surprise when you adopt one dog only to discover that your new pet is a mother-to-be. You thought you knew what you were getting yourself into (one dog), but now you are suddenly out of your depth. You unwittingly adopted a pregnant dog and will soon have puppies running everywhere.

That is the image that accurately describes some tasks. You might think you know what you are getting into, but it pays to look closely. Some tasks appear very manageable, but once undertaken, they give birth to “new and multifarious occupations.”

Your simple task becomes a juggling game that would dizzy most professional managers, as one after another of the cute little baby-tasks is born and demands your time and attention.

It’s really nothing more or less than common sense. Of course, that is what Seneca is best at teaching us: what we already know.

Watch out for “pregnant tasks.”

In the Church there are no shortages of “pregnant tasks.” What seems like a simple project usually has the power to cascade into a seemingly limitless number of small, time-consuming, resource-draining tasks. Of course, that’s my business; after all, the devil is in the details, and he is very difficult to exorcise.

Whatever your business might be as husband or wife, pastor, wage-slave or corporate manager, the warning is a sound one. Think about what you’re getting into before you fill your weekly planner quite so thoroughly. Watch out for tasks that grow beyond their bounds, and leave a little wiggle-room in case one slips through your defenses.

Jesus once used the analogy of a man who planned a great construction project, but ran out of money before it was finished. Everyone laughed at that man’s foolishness and lack of planning. He hadn’t counted the cost accurately before setting about to engage in his task. He obviously imagined that his own resources were greater than they actually were or that the task at hand was much simpler than it actually was. Either way, he could have benefited from Seneca’s advice: some tasks are obviously too big, while others are pregnant with new and multifarious tasks that can overpower you.

Of course, Jesus Christ wasn’t using the story to teach about planning various tasks. After all, the task of discipleship that Jesus is discussing is always too big for a person and is guaranteed to overwhelm a person with as many new and multifarious tasks as they have neighbors.


Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, 'This man began to build and was not able to finish.'
-St. Luke the Evangelist (14:25-30, ESV)