Meditations for Advent

Written by Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet

(Sophia Institute Press, 2012)

Reviewed by Colin Kerr

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Last year the publisher of this fine work sent me a copy and I seem to have missed reviewing it here. I had not missed reading it, however. And, judging from the adoration chapel I attend, it is well read there too.

First, the author. Bossuet was an accomplished and much appreciated bishop who served the Lord in 17th century France.  He was mostly known for his elegant preaching. He had been a tutor to the dauphin (first in line to the king) and entrusted with many important bossuetcommissions from the king and the Church. One of his most treasured dreams was the reconciliation of Protestants with the Church, though in that fevered age little could be hoped for. And, although the French clergy were firmly in the control of the king,  Bossuet managed to steer a moderate course between king and pope, which, however, we might nevertheless still consider smacking of caesaro-papism  – the idea that the King should be in charge of the Church (called Gallicanism in its French form). We have to remind ourselves, however, that despite all of its faults, and despite what contemporary propagandists need to believe, the government was more Christian then than it is now.

The religious issues of the day, besides the split between Catholics and Protestants, and besides the jockeying for control by pope and king, also included the fight between so-called laxists (aka Jesuits) and rigorists (aka Jansenists). Another strange religious trend involved something called Quietism, a heresy eventually condemned by Pope Innocent XI. It is possible to define this heresy quite simply as a depiction of the spiritual life with undo passivity , that is to say, the the spiritual life cannot consist in anything other than passive contemplation, not apostolic action, not oracular prayer, or anything else. Bossuet took a leading role in exposing this error.

Opposition to Quietism, of course, does not amount to opposition to the spiritual life, as Bossuet’s writings clearly prove. The text is full of wonderful, and wonderfully easy and illuminating passages:

If there was ever a trust worthy of the name sacred and of being guarded in a holy manner, it is the one of which I speak today, the one that the providence of the eternal Father committed to the faith of that just man, Joseph. His very house became a kind of temple that God deigned to inhabit. To guard such a treasure Joseph himself had to be consecrated. And truly he was, for his body was consecrated by purity and his soul by all the gifts of grace. O Mary, you saw the effects of the grace that filled him; I need your assistance to make them known.” (p. 142)

There are just over 40 short meditations in this volume, all relating to the Nativity in some way. It begins with a series of meditations on the Creation and Fall, then on to consider various prophecies about Christ’s coming, the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Magnificat, and then on to the Nativity. I love his Christological observations. The final chapter is a homily on St. Joseph, from which I quoted above. This homily and ‘The Silent Wonder of Mary and Joseph’ (ch. 38) are exceedingly beautiful.

Sophia Institute Press has also published Bossuet’s Meditations for Lent, as well as a volume by Guardini and one by Newman. The four are inexpensive – you can even buy them as a set. Perhaps you too can read them and then donate them to an adoration chapel near you. They are good for a holy hour and even for a few holy minutes.

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St. John Damascene

The great St. John Damascene (c. 676 – mid 8th Century) is a figure who should need no introduction, but alas, requires one. There is no better time than on his feast day to bring back a bit of the attention this figure great theological figure deserves. The timing of his feast, appearing as it does in Advent and just two days before that of St. Nicholas, is perhaps part of the reason for our neglect of him.

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But it’s more than this. In some ways John of Damascus is a casualty of history. He was a late Father of the Church, he wrote in Greek, and lived in a city deep in Muslim territory. And yet his thought was not confined to the ashes of history. He came to be admired by no other writer more strongly than the Latin theologian, Thomas Aquinas, albeit, several centuries after his death. His thought had finally made it to the West in the form of a 12th Century translation of his most important theological work, The Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, ordered by Pope Eugenius III. In characteristic style, Aquinas mined this text for precious gems from the Greek Fathers.

All in all, the circumstances that delayed his entry into the world of Latin theology were no more of an obstacle to his great genius than Augustine’s provincial origin could conceal his greatness. In fact, the unusual set of circumstances that characterized Damascene’s political context actually served his theological ends. The strong position he took against the iconoclasm of the Byzantine Emperor, Leo III, would not have been possible were he actually resident in the Christian empire. Paradoxically, his Christian faith had been protected by the Islamic empire.

St. John was from a wealthy family that had served important posts in the Islamic Caliphate, and in fact, John himself became the governor of the important city, Damascus, from which he derives his sobriquet, Damascene. All the while he opposed the emperor’s fury against sacred images, with Leo stooping to have a letter forged, one that had him promising to betray the city under his care to the Byzantines, and sent to the caliph. The legend has it that the caliph believed the charge against the saint and had his hand cut off. At its miraculous reattachment the caliph was convinced of his innocence. Nevertheless, John chose this moment to retire into monastic life and continued his writing, penning the great homilies that have come down to us. He spent the remainder of his life as a priest at the St. Sabas monastery, near Jerusalem. The emperor had John condemned by a council, but, likely soon after his death, he was vindicated by the Second Council of Nicaea in 787, which endorsed the theology of the iconodules (lovers of icons) that he had for so long fought.fount

There was a reason why Aquinas saw a lot in Damascene. Depending upon our definition, it might be fair to propose that Damascene was the very first systematic theologian, although some historians of doctrine would be more comfortable with the term ‘encyclopaedist.’ His great work, The Fount of Knowledge, was a significant production. It is comprised of three sub-sections, The Philosophical Chapters, which deal with all sorts of philosophical definitions and categories, Concerning Heresy, a list of 101 heresies with definitions and refutations, and, the most appreciated and theologically creative part, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith. You can find this complete work in the Catholic University of America Press, Fathers of the Church series, volume 37.

He also wrote other shorter works, of which, so far, only very few are available in English translation. Three Treatises on the Divine Images (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003) would be the most easily obtained. One of his homilies appears in SVSP’s Light on the threeMountain: Greek Patristic and Byzantine Homilies on the Transfiguration of the Lord (2013), which looks like a wonderful volume. You can find a work online called Barlaam and Josaphat that has been traditionally ascribed to him, though it is not his. I haven’t read it so I cannot say anything about whether it’s worth the read or not.

There are no good biographies of Damascene available, since relatively little is known about his life. The most prestigious study of his work in recent time was that by the great scholar, Andrew Louth, St John Damascene: Tradition and Originality in Byzantine Theology (Oxford University Press, 2005). Like much of what OUP puts out, it is a little pricey even in softcover. On the other hand, you can read the Exact Exposition online, or the whole Fount of Knowledge rather inexpensively as a reprint.

– Colin Kerr, Editor