Contemplata aliis Tradere

A meagre contribution to the mission and work of the Order of Preachers: my reflections, thoughts, ideas and the occasional rant on matters mainly theological, philosophical and ecclesiastical, drawn primarily from my reading and experience of life and the world. Striving to be always Catholic, firmly Christian and essentially Dominican, flavoured with dashes of Von Balthasar.

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Location: Oxford, United Kingdom

A son of the English Province of the Order of Friars Preachers (Dominicans); born in Malaysia but have lived in the USA, Singapore, the UK & the Philippines for varying durations. A pilgrim and way-farer, a searcher for Truth on the journey of Life... "Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, There’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!" - Hilaire Belloc

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Two Hearts that Beat as One...

Many people will know that February 14 is Valentine's Day; how could one escape the commercial bombardment of this celebration of love? For weeks now, the shops of Cambridge have bedecked their windows with red and pink paraphernalia and the florists and restaurants have prepared themselves for one of their busiest trading days. There are advertisements on television and radio and newspaper specials devoted to Valentine's Day. Quite simply, it's not the birds that are cooing at this early Spring mating festival but retailers, and many of us are buying into it, like so many sheep! Some Catholics think the Church ought to dig its heels in on this Feast of Ss Cyril and Methodius... but that just doesn't have the same ring, does it? Others inveigh against 'lurve' and its commercialization. I think we can learn from Cyril and Methodius and follow their model of evangelization, seeing St Valentine's Day as an opportunity for true love and to expound this truth.

Seeing as so many people will have love on their minds, we ought to take this as a gift from God to talk to people about what love actually us. After all, "today, the term 'love' has become one of the most frequently used and misused of words, a word to which we attach quite different meanings" (Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 2).

Lest we forget, this day was (in the Tridentine calendar) Saint Valentine's feast day and he was a Roman priest and martyr who died around 270. Certainly his act of martyrdom is a witness to a self-sacrificing love that endures even unto death, a love we call agape. However, it is said that he was condemned to death for marrying young Roman couples according to Christian rites in pagan Rome. As such, there is also (we must admit) that element of eros in commemorating his feast. But this is something good, for in remembering both, we recall the unity of agape and eros which Pope Benedict XVI taught us is intrinsic to true love: "Yet eros and agape—ascending love and descending love—can never be completely separated. The more the two, in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realized." As such, remembering St Valentine's Day, we remember too the teaching that "Fundamentally, 'love' is a single reality, but with different dimensions; at different times, one or other dimension may emerge more clearly" (Deus Caritas Est, 7).

However, after Vatican II, this day was established as the Feast of the holy Brothers, Cyril and Methodius, Apostles to the Slavs. Naturally, Pope John Paul the Great, the first among the Slavic peoples to be "called to the See of Peter" has expressed his devotion to these saints and proclaimed them in 1980 to be Patrons of Europe and then devoted an Encyclical letter Slavorum Apostoli to them in 1985. This letter has a particularly fine and lucid biogrpahy of the saints' lives and their unique contribution to Europe and the Church and is well worth a read. However, for our present purposes, it will suffice for me to quote from Pope John Paul's last book, 'Memory & Identity':

"It is right to give separate treatment to the evangelization which originated in Byzantium, aptly symbolized by Saints Cyril and Methodius, the Apostles of the Slavs. They were Greeks, originally from Thessalonica. They undertook the evangelization of the Slavs, setting out from the territory of present-day Bulgaria. Their first concern was to learn the local language, assigning its sounds to a certain number of graphic symbols which formed the first Slav alphabet, known thereafter as 'Cyrillic'. This, with a few changes, is still in use today in Eastern Slav countries, while Western Slavs have adopted the Latin alphabet... Cyril and Methodius were sent on mission by the Duke of Great Moravia, into territory which belonged to that state in the ninth century. They probably also reached the land of the Vistulan tribe, beyond the Carpathians. They certainly went as far as Pannonia, that is to say present-day Hungary and also to Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and the area around Ochrida, the region of Slav Macedonia. They left disciples who continued their missionary activity. The two saintly brothers also influenced the evangelization of the Slavs in the territories to the north of the Black Sea."

What is noteworthy is that the "first concern" of these missionaries, and in fact any good missionary is to learn the local language, in other words, to consider the culture of the peoples to be evangelized. As such, Pope John Paul II was to say in Slavorum Apostoli, 7: "Their pastoral attitude of concern to bring the revealed truth to new peoples while respecting their cultural originality remains a living model for the Church and for the missionaries of all ages."

This "living model" is held out to us, especially in Europe, who are in fact missionaries to a continent that has forgotten it's Christian roots. Moreover, as the late Holy Father reminded us: "The Church in Europe and in every continent has to recognize that it is always and everywhere a missionary Church. The mission belongs so much to its nature that at no time and in no place, not even in countries of long-established Christian tradition, can the Church be other than missionary" (Memory & Identity, 131). Thus, we are all missionaries in every place and time; what then can we learn from these great missionary saints of today?

Again, we can look to the words of John Paul II who explains for us the approach of Ss Cyril and Methodius.

"Together with a great respect for persons and a disinterested concern for their true good, the two holy Brothers had the resources of energy, prudence, zeal and charity needed for bringing the light to the future believers, and at the same time for showing them what is good and offering concrete help for attaining it. For this purpose they desired to become similar in every aspect to those to whom they were bringing the Gospel; they wished to become part of those peoples and to share their lot in everything...

At this point it is an unusual and admirable thing that the holy Brothers, working in such complex and precarious situations, did not seek to impose on the peoples assigned to their preaching either the undeniable superiority of the Greek language and Byzantine culture, or the customs and way of life of the more advanced society in which they had grown up and which necessarily remained familiar and dear to them. Inspired by the ideal of uniting in Christ the new believers, they adapted to the Slavonic language the rich and refined texts of the Byzantine liturgy and likewise adapted to the mentality and customs of the new peoples the subtle and complex elaborations of Greco-Roman law. In following this programme of harmony and peace, Cyril and Methodius were ever respectful of the obligations of their mission...

The Gospel does not lead to the impoverishment or extinction of those things which every individual, people and nation and every culture throughout history recognizes and brings into being as goodness, truth and beauty. On the contrary, it strives to assimilate and to develop all these values: to live them with magnanimity and joy and to perfect them by the mysterious and ennobling light of Revelation...

By incarnating the Gospel in the native culture of the peoples which they were evangelizing, Saints Cyril and Methodius were especially meritorious for the formation and development of that same culture, or rather of many cultures."
(Slavorum Apostoli, 9, 13, 18, 21)

What one sees in their example is a careful and wise discernment of that which is good, true and beautiful of the culture and mores of the people they seek to evangelize, but always without imposing that which is familiar to the missionary. Rather the missionary seeks to understand and speak the language of the people, sharing their experiences and bringing the Gospel light to bear upon that so that the Word is made Incarnate in this new culture and bears fruit that will last.

I think that we have to pray for the wisdom of St Cyril and St Methodius that we who wish to evangelize our modern, consumerist, individualistic and even secular culture should do so with their sensitivity. Today's secular celebration of Valentine's Day is a manifestation of the human need for love and also a desire to celebrate and mark love in some way. A right step in the path trod by Ss Cyril and Methodius' example would be to affirm the perennial craving for love, which is ultimately the human person's innate desire for God, as something that is good. It would also affirm the validity of eros and encourage Christians to use this day as a day to express agape for one another - by an act of self-gift. We make the mistake of allowing Valentine's Day to be dominated by sexual love but that would be to reduce love to an aggrandizement of eros. But, if we encouraged people to practice acts of charity on Valentine's Day we can make the day a true celebration of love in all its richness. Sadly the kill-joy approach of some Christians as a response to Valentine's Day is, in my opinion, sending the wrong message to the people we wish to evangelize. It plays into the hands of those who want to caricaturize Christians as whistle-blowers' on the joy of human love. Thus, Pope Benedict with awareness and honesty asks: "Doesn't [the Church] blow the whistle just when the joy which is the Creator's gift offers us a happiness which is itself a certain foretaste of the Divine?"

Of course, we know this to be not at all the case and that the Church is more authentically body-and-love-affirming than any other; for only the Christian - epitomised in the saints - understands and lives out the truth of humanity and of love. Again, to quote the Holy Father:

"Man is truly himself when his body and soul are intimately united; the challenge of eros can be said to be truly overcome when this unification is achieved. Should he aspire to be pure spirit and to reject the flesh as pertaining to his animal nature alone, then spirit and body would both lose their dignity. On the other hand, should he deny the spirit and consider matter, the body, as the only reality, he would likewise lose his greatness. The epicure Gassendi used to offer Descartes the humorous greeting: “O Soul!” And Descartes would reply: “O Flesh!”. Yet it is neither the spirit alone nor the body alone that loves: it is man, the person, a unified creature composed of body and soul, who loves. Only when both dimensions are truly united, does man attain his full stature. Only thus is love —eros—able to mature and attain its authentic grandeur"
(Deus Caritas Est, 5).

Finally, to come back to Ss Cyril and Methodius... Pope John Paul II reminds us that by proclaiming them to be Patrons of Europe, the Church is "thereby pointing to the great work of inculturation that took place over the centuries, and reminding us that the Church in Europe must breathe with 'two lungs'... Just as a healthy organism needs two lungs in order to breathe properly, so too the Church, as a spiritual organism, needs these two traditions in order to attain more fully to the riches of Revelation" (Memory & Identity, 105).

Or to use another metaphor, one that is appropriate to Valentine's Day, we could say perhaps (in the words of that classic song, 'Endless Love') that these are "two hearts that beat as one"! This is certainly true of these holy Brothers, these twin Patrons of Europe whose love for the Church and for the local peoples they served united them in one heart and mind. It is also true of the role that they play in uniting the Eastern Churches to the Western Church centred on Rome, that these two hearts may beat as one, united by love. Thus, "Unity is a meeting in truth and love, granted to us by the Spirit. Cyril and Methodius, in their personality and their work, are figures that awaken in all Christians a great 'longing for union' and for unity between the two sister Churches of East and West" (Slavorum Apostoli, 27). Or as Pope Benedict XVI put it recently: "Love grows through love. Love is 'divine' because it comes from God and unites us to God; through this unifying process it makes us a 'we' which transcends our divisions and makes us one, until in the end God is 'all in all' (1 Cor 15:28)" (Deus Caritas Est, 18).

It is this message about love that we Christians can demonstrate to the world. The Holy Father in his first Encyclical letter has outlined how it may be accomplished in the Church's charitable activity and it is this - love of God and neighbour, the union of eros and agape - that Valentine's Day celebrates, if love is indeed its focus. The world's vision of Valentine's Day love as just eros, sex and physical passion and desire is actually out of focus, it is blurred vision! Following the example of Ss Cyril and Methodius, let us speak the language of the culture we live in, let us speak of love, affirm eros in its proper context, let us show love, performing works of agape and so let us elevate the culture of our day, re-focusing on what it really means to say "I love you".


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