Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Teach Your Children Well ... Reviewing "The Fathers" by Pope Benedict XVI

Finally, [St.] Basil was of course also concerned with that chosen portion of the People of God, the youth, society's future. He addressed a Discourse to them on how to benefit from the pagan culture of that time.

He recognized with great balance and openness that examples of virtue can be found in classical Greek and Latin literature. Such examples of upright living can be helpful to young Christians in search of the truth and the correct way of living.

Therefore, one must take from the texts by classical authors what is suitable and conforms with the truth: thus, with a critical and open approach--it is a question of true and proper "discernment"--young people grow in freedom.

With the famous image of bees that gather from flowers only what they need to make honey, Basil recommends: "Just as bees can take nectar from flowers, unlike other animals which limit themselves to enjoying their scent and color, so also from these writings...once can draw some benefit for the spirit. We must use these books, following in all things the examples of bees. They do not visit every flower without distinction, nor seek to remove all the nectar from the flowers on which they alight, but only draw from them what they need to make honey, and leave the rest. And if we are wise, we will take from those writings what is appropriate for us, and conform to the truth, ignoring the rest."

... Dear brothers and sisters, I think one can say that this Father from long ago also speaks to us and tells us important things.

In the first place, attentive, critical, and creative participation in today's culture.

Then, social responsibility: this is an age in which, in a globalized world, even people who are physically distant are really our neighbors; therefore, friendship with Christ, the God with the human face. ...
One of the things that may surprise the reader of this series of homilies given by Pope Benedict XVI is just how much pertinent information can be packed into a short piece. As one flows into the next we are treated to a history of the growing understanding of the revelation of Jesus Christ. We also watch the struggles taken on for the truth, not simply against pagans, but with those who have developed heretical doctrines.

Each homily, nicely edited to read as an essay, encapsulates the Father's life history, influences, and career. Pope Benedict then focuses on a key area of influence which that particular Father has had on the faith. Most importantly, he shows just how significant this influence can be to modern society and to each of us personally if we reflect upon it. I was reminded of just how little human nature has changed over time as I repeatedly felt the applicability of these teachings to our lives today.

As wall, we are reminded that none of us is perfect and these Church Fathers are noting if not human. Pope Benedict is not shy about pointing out a person's failings, though he always does so with charity and in order to emphasize a topic for our personal reflection.

An interesting item to note is that every single Father strongly emphasizes prayer. Each has his own particular focus or style, but the constant refrain from person to person serves as a strong reminder to us that this is a vital area where we must persevere in order to come into a good and loving relationship with God.
Notwithstanding all the theological richness of his [Origen's] thought, his is never a purely academic approach; it is always founded on the experience of prayer, of contact with God. Indeed, to his mind, knowledge of the Scriptures requires prayer and intimacy with Christ even more than study.

He was convinced that the best way to become acquainted with God is through love, and that there is no authentic scientia Christi without falling in love with him.

In his Letter to Gregory, Origen recommends: "Study first of all the lectio of the divine Scriptures. Study them, I say. for we need to study the divine writings deeply... and while you study these divine works with a believing and God-pleasing intention, knock at that which is closed in them and it shall be opened to you by the porter of whom Jesus says, 'To him the gatekeeper opens.'

"While you attend to this lectio divina, seek aright and with unwavering faith in God the hidden sense which is present in most passages of the divine Scriptures. And do not be content with knocking and seeking, for what is absolutely necessary for understanding divine things is oratio, and in urging us to this the Savior says not only 'knock and it will be opened to you,' and 'seek and you will find,' but also 'ask and it will be given you.'"

The "primordial role" played by Origen in the history of lectio divina instantly flashes before one's eyes. Bishop Ambrose of Milan, who learned from Origen's works to interpret the Scriptures, later introduced them into the West to hand them on to Augustine and to the monastic tradition that followed.
It is a pleasure to see that Pope Benedict doesn't just include the better known Fathers, although he does go into extra depth for some of them such as St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Augustine. He takes care to highlight the richness of the Eastern Church by including such lesser known Fathers as Aphraates "The Sage" and St. Ephrem, the Syrian.

It says much for Pope Benedict's abilities that he was able to synthesize such a vast amount of information about the Fathers the history of the Church, and the application of their teachings to modern life in general and our own lives in particular. What a gift this collection is for those who read it thoughtfully. Each of the essays is fairly short so that they could easily be made part of a daily devotional reading if desired. As well, this book is a nice companion volume to The Apostles, a previous collection of Pope Benedict's homilies.

Highly recommended.

This review was written as part of The Catholic Company product reviewer program. Visit The Catholic Company to find more information on The Fathers by Pope Benedict XVI.

Other Catholic Company reviews may be found here.

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