Category Archives: philosopher

The elusive patroness of philosophers

Today the church commemorates Saint Catherine of Alexandria, a patroness of philosophers.

As a philosopher, I rejoice that a woman is our patron. But there’s one problem: Saint Catherine might never have existed! Now that’s a philosopher’s dilemma.

According to the legend, Saint Catherine became a Christian after an intellectual search led her to Christ. The Emperor, fascinated by her beauty, had her brought before him. Stirred by his lechery he asked her to be his consort. (What a good virgin martyr’s story without a lecherous emperor.) When this didn’t work, he urged her to give up her faith. She was so convincing in her argument against this that the emperor brought in fifty philosophers who were so moved by her arguments that they became Christians and were martyred. Catherine was thrown into jail where she converted the emperor’s wife, her jailer, and two hundred soldiers. Frustrated by all this, he planned to kill her by a machine made of spoked wheels, but it flew apart and she was untouched. Then the emperor had her beheaded. And, not make things even more fascinating, angels took her body and buried it on Mount Sinai.

Saint Catherine was a very popular saint in the middle ages and into the modern era. But the Catholic Church first suppressed her feast but then restored it in 2002. Alas, such is the fate of women philosophers.

Robert Ellsberg, in All Saints, ends his short entry on St. Catherine, a saint who may never have existed, thus:

[Saint Catherine] may continue to represent the subversive power of women’s wisdom, a voice which many would like to silence lest it subvert the whole world with its irrefutable logic. So Catherine continues to inspire and illuminate us with her edifying story, like the light emanating from a distant star which no longer exists.

St. Catherine of Alexandria, pray for us.


Mosaic of women saints in Ravenna

The non-existent patroness of philosophers

Bernardo_Daddi_-_St_Catherine_of_Alexandria_with_Donor_and_Christ_Blessing_-_WGA05852Today is the feast of St. Catherine of Alexandria, the patroness of philosophers.

There is only one problem. She probably didn’t exist.

But the legend is fantastic and fascinating.

She was brought before the emperor and tried to convince him about Christ. He was flabbergasted and brought in fifty of his philosophers to argue with this woman.

But the emperor’s attempt to win Catherine over backfired.

She ended up convincing the philosophers who professed their belief in Christ before the emperor. They subsequently lost their heads – philosopher martyrs!

The emperor sent her to jail. (There are some reports that he didn’t kill her right away because he wanted her as his consort – typical macho emperor.)

But Catherine could not be stopped. She converted the jailor, two hundred of the imperial guard, and even the emperor’s wife – all of whom were martyred for the faith.

The frustrated emperor tried to kill her by placing her between two spiked wheels. She touched them and they broke into thousands of pieces and killed some bystanders. (She’s also the patroness of wheelwrights!)

Finally he had her beheaded.

But the story doesn’t end there. Angels came and carried her body off to Mount Sinai where there is now an Orthodox monastery – St. Catherine’s.

There is much we could learn from St. Catherine’s story.

I particularly call to mind two women philosophers who influenced me – Hannah Arendt and Simone Weil. But I also recall women theologians, including the Catalan Benedictine nun Teresa Forcades who recently wrote a book on Weil and Dorothy Day, Por amor a la justicia, which I hope I can find and read some day soon.

But I think Robert Ellsberg puts it well, at the end of his meditation of St. Catherine in All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time:

She [Catherine] may continue to represent the subversive power of women’s wisdom, a voice which many would like to silence lest it subvert the whole world with its irrefutable logic. So Catherine continues to inspire and illuminate us with her edifying story, like the light emanating from a distant star which no longer exists.

The nonexistent patroness of philosophers

Today is the feast of St. Catherine of Alexandria, the patroness of us philosophers.

The trouble is she may not have existed – even though her tomb is at St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai and St. Joan of Arc identified her as one of the voices speaking to her. She is also one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, revered for their intercession with God.

At the very least, the legend of her life is legendary.

St. Catherine, in San Miniato, Florence

St. Catherine, in San Miniato, Florence

According to the legend, she was a precocious 18 year old Christian in Alexandria. She was brought before the emperor who was astounded by her wisdom and learning. He brought in fifty philosophers to refute her, but they ended up converting to Christianity – so powerful was her logic. The new Christian philosophers ended up being burned alive.

Catherine was sent to prison where she converted the emperor’s wife, the jailer, and two hundred members of the imperial guard. This, of course, did not please the emperor.

What a missionary she was! What a great philosophic debater!

The emperor then tried to torture her on a spiked wheel, which broke apart (and, of course, injured bystanders). She was finally beheaded. After her death her body was carried by angels to Mount Sinai.

Fantastic and amazing as the tale is there is probably an element of truth in the midst of all the legend.

A young woman probably converted many by her simple wisdom and suffered for her faith in a God beyond all human wisdom, perhaps revealing the subversive wisdom of the crucified and risen Lord.

Robert Ellsberg puts it beautifully in All Saints:

[St. Catherine] may continue to represent the subversive power of women’s wisdom, a voice which many would like to silence lest it subvert the whole world with its irrefutable logic. So Catherine continues to inspire and illuminate us with her edifying story, like the light emanating from a distant star which no longer exists.

An added note: St. Catherine’s feast was suppressed from the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar in 1969 but restored in 2002 as an optional memorial

The bellowing of the Dumb Ox

Students, even members of religious orders, can sometimes be rather caustic in their evaluations of their fellow students.

The Dominican friars who studied with St. Albert the Great in Cologne called Thomas Aquinas “The Dumb Ox,” for they saw this rather large man as very taciturn.

St. Albert, however, advised them that the lowing of this dumb ox would one day resound throughout the world.

St. Thomas Aquinas statue, detail, Ames, Iowa

St. Thomas Aquinas statue, detail, Ames, Iowa

For many years the work of St. Thomas was the norm for Catholic theology – though more in terms of scholastic treatises that ignored the dialectical nature of Thomas’ Summa Theologica, where he discusses the pros and contras of hundreds of questions about faith and practice.

Thomas at times has been dismissed as cold and dry, more interested in “truths” than in the life of faith.

I think this is mistaken. And this is not only because I took a grad school course on “The Perfection of the Universe according to Thomas Aquinas.”

One of the more interesting remarks about Thomas comes from G. K. Chesterton:

He [Thomas Aquinas] had from the first that full and final test of truly orthodox Catholicity: the impetuous, impatient, intolerable passion for the poor; and even that readiness to be rather a nuisance to the rich, out of a hunger to feed the hungry.

This quotation from Thomas’ Summa Theologica (Ia–2ae ii, 4) bears this out:

 Four general reasons can be brought forward to show that perfect happiness consists neither in riches, nor in fame, nor in power. Of which the first is that perfect happiness is not compatible with any evil. The second is that happiness is self-sufficient; once obtained, no other human prize is wanting, such as good health and wisdom. The third is that no harm results from happiness, whereas sometimes riches are kept to the hurt of the owner, and this may be also the case with the other goods we have mentioned. The fourth reason is this: true happiness wells from within, but the goods we have mentioned come from external causes and often from good luck.

Thomas has often been invoked as a defender of orthodoxy – of orthodox Catholic ideas; but this quote and others would indicate that he was a defender of an orthopraxy (right practice of the Christian faith) that includes a skepticism about riches, fame, and power.


The quote above is taken from a collection of quotes from Aquinas gathered by the late Father John Kavanaugh, SJ, in America,  here.


Wisdom and Justin Martyr

When I was young and innocent,
I sought wisdom.
She came in her beauty
and until the end I will cultivate her.
Sirach 51, 13-14

Philosophers are, etymologically, lovers of wisdom.

Saint Justin Martyr was a philosopher who searched for wisdom in the philosophies of his day. He found all philosophy, except Plato, inadequate. Since I wrote my dissertation on spiritedness in Plato’s Republic, I feel a certain connection with Justin.

But he did not stop with Plato, but, inspired by an old man he encountered, he embraced Christ and Christianity – the true philosophy.

However, he did not turn his back completely on Plato and other philosophers. He recognized that one can find the seeds of the Word of God even in pagans. God gives all the opportunity to recognize Wisdom, even if only partially.

He also saw that the life of the followers of Christ has to be different. As he wrote in his First Apology:

Those who once rejoiced in fornication now delight in continence alone; . . . we who once took pleasure in the means of increasing our wealth and property now bring what we have into a common fund and share with everyone in need; we who hated and killed one another and would not associate with people of different tribes because of [their different] customs, now after the manifestation of Christ live together and pray for our enemies and try to persuade those who unjustly hate us, so that they, living according to the fair commands of Christ, may share with us the good hope of receiving the same things [that we will] from God, the master of all.

We are blessed with a deeper Wisdom that calls us to be different – because Christ Jesus offers us something different: a way of life and love that move us to open ourselves to all the world.

May we always seek and cultivate that Wisdom, so needed in our world today.


A Cuban priest philosopher

On February 25, 1853, Padre Feliz Varela died in Saint Augustine, Florida, at the age of sixty-five.

Padre Varela was born in Havana, Cuba, and became a priest there. His studies in philosophy led him to teach at San Carlos College.

He was so well esteemed that he was chosen as a delegate to the Spanish Cortes in Madrid in 1821. But he didn’t stay there long.

He proposed independence for Cuba and the abolition of slavery, both causes that did not please the Spanish Cortes. He had to flee in 1823 and wound up in New York  City.

In New York he ministered to the poor Irish immigrants but also founded a newspaper in Spanish that advocated Cuban independence. His efforts did not please the Spanish government and an assassin was hired.

Padre Varela earned a doctorate in theology and wrote on liberty and religion, including a two volume work Letters to Elpidio.

He was a priest ahead of his times – advocating liberty, calling for independence of his Latin American homeland, and being the first Hispanic theologian in the US.

He was buried in Florida but his remains were later moved to Habana, where they rest, venerated by people of all political and religious persuasions as a Cuban patriot.

I have not read his work but it might be good to see what was said about religion and liberty more than 160 years ago. One quote of Padre Varela is

I have always concluded that Christianity and liberty are inseparable.



The dunce of love

Tomb of Duns Scotus in Cologne

Today the Franciscans remember a Scottish-born friar who died on November 8, 1308, in Cologne, Germany: Blessed John Duns Scotus.

A brilliant scholar, called a subtle genius by one of his teachers, his works are often so dense that the word “dunce,” derived from his name, is applied to those who have a hard time learning.

There is much that impresses me about his work, but what I remember most were a few remarks that Hannah Arendt made in a class on “The Will” in the early 1970s at the New School for Social Research in New York. (You can find her remarks in her Gifford lectures, The Life of the Mind, which unfortunately I don’t have with me here in Honduras.)

Arendt was moved by Duns Scotus’ definition of love as  volo ut sis – I will that you are.

Love is wanting the person to BE, to exist. Love for another does not have a specific content, as if my love for a person were to depend on what I want for the person.

Rather love wants that that particular person BE.

To be is a good and to be, is for Duns Scotus, to be THIS particular person.

God made us to BE the person who we are. God has loved this person into being. And we are called to love that person.

It’s not necessarily a question of finding out what is good for that person and making sure that this happens for her or him. It’s a question of wanting that person to be the person he or she is, in own’s inmost being.

If this sounds a little abstract, that’s either the subtlety of Duns Scotus or, more likely, my inability to explain him well.

But, at bottom, love is not control, not determining what is good for another. Love is wanting the other to be.

And in a world where the “other” is perceived as a threat, this love is perhaps the most difficult and the most necessary.

I love not what I want the other to be, but what he or she is; and I want them to be.



Random birthday thoughts

Sixty-five years young today. My prayer and reading this morning has awakened in me a wide range of thoughts, filled with gratitude.

Here are a few thoughts, randomly chosen:

The reading, 1 Timothy 6: 7-8, for Vigils from  Benedictine Daily Prayer was most fitting:

…we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with there.

I am content here in Honduras. Though I have much more than most Hondurans, what I really need I have – a ministry I love, people whom I love and respect and who love me, enough food and more than enough clothing, and now Social Security checks!

Today the feast of Saint Justin, patron of philosophers. He was probably the first who sought to bring together faith and philosophical reason. He seems to have been very open to the possibility that God saves all those who seek the Truth. In his  Apology,  he wrote:

We have been taught that Christ is the First-begotten of God, and have previously testified that he is the Reason [Logos] of which every race of humans partakes. Those who lived in accordance with Reason are Christians, even though they were called godless, such as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus and others like them.

Does this sound a bit like Karl Rahner’s notion of “anonymous Christians”?

Justin was born of Greek parents in what is today Nablus, in Palestine. I cannot help remembering my visit to Palestine and Israel years ago and the great affection I feel for the Palestinians, matched with the great concern I have had for many years about the failure of the institutional Church and many Catholics to stand up strongly and with courage against the Nazis when the Jews were being deported and killed. Yes, there were many individuals but the public institutional witness was weak – or almost non-existent.

The first reading for the feast of St. Justin is 1 Corinthians 1, 17-25, which ends with a phrase that has struck me for many years, and even more so here in Honduras:

the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

If anyone has been reading what I’ve been writing recently, this theme is a theme that has become central to my understanding of God and the world: God uses the wisdom of the poor to confound the intellectuals and those who think they know it all; God’s strength is made perfect in the weakness of the poor, who, in Mary’s words, “casts down the mighty from their thrones and raises up the lowly.”

Speaking of the lowly, today is also the feast of Blessed John Baptist Scalabrini, founder of the Scalabrini priests and sisters whose major ministry is to migrants.  He lived for 1839 to 1905. An Italian  bishop he was moved by the many Italians leaving for the US and other places and began many efforts to assist them. He even visited the US in 1901 where he met with President Theodore Roosevelt where he spoke about the injustices against Italian immigrants and defended them.  How much we still need people like him to defend immigrants.

Today is also the anniversary of the burning at the stake in 1310 of Marguerite Porette. She was a member of the Beguines, groups of women who led a community life of prayer and charity, without religious vows.  They were mostly in Belgium and the Netherlands where you can still encounter the beguinajes where they lived. She was tried by the Inquisition, which was threatened by her writings, claiming that her spirituality set aside the church in favor of direct communication with God.  Two years after her death, the church formally suppressed the movement. (This account is taken from Robert Ellsberg’s  All Saints.)

Today, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, castigated by the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith (the successor of the Inquisition), released a statement about their response, noting

The board members raised concerns about both the content of the doctrinal assessment and the process by which it was prepared.  Board members concluded that the assessment was based on unsubstantiated accusations and the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency. Moreover, the sanctions imposed were disproportionate to the concerns raised and could compromise their ability to fulfill their mission. The report has furthermore caused scandal and pain throughout the church community, and created greater polarization.

A press release with a link to their statement can be found here.

I am blessed to know the current president of LCWR, Dubuque Franciscan Sister Pat Farrell, a woman devoted to Christ and the poor, who spent many years in mission in Latin America (Chile and El Salvador) during perilous and dangerous times. May God give her strength in this new challenge.

These are the thoughts I will carry with me today as I go first to the Dulce Nombre  parish for the meeting of the leaders of the liturgical ministry in the villages. Then I’ll come back to Santa Rosa to Caritas, where one of the programs is being evaluated. I’ll probably treat myself to pizza tonight.

God is good.

Gracias a Dios.

Christian humanism and Jacques Maritain

Jacques Maritain, husband, philosopher, died on April 28, 1973. A major philosopher in the twentieth century revival of the philosophy and theology of Thomas Aquinas, he was involved in drafting the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

He is seen as a major proponent of Christian Humanism which inspired the Christian Democratic movements and parties in Europe and Latin America (often proposed as an alternative to Marxism). There are still many who claim to advocate a Christian Humanism, including the current president of Honduras, Pepe Lobo. However, they would be advised to head these words of Jacques Maritain, quoted in his friend Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:

“They keep in their minds the settings of religion for the sake of appearances or outward show. . . but they deny the Gospel and despise the poor, pass through the tragedy of their time only with resentment against anything that endangers their interests and fear for their own prestige and possessions, contemplate without flinching every kind of injustice if it does not threaten their own way of life. Only concerned with  power and success, they are either anxious to have means of external coercion enforce what they term the ‘moral order’ or else they turn with the wind and are ready to comply with any requirement of the so-called historical necessity. They await the deceivers. They are famished for deception because first they themselves are trying to deceive God.”

Teilhard’s Mass on the World

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., Jesuit theologian, paleontologist, died on April 10, 1955, which was Easter Sunday that year.

During his life his philosophical and theological writings were banned from publication. But his thoughts which try to bring together faith and science have spoken to many of the beauty of the Creation made by God.

Once, in Chine, without bread and wine for Mass, he express his love for the Eucharist in a Mass on the World. It begins thus:

Since once again, Lord — though this time not in the forests of the Aisne but in the steppes of Asia — I have neither bread, nor wine, nor altar, I will raise myself beyond these symbols, up to the pure majesty of the real itself; I, your priest, will make the whole earth my altar and on it will offer you all the labors and sufferings of the world.

All creation, all the labors and sufferings of the peoples of the world are offered up with Jesus, who became flesh, who gives himself to us, Body and Blood,  in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.