From The Hoya: Our Essential Suffering

Originally published on 24th March 2017, this article was taken from the Georgetown University Knights of Columbus’s rotating column in The Hoya, entitled The Round Table. The column, written by members of the Georgetown University Knights of Columbus, is published every other Friday.

Image Credits:

By: Jack Segelstein

The first day of Lent is perhaps the busiest day of the year for Dahlgren Chapel. Far more Hoyas come to Mass on Ash Wednesday than attend weekly Sunday service, even though only the latter is morally obligated by the Catholic Church.

There are two ways to view this discrepancy. The first is with cynicism. People on campus and around the world come to Ash Wednesday mass because they “get something.” They receive a mark that distinguishes them as dutiful believers like voters sporting buttons on Election Day.

I am in no position to say whether this is true or to what extent it motivates Georgetown students. If it were true, however, it would smack of more than a little irony. The ashes are first and foremost a mark of penitence. They remind us of our sinfulness and mortality, which we are meant to remember throughout Lent.

It is not a “happy” day like Easter and Christmas, but one of solemnity, mortification and sorrow. Christians are spiritually called to walk and suffer with Christ as we remember his 40 days of fasting in the desert to prepare for the temptations of the devil and ultimately his death and resurrection.

My second perspective is hopeful, not cynical. Scores of Hoyas attend Ash Wednesday Mass because they are each responding with empathy and humility to the memory of Christ’s suffering. Thes ashes serve as a source of shame, not pride or ostentation.

But why the shame? For many, Lent is the epitome of Christianity’s ostensibly austere deprecation of humanity. It is often said that the Christian life is fundamentally one of guilt, tragedy and postponement until “eternal life” begins.

If I felt this to be true, I would not be Catholic. G.K. Chesterton, the 20th century Christian apologist, held that the natural — and most mysterious — state of the human person is joy. He felt Christianity better recognized this fundamental claim about humanity than did any other faith or philosophy.

Food tastes better when you are hungry. Assuming we have food available to us, we only allow ourselves to get hungry when we restrain ourselves and exercise discipline. Despite the “suffering” that is hunger, we are more fully rewarded for it when we get around to a meal.

This is, more or less, the logic of Lenten fasting, save for one crucial piece. Christianity shows us that hunger itself has intrinsic value, something that has nothing to do with later consuming food. The same applies to all suffering. In fact, all suffering entails a sort of joy.

I do not expect most of you to buy this. I was a recent convert to Catholicism when this principle — sometimes called the neighborhood of joy and pain — was first explained to me, and I was actually offended by it. I thought it perversely misunderstood the often-unutterable suffering in the world.

However, if you distill Christ’s life to one essential act,  he elected to suffer on the cross to save us. Yes, it was Christ’s destiny to die on the cross, but he exercised real, utterly human discipline in submitting to his captors and enduring each nail.

We are, then, profoundly Christ-like when we suffer. Further, we have the opportunity to offer our suffering for him precisely as he did for us. Far from perverting human suffering, Christ’s suffering allows it to be redemptive.

Perhaps some people object to my locating Christ’s essential action in suffering instead of love. But surely they are not mutually exclusive. Love is giving oneself over to another — it entails sacrifice and requires suffering. Indeed, there has never been a greater act of love in all of human history than Christ’s suffering on the cross.

While it is true that fasting — and its accompanying suffering — helps purge us of our sin, it does much more. It allows us to more fully love God and one another, thereby more closely resembling Christ. We wear the ashes in shame precisely so we have less reason to be ashamed

To all those observing Lent, suffer. Not mindlessly or masochistically, but lovingly. Call to mind your mortality and sinfulness, but remember how they make God’s love and suffering for us all the more remarkable. For this, rejoice.


Guest Post: Hearing the Divine Call by Max Bindernagel

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By: Max Bindernagel,  Chaplain in Residence in Georgetown University

“Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” 1 Samuel 3. 10 (NRSV)

Today, “discernment” is as popular a spiritual topic as any, and there seems to be a great interest, especially among young people, about how one can be best attentive to the voice of God.  Unfortunately, for many this tends to take the form of an “existential crisis” in one’s life.  People searching for God’s will torture themselves over the many questions (often good, legitimate ones) which accompany this search: What does God want from me?  When will he let me know?  How can I hear him?  Out of a genuine concern for doing God’s will and following the promptings he inspires in one’s heart, this search easily becomes fraught with all kinds of needless anxiety.

A helpful corrective comes from Bl. John Henry Newman, the 19th century English theologian, convert, and cardinal.  In his homily “Divine Calls,” Newman comments on the many examples of God’s call as seen in Scripture, especially the call of Samuel.  The common theme among the many instances in which God prompts various men and women to do his will lies in the response: “prompt obedience.”  Like Samuel, who, once he knew Whom he was hearing, obeyed and listened attentively, so too we ought to eagerly and quickly obey the promptings of God in our own heart.  There is something childlike in the trust that this requires; if we know and trust that God has our good in mind, what reason do we have to be anxious?

But how do we hear that voice in the first place?  Newman was not satisfied with those who said that God’s call has already been answered by us when we were baptized, and who say that it therefore remains “not a thing future with us, but a thing past.” On the contrary, God is constantly at work in our lives, and our labor is to respond consistently to his ever-deeper call to holiness.

In the daily trials of life, often “indefinite and obscure,” “sudden and unexpected,” we answer God’s call by obeying him.   We learn something new which we know to be true but which we find difficult to accept; and we follow God’s will by accepting it rather than fighting it.  We deal the loss of a loved one, and through much grieving and pain we come see that God alone endures; and in this we follow God’s will.  We are challenged by a situation in which we must choose to stand by our faith or to abandon it; and in remaining steadfast, we follow God’s will.

For those who make a regular practice of this prompt obedience, the “bigger questions” about discerning one’s vocation will be shown with greater clarity.  When we follow God’s inspirations in the small things in life with greater ease (in the circumstances of life, in our conscience, in studying our faith), we develop a deeper attentiveness to God’s greater plan for our lives.  This work of answering the Divine Call is one of mutual trust, where our freedom and his are totally intertwined.  As Newman puts it:

“This is a call to higher things; let us beware lest we receive the grace of God in vain. Let us beware of lapsing back; let us avoid temptation. Let us strive by quietness and caution to cherish the feeble flame, and shelter it from the storms of this world. God may be bringing us into a higher world of religious truth; let us work with Him.”

This essay was written with reference to a homily by Bl.  John Henry Newman. 


The Truth about the Ashes

Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons

 By: Board of the Georgetown University Knights of Columbus

This Wednesday, March 1, a curious sight will return to Georgetown’s campus as many, young and old, walk their daily routes with crosses of ashes marked across their foreheads.

To the outside observer, this occurrence might seem a bit odd, but to a Roman Catholic, the practice presents a different meaning, denoting that Ash Wednesday has arrived, and with it, the season of Lent leading to the Easter holiday.

Look below to find answers to important questions about Ash Wednesday presented by the Georgetown University Knights of Columbus.

Do you have to go to mass?

The first question that might arise for a Catholic on Ash Wednesday might be: “Is this a holy day of obligation?”

The answer to that question is no, however, it is recommended that one make an effort to attend a mass on this day, and receive their ashes.

On campus, traditional masses with a distribution of ashes will be held in Dahlgren Chapel at 12:10 p.m., 5:00 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. with an ecumenical service also featuring a distribution of ashes offered at 7:30 p.m.

Just off campus, the Holy Trinity Catholic Church will host Ash Wednesday masses at 7:00 a.m., 8:00 a.m., 10:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.

What do the ashes mean?

In the simplest terms, the ashes distributed at the start of Lent are marks of repentance. They are an acknowledgement of the frailty, or the imperfection of all Catholics as human beings.

In recognizing the faults symbolized in the ashes, Catholics are meant to re-affirm their connection to God. Catholics then strengthen this bond throughout Lent when they fast, or alternately, make an effort to do good works for others.

Where do the ashes come from?

According to some sources, the Ash Wednesday holiday harkens back to an ancient practice of repentance seen as early as the story of Jonah and the people of the sinful city of Nineveh.

Upon hearing that God would destroy Nineveh in 40 days if they did not change their ways, the Ninevites “great and small” began fasting, wore sackcloth, and even their king “covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes.”

Early Christian communities adopted the practice of outwardly marking repentance with ashes, with the ritual appearing in the Roman Missal—the book which guides priests through the rites of the mass—as early as the eighth century, or the 700s A.D.

The ancient practice has been observed into the modern day, with one parish in Galway, Ireland, this year instituting a drive-thru service for its busy and mobile population.

“It’s about meeting people where they are,” Fr. Paddy Mooney, the priest of the parish told The Irish Catholic, a local Catholic media outlet. “We’re just putting [the initiative] in front of people to help them think of Lent, as a reminder of it.”

But what is the truth about the ashes?

The truth about the ashes is that they arise from a tradition over 2,000 years old—they serve to connect Catholics to past generations of believers, even as the Catholics wearing them today seek to bring themselves closer to God.


A Monday Blog Post: Being Active in Faith

I write to you all on this federal holiday observed in remembrance of the life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in order to introduce a new series of posts that will continue for the rest of the semester. The new Monday blog series will be a chance for members of Georgetown’s Council 6375 of the Knights of Columbus to engage their faith and to create posts that encourage reflection, learning and thoughtful dialogue within the Georgetown community. It is my hope that the many varied interests of the members of our council will enliven this page from week to week and will encourage the type of introspection and insight that occurs for many within the walls of a church on Sunday to enter into the rest of the week.

I think that it is appropriate at the present time to reflect upon some of the words of Dr. King, who wrote in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in 1963 that: “If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”

In this passage, Dr. King expressed his disappointment with many, but not all of the clergy in his place and time, whom he saw to be silent in regard to, or even supportive of the dominant system of segregation that still pervaded his society. However, his statement is still thought provoking today in the twenty-first century. It spurs people of faith to confront their own consciences and beliefs in the light of the example of the early church, and the strong faith of the martyrs, such as Saint Lucy, patron saint of eyes, who was blinded and killed during the Roman persecutions of the early fourth century.

Perhaps the best way to engage with the words of Dr. King in our own lives today would be to hear the call of Mary to the servants of the wedding at Cana from yesterday’s Gospel reading. In commanding the servants to follow her son, Mary said: “Do whatever he tells you”.

Let us all remember that in order to bear relevance upon our lives, a faith must be an active one. Let us show by our actions that we do not belong to an “irrelevant social club,” but to a dynamic community in which we hear the call to go out and “[d]o whatever he tells [us].”


Divinity and Humanity: Incomparable by Nature?


A belief in God or religion has often been used to advance scholarly arguments that attempt to discredit the notion of a human-like God. For example, David Hume’s Dialogues is a simulated conversation between philosophers who use reason in an attempt to gain a greater understanding about the nature of God. One character, Philo, affirms his belief in god as “the original cause of the universe,” treating his existence as “unquestionable and self-evident,” but he challenges his friend Demea for using analogical reasoning to ascribe human characteristics and traits to God (Hume, 44). Philo argues that God is “infinitely superior to our limited view and comprehension;” therefore, it would be unfair to attempt to describe God’s nature as having a “likeness to the perfections of a human creature” (Hume, 44). Since “we have no experience of divine attributes and operations,” even traits such as “wisdom, thought, design, and knowledge” – traits that are considered virtuous among men – are inappropriate to describe God’s nature since they are concepts that only operate within the scope of human understanding (Hume, 45).

Another character, Cleanthes, objects to Philo’s claim and explains how his observations of the world around them – as “one great machine subdivided into lesser machines” – lead him to believe that nature’s complexity is indeed indicative of an intelligent designer, who he likens to a craftsman (Hume, 45). Philo responds in turn by pointing out that Cleanthes’ argument is flawed for its use of “weak analogies,” because he is drawing comparisons between the universe as a whole and certain parts of the universe; for example, it is reasonable to conclude that a house has an architect behind it, but when a house is compared to the universe the dissimilitude between both cases will “diminish proportionally the evidence” (Hume, 46).

However, Philo continues to take issue with the idea of anthropomorphizing God, and he states that doing so will “renounce all claim to infinity in any of the attributes of the deity” (Hume, 68). He explains that the mind of God should not have the likeness of a human mind, when our minds are possessed of limited understanding. Moreover, Philo points out that it becomes impossible to assert that God created the world perfectly; in short, if God’s work bears a likeness to “human art and contrivance,” then it is unreasonable to believe that he is “free from every error, mistake, or incoherence in his undertakings” (Hume, 68-9). Lastly, Philo debunks the analogical argument by arguing that it leaves open the possibility of polytheism, since multiple gods can be responsible for creating the universe in the same sense that it can take several people to build a house – thereby further “limiting the attributes of each” deity (Hume, 70).

Later on, these philosophers decide to confront the ‘problem of evil,’ or why a monotheistic god would allow moral disorder and a miserable world to exist when it is assumed that he has “infinite power, infinite wisdom, and infinite goodness” (Hume, 103). Philo expounds on the futility of proving these assumptions, given the requirement: “you must prove these pure, unmixed, and uncontrollable attributes from the present mixed and confused phenomena, and from these alone” (Hume, 103). Ultimately, Philo is asserting that if God’s attributes cannot be inferred from nature with certainty, then there can be no conclusive way to establish the nature of God; hence, the analogical argument is a failure.

Written By: Eddie Morles

Striving For Perfection

Inspired by Dominic’s Lecture before the 7th Spring 2015 Board Meeting.

Although we never like to admit it, we all know we aren’t perfect. This is inherent of our human nature due to original sin. Although it’s evident that we cannot reach ultimate perfection, it should not hinder us from striving towards it. The reason why we must constantly seek to better ourselves is because we are often oblivious of the direct and indirect effects of our imperfections.

When we stand before a fellow sinner how could we sacrifice our spiritual and moral pride by condemning him, knowing that we too are sinners? Hypocrites — that’s what that would be. There have been many moments in our lives where we could have done better, but were satisfied with our current imperfect status, and refrained from taking action. When an opportunity to bring ourselves a step closer to perfection presents itself, we must seize it. Never let it pass you by. It is the accumulation of all the times we have passed by these opportunities that shepherds our brothers and sisters towards sin and evil doings.

One of the most uplifting, tear-jerking stories I’ve ever heard deals with a juvenile boy who seized an opportunity to become a better person — and his initial action was as simple as extending a helping hand and a warm smile. Many who read this might be familiar with the story, it goes something like this:

One day, when I was a freshman in high school, I saw a kid from my class was walking home from school. His name was Kyle. It looked like he was carrying all of his books. I thought to myself, “Why would anyone bring home all his books on a Friday? He must really be a nerd.” I had quite a weekend planned (parties and a football game with my friend tomorrow afternoon), so I shrugged my shoulders and went on. As I was walking, I saw a bunch of kids running toward him. They ran at him, knocking all his books out of his arms and tripping him so he landed in the dirt. His glasses went flying, and I saw them land in the grass about ten feet from him. He looked up and I saw this terrible sadness in his eyes. My heart went out to him. So, I jogged over to him and as he crawled around looking for his glasses, and I saw a tear in his eye. 

As I handed him his glasses, I said, “Those guys are jerks. They really should get lives.” He looked at me and said, “Hey thanks!” There was a big smile on his face. It was one of those smiles that showed real gratitude. 

I helped him pick up his books, and asked him where he lived. As it turned out, he lived near me, so I asked him why I had never seen him before. He said he had gone to private school before now. I would have never hung out with a private school kid before. 

We talked all the way home, and I carried his books. He turned out to be a pretty cool kid. I asked him if he wanted to play football on Saturday with me and my friends. He said yes. We hung all weekend and the more I got to know Kyle, the more I liked him. And my friends thought the same of him. 

Monday morning came, and there was Kyle with the huge stack of books again. I stopped him and said, “Damn boy, you are gonna really build some serious muscles with this pile of books everyday!” He just laughed and handed me half the books. Over the next four years, Kyle and I became best friends. When we were seniors, began to think about college. Kyle decided on Georgetown, and I was going to Duke. I knew that we would always be friends, that the smiles would never be a problem. He was going to be a doctor, and I was going for business on a football scholarship. Kyle was valedictorian of our class. 

I teased him all the time about being a nerd. He had to prepare a speech for graduation. I was so glad it wasn’t me having to get up there and speak. Graduation day, I saw Kyle. 

He looked great. He was one of those guys that really found himself during high school. He filled out and actually looked good in glasses. He had more dates than me and all the girls loved him! Boy, sometimes I was jealous. 

Today was one of those days. I could see that he was nervous about his speech. So, I smacked him on the back and said, “Hey, big guy, you’ll be great!” He looked at me with one of those looks (the really grateful one) and smiled. “Thanks,” he said. 

As he started his speech, he cleared his throat, and began. “Graduation is a time to thank those who helped you make it through those tough years. Your parents, your teachers, your siblings, maybe a coach … but mostly your friends. I am here to tell all of you that being a friend to someone is the best gift you can give them. I am going to tell you a story.” I just looked at my friend with disbelief as he told the story of the first day we met. He had planned to kill himself over the weekend. He talked of how he had cleaned out his locker so his Mom wouldn’t have to do it later and was carrying his stuff home. He looked hard at me and gave me a little smile. “Thankfully, I was saved. My friend saved me from doing the unspeakable.” I heard the gasp go through the crowd as this handsome, popular boy told us all about his weakest moment. 

I saw his Mom and dad looking at me and smiling that same grateful smile.
Written By: Michael John Poorten