Friendship in the Trinity: 4 Thoughts on Christian Friendship

“The union of Father and Son would be incomplete if their love did not beget a third entity, the Holy Spirit, which both proceeds from and returns the love of Father and Son.”

Listers, “There is nothing closer to the heart of a twenty year old,” states Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., “than that of friendship: how it is gained and how it is lost. If you do not understand this, you do not understand life.” [i] The ability to develop friendships is one of the greatest gifts of human nature. Friendship is close to all of our hearts and can dramatically impact our happiness and fulfillment. In order to better understand the nature of friendship and its impact upon us, we must develop a proper understanding of the human person. The study of friendship goes back to the ancient Greeks, particularly Aristotle, who recognized the importance of friendship in both our personal lives and in public affairs. Ultimately, the Greek view of friendship fell short without the Christian insight of sin and grace – and most of all – the understanding that the human person is created in God’s image and likeness. A Christian view of friendship, therefore, must explore God’s own essence, which is Triune and relational. This understanding is enhanced by the Incarnation of Christ, which radically transforms the classical view of friendship. Today, many factors threaten the development of healthy and authentic friendships. By recovering a Christian understanding of friendship, we can once again foster healthy friendships in our daily lives.


1. Imago Dei

In the Book of Genesis we read that, “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”[ii] Here the scriptures present us with an understanding of the human person that is modeled after the very likeness of God. Human beings, therefore, share in the essence of their Creator. This not only reveals to us our dignity as human persons, but also the mystery of our being. We are a reflection, or, a “mirror” of our Creator, as St. Augustine describes.[iii] Our entire being shares in a likeness of God, which means all that we experience – including friendship and love – must be modeled after our Creator.

Genesis offers another passage that speaks to human nature and our longing for friendship. In chapter two we read that, “The Lord God said: It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suited to him.”[iv] God then proceeded to create “wild animals” and “all the birds of the air,” but “none proved to be a helper suited to the man.” Finally, God created woman, and it is only woman who satisfies man. It is only another human person who “suits” man’s loneliness. Woman fulfilled man in way that “all the birds of the air” could not. Adam, filled with joy, exclaimed, “this one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” How beautiful is this exclamation of Adam. In Eve he finds a part of himself, and he is able to form a deep bond with her.

Genesis shows us that even God recognizes that “it was not good for man to be alone.” Man is somehow insufficient or incomplete without friendship. As Sister Mary Ann Fatula, O.P. argues, life without friends would be “hellish.”[v] God also found that life would be unbearable without others present around us. Only when man and woman were created did God pronounce all of creation as “very good.” [vi] Friendship, then, is “very good” and completes the beauty of creation.


2. God as Trinity: Friendship within the Godhead

"Stained glass window from Leicester Cathedral presents the Doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity in a heraldic form." - Fr. Lawrence, OP. Flickr.
“Stained glass window from Leicester Cathedral presents the Doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity in a heraldic form.” – Fr. Lawrence, OP. Flickr.

It is now necessary to discuss the “image and likeness” of God by which the human person was created. Fr. Schall describes the investigation of God’s nature as, “the most exciting and basic of all topics, the one that really gets to the heart of things, of why things are and why things are as they are.” [vii] Joseph Ratzinger describes the Christian understanding of God as, “the Three-in-One, as he who is simultaneously the monas and the trias, absolute unity and fullness.” [viii] God is both one and plural. He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: entirely one, yet three distinct Persons who exist in relation to one another. According to the Dionysian principle, the goodness which unites two beings will necessarily result in a further diffusion of goodness. The union of Father and Son would be incomplete if their love did not beget a third entity, the Holy Spirit, which both proceeds from and returns the love of Father and Son. Ultimately, the Trinity’s love diffuses outward toward all of creation.

God did not need to create. His creation is a sheer gift of love. Pope Benedict XVI reflects on the mystery of this gift, remaking that, “love knows no ‘why’; it is a free gift to which one responds with the gift of self.” [ix] This reality of self-gift and love is present within the Trinity and overflows into all of creation. The gift of marriage and the family, for example, beautifully participates within the self-gift and love of the Godhead. The life and nature of the Godhead not only overflows outside itself, but is also reflected in creation. We are truly “marked” by God through our friendships. Understanding the Triune friendship of God helps us to better understand the image in which we were created. As Fr. Schall writes:

 “The notion that we are persons related to others in our very being and knowing is itself a long-range result of our reflecting on what Father, Son, and Holy Spirit might mean, on Word and Love as expressions of our relatedness to others and to what is.” [x]

Through our friendships we are imitating the divine friendship that exists in the Godhead.


3. What is friendship?

David and Jonathan - St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, Fr. Lawrence, OP, Flickr.
David and Jonathan – St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, Fr. Lawrence, OP, Flickr.

Before proceeding further, it may be helpful to develop an understanding of the nature of friendship that we experience in our daily lives. Aristotle, wrote one of the earliest reflections of friendship in the fourth century B.C. Friendship was so important to him that he devoted two chapters in the Ethics to the topic, more so than any other subject in the book. Aristotle begins by distinguishing three different types of friendship. The first type is what he describes as friendships based on utility, where the friends involved derive some benefit or good from the other. The partners involved do not care for the good of the other, but rather, for their own benefit. Aristotle explains, “when the motive of friendship is usefulness, the partners do not feel affection for one another per se but in terms of the good accruing to each from the other.”[xi]

The second type of friendship is based on pleasure. Aristotle writes, “the same is true of those whose friendship is based on pleasure: we love people not for what they are, but for the pleasure they give us.”[xii] Aristotle believes that these two forms of friendship are problematic because “the friend is loved not because he is a friend, but because he is useful or pleasant.” [xiii] These two friendships occur incidentally, perhaps based on chance circumstances, like a neighbor or classmate. They are also short-lived because one’s pleasures and needs eventually change as time moves on.

The third type of friendship is what Aristotle calls the “truest” and most “virtuous” form. It is friendship based on goodness, where both friends will the good for the other and help each other strive for goodness and virtue. Aristotle notes that, “those who wish for their friend’s good for their friend’s own sake are friends in the truest sense.” [xiv] These friendships last far longer than the previous two types of friendship because the friends care deeply for one another and they are not based upon incidental occurrences. This view of friendship, as willing the good for the other, eventually becomes the basis of Catholic teaching on marriage, contraception, and love. Aristotle argues that good friendship also, “seems to hold states together, and lawgivers apparently devote more attention to it than to justice.” [xv] Friendship, according to Aristotle, is at the root of human relations and impacts humanity not only on a local level, but on a national level as well.

Aristotle’s reflections on friendship are important for several reasons. Firstly, his thoughts reveal that even in the ancient pre-Christian world friendship was still at the heart and center of human affairs. Friendship shows us that human nature abides over time and is truly universal. Aristotle also shows us the importance of friendship on both a local and global scale. Society truly could not function without friendship. In fact, Aristotle argues, the sign of a bad government is one that prevents human flourishing and virtuous friendships. Aristotle is helpful because he defines and distinguishes various types of friendship, but he ultimately falls short of the Christian view because he does not have a developed understanding of human love, sin, and grace. Aristotle, for example, did not believe that men and women could have “true” friendship because he believed they were not equal. He also was skeptical of the idea that we can have friendship with the divine, an idea St. Thomas Aquinas criticizes. It is here that Christianity and the Incarnation entirely transform the classical view of friendship as developed by Aristotle.


4. I Call You Friends

Human friendship is forever transformed through the Incarnation of Christ. Our entire life is now “enchanted” and blessed, because Christ has entered into it. He “dwelt” among us and experienced joys, sorrows, pains, laughter, and friendships. Everything we experience, then, is transformed into something divine because Christ has also shared in it. Nothing we experience is in vain. Friendship, however, takes on a new and more prominent role through the Incarnation. Through Christ, our friendships are no mere replicas of the divine life, but rather, an intimate communion in and with the life of God.

Additionally, Christ’s Incarnation makes it possible for man to enter into friendship with God. Since there is an “infinite inequality between God and us, we could never become equals with God,” which would make friendship with God impossible because “friendship means a certain equality between friends” who can “love us with reciprocal, mutual love.” [xvi] However, there is good news: God desires our friendship. Christ breaks through the barrier between God and man, firstly through his fleshly dwelling, but also through his deliberate desire to become our friends. Jesus “did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped at,” and so he no longer calls us servants, but “but friends.” [xvii] Sister Fatula reflects on this reality, writing that:

In his own person Jesus shows us the infinite ache of the Triune God to be close to us… nothing could satisfy God’s longing to be near us, nothing except becoming flesh of our own flesh. In this radical kinship with us, we would know God’s heart in a way we could never have known otherwise. God’s becoming flesh for us has brought us the inconceivable gift of a more deeply familiar friendship with God. [xviii]

Aquinas also discovered that through Jesus, we obtain the Father’s intimate friendship with us in person, thus making our friendship with the divine possible. [xix]

Pope Benedict summarizes the gravity of this event, reflecting that, “[Jesus] calls me his friend. He welcomes me into the circle of those he had spoken to in the Upper Room, into the circle of those whom he knows in a very special way, and who thereby come to know him in a very special way.” [xx] Through Christ’s Incarnation and friendship we enter into the very life of God. Similarly, our human friendships also share and participate in this divine life, not only because of their participation in Christ’s friendship and the life of the Trinity, but also because we are saved together in a community of believers. While we retain our individuality, we are saved as a “Church,” as Fr. Clark observes, a community of persons bound together in faith and friendship with one another and God. [xxi] Finally, St. Augustine notes in his Confessions after the loss of his dear friend, that because of death, only Christian friendships are eternal as they are redeemed in the glory of Christ’s resurrection. [xxii]



I will conclude this brief list on friendship with beautiful words of reflection from Pope Benedict XVI shortly before his resignation as pontiff: He states,

“‘No longer servants, but friends’: this saying contains within itself the entire program of [our] life. What is friendship? Friendship is a communion of thinking and willing. Friendship is not just about knowing someone, it is above all a communion of the will. It means that my will grows into ever greater conformity with God’s will. For his will is not something external and foreign to me, something to which I more or less willingly submit or else refuse to submit. No, in friendship, my will grows together with his will, and his will becomes mine: this is how I become truly myself.” [xxiii]

Pope Benedict helps us to summarize our reflections on friendship. Our desire for friendship stems from the very source of our creation: God. Through our being made in the image and likeness of God, we are a reflection the nature of the Godhead, which is relational. In Christ’s Incarnation, we not only reflect, but also participate in the very nature of God by becoming his friend and creating friendships with other human beings. It is in entering this friendship with God that we “become truly ourselves” as we are reunited with the very source of ourselves, which is the loving and all good God.


Louis Cona Profile

Louis Cona is an undergraduate at Georgetown University studying Government and Philosophy. He serves and coordinates the Traditional Latin Mass on campus and is an active member of the Georgetown Knights of Columbus.






[i] [i] Schall, James V. “A Final Gladness.” 7 December 2012. Georgetown University. Youtube.

[ii] Gen 1:26-27

[iii] Augustine, “On the Trinity,” XV.

[iv] Gen 2:18

[v] Fatual, “Thomas Aquinas: Preacher and Friend,” 36.

[vi] Genesis 1:31

[vii] Schall, “The Order of Things,” 35.

[viii] Ratzinger, “Introduction to Christianity,” 178.

[ix] Pope Benedict XVI, meeting with seminarians, 19 August 2005.

[x] Ibid, 37.

[xi] Aristotle, “Ethics”, 218. Publisher: Pearson. Translator: Martin Ostwald

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid, 219.

[xv] Ibid, 215.

[xvi] Fatual, “Thomas Aquinas: Preacher and Friend,” 61.

[xvii] Phil 2:16, John 15:15

[xviii] Fatula, 60-61.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Pope Benedict XVI, homily on the 60th anniversary of his priestly ordination, 29 June 2011.

[xxi] Clark, “Five Great Catholic Ideas.”

[xxii] Augustine, “Confessions,” Bk IV, Chap IV-IX.

[xxiii] Pope Benedict XVI, homily on the 60th anniversary of his priestly ordination, 29 June 2011.


4 Step Guide for Celebrating St. Stephen’s Day

And they stoned Stephen, invoking, and saying: Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And falling on his knees, he cried with a loud voice, saying: Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep in the Lord.

Listers, Holy Mother Church provides us with the beautiful gift of the liturgical calendar, which draws us out of the world of time and into the realm of the sacred. By reminding us of the witness of the saints, the calendar gives us insight into the Christian life and points to the paradoxes of our earthly pilgrimage.

After celebrating the great birth of our Savior, the King of Peace, the liturgical calendar turns our attention to the gruesome martyrdom of St. Stephen. The positioning of the feast is paradoxical. It was only yesterday that we celebrated the birth of an innocent child who promised his followers peace, yet today we are reminded of the brutal killing of a man who followed this same child.

Who is St. Stephen and why does the Church celebrate his feast? St. Peter’s List has complied a 4 step guide to understanding and celebrating St. Stephen’s day.


1. Scripture

What we know of St. Stephen is taken entirely from scripture. St. Stephen was among the first deacons to be ordained to the diaconate and is known as the “first martyr.” His martyrdom is recorded in the following passage:

You stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do you also. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? And they have slain them who foretold of the coming of the Just One; of whom you have been now the betrayers and murderers: Who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it. Now hearing these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed with their teeth at him. But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looking up steadfastly to heaven, saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God. And he said: Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.

And they crying out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and with one accord ran violently upon him. And casting him forth without the city, they stoned him; and the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man, whose name was Saul. And they stoned Stephen, invoking, and saying: Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And falling on his knees, he cried with a loud voice, saying: Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep in the Lord. And Saul was consenting to his death.1

Sts. Paul & Stephen, pray for us.


2. Cultural Customs

An Irish custom on St. Stephen’s Day concerns the ancient Irish folk tale of a wren betraying St. Stephen by chattering and revealing his location as the Saint hid in a bush. Many songs were written about this tale and one version of the Wren Song is found below:

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds
St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the firs
Although he was little, his honor was great
Jump up me lads and give us a treat.

We followed the wren three miles or more
Three miles of more, three miles or more
Through hedges and ditches and heaps of snow
At six o’clock in the morning.

Rolley, Rolley, where is your nest?
It’s in the bush that I love best
It’s in the bush, the holly tree
Where all the boys do follow me.

As I went out to hunt and all
I met a wren upon the wall
Up with me wattle and gave him a fall
And brought him here to show you all.

I have a little box under me arm
A tuppence or penny will do it no harm
For we are the boys who came your way
To bring in the wren on St. Stephen’s Day.2

St. Stephen’s day is still alive and well today. In Italy, for example, it is a national holiday. Barry Lillie writes that, “every Italian town has its own way of celebrating; some will have processions dedicated to Saint Stephen, whereas others may be a low key affair where people visit local hospitals or churches to make a donation.”3


3. The Charity of St. Stephen

As a deacon, St. Stephen was tasked with caring for the poor and vulnerable. His charity is the reason for songs and customs which have become the traditional manner of celebrating his feast. The old English carol Good King Wenceslaus tells the children how King Wenceslaus went out on St. Stephen’s day to bring charity to the poor:

Good King Wenceslaus looked out on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gathering winter fuel.

“Hither, page, and stand by me, if you know it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

“Bring me food and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither,
You and I will see him dine, when we bear them thither.”
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together,
Through the cold wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.

“Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger,
Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, my good page, tread now in them boldly,
You shall find the winter’s rage freeze your blood less coldly.”

In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
You who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.

“The good king knew that whatever he did to the least of his subjects he did for Christ in honor of the first holy martyr.” – Fr. Edward J. Sutfin.

Fr. Sutfin tells us that in Yorkshire, England, “large goose pies were made and distributed to the poor. Indeed, the feast was known as Boxing Day, since the earthen banks or boxes of the apprentices were filled with money gifts by their masters. This was the direct forerunner of the piggy bank. Would it not be appropriate if the children’s piggy banks were painted red, or had a streak of red on them in memory of the charity of the martyr, Stephen? Mothers and fathers often buy banks for children to teach them saving. This is an excellent practice. Would it not be wise as well to teach them to be frugal with themselves in order to share their charity with their neighbor?”4


4. The Armament of Love by St. Fulgentius of Ruspe

Saint Fulgentius of Ruspe was bishop of the city of Ruspe, North Africa, in the 5th and 6th century. The good saint’s sermon on St. Stephen entitled “The Armament of Love” is the second reading under the Office of Readings in the Liturgy of the Hours.5 Reading the ancient sermon provides an excellent way to celebrate St. Stephen.

Yesterday we celebrated the birth in time of our eternal King. Today we celebrate the triumphant suffering of his soldier.Yesterday our king, clothed in his robe of flesh, left his place in the virgin’s womb and graciously visited the world. Today his soldier leaves the tabernacle of his body and goes triumphantly to heaven.

Our king, despite his exalted majesty, came in humility for our sake; yet he did not come empty-handed. He brought his soldiers a great gift that not only enriched them but also made them unconquerable in battle, for it was the gift of love, which was to bring men to share in his divinity. He gave of his bounty, yet without any loss to himself. In a marvelous way he changed into wealth the poverty of his faithful followers while remaining in full possession of his own inexhaustible riches.

And so the love that brought Christ from heaven to earth raised Stephen from earth to heaven; shown first in the king, it later shone forth in his soldier. Love was Stephen’s weapon by which he gained every battle, and so won the crown signified by his name. His love of God kept him from yielding to the ferocious mob; his love for his neighbour made him pray for those who were stoning him. Love inspired him to reprove those who erred, to make them amend; love led him to pray for those who stoned him, to save them from punishment. Strengthened by the power of his love, he overcame the raging cruelty of Saul and won his persecutor on earth as his companion in heaven. In his holy and tireless love he longed to gain by prayer those whom he could not convert by admonition.

Now at last, Paul rejoices with Stephen, with Stephen he delights in the glory of Christ, with Stephen he exalts, with Stephen he reigns. Stephen went first, slain by the stones thrown by Paul, but Paul followed after, helped by the prayer of Stephen. This, surely, is the true life, my brothers, a life in which Paul feels no shame because of Stephen’s death, and Stephen delights in Paul’s companionship, for love fills them both with joy. It was Stephen’s love that prevailed over the cruelty of the mob, and it was Paul’s love that covered the multitude of his sins; it was love that won for both of them the kingdom of heaven.

Love, indeed, is the source of all good things; it is an impregnable defence,- and the way that leads to heaven. He who walks in love can neither go astray nor be afraid: love guides him, protects him, and brings him to his journey’s end. My brothers, Christ made love the stairway that would enable all Christians to climb to heaven. Hold fast to it, therefore, in all sincerity, give one another practical proof of it, and by your progress in it, make your ascent together.

Sts. Fulgentius & Stephen. pray for us.



"The central panel of the reredos of San Esteban in Salamanca shows the deacon St Stephen being stoned to death." Fr. Lawrence, OP. Flickr.
“The central panel of the reredos of San Esteban in Salamanca shows the deacon St Stephen being stoned to death.” Fr. Lawrence, OP. Flickr.

Listers, the Christian life is challenging and the cost of discipleship is high. The King of Peace does not reign on this earth. We have rejected Him from the very outset of His birth, as we had no room for Him in the inn. If the Son of Man was rejected, than we disciples should not be surprised when the world rejects us as well. But we should not fear. As Tertullian reminds us, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” The cost of discipleship is worth it. Christ is the light shining through the darkness. Let us follow the witness of St. Stephen and never tire of pointing others to the light of Christ.

We too should keep St. Stephen’s Day alive and well. Let us pray for St. Stephen’s intercession to be witnesses to Christ each and every day.

About the Author: Louis Cona is an undergraduate at Georgetown University studying Government and Philosophy. He serves and coordinates the Traditional Latin Mass on campus and is an active member of the Georgetown Knights of Columbus. He is also the author of the SPL list 4 Ways to Save your Soul on a College Campus & A Catholic Student’s 4 Ways to Evangelize a College Campus.

  1. Acts 7:51-59, DV, cf. First Reading in the Office of Readings for St. Stephen, Acts 6:8-7, 2a, 44-59, The Martyrdom of St. Stephen, The Liturgy of the Hours. []
  2. Fisheaters: The Wren Song. []
  3. St. Stephen’s Day in Italy. []
  4. True Christmas Spirit by Rev. Edward J. Sutfin, Grail Publications, St. Meinrad, Indiana, 1955. []
  5. Second Reading: From a sermon by Saint Fulgentius of Ruspe, bishop. (Sermo 3, 1-3. 5-6: CCL 91A, 905-909). For an online reading, see The Divine Office and Universalis. See also St. Fulgentius of Ruspe on Catholic Encyclopedia. []

A Catholic Student’s 4 Ways to Evangelize a College Campus

Listers, college students are not only searching for jobs. Underneath all of the career recruitment and empty promises of radical individualism and liberation, there is a restlessness that resides in their hearts.

Listers, college students are not only searching for jobs. Underneath all of the career recruitment and empty promises of radical individualism and liberation, there is a restlessness that resides in their hearts. Speak to many who live and work on college campuses across the country, and they will tell you that there is an uneasy anxiety amidst the student population. Students are like sheep without a shepherd, searching for true meaning and authentic relationships in their lives. These young men and women are also searching for something much greater and they do not even know it. They are in search of Christ and His Church.

So how can we, as faithful Catholics, bring the love of Christ and the beauty of our faith to our peers? St. Peter’s List offers four ways of evangelizing on college campuses:


"On Quinquagesima Sunday, Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland, Oregon celebrated a Pontifical Mass at the Throne in the Extraordinary Form." - New Liturgical Movement.
“On Quinquagesima Sunday, Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland, Oregon celebrated a Pontifical Mass at the Throne in the Extraordinary Form.” – New Liturgical Movement.

1. Start with the Beautiful

Beauty is non-threatening. It breaks into our lives without our even noticing. It is captivating and awe-inspiring. Anyone can gaze upon the beauties of nature and be left speechless. Beauty has a way of transcending the human experience, moving our souls to recognize something beyond ourselves. Beauty is also able to galvanize the heart and mind in ways in which other forms of evangelization are incapable.

Thankfully, Holy Mother Church provides us with some of the greatest beauties the world has ever known. It is time that we unlock the treasures of our faith ranging from art, architecture, literature, and music. Throughout the past 2,000 years Catholicism has flooded the world with beauty, and we must show others this positive impact of our faith. Above all, the greatest contribution of beauty offered by the Church is the liturgy. The Mass is heaven on earth. Its beauty is indeed divine and we should not rob ourselves of dignified and beautiful worship. Unfortunately, our generation has matured in an age in which the liturgy has been abused, and many times these abuses have led to ugly liturgies. This has caused widespread disinterest in the liturgy and we must reclaim its beauty. Too often we are bombarded with things that are contrary to beauty and the Mass offers us a glimpse of our true home: heaven.


The Benedictine Monks of Norcia, Italy, sharing their beer with the community. -
The Benedictine Monks of Norcia, Italy, sharing their beer with the community. –

2. Witness Through Life & Community of Friends

“Preach the Gospel always, and when necessary use words” – so goes the famous saying of St. Francis of Assisi. The words of this great medieval saint still speak to us today. The joy that is shared amongst young men and women who are living their faith in a culture that is hostile to it is perhaps one of the greatest and most powerful witnesses to the Gospel. As another famous Francis, His Holiness Pope Francis, stated, “Christians are ready to proclaim the Gospel because they can’t hide the joy that comes from knowing Christ.”1 This joy of our faith must radiate to all of our friendships and activities on college campuses.

College is a time when friendships are built. We are all in search of friends that truly care for the good of the other. We must build a culture and community of friendship on campus that is deeply rooted in our Catholic faith. This does not mean that we become enslaved by our faith or live a form of lay-clericalism; rather, friendships rooted in Christ free us to care for one another truly and enjoy the ‘”unseriousness” of our lives. Belloc said it best: “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, there is always laughter and good red wine.” Let us celebrate our faith and enjoy the victory of Christ on the Cross. Create events, parties, and activities around the liturgical calendar. Have celebrations on the feast of great saints, invite friends to Mass, host a barbecue. Whatever it may be, if you build up a Catholic community based on authentic friendships and joy, people will flock to it. Tap into groups such as the Knights of Columbus or Catholic Daughters of America to host events.


The excellent Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. via
The excellent Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. via

3. Articulate Catholic Teaching

In this world of false idols and pseudo-truths, young men and women hunger for truth in their lives. Christ is the truth that will set them free. He is the One they are searching for and His truth is held by Holy Mother Church and her teachings. Let us then “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet 3:15). We must bring our views to the classroom, invite speakers to give lectures, and start reading groups. Build your own community of learning. Catholicism contains an intellectual history that surpasses every other entity in the history of the world. We must unlock this beautiful tradition for those who are searching for the Truth.

Finally, do not hesitate to defend the Church against a group of peers or professors in the classroom. Many times people haven’t even heard of a true defense of the Church or the answers to the many issues that she is attacked for holding. More often than not, people will respect and even be surprised by the Church’s answers to these questions.


Cardina Bergoglio reportedly kissing the foot of an aids patient.
Cardina Bergoglio reportedly kissing the foot of an aids patient.

4. Charity

Mother Theresa, Saint Dominic, Pope Francis… why do these holy men and women capture the hearts and attention of the world? No matter what time period or culture, people are drawn to works of charity and mercy. We must practice what we preach. Inviting friends to participate in works of mercy and charity will turn even the hardest of hearts into living flesh. Serving food to the homeless, volunteering at a crisis pregnancy center, or building a place of shelter for those in need are all practical examples of Christian charity.

However, we must never lose sight of those on the “existential” peripheries. Those who do not know Christ are truly the poorest among us. It is also a work of charity to bring Christ into their lives. We have a duty to help those who are confused about the Church and reject her teachings. Clarifying what the Church stands for — and why — is also an act of charity for those who are outside of Her life-renewing sacraments.


The restlessness experienced during these college years often leads students to search for something deeper in their lives. As the great Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. said, “College exists so that we are freed by knowing the relation between “Veritas” and “Logos,” between “Cosmos” and our minds, between the what is and the “I am.”2 Catholicism is all-encompassing. It permeates our whole life, not in a way that binds us, but in a way that frees us toward the good our community, and our friends. Let us share this great gift with those around us.

St. Thomas Aquinas, patron of students, pray for us!

Louis Cona Profile

Louis Cona is an undergraduate at Georgetown University studying Government and Philosophy. He serves and coordinates the Traditional Latin Mass on campus and is an active member of the Georgetown Knights of Columbus. He is also the author of the SPL list 4 Ways to Save your Soul on a College Campus.





  1. Source []
  2. Source []

4 Ways to Save Your Soul on a College Campus

The Eucharist is the “source and summit of the Christian life” and there is no greater way to grow in faith and grace than feeding on the Bread of Life.

Listers, with an increasingly hostile and secular society, Catholics find themselves each day becoming more countercultural. Young people with a sincere heart who wish to follow Christ and keep the commands of Holy Mother Church, will find that living a true Catholic lifestyle can be difficult and lonely in a culture that no longer upholds Christendom.

College campuses are no doubt breeding grounds for the secular culture. Literally. Even students who find themselves at a Catholic university will face challenges to their faith. So how does one save his soul while at college surrounded by a culture that abuses drugs, sex, contraception, abortion, alcohol and has little faith?


1. A Liberal Arts Education

If you find yourself enrolled in college, you probably want to get an education. Resist the temptation to pursue degrees aimed at finding a job. Yes, a job is important and good, but college is a time to “build walls, not to keep people in, but to keep the world out.” [1] It is a time to contemplate the higher things of life, your place in the world and your eternal end. Do not become obsessed with grades, internships and job searches. “Keep the world out” and take advantage of the only opportunity to contemplate the essential questions of life without the pressures of the working world. Furthermore, resist all temptations to enroll in easy courses with laid-back professors.

A liberal arts education is meant to be challenging and intellectually stimulating. Find professors who do not merely “teach” their students or talk at them, but rather ones who engage in a dialogue with students. Socrates, the greatest teacher in Western history, never gave lengthy lectures. He instead pondered questions with those around him and helped to guide his students along the way. Once you discover professors who engage the best that has been written and taught in the West, stick with them, regardless of what classes they teach. One cannot live the faith sincerely without first learning it. There is no better way of unlocking the rich intellectual tradition of the Church than by studying the liberal arts. A great way to find out how to learn while in college is to read Another Sort of Learning by Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.


2. Community

Friendships matter. Indeed the Philosopher devotes two books to the importance of friendship. [2] It is imperative to find a community of friends who live out the Catholic faith. These communities will help support and foster both faith and virtue. A good place to start at a non-Catholic school would be the Newman Center. Organizations such as the Knights of Columbus, Catholic Daughters of America, Daughters of Isabella, FOCUS and other faith-based groups are a great place to find friendship. Additionally, get involved with service projects even if they are sponsored by a secular organization. Finding friends and providing a witness to Christ through works of mercy is a rewarding experience for all involved. Finally, do not limit yourself to groups within the university. Many religious orders and dioceses run young adult ministries across the country. And if you can’t find any groups, start one yourself!


3. Attend Daily Mass & Frequent Confession

The Eucharist is the “source and summit of the Christian life”[3] and there is no greater way to grow in faith and grace than feeding on the Bread of Life. Daily Mass will become a center point for your college life and will order your day toward God. For many people, college was the only opportunity to attend to attend daily Mass and holy hour without the interference and stress of work life. Finally, go often to confession and keep your soul clean and fervent.


4. Prayer, Devotionals and Confraternities

Prayer is our weapon and shield against the Evil One. It is our link to God. Look to the Gospel and find Jesus going out often to pray. We must follow our Savior and do the same. I encourage you to enroll in spiritual confraternities such as the Angelic Warfare Confraternity, Confraternity of the Most Holy Rosary and practice devotionals such as True Devotion to Mary. Most of all grow in love of our Blessed Mother who will always lead us to her Son. Mary is the surest path to Jesus. Pray the Rosary daily.


Listers, college is a time to either find God and belong more deeply to Him, or, to turn away from the faith and adopt the currents of the world. Hold firm to these four points. Pope Francis urges the young to “swim against the tide.”[4] Keep in mind that the temptations and trails will never leave. As G.K. Chesterton said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”

May Mary our Mother, intercede on our behalf and lead us to her Son all the days of our life.

St. Thomas Aquinas, patron of students, pray for us!


Louis Cona Profile

Louis Cona is an undergraduate at Georgetown University studying Government and Philosophy. He serves and coordinates the Traditional Latin Mass on campus and is an active member of the Georgetown Knights of Columbus.





[1] James V. Schall, S.J. – Georgetown Voice

[2] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics.

[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1324

[4] Pope Francis, April 28th, 2013 Confirmation Mass for Young People: CNA.

In Defense of Holy Images: 8 Pearls of Wisdom from St. John Damascene

Listers, in the Eastern churches, the First Sunday of the Great Fast celebrates the triumph of holy images. It commemorates the end of two separate periods of iconoclasm, which took place within the space a nearly hundred years. During the iconoclastic period of Byzantine history, images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, the Angels, and the Saints were consigned to the fire on the charge that they led to idolatry. Known as the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the Byzantine liturgy boldly proclaims the triumph of the Church against every false doctrine, and a celebration of the proclamation of faith on the veneration of holy images at the Synod of Constantinople in 842.

Eastern Catholicism on SPL

St. John Damascene was a monk from Damascus, and from his monastery of Mar Saba near Jerusalem, he wrote in defense of the veneration of images. Because iconoclasm, or the destruction of icons, had become official imperial policy since the edict of Emperor Leo III in 726, any cleric, monastic, or layman who refused to abide by the edict was punished severely. Imprisonment, exile, and even martyrdom was the fate of those who defended the Church’s longstanding tradition of sacred images. Seeing the travail of the Church in Constantinople and Asia Minor, the humble monk from Damascus wrote three treatises in defense of holy icons and their veneration. Because he was outside the borders of the Empire, he was able to criticize imperial policy, and speak on behalf of those who were unable or unwilling to do so. [1]

Selection from John of Damascus, icon from Damascus (Syria), 19th c., attributed to Iconographer Ne’meh Naser Homsi. – Wikipedia

Although this work is worth reading in its entirety, in celebration of the Triumph of Holy Images, here are eight pearls of wisdom from St. John Damascene in defense of sacred images:


1) “It is the custom of the wicked and primordially evil serpent (I mean the devil), to fight in many ways against mankind, formed in the image of God; and, through this opposition, to bring about his death.” [2]

2) “Certain men have arisen, saying that it is not necessary [or forbidden] to make images of the saving miracles and sufferings of Christ, and the brave deeds of the Saints against the devil, setting them up to be gazed upon, so that we might glorify God and be filled with wonder and zeal.” [3]

3) “Does any one who has divine knowledge and spiritual understanding not recognize that [iconoclasm] is a ruse of the devil? For he does not want his defeat and shame to be spread abroad, nor the glory of God and his saints to be recorded.” [4]

4) “If we make an image of God who in His ineffable goodness became incarnate and was seen upon earth in the flesh, and dwelt among men, assuming the nature, density, form, and color of flesh, we do not go astray. For we long to see His form, but as the divine Apostle says, ‘now we through a mirror, dimly.’ … For the intellect, greatly fatigued, is unable to pass beyond physical things.” [5]

5) “I am emboldened to depict the invisible God, not as invisible, but as he became visible for our sake, by participation in flesh and blood. I do not depict the invisible divinity, but I depict God made visible in the flesh.” [6]

6) “When you see the Bodiless become man for your sake, then you may depict the figure of a human form; when the Invisible becomes visible in the flesh, then you may depict the likeness of something seen.” [7]

7) “Of old, Israel neither set up temples in the name of men, nor celebrated their memorial—for human nature was still under the curse, and death was condemnation, therefore they were enjoined that one who even touched the body of a dead man was to be reckoned unclean—but now, since the divinity has been united without confusion to our nature, as a kind of life-giving and saving medicine, our nature has been truly glorified and its very elements changed into incorruption. Therefore, temples are raised for [the Saints] and images engraved.” [8]

8) “Since our being is twofold [that is, composite], fashioned of soul and body…just as [through] words perceived by the senses we hear with bodily ears, and understand what is spiritual, so through bodily vision we arrive at spiritual contemplation. For this reason, Christ assumed body and soul, since mankind consists of body and soul; therefore baptism is likewise twofold, of water and the Spirit; as well as communion and prayer and psalmody, all of them twofold, bodily and spiritual, and offerings of light and incense.” [9]


In his arguments against iconoclasm, the Damascene made clear that it the veneration of icons, and the use of sacred images in architecture and worship was not idolatry, but rather a recognition that God uses the physical to make known the intelligible. Just as God the Son took to himself a human form, in order to make the truth of the Father known to man in a way most proper to him, so also does iconography serve to raise the mind to spiritual realities by means of the physical. Far from being a peripheral concern, therefore, sacred images are part and parcel of the authentic Christian worldview; their use and function within the life of the Church is bound up with the mystery of the Incarnation, in which the invisible Word of God became visible, and the incomprehensible Logos of the Father took to Himself a human nature.

The bane of iconoclasm was so tempting to the Imperial court that there were two separate persecutions carried out under official auspices. The first was ended under the patronage of the Empress Irene at the Seventh Ecumenical Council at Nicæa in 787, and the second under the reign of Empress Theodora at the Synod of Constantinople in 842, which dealt the final blow to iconoclasm in the East. To this day, both Byzantine Catholic and Orthodox churches commemorate this event on the First Sunday of the Great Fast, proclaiming the triumph of the Church against the heresies which had plagued it during the first millennium. Let us therefore celebrate the incarnational nature of our Catholic faith, treasuring her art, and through it lift our minds and hearts upwards to Christ, His Holy Mother, and the Saints and Angels in heaven; for indeed, Christ is in our midst: he is now, and ever shall be!



[1] John Damascene, Three Treatises on the Divine Images, trans. Andrew Louth (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), Introduction pp. 7-9. All quotes from St. John, some of which have been slightly modified, are taken from this work unless otherwise indicated.

[2] Ibid., III p. 81.

[3] Ibid., p. 82.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., p. 86.

[7] Ibid., pp. 88-89.

[8] Ibid., p. 91.

[9] Ibid., p. 93.

Preparing for Lent: 9 Liturgical Gems from the Byzantine East

“Seeing the dignity to which the humble are raised, and the deep abyss into which the proud fall, let us imitate the virtue of the Publican, and despise the sins of the Pharisee.”

Listers, the season of Lent is fast approaching. Our brethren in the East call the period of Lent the “Great Fast,” or alternatively, “Great Lent.” It is the most important of the four fasting seasons in the Eastern churches, since it is the preparation for the feast of feasts, namely Pascha, or Easter. In the Byzantine rite, the period of Great Lent is preceded by four Sundays (five in the Slavic reckoning), during which the faithful prepare themselves for the asceticism, prayer, and repentance which accompanies the Fast. The first of these is the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, followed by the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, the Sunday of the Last Judgment, and then and then the Sunday of Forgiveness.

These last two Sundays are called “Meatfare” and “Cheesefare” Sundays respectively, since the one marks the end of the eating of meat two weeks before Lent, and the other the end of the consumption of dairy products one week before. The Monday after the Sunday of Forgiveness (known as “Clean Monday”) heralds the beginning of the Great Fast proper, after which time wine, oil, and fish, are allowed only on certain days, meat and dairy being excluded altogether. The particulars of the Great Fast are as ancient as they are fascinating, and while certainly meriting their own study, in this list we will be focusing on some of the more general virtues of Lent extolled in the East. In particular, we will cover nine Byzantine liturgical gems of wisdom to gaze upon, as we prepare to enter into the spiritual arena of the Fast. A quote from the hymns of the Byzantine liturgy will be provided, either extolling a particular virtue or repudiating the vice which must be rooted out in order to possess it [1]:


1) Self-Control

The virtue of self-control, as practiced through fasting and temperance in food and drink, is of paramount importance to the Eastern church. According to the Damascene, the passion which this virtue seeks to destroy is that of gluttony, which is considered one of the three chief passions [2], as it was the act of eating the forbidden fruit by which Adam and Eve transgressed the divine Commandment:

“Adam was deprived of the delights of Paradise by the bitterness of the fruit; his gluttony made him reject the commandment of the Lord. He was condemned to work the earth from which he himself had been formed; by the sweat of his brow, he had to earn his bread to eat. Therefore, let us learn self-control, so that we do not have to weep before the gates of Paradise; rather, let us strive to enter therein.” [3]

Through fasting and abstinence, we refrain from good things, in order to more easily concern ourselves with better things. In the Byzantine monastic tradition, abstinence from meat is a reminder of the blessed condition of Adam and Eve before the Fall, where they walked with God, and lived an angelic life of contemplation and grace.

And yet, it is not simply enough to fast or abstain. The key to success in the attainment of self-control, as the Fathers warn us, is that it must be practiced in concert with the other virtues. For as Chrysostom teaches, even the demons fast, being by nature incorporeal; while prayer—as well as all the other virtues of a life lived in communion with God—is obviously neglected by them.


2) Holy Desire

This is a zeal for God, a longing for Him, and a confident hope and longing for the blessings of the world to come. The vice which this virtue seeks to destroy is that of unchastity, by directing the intellect away from the transitory things of this world, and to the promises of the future life of blessedness:

“O beloved Paradise, beauty of Springtime and divinely created abode, unending joy and delight, the glory of all the just, the enchantment of the prophets, and the dwelling-place of the saints, by the rustling of your leaves, implore the Creator of the universe to open the gates that I have closed by my fault; let me partake of the Tree of Life, and share the joy that I once found in you.” [4]


3) Almsgiving

Compassion for the poor, as the Damascene teaches, fights against the vice of avarice. This vice is the one which, according to the ascetic Fathers, is the root of all evil: [5]

“Driven by his love of money, Judas the traitor cunningly planned to sell you, O Lord, the Treasure of life; in his frenzy, he hastened to the impious ones and said: ‘What will you give me, if I will deliver him to you to be crucified?” [6]


4) Charity

In addition to almsgiving, the goodwill and love for all, as exemplified in the virtue of charity fights against the vice of anger. But whoever who seeks the salvation of their neighbor does not have the luxury of harboring rancor or malice, but rather seeks their good, both in reference to their life on earth, and eternal life in heaven:

“O faithful, let us vie with each other in zeal, and let us seek to do good. Let us live together in humility, and may our hearts sigh with tears and prayer so that we may obtain forgiveness from God.” [7]


5) Joy

Although Great Lent is a time of sadness and sorrow for sins, it is a “bright sadness,” because the benevolent Father waits in earnest for the return of His prodigal children. The spiritual joy which comes from God allows us to vie against the vice of worldly dejection, which arises when we find that our efforts go unrecognized and unheralded by the world, or when we are even rejected by it on account of our faith. This divine joy also serves as a healing balm for those who despair of the mercy of God on account of their sins:

“O faithful, let us discover the power of the divine mystery. The Prodigal came back from his sin and returned to his father’s house; in his lovingkindness his father came out to meet him and kissed him. He restored him to the glory of his house, and prepared a mystical banquet on high. He killed the fatted calf so that we might share in his joy; the joy of the Father who offers in love, and the joy of the Lamb who gives himself for us; for He is Christ, the Savior of our souls.” [8]


6) Patience

Constant vigilance and perseverance, with continual thanksgiving to God, fights against the vice of self-love. While avarice is considered the root of all evil by the Fathers, the inordinate love of the body and its pleasures is considered the “mother of vices,” to be striven against mightily during the Great Fast: [9]

“The arena of virtues is now open! Let all who wish to begin training now enter! Prepare yourselves for the struggle of the Fast; those who strive valiantly shall receive the crown! Let us put on the armor of the Cross to combat the Enemy, taking faith as our unshakable rampart. Let us put on prayer as our breastplate, and charity as our helmet. As our sword, let us use fasting, for it cuts out all evil from our hearts. Those who do this shall truly receive the crown format he hands of Christ, the almighty One, on the day of judgment.” [10]


7) Prayer

As was mentioned above, any increase in discipline must be accompanied by increased prayer, marked by a spirit of true compunction, humility, and interior stillness. This virtue combats the vice of arrogance, which ascribes progress to the self rather than to God. In prayer, one remembers that all good comes ultimately from God Himself, and in humility the Christian acknowledges that all he has is a gift from the Creator of all things:

“Let us fall down before God in prayer and tears; with deep sighs, let us imitate the humility of the Publican which lifted him up, so that we may sing in faith: ‘Blessed are you, O Lord, God of our fathers.'” [11]


8) Humility

Although the demons keep vigil in the sense that they do not sleep, and fast in the sense that they do not eat, the virtues of prayer and especially humility make the Christian soul a frightful bane for them to behold. The Damascene, therefore, proscribes this virtue as a remedy against pride. The believer should refrain from judging or despising anyone, emulating the repentant Publican rather than the boastful Pharisee. We must therefore consider ourselves as the “least of all” among our fellow human beings. [12]

“Seeing the dignity to which the humble are raised, and the deep abyss into which the proud fall, let us imitate the virtue of the Publican, and despise the sins of the Pharisee.” [13]


9) Repentance

Although not included in Damascene’s list, it is of course naturally implied, being part and parcel with the other Lenten virtues. Indeed, without true repentance, the other virtues are no longer meritorious. Confession of sin, tears of compunction, and good works are all radiant jewels in the crown of repentance, lauded in the Byzantine liturgy as the “queen of virtues”:

“O faithful, let us purify ourselves with repentance, the queen of virtues. Behold, it brings us an abundance of blessings. It dresses the wounds of passions, it reconciles sinners with the Master. Therefore, let us embrace it with joy, and cry out to Christ our God: ‘You are risen from the dead; keep us free from condemnation, for we glorify you as the only sinless One.” [14]

And so, with our minds firmly fixed on these virtues—and on God, who is the Source of all that is good—let us begin the “bright sadness” of Lent, cleaving firmly to Christ in faith and in love. May God create in us a clean heart, and the governance of His Holy and Life-giving Spirit, that we may enter worthily into the mystery of Our Lord’s Passion and Resurrection.



Born in Charleston, S.C., Brian Battersby is a recent graduate from the M.A. program in Theology from Ave Maria University. Originally a convert from Protestantism, he was confirmed into the Church at the Easter Vigil in 2005. In addition to theology, he also has a great love of the liturgy, sacred music, the Church Fathers (especially John Damascene), and the Byzantine East. He currently resides with his beautiful wife in North Carolina.



[1] The list itself is taken from an ascetical work of St. John Damascene, On the Virtues and the Vices (Philokalia, vol. II, p. 338). In addition to writing superb theological treatises, he also composed beautiful liturgical hymns, for which he is somewhat less known in the West. It was he who wrote the famous Canon of Pascha, a work in honor of the Resurrection. It is fittingly called the “Golden Canon” in the Eastern churches, both on account of the magnificence of its imagery and the sublimity of its Subject. Western Christians may already be familiar with this monumental work through the English hymn The Day of Resurrection, a translation of the Canon of Pascha from the original Greek into English verse by the John M. Neale, an Anglican cleric of the nineteenth century.

[2] Theodoros the Great Ascetic, A Century of Spiritual Texts, Philokalia, vol. II, p. 26.

[3] Canon for the Sunday of Forgiveness, Ode 1.

[4] Sticheron from the Vespers of Forgiveness Sunday.

[5] John Damascene, On the Virtues and the Vices, Philokalia, vol. II, 335; cf. 1 Timothy 6:10.

[6] Second Sessional Hymn from Matins of Great and Holy Wednesday.

[7] Canon of the Publican and the Pharisee, Ode 3.

[8] Sticheron from the Vespers of Forgiveness Sunday.

[9] John Damascene, On the Virtues and the Vices, Philokalia, vol. II, 335.

[10] Sticheron from Matins of Forgiveness Sunday.

[11] Canon of the Publican and Pharisee, Ode 7.

[12] John of Damascus, On the Virtues and the Vices, Philokalia, vol, II, p. 338.

[13] Canon of the Publican and Pharisee, Ode 1.

[14] Matins Doxastikon for the Sunday of Judgment.

3 Thoughts on God in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth

“Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament.”

Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament… There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (or foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man’s heart desires.

The only cure for sagging or fainting faith is Communion. Though always Itself, perfect and complete and inviolate, the Blessed Sacrament does not operate completely and once for all in any of us. Like the act of Faith it must be continuous and grow by exercise. Frequency is of the highest effect. Seven times a week is more nourishing than seven times at intervals.

Also I can recommend this as an exercise (alas! only too easy to find opportunity for): make your communion in circumstances that affront your taste. Choose a snuffling or gabbling priest or a proud and vulgar friar; and a church full of the usual bourgeois crowd, ill-behaved children – from those who yell to those products of Catholic schools who the moment the tabernacle is opened sit back and yawn – open necked and dirty youths, women in trousers and often with hair both unkempt and uncovered. Go to communion with them (and pray for them). It will be just the same (or better than that) as a mass said beautifully by a visibly holy man, and shared by a few devout and decorous people. It could not be worse than the mess of the feeding of the Five Thousand – after which our Lord propounded the feeding that was to come.1

Listers, as you may have guessed by this point, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was not only a magnificent writer but also a devout Catholic. This influence shines through his works, although not in the direct way often employed by other writers. He simply sought to tell great stories, stories that his readers would enjoy. For him, a great story is one that does not require conscious suspension of disbelief; instead, it is the responsibility of the author to guide the reader into the story smoothly. In particular, it is essential that the rules governing the secondary world that the author subcreates2 are believable and consistent. For Tolkien, this meant that his subcreated world must be consistent with the Truth. Naturally, various physical details differ from our familiar world, but the underlying philosophy is very much the same. As such, his work can provide unique insights into some of the mysteries of faith, a few examples of which I present here. Note that Tolkien does not achieve these insights through the use of allegory, which he professed to ‘cordially dislike’.3 Rather than parallelling Biblical stories, Tolkien tells new stories that are rooted in Christian principles and thus naturally develop many of the same concepts. In this list, I will briefly introduce a few of these ideas and leave the reader to explore both the further detail that can be enjoyed and the numerous other images that Tolkien has given us.


John Ronald Reuel Tolkien

1. Free will and fate

If you lack time to read anything else by Tolkien, read the first part of The Silmarillion, the Ainulindalë. In it, Tolkien describes, in gorgeous almost-poetic prose, the story of Creation as a collaborative music directed by God but left to the freedom of His creatures. It begins with Ilúvatar, God, proposing a theme to his creations, the Ainur, angelic beings similar to the classical gods but different in their submission to and creation by the One:

Then Ilúvatar said to them: “Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will. But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song.”

Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void.4

The Ainulindalë goes on to treat the specifics of the theme designed by Ilúvatar and its interpretation by the Ainur, but we can already discern one of the core ideas that Tolkien addresses in The Silmarillion: the interaction between free will and fate. Ilúvatar’s theme is later seen to greatly influence the playing out of history; indeed, wisdom in Middle-Earth is closely tied to one’s knowledge of this Music. However, even in its conception it is left up to the freedom of the Ainur: Ilúvatar does not command a performance, but rather requests that each being contribute, ‘if he will’.5 And so they do, each one working his own personality and thoughts into the theme, developing what will become the sky, the seas, the mountains, and the trees. Nonetheless, each is working within the bounds of the theme of Ilúvatar. Tolkien thus introduces a concept that will remain throughout his works: one can be under the guidance of a fate outside oneself and yet act freely.


2. The problem of evil

This emphasis on freedom is most evident in the way that Melkor, one of the Valar, the highest of the Ainur, exercises his freedom: he rebels from the proposed theme and seeks to dominate with his own will. Melkor thus introduces evil, but he does not go unchallenged. Instead, Ilúvatar stands and introduces a new theme, one of his own design, into the ongoing music:

Then Ilúvatar arose, and the Ainur perceived that he smiled; and he lifted up his left hand, and a new theme began amid the storm… But the discord of Melkor rose in uproar and contended with it… Then again Ilúvatar arose, and the Ainur perceived that his countenance was stern; and he lifted up his right hand, and behold! a third theme grew among the confusion…4

And the discord grows, until Ilúvatar rises and puts an end to the Music. He then addresses the Ainur:

Mighty are the Ainur, and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done. And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.4

Tolkien here presents a traditional explanation of the problem of evil: evil is a result of misused freedom, but even evil cannot escape the great plan of God; indeed, it increases all the more the magnificence of His plan. Naturally, though, evil is not part of the plan from the beginning: rather, evil results from Melkor’s discord, but Ilúvatar takes his ‘most triumphant notes’ and weaves them into his own theme.4 Tolkien even suggests that this interaction is core to who Ilúvatar is: Ilúvatar does not state that he allows Melkor to continue in order to make an example of him, or to teach him a lesson, but rather to show that ‘I am Ilúvatar’. It is part of Ilúvatar’s very nature to allow his creation to make full use of their freedom; indeed, having given freedom, taking it away would devalue the majesty of his creation, and thus of himself. However, evil notwithstanding, ‘I am Ilúvatar’, and it is also part of his nature to govern all that is, and so the freedom of his creatures ‘redoundeth only to [his] great glory’.6

However, Tolkien knows that all of this explanation, while logical, is hard to accept in the face of our world, and he acknowledges this here: even the godlike Ainur ‘did not yet comprehend the words that were said to them’.4 Throughout all of his writing, he is sensitive to the very real suffering of his characters, never making light of their trials with a trite comment about the power of Ilúvatar. Rather, he treats them and their confusion about evil with the dignity that it deserves, but alternates this treatment with a wider view of the events of the world that reminds the reader that all is ultimately ordered for the good, whether or not we understand this now. Indeed, this wide view provides an (admittedly faint) undercurrent of hope through even the saddest tales of The Silmarillion: even Túrin eventually greets the Gift of Men and passes beyond the struggles of the world. Naturally, given the huge breadth of the problem of evil, there is much more to address here, and Tolkien continues to explore this idea in the rest of his work.


3. Spiritual imagery

Although complex philosophical thoughts are powerful and important, sometimes Tolkien’s words strike deeply but simply into the heart of a confusing topic, opening it to the light of understanding. One such is a description of the Ainur:

And this habitation might seem a little thing to those who consider only the majesty of the Ainur, and not their terrible sharpness; as who should take the whole field of Arda for the foundation of a pillar and so raise it until the cone of its summit were more bitter than a needle; or who consider only the immeasurable vastness of the World, which still the Ainur are shaping, and not the minute precision to which they shape all things therein.4

We have all heard that God can govern both the entirety of the universe and each individual electron, but here Tolkien takes that thought and precedes it with an illustration that raises it to the level of grandeur that it truly should evoke: God can govern both the entirety of the universe and each individual electron!

Another beautiful image touches on the issue of free will in relation to obedience. Aulë, one of the Valar, grows impatient waiting for the arrival of the Children of Ilúvatar, that is, Elves and Men, and undertakes the creation of his own children, who will become the Dwarves. However, he is not Ilúvatar, and he cannot give true life to his creation:

[T]hou hast from me as a gift thy own being only, and no more; and therefore the creatures of thy hand and mind can live only by that being, moving when thou thinkest to move them, and if thy thought be elsewhere, standing idle.7

Aulë immediately sees his error and repents:

I did not desire such lordship… But what shall I do now, so that thou be not angry with me for ever? As a child to his father, I offer to thee these things, the work of the hands which thou hast made. Do with them what thou wilt. But should I not rather destroy the work of my presumption?… Then Aulë took up a great hammer to smite the Dwarves; and he wept. But Ilúvatar had compassion upon Aulë and his desire, because of his humility; and the Dwarves shrank from the hammer and were afraid…7

And Ilúvatar explains that he has granted the Dwarves being of their own, or else they could not have shrunk from the command of their maker. Tolkien here illustrates in a powerful manner the multifaceted connexions among freedom, obedience, and love.

Listers, this is but a sampling of the great value that can be found by one who delves the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, but even this value pales in comparison to the simple pleasure of enjoying a well-written tale. I would encourage you to take the time to explore Tolkien’s world more thoroughly; you will not regret it.


Ben VanBerkum has been obsessed with Tolkien’s work for as long as he can remember; this may or may not be because he has repressed the memory of those days in which he did not know Middle-Earth. He is pursuing a B.S. in Physics at Stanford University and hopes to enter the Dominican Order.





  1. J.R.R. Tolkien to Michael Tolkien, his son, from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, nos. 43 and 250. There are many more such reflections contained within Tolkien’s published letters; you can use the index entry under Tolkien, Catholicism to explore further. 
  2. cf. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”. 
  3. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Foreword. 
  4. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, “Ainulindalë”. 
  5. The Silmarillion Seminar produced by Prof. Corey Olsen and some of his students has been very helpful in highlighting details I might otherwise have missed. I highly encourage you to check out his work if you’re at all interested in spending extra time with Tolkien. 
  6. Tolkien, The Book of Lost Tales, Part One, “The Music of the Ainur”. 
  7. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, “Of Aulë and Yavanna”.