Month: October 2015

As you like it (or maybe not): Thoughts on Milton, Shakespeare, and Evil


By Dustin S. Hungerford

The seventeenth century England in which John Milton found himself, was one of intense strife, turmoil, and disappointment. Milton, whose life is well know from myriad sources, had been a strong supporter of Cromwell’s rebellion against Charles I. This is partly evidenced by several of his published works which attempt a legitimation of the Protectorate. Of note among these was his book, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, which generally defended regicide and explicitly defended the execution of Charles I.[1] It is safe to say that Milton, upon witnessing the restoration of Charles II, found himself in a world riddled with the question of good and evil. If the state he had so diligently labored for was ordained by God, how is it that it was fallen? Could Milton’s answer have been anything less than the all-pervasive influence of a global and self-willed evil?

What we know Shakespeare, as opposed to Milton, is almost completely restricted to his works.[2] Shakespeare, working several decades before Milton, wrote in a time of a much more settled (though, we will not say peaceful) England, that is to say, the major problems for Elizabeth’s crown came from outside the realm rather than from within. This England, however, was one no less plagued by the worry and doubt stemming from the radical conduct of Henry VIII and the messy succession which followed.

If, as has been suggested, Shakespeare was a secret Catholic,[3] the questions of the rights of the Church, the legitimacy of the Tudor throne, and the heinous acts of Tudor monarchs, while intensely personal, would not have been ones the Bard could have engaged head on.[4] We are left then to discern, from his plays and poems, what precisely this great playwright thought and believed.[5] To that effect, when we examine the ways in which Shakespeare addresses the question of evil, we get a subtler, less potent, and more classically Catholic answer than what we receive from Milton. It is not that Shakespeare failed to see the problems of evil in the world, it is that he simply was not prepared to hand power and responsibility for human ills wholly over to an abstract, inhuman, power. In this way, he denies an ontological status to evil which Milton was only too happy to grant.

When one picks up John Milton’s Paradise Lost for the first time, it may not be immediately evident that the system of thought (and ethics) it advocates, contravenes (or at least challenges) a classical Catholic approach to God, humanity, and evil (not surprising as he was a Protestant). The unprepared reader, however, can be so engrossed in the powerful and flashy Satan, whose arrogance and pride make him the first “Who durst defy th’ Omnipotent to arms,”[6] that they may well gloss over the implications of such a “puissant” antithesis (should we say anti-god?) to the “bright effluence of bright essence increate.”[7] The Satan of John Milton is a transplanted Angra Mainyu, heavily endowed with chthonic power and eternally engaged in subtle warfare against the Almighty. This is not the Satan of Dante’s Comedia, who “stands forth from mid-breast out of the ice,”[8] frozen at the lowest pit of Hell. This is a Satan ever mobile, ever active in his defiance of God, the God who dared exult the Son as the highest.[9]

At its core, Milton’s Satanic character operates as a larger gloss on the nature of evil itself. Is evil a thing? Is evil an ever moving reality which sneaks into the heart of man as he sleeps?[10] Or, does evil represent a more ancient or medieval view, a no-thingness? Is evil simply the privation of God and good?[11] While at first these questions seem innocuous, they have real implications for our view of the world. Not the least of which is the idea of God’s creative goodness and His supreme divine justice.

When one looks at the world Milton occupied, one in which, at least from Milton’s view, the bright and glorious reign of Protectorate England was dashed by the corrupt pertinacity of the Restoration, one is able to understand why it may have been an inevitability that he viewed evil as a corruptive and powerful force in its own right. Surely it was this evil that had destroyed all his hopes and dreams for the “Sceptered Isle.”

At the same time, Shakespeare’s work will represent a more classic approximation of the nature of evil and the way in which humans encounter that evil, not from without, but from within. The nature of evil in his characters highlights, not an external influencing presence (even in the evil Aaron of Titus Andronicus), but the internal failings and brokenness of the those characters. As expressed so eloquently by Mark Antony, it is the “evil that men do[12] (emphasis mine) that is the problem, rather than some formless evil that stalks the earth.[13]

For Milton, it seems very evident that evil itself has real existence. Evil is a functional outcome of the will of the human person, the subject of choice. Much as St. Thomas uses the angels in his Summa as a means of discussing human traits in a “frictionless” way, Milton uses the Satan of Paradise Lost as a means of speaking about evil in the world. In the face of the ever omnipotent and omnibenevolent God, Satan does not despair of a means of rebellion. He still has one thing with which to challenge God, the will. Turning to Beelzebub he says, “All is not lost; [this remains] the unconquerable Will, And study of revenge, immortal hate, And courage never to submit or yield.”[14] Milton reflects a certain Nominalism in constructing evil this way. As opposed to the Thomistic system, this evil does not emerge through privation, but rather through the direct choice of the will between contraries.[15] The will may directly choose to do what is evil, for the sake of evil. Thus humans, for the sake of nothing else but evil, can overthrow a righteous government (the Protectorate) and install an unrighteous government (the Monarchy). This ceases to be a function of God’s divine fiat and becomes the result of the pervasive power of evil to corrupt men in the world, enticing them to choose evil qua evil.

The seeming inability of God to respond to this evil, bound as He is by human free will, may be the reason that Milton’s depiction of God paints Him as a weakling. He is devoid of any effective potency outside the realm of Heaven, where often among “thick clouds and dark doth Heav’ns all-ruling Sire choose to reside, his Glory unobscur’d, And with the Majesty of darkness round covers his Throne; from whence deep thunders roar must’ring their rage, and Heav’n resembles Hell.”[16]

In reading Shakespeare, we discern a concept of evil that is not the presence of any “thing.” In fact, it is the absence of a “thing.” When we look at the hatred felt by Oliver against his brother Orlando in As You Like It, we are looking at the “absence” of fraternal love which should be naturally present within human families. Oliver goes as far as saying, “I hope I shall see an end of him (Orlando); for my soul, yet I know not why, hates nothing more than he.”[17]

There is a Thomistic realism in what Shakespeare does here. The defect is not contained in the act of the will, for the will perceives what it believes to be good and pursues that.[18] The defect is within the activity of the intellect in discerning and selecting an appropriate good to be pursued. The human being is incapable of pursuing evil qua evil, he merely pursues what he perceives to be a good.[19] When Oliver is saved by Orlando, his feelings are wholly transformed, his perception of the good is corrected, the evil (which was a privation in Oliver) is filled up with goodness. Evil, then, exists precisely in the refusal to be human. Oliver confirms this when, reflecting upon the man he was before reconciling with Orlando, he says, “for well I know he (meaning himself) was unnatural.”[20]

Were we to imagine Satan through the lens of Shakespeare, we would see a creature who is not free to roam the earth, tempting humanity to sin. He would not be Milton’s bold and heroic rebel, so much as a fool, a fool who obstinately rejects what would make him whole. Through his own pride, Satan deprived himself of Heaven. In this way he lost all goodness, all unity with the Most High, and thus it makes sense for him (in Milton’s words no less), in the presence of the faithful angels in Eden, to have “felt how awful goodness is, and saw Virtue in her shape how lovely, saw, and pined his loss.”[21]

In his encyclical Salvifici Doloris, Pope St. John Paul II took up the question of evil, relating it to human suffering. He states, quite pointedly, that “man suffers on account of evil, which is a certain lack, limitation or distortion of good,”[22] reinforcing the classical Catholic approach followed by St. Thomas. Human beings do not suffer because devils range the world tempting us in all things or because we are base creatures incapable of goodness, humans suffer “because of a good in which [they do] not share.”[23]

Ultimately, this good is God, but Pope St. John Paul goes on to teach that the privation of evil also amplifies suffering when it “cuts us off” from more particular goods, specifically goods that we “ought—in the normal order of things—to have a share in.”[24] This way of approaching evil always sees it in relation to the good.[25] Evil is never given free reign, it always exists in tension with the vision of perfection in which it can never participate. This vision of humanity, sees the human person as always an inherently good creation. Evil and suffering are the outcomes of our separation from God and, to their (evil’s and suffering’s) dismay, serve as a continual means of turning humanity towards true happiness and fulfillment in the Summum Bonum, that is, God.

When one considers the ideas put forth by these great men, one cannot, regardless of intellectual leanings, but be awed by their thought. However, in final consideration we have a system, which paints the picture of humanity as inherently susceptible to evil, enticed by it, even naturally evil, and plagued by the roaming and ravaging powers of darkness. They are even unable,  to turn to God, who is impotent to come to our aid because He must respect the free-will with which He Himself endowed us. On the other hand, we have a system which sees in the human person a primarily and inherently good creature. Through the problem of sin we are “cut off” from our natural relationship with God and goodness. This does not result in the creation of some all-powerful maleficent creature who  proceeds to tempt us, but the privation of our original and natural state. The project of humanness (and redemption) then, is the restoration of what has been taken away from us through sin. By this process of transforming evil into good, we are able to come, like Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor, to Herne’s Oak and declare, “I do begin to perceive that I am made into an ass.”[26] However, in Christ Jesus, I may yet become a saint.

[1] Barbara Lewalski, The Life of John Milton, (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 224 & 231.

[2] Bill Bryson, Shakespeare (New York: Harper Collins, 2009), 33.

[3] See Claire Asquith, Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare (New York: Public Affiars, 2005). See especially pages 90-104 where the nature of evil in Titus Andronicus is discussed.

[4] Bryson, Shakespeare, 48. See also pages 38-65.

[5] Bryson, Shakespeare, 48. See also pages 38-65.

[6] John Milton, Paradise Lost (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005), I.51. Textual references are to book number and line number(s) of this edition.

[7] Milton, Paradise Lost, III.6. For what power can truly challenge the Almighty?

[8] Dante, Inferno (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), XXXIV.28-29. Textual references are to canto number and line number(s) of this edition.

[9] Milton, Paradise Lost, V.657-665.

[10] Milton, Paradise Lost, IV.799-809.

[11] St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica I, vol. 1 of The Basic Writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, ed. Anton Pegis (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), q.5, a.4, respondeo; q. 49, a. 1, respondeo & a.3, ad. 2. See also, St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Contra Gentiles III, vol. 2 of The Basic Writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, ed. Anton Pegis (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), III.vii.

[12] William Shakespeare, “Julius Caesar,” vol. 2 of The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), III.ii.75. Textual references are to page number, act number, scene number, and line number(s) of this edition.

[13] We are not, here, rejecting the existence of the Devil, only that he suffers from the same condition.

[14] Milton, Paradise Lost, I.106-109.

[15] Servais Pinckaers, O.P., The Sources of Christian Ethics (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1995), 337.

[16] Milton, Paradise Lost, II.263-268.

[17] William Shakespeare, “As You Like It,” vol. 1 of The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), 405, I.i.164-166. Textual references are to page number, act number, scene number, and line number(s) of this edition.

[18] Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, iii, iv, x, & xi.

[19] Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, iii. pg. 7-9.

[20] Shakespeare, As You Like It, 428, IV.iii.124.

[21] Milton, Paradise Lost, IV.845-849.

[22] Pope St. John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris, Encyclical on Human Suffering, Vatican website, accessed September 30, 2015,, sec. 7.

[23] Pope St. John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris, sec. 7. Again, this is not to say that demons do not exist or do not tempt us, merely clarifying that what they do is tempt us away from a proper understanding of the good.

[24] Pope St. John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris, sec. 7. Perhaps food, water, land, the ability to conduct virtuous labor, etc.

[25] Pope St. John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris, sec. 7.

[26] William Shakespeare, “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” vol. 1 of The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), 95, V.v.119. Textual references are to page number, act number, scene number, and line number(s) of this edition.

Photo Credit: Flickr


Fear in the Church


I was already writing this blog post when a blog was posted by Archbishop Coleridge of Brisbane. I want to quote him here because he states from an inside perspective what I have been noticing from an outside perspective.

I’ve noticed as I’ve been paying attention to the synod that the issue of “fear” seems to keep coming up. There is a perceived fear of change and yet like Archbishop Coleridge I don’t believe fear is of God. I’ve always preferred the translation of being in awe of the Lord. I think fear limits our ability to be in awe of what God is capable of doing in our lives and in the church. No one likes change. I certainly do not. It’s terrifying at times because we don’t know what is going to happen. Human beings prefer not to be surprised. We want to be in control of what happens and it’s not as scary if we determine what happens. I certainly know I am not a huge fan of change and yet I’ve also learned that fear, in that it doesn’t allow change, keeps me from growing. It pushes God out of my life and puts me at the center. To be afraid I think is to put myself at the center because I am unable to trust in God.

Fear causes the deterioration of right and just relationships because we become consumed by a way of thinking that puts “me” first. It was this fear I believe Pope Francis spoke to while in this country. I think it would be a grave mistake if we were to so quickly forget the visit of our holy father. I have found myself reflecting deeply on his words and his actions while he was in this country. He arrived at a time when our nation and our church are becoming more and more polarized by ideological differences driven in part by fear. No one knew for sure what Francis’ message would be. Many thought he would come wagging his finger at the oppressive nature of western ideologies and the evils of unbridled capitalism. Yet in watching and listening to his speech to congress I found myself mystified by every word he was saying and which at times moved me to tears.

His speech was nothing less than prophetic. He stood in the midst of the center of power and spoke truth and love to power. Rather than scolding this nation he used our historical memory as a people to remind us of who we have been in the past, who we are today and calling us to become an even better version of ourselves in the future. He pointed out in no uncertain terms that these issues that divide us now we have overcome together in the past. He warned us of the path division will take us down and reminded us that moving forward as a nation we have to work together.

This is I think the hallmark of his papacy. It is a papacy that at its heart is driven by a spirituality of encounter. His words during his visit were powerful and thought provoking. However, his actions and his deeds were even more powerful. Taking his namesake to heart, like Saint Francis, this pope has an uncanny ability to pick people out in the crowd and to shine the light on them; people often turned away or rejected by society. He is drawn to them and in that encounter fear is driven out and love is allowed to flourish.

I think one of the major problems at the heart of our polarized nation and even our church is a fear of encountering the other. It’s a fear of being challenged in our beliefs or values. Maybe it’s even a fear of loving the other and allowing ourselves be loved and to be transformed. Something blocks our ability to meet the other where they are. Whatever it is I think one of the reasons why Pope Francis is so popular, even in the United States, is that he reminds us of who we are. He searches out the good in us and around us and reminds us of what we are capable of. In this I think the fear breaks down and we begin to stand in awe of what God is capable of in us and through us and in and through the church.

-Jason Salisbury

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Excerpt from “Ministry of Pastoral Care: A Eucharistic Experience”


Pastoral care ministry involves providing patients with the sacred experience of God’s loving presence. Through the mission that was bestowed upon me in the sacrament of Baptism, I am able to carry out Jesus’ threefold ministry – priestly, prophetic, and kingly – to the patients as a loving service of God. As a prophetic minister who acts as messenger sent by and speaking for Jesus, I offer guidance to facilitate understanding and find truth through their faith in God, especially in times of their illness, suffering, and loss. As a kingly minister who comes not to be served but to serve, I serve them by giving them support to address their spiritual (prayers), religious (sacraments), and emotional needs (listening presence). As a priestly minister who mediates between the people and God, I provide patients with the opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings to God through meaningful reflection and sacred prayers.

Visiting patients and listening to their stories has led me to contemplate Jesus’ words, “Take care what you hear. The measure with which you measure will be measured out to you, and still more will be given to you (Mark 4:24).” This passage reminds me of an essential undertaking of a chaplain. When I listen to the patients telling me about their lives, I don’t merely listen but I also fulfill my pastoral responsibility by grasping and retaining what I hear from them. I don’t listen to the unique stories of patients to entertain myself; rather, I listen to how the patients try to explain themselves to me. As they unfold their stories, they are examining themselves by reflecting on their own experiences, describing their relationships, assessing the things that have gone wrong and the things that have gone right, and seeking ways to feel better. I, the listener, am invited to be their companion who will accept, comfort, understand, and pray with them, if possible, throughout their journeys.

Sadly, there were times that I felt discouraged and lured to distance myself from the people I was there to serve. There were people, for instance, who ignored or rejected my offer of service, such as praying together. Some were not open to accept from others, even from their own family and relatives, the spiritual and emotional support that they needed. It made me wonder why some people reject or ignore the support they need without knowing its possible good effects on them. In these situations, I just offered my “ministry of presence” – by being physically and attentively present beside them and spiritually and compassionately present by offering them my own prayers. Like the Eucharist that makes Jesus present, ministering is a concrete experience of God’s presence and unconditional loving work.

Marlon Bobier Vargas, SVD

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Three Truer-than-fact Francis Fables


October 4, 2015, falls on a Sunday this year, making it a Solemnity of the Lord.  Many of us remember that it also the Church’s memorial date for St. Francis of Assisi.

People are drawn to Saint Francis even though most know little about his life.  Images of the Saint preaching to the birds, kissing a leper, or receiving the stigmata during prayer, give us the essential Francis, and these images pull us to Francis just as the Crib and the Cross draw people to Christ.

As a Saint who clearly epitomizes Jesus Christ, St. Francis inspires conversations among Protestants and Catholics alike throughout the year.  And I am frequently struck by the fact that some of the “facts” most known about Francis are not facts at all.  They are fables, not history.   But, if we abandoned these fables, we would also risk losing important truths about Francis that inhere in the historic man, if not the historic record.  Here are three.

Fable One:  St. Francis was a deacon.

Deacons revere St. Francis as the ideal deacon.  Before my ordination to the permanent diaconate, my fellow ordinands and I promised to follow St. Francis as model of simplicity when we made our professions of faith and oaths of fidelity.  Even the Catholic Encyclopedia has claimed that Francis was an ordained deacon.

It never happened.  St. Francis consistently refused suggestions that he prepare for the priesthood, and he lived some five hundred years or more after the Church had last ordained any men as deacons except those preparing for the priesthood. As a friar, Francis was only “tonsured.” To be tonsured was to enter the first of five clerical states a religious or seminarian would go through before ordination to the diaconate, and it did not signify any plan for further advancement.

But this is one of those situations where “if it was not so, it should have been so.”  A deacon is ordained to serve the Word, Liturgy and Charity as an icon of “Christ the Servant.”  Unlike the orders of bishop and priest, the deacon is only ordered to a life of humble service.  Just as significant, all Christians are baptized into diaconia, charitable service to their sisters and brothers.  St. Francis who gave all his property to the poor, who kissed the leper, and who inspired others to follow him in the apostolic counsels, fulfilled his diaconia so completely that he can only be compared to Christ himself.   

The Office of Readings for the memorial of St. Francis quotes his letter to all the faithful which contains one of the Church’s greatest descriptions of our call to service:

“We must not be wise and prudent according to the flesh. Rather, we must be simple, humble, pure. We should never desire to be over others. Instead, we ought to be servants who are submissive to every human being for God’s sake. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on all who live in this way and persevere in it to the end. He will permanently dwell in them. They will be the Father’s children who do his work. They are the spouses, brothers and mothers of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

In deed and action, St. Francis teaches us all how to be deacons, that is, servants.

Fable two: St. Francis said, “Preach always and use words if you must.”

This quotation first appeared in the last few decades of the twentieth century, and it is confidently repeated in about ten different ways.  There is no earlier evidence that he ever said it.  Indeed, his life and his writings make it extremely unlikely that he did.   Also, if this fable about Francis is misinterpreted, it can work great mischief he would never have intended.

St. Francis was profoundly committed to preaching, and he preached with words.  All biographers agree that Francis preached constantly and converted many.  Francis converted no one, it seems from the record, merely by his deeds; only through deeds and words.  

Francis never avoided an opportunity to preach.  When he looked for a way to end the Crusades, he crossed enemy lines so that he could preach to Saladin.  Francis was in love with God, and a lover uses words.  According to Thomas of Celano, a Franciscan who knew Francis and wrote the Saint’s first biography, Francis would habitually greet the birds.  Once when a flock did not fly away from him, Francis was moved to preach to them, verbally admonishing them to obey the creator!

Francis was always using words.  His words convinced because they were rooted in the deeds of a committed heart.

The quotation “Preach always and use words if you must” begs the question, “When must we use words?”  Francis’ example pretty much says “always.”  The problem with this quotation for modern Americans, in my view, is that it gives false comfort to those of us who do good works.  We may feel that we are relieved from the responsibility of proclaiming.  Today, here in Chicago, some thirty percent of the population is routinely getting help from Catholic Charities.  How many of those people ever hear that we do-gooders are doing this with Christ?  That we are on mission from the Eucharist?  That we bring good news with our soup and shelter?  

If we are only doing good works, we are only preaching that we are good people.  No one objects to having help from good people, and no one is converted to Christ simply because they have met some good people.  They need to hear the good news.  Otherwise, Francis would tell us, “You are never preaching!”

The admonition to “preach always and use words if you must,” reminds us that our preaching begins with deeds, but it does not allow us to avoid words altogether.  

Fable three: St. Francis wrote the prayer “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”  

There is no evidence for this prayer before the twentieth century.  Its first publication may have been a 1943 sermon by Reinhold Niebuhr.

St. Francis surely would have loved this prayer.  It expressly asks God for the grace to be used by God as God used Francis himself.

G.K. Chesterton’s classic St. Francis Assisi stresses that Francis was a romantic, a troubadour  who could not restrain himself from reckless acts and expressions of his love for God.   The “Peace Prayer,” I believe, is more of a preparatory prayer for one who would want to fall in love with God as Francis did.  After his conversion, Francis was beyond that point.  He was a man who was in love.

For this reason I think that the “Peace Prayer,” like the other two “fables” here, is truly

“Franciscan” because it provides a valid point of access to a profoundly holy life, a life whose historical facts might confound us if we limited ourselves to their extraordinary content.  

-Gerald E. Nora

(photo credit: flickr)