What Does Virtue Really Mean? Interview with the Very Rev. Thomas Petri (Part Two of Two).

The article below is an excerpt taken from Mind and Heart, a weekly podcast series hosted by Sr. John Dominic Rasmussen, OP. The producer of the series was GoLEDigital, a digital community created by the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.

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Having discussed what virtue means, let’s take it further and look at the One Who encompasses them. Jesus Christ did, absolutely, but today let’s focus on His mother, Mary.  We know that we’re created in God’s image and likeness, both body and soul. God’s grace works in our soul, which manifests in our body. This is perfectly emulated in Mary, the Mother of God, who was immaculately conceived without original sin and filled with grace, which flowed forth from her in abundance. When we participate in God’s grace, which He pours forth upon us, we can better practice virtue.

Sr. John Dominic:

How would you explain the body and soul in a culture where people are struggling with understanding the body? 

Fr. Thomas Petri:

Heresies are often about the body and soul. We live in a culture that doesn’t take the body seriously. It sees the body as incidental to who we are. Beauty is skin deep. We hear, “I’m not my body. I’m more than my body. My body is alien from me. Inside I’m really this and my body is that.” The Catholic view is that we are body and soul. Saint Thomas Aquinas says that we are the compositum hominum, the human composite. He doesn’t mean that the body is one thing and the soul is another thing. We’re both at the same time. A body without a soul is a corpse. He says that whatever happens in the soul, affects the body, and the soul needs the body. Everything that we know, we learn from information from the body, so the five senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, hearing, and also how we use our imagination to learn new ideas or our memories. For Saint Thomas, imagination, memory, and senses are all part of the body, and we need them. The soul needs the body to grow in knowledge. This is one of the reasons why when you have prayers that say, “Center yourself and blank your mind,” Dominicans say, “That’s stupid. You can’t blank your mind because you’re always thinking of someone.” When someone tells you “Clear your mind,” what are you doing? Thinking of a blank wall? A brick wall? That’s an image. It’s your imagination. You’re trying to block out distractions by using some image of your imagination, which is part of the body. That’s the body’s soul thing. Saint Thomas is so strong about this interaction that he says that in beatific vision, we’re probably not going to experience time in the same way we do here. He says we’re not a fully human person because our souls will miss the glorified body. Of course, this is made up for by the fact that you’re in the beatific vision. St. Thomas also says that spiritual creatures like angels and demons can’t read your soul, but they can read your body. Everything that goes on in your soul manifests in your body. When you’re sad and you cry, or you’re angry and your cheeks flush, we are able to read those non-verbals. Saint Thomas basically says the angels and demons can do that infinitely better than you and I can. They can surmise what’s going on in your soul by looking at you. What they don’t know is how grace is working in your soul because grace in this life works in the soul, not the body. This is why even the most graced person will still get arthritis, grow old, and die. If grace worked in the body, we wouldn’t have to deal with any of those things.

Sr. John Dominic:

Wouldn’t that be nice, especially as we get older? You’re talking about body and soul. You’re talking about grace. Of course, I keep thinking, hail Mary, full of grace. How does this apply?

Fr. Thomas Petri:

Amazingly so. If we believe that her soul was full of grace, which means she had the fullness of the gifts of the Spirit, she was fully actualized. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception says she was immaculately conceived, which means she did not, unlike you and I, [have to be] baptized to remove the guilt of original sin. We have concupiscence and still live with the effects of original sin, those cravings, temptations, random thoughts we wish we didn’t have. We still have struggles with our bodies. However, the dogma further says that the Blessed Mother had none of that. She’s alive, and what this means is that what’s going on in her soul is manifest in her body. Saint Thomas Aquinas says that she must have been beautiful. Even before the Assumption and the coronation, she must have been absolutely stunning. When she walked into the market, because of the grace radiating from her, it had to be a beauty that stopped everybody. Saint Thomas also teaches that because she was full of grace, grace overflowed from her. Whoever she was around, grace overflowed in them and subdued their passions. Even though she was stunningly gorgeous as a woman, in Saint Thomas’s exact words, no man could covet her because he knew. For some of those men, it would have been the first time they would have looked at a woman, saw her beauty, and realized, I cannot possess this. This beauty should exist on its own for the whole world to experience. I can’t have this for myself, which is something men don’t often think about when they look at beautiful women because of man’s original sin working in them. Men see beautiful women, and their first thought is often “I want that for me.” Saint Thomas is quite clear. No man could ever think that about the Blessed Mother. St. Joseph benefitted from that, too. Here is Saint Joseph, the righteous man, living with the Blessed Mother and raising the Son of God as his own son, who he knows. Her grace overflowed to him, so he could never desire her in any impure way. Many people might hear that and think he wasn’t really a man, but no, it actually meant he was more of a man and more free inasmuch as he could love this woman in the most beautiful and pure way without any selfishness. St. John Chrysostom says that there was in St. Joseph no puritanical jealousy. When she told him she was pregnant, he would never have thought anything bad about her. He never would have thought that she had committed adultery or done it. He didn’t know what was going on, but he never would have thought that she had done something wrong because he was not only a just man, but he was affected by her grace and would see her in the best possible light always.

Sr. John Dominic:

As you were talking, I kept thinking about Bernadette and when she was trying to describe how they could never get the statues [of Mary] right.

Mind and Heart welcomed the Very Rev. Thomas Petri to the GoLEDigital studios to talk about all things Virtuous!

Fr. Thomas Petri:

We were just talking about this earlier back at the motherhouse with some of the other Sisters. St. Lucia of Fatima, who became a cloistered nun, said the same thing. When she finally got permission to come back to Fatima after the shrine was built, she was mortified by how ugly the statues were. However, there’s an Eastern Province Dominican in my Province, Father Thomas McGlinn who is the sculptor of the great statue of Our Lady of Fatima that today is on the facade of the old basilica in Fatima. He took a model of it to St. Sister Lucia to show her. There’s a great picture of 1960’s aircraft, and here he is, in cloth seats, buckled in, sitting next to this four-foot model of this statue, and she’s buckled in on this airline. He takes this statue to Sister Lucia, and she gives it her blessing. She says, “It’s still nowhere close to how beautiful the lady was, but it’s closer than all the other statues that I’ve seen.”

Sr. John Dominic:

That reinforces that love is in the human part of these people who have seen her. That reinforces the actual truth of what he taught.

Fr. Thomas Petri:

Because she had grace. We tend to look at grace as something you get and run with. I got my grace, and I’m going to go use it. That’s not what the Church believes about grace. When you’re living in grace, it’s not only that you’re in grace, but you’re also cooperating with grace, which God gives you grace to do and then also, God is, in the gift of the Holy Spirit, helping you become more docile to His grace. Once you’re in grace, God has taken over every aspect of your life. It’s not compartmentalized. I always say to people, “Grace is not the Energizer bunny that keeps you going. It’s everything about your life,” and the Blessed Mother experienced that to the fullest. St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, St. John Chrysostom, and most of the Church fathers say that as she was growing up, she read the scriptures, which were for her the Torah, the Pentatauch, the first five books of the Old Testament and the prophets. Because she had so much grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, in reading those she would have seen the promises of God for what they were, and as a Jewish woman would have known that God was going to become incarnate. When we read the Gospels, we read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and they cite the Old Testament and say, “Jesus did this to fulfill what was said in the Old Testament.” Here’s the thing. The Blessed Mother read all of that before it happened, and she knew that it was going to be fulfilled in an incarnate God. It’s a modern heresy, I would say, to think that the Blessed Mother was surprised by the Incarnation. St. Thomas says that she was surprised not that God was going to be incarnate but that it was going to be her because when she’s walking around in her life, she’s not thinking, “I’m full of grace. I’m awesome. The Lord is blessing me.” The more grace you have, the less you’re aware of it, and the more humble you become. She never would have thought herself worthy to carry the Son of God. That is why St. Luke says she’s troubled by what she hears. It’s because she knew it was going to happen, but she didn’t think it would be her. That’s what surprised her. When we think about the Blessed Mother, we think about her as a mother and wife. She’s cooking meals. She’s putting food on the table for our Lord. That’s not how the early Christians saw her. They saw her as a pinnacle of grace and, because of that, a genius by our standards. She was a woman who was both forceful and gentle and, at the same time, knew the will of God, loved God, and because of that, she had a wisdom beyond anything that could be learned. She was not this timid wallflower along for the ride. She knew it all, and she still said, “Let it be done unto me according to thy word.”

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Sr. John Dominic:

Let’s take this meditation a little bit further to Pentecost. What’s the meaning?

Fr. Thomas Petri:

She knew all of that was going to happen. I like to remind people that the Acts of the Apostles tell us that the Apostles were gathered, and she was there. She was there for Pentecost. St. Luke’s Gospel is the only place where we get the full telling of the childhood of Jesus, as much as we know. A couple times, he says, “Mary kept all of these things and she pondered them in her heart.” Here’s what that means. It isn’t only that she was pondering it in her wisdom from on high. It means that those stories we read in the Gospels, like Joseph having the dream, the flight to Egypt, trying to get into the inn and having to go into a manger, finding the child Jesus in the temple, are her stories. By the time the Gospels were being written, Joseph was gone, and our Lord had ascended. The only one left who remembered those stories was her. I tell people, “You’re reading St. Luke, but you’re reading St. Luke who’s heard this from our Blessed Mother. These are her memories of what happened all those years ago.” It’s a beautiful thing. I’m hearing from my Blessed Mother what it was like to give birth to our Lord. Even further than that, think about how she ends up in Ephesus with the beloved disciple, and how we know where her house was. We can go visit her house now. Saint John cared for her as a loyal son. His devotion to her is the devotion we all should have. He’s the one that remains all the way to the end.

Sr. John Dominic:

To bring it full circle, we started out talking about body and soul, so it makes sense that she was assumed body and soul into heaven.

Fr. Thomas Petri:

Absolutely, because she has no sin, so death cannot touch her. Death has no power over her because she was immaculately conceived preveniently, which is before everything else, by the anticipating graces that her son was going to give her on Calvary and the cross.

Sr. John Dominic:

Reflecting on the feast of the Assumption, heaven has a mother’s heart. She is there, assumed body and soul into heaven. Jesus ascended.

Fr. Thomas Petri:

We always say Jesus, of course, is without sin, because he’s man and God. Mary is immaculately conceived, so Jesus and Mary were both born without original sin. We also believe that John the Baptist was born without original sin because when he hears Mary’s greeting, he leaps in the womb. The traditional teaching is that leaping in the womb was caused by the Holy Spirit, Who cannot coexist with original sin. At that moment, he is cleansed, which is why in the liturgical calendar we celebrate the nativity of John the Baptist. We celebrate three nativities in the church: John the Baptist, the nativity of Mary, and of course, the nativity of our Lord, Jesus Christ, on Christmas. These are the three people who came into this world without original sin, but they’re all born without original sin in different ways. John the Baptist is cleansed from original sin while he’s in the womb. Our Blessed Mother is immaculately conceived. Our Lord, of course, is God and man, and sin is not part of this equation whatsoever. 

Sr. John Dominic:

Thank you. You’ve given us a lot, Father. Do you have a radio program?

Fr. Thomas Petri:

I do. You can listen to EWTN Radio, The Church Alive. We air on Saturdays. It’s Brian Patrick and myself, and it’s an hour long. We talk about the week’s events in the Church, and we also talk about things coming up, and we give a little spiritual direction. In these strange times we’re living, the whole point of The Church Aliveis to give some hope to being Catholic and to living in the Church, because it is our way to salvation.

Sr. John Dominic:

Thank you Father, for bringing clarity and truth and being a faithful Dominican. I can guarantee you that all of us, the Dominican Sisters, keep you in our prayers. We’re so grateful for the spiritual renewal you give to us on our retreats. Thank you for joining us for this podcast on Mind and Heart, and we’re going to get you to come back again sometime.

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