Peter Damian

Saint Peter Damian, whose thousandth birthday must have passed by now, will be familiar to readers of Dante, who presents him in Canto XXI of the Paradiso. On checking, I see that it has: for he was less than three hundred years old when Dante met him; now he is one thousand and nine.

Young (but not youngest) son in a family rather large and poor, in the city of Ravenna, he was soon predeceased by both hapless parents and installed as child in the office of a swineherd. But an elder brother, the “Damian” whose name Peter later joined to his own, noticed that his little brother was extremely intelligent, and devoted himself to the lad’s education. Here was the origin of a Doctor of the Church — who lived a life most improbable, yet attested as historical fact. As all Saints: a life which must remain incomprehensible to us, until we begin to see that God, and not the man, is guiding it. The man has merely got out of God’s way.

God raises up such men as Peter Damian when there is need of them. He has done so in the past; He will do so in the future. We need to understand this when we are inclined to despair, because the world is going to Hell. (It was going to Hell in the eleventh century.) We cannot fix any significant thing; we can only be faithful and ourselves try to live the life that Christ exemplified.

Peter Damian was a major reforming figure in the Church through the middle of the eleventh century, of large relevance today, when the Church is passing through quite similar troubles, and her flock being bounced between good shepherds and bad. Not that she has ever experienced perfect tranquility, in this world full of wolves; not that she ever could, given conditions in this world that do not change.

Both zealous, and wise, Peter Damian became an advisor to popes, and an excoriating opponent to anti-popes. Sent repeatedly into action, against his will and desire for an invisible monastic life, he boldly confronted the “liberals” of his day, and the mobs they raised with their false teachings. I mentioned last October his Liber Gommorrhianus, which might as well be contemporary with us in its exposure of the horrible crimes within the Church, which followed from a relaxation of her teachings. Pederast priests and the rest of it; it was all there in the eleventh century.

And with all that, the “progressive” abandonment of real and serious penance, without which “mercy” becomes an empty casque. In this “Year of Mercy” we must begin recovering our hold on the thing itself; start recovering the knowledge that “mercy” is not a quick fix or a season pass or a free lunch. For the theological depth of this thing, Mercy, cannot be lightly skirted or jumped. It goes to the bottom of the reality on whose surface we are ignorantly (and dangerously) playing.

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The important thing to understand is only that today’s Saint lived at another nadir of the Church’s fortunes. But that is only background to his works, including his voluminous writings, which fill two thick volumes of Migne’s Patrologia Latina (144 and 145). He was a superb writer of the Latin language, worth studying as a model rhetor, to get some idea of the living range and genius of ecclesiastical Latin, in its strict logic, and often poetic precision and concision. All of his works should be available in English, but are not. All of us should seek facility in Latin, to remedy this defect.

A zealous “reformer” — in the sense of reconstruction and restoration — and yet for all his learning, Peter Damian could be half-reasonably described as an “anti-intellectual.” One of his tasks was to show how empty is philosophy, when it is indulged as an end in itself. Earlier than al-Ghazali — arguably the greatest of the (mostly) Persian thinkers in the Islamic Golden Age, whose greatest work, On the Incoherence of the Philosophers, bore its best fruit in the Christian West — Peter Damian was working in anticipation. Hence: Doctor as well as Saint of the Church, as Leo XIII affirmed.

His long letter, number 119, De divina omnipotentia, addressed to the abbot of Monte Cassino in 1065, bears careful scrutiny. It began as an after-dinner topic in the dolce that followed a meal he shared there; the monks were discussing a reading they had just heard in the refectory.

This work has been recklessly misrepresented, by undue focus on only one of its paragraphs, which offers a bold, even mischievous paradox. Peter Damian answers confidently in the affirmative, to the question whether God can restore the virginity of a woman, both physically and, as it were, metaphysically. This seems to involve a violation of the principle of non-contradiction, for surely it would require changing an event in the past. Peter Damian’s purpose is to show that it would not; but to get this, one must continue reading. Moreover, in tackling this apparent contradiction, we will gain a theological insight that “dialectics” or philosophy could not have provided; yet which can be traced back through reason, and shown to be self-consistent.

God cannot lie, cannot give the lie; cannot contradict Himself; cannot take back today what He allowed yesterday; can do only good; and His omnipotence actually requires this. He who is Being prior to all beings, cannot participate in non-being, or the denial of His own Being. Something, for that matter, can never participate in the Nothingness at the root of all evil. But a philosophy that is not in the service of theology, and thus in acknowledgement of Revelation, will never grasp this; will always miss the point.

In this event: philosophy alone will not grasp that God could perform the miracle that restores the physical condition of virginity; that He could perform the miracle that retrieves the penitent soul of a grievous sinner from the consequences of her unalterable past.

Christ did not come to make Adam’s fall unhappen. He came because it happened. Strangely, in the bottomless felix culpa, Adam “asked” for Christ to come; unknowingly “begged for it to happen.”

We miss this for the very reason that we have placed Time above God in our comprehension of the universe, and thus mistaken what is “true enough” in its way, for the Truth that is higher. We have, in other words, assigned to God an “omnipotence” that falls short of His actual Omnipotence.

We are, with Peter Damian, here on the road from Aristotle, through Saint Augustine, to Saint Thomas Aquinas who will come later — in which philosophy itself is hardly suppressed or retroactively changed, but confidently redirected; put to its proper use in the service of our Redemption, and thus itself in a manner of speaking, redeemed. This is just what, in that other tradition, al-Ghazali was doing in retrieving the legacy of Avicenna. He was not trying to suppress all philosophy, any more than Plato was trying to suppress all art. He was restoring it to life by providing its proper context and environment: the air in which it could breathe again.

For we have lost our way through the very swamp that once we drained. We can hardly breathe in its miasmatas. We need to find our way out to an elevated place where we can, once again, safely fill our whole lungs; and dry off under the Sun of Justice.