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Archive for the ‘Amy Welborn’ Category

John of the Cross

He’s in the Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints – here are a couple of the pages that I can reproduce for you. He’s in the section, “Saints are people who create.”

Learn more:

John of the Cross was born in 1542 in the small village of Fontiveros, near Avila in Old Castille, to Gonzalo de Yepes and Catalina Alvarez. The family was very poor because his father, Gonzalo, from a noble family of Toledo, had been thrown out of his home and disowned for marrying Catalina, a humble silk weaver.

Having lost his father at a tender age, when John was nine he moved with his mother and his brother Francisco to Medina del Campo, not far from Valladolid, a commercial and cultural centre. Here he attended the Colegio de los Doctrinos, carrying out in addition several humble tasks for the sisters of the Church-Convent of the Maddalena. Later, given his human qualities and his academic results, he was admitted first as a male nurse to the Hospital of the Conception, then to the recently founded Jesuit College at Medina del Campo.

He entered the College at the age of 18 and studied the humanities, rhetoric and classical languages for three years. At the end of his formation he had a clear perception of his vocation: the religious life, and, among the many orders present in Medina, he felt called to Carmel.

In the summer of 1563 he began his novitiate with the Carmelites in the town, taking the religious name of Juan de Santo Matía. The following year he went to the prestigious University of Salamanca, where he studied the humanities and philosophy for three years.

He was ordained a priest in 1567 and returned to Medina del Campo to celebrate his first Mass surrounded by his family’s love. It was precisely here that John and Teresa of Jesus first met. The meeting was crucial for them both. Teresa explained to him her plan for reforming Carmel, including the male branch of the Order, and suggested to John that he support it “for the greater glory of God”. The young priest was so fascinated by Teresa’s ideas that he became a great champion of her project.

For several months they worked together, sharing ideals and proposals aiming to inaugurate the first house of Discalced Carmelites as soon as possible. It was opened on 28 December 1568 at Duruelo in a remote part of the Province of Avila.

This first reformed male community consisted of John and three companions. In renewing their religious profession in accordance with the primitive Rule, each of the four took a new name: it was from this time that John called himself “of the Cross”, as he came to be known subsequently throughout the world.

At the end of 1572, at St Teresa’s request, he became confessor and vicar of the Monastery of the Incarnation in Avila where Teresa of Jesus was prioress. These were years of close collaboration and spiritual friendship which enriched both. The most important Teresian works and John’s first writings date back to this period.

Promoting adherence to the Carmelite reform was far from easy and cost John acute suffering. The most traumatic episode occurred in 1577, when he was seized and imprisoned in the Carmelite Convent of the Ancient Observance in Toledo, following an unjust accusation. The Saint, imprisoned for months, was subjected to physical and moral deprivations and constrictions. Here, together with other poems, he composed the well-known Spiritual Canticle. Finally, in the night between 16 and 17 August 1578, he made a daring escape and sought shelter at the Monastery of Discalced Carmelite Nuns in the town. St Teresa and her reformed companions celebrated his liberation with great joy and, after spending a brief period recovering, John was assigned to Andalusia where he spent 10 years in various convents, especially in Granada.

He was charged with ever more important offices in his Order, until he became vicar provincial and completed the draft of his spiritual treatises. He then returned to his native land as a member of the General Government of the Teresian religious family which already enjoyed full juridical autonomy.

He lived in the Carmel of Segovia, serving in the office of community superior. In 1591 he was relieved of all responsibility and assigned to the new religious Province of Mexico. While he was preparing for the long voyage with 10 companions he retired to a secluded convent near Jaén, where he fell seriously ill.

John faced great suffering with exemplary serenity and patience. He died in the night between 13 and 14 December 1591, while his confreres were reciting Matins. He took his leave of them saying: “Today I am going to sing the Office in Heaven”. His mortal remains were translated to Segovia. He was beatified by Clement X in 1675 and canonized by Benedict XIII in 1726.

John is considered one of the most important lyric poets of Spanish literature. His major works are four: The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Dark Night, The Spiritual Canticle and The Living Flame of Love.

In The Spiritual Canticle St John presents the process of the soul’s purification and that is the gradual, joyful possession of God, until the soul succeeds in feeling that it loves God with the same love with which it is loved by him. The Living Flame of Love continues in this perspective, describing in greater detail the state of the transforming union with God.

The example that John uses is always that of fire: just as the stronger the fire burns and consumes wood, the brighter it grows until it blazes into a flame, so the Holy Spirit, who purifies and “cleanses” the soul during the dark night, with time illuminates and warms it as though it were a flame. The life of the soul is a continuous celebration of the Holy Spirit which gives us a glimpse of the glory of union with God in eternity.

The Ascent of Mount Carmel presents the spiritual itinerary from the viewpoint of the gradual purification of the soul, necessary in order to scale the peaks of Christian perfection, symbolized by the summit of Mount Carmel. This purification is proposed as a journey the human being undertakes, collaborating with divine action, to free the soul from every attachment or affection contrary to God’s will.

Purification which, if it is to attain the union of love with God must be total, begins by purifying the life of the senses and continues with the life obtained through the three theological virtues: faith, hope and charity, which purify the intention, the memory and the will.

The Dark Night describes the “passive” aspect, that is, God’s intervention in this process of the soul’s “purification”. In fact human endeavour on its own is unable to reach the profound roots of the person’s bad inclinations and habits: all it can do is to check them but cannot entirely uproot them. This requires the special action of God which radically purifies the spirit and prepares it for the union of love with him.

St John describes this purification as “passive”, precisely because, although it is accepted by the soul, it is brought about by the mysterious action of the Holy Spirit who, like a burning flame, consumes every impurity. In this state the soul is subjected to every kind of trial, as if it were in a dark night.

This information on the Saint’s most important works help us to approach the salient points of his vast and profound mystical doctrine, whose purpose is to describe a sure way to attain holiness, the state of perfection to which God calls us all.

According to John of the Cross, all that exists, created by God, is good. Through creatures we may arrive at the discovery of the One who has left within them a trace of himself. Faith, in any case, is the one source given to the human being to know God as he is in himself, as the Triune God. All that God wished to communicate to man, he said in Jesus Christ, his Word made flesh. Jesus Christ is the only and definitive way to the Father (cf. Jn 14:6). Any created thing is nothing in comparison to God and is worth nothing outside him, consequently, to attain to the perfect love of God, every other love must be conformed in Christ to the divine love.

From this derives the insistence of St John of the Cross on the need for purification and inner self-emptying in order to be transformed into God, which is the one goal of perfection. This “purification” does not consist in the mere physical absence of things or of their use; on the contrary what makes the soul pure and free is the elimination of every disorderly dependence on things. All things should be placed in God as the centre and goal of life.

Of course, the long and difficult process of purification demands a personal effort, but the real protagonist is God: all that the human being can do is to “prepare” himself, to be open to divine action and not to set up obstacles to it. By living the theological virtues, human beings raise themselves and give value to their commitment. The growth of faith, hope and charity keeps pace with the work of purification and with the gradual union with God until they are transformed in him.

When it reaches this goal, the soul is immersed in Trinitarian life itself, so that St John affirms that it has reached the point of loving God with the same love with which he loves it, because he loves it in the Holy Spirit.

For this reason the Mystical Doctor maintains that there is no true union of love with God that does not culminate in Trinitarian union. In this supreme state the holy soul knows everything in God and no longer has to pass through creatures in order to reach him. The soul now feels bathed in divine love and rejoices in it without reserve.

Dear brothers and sisters, in the end the question is: does this Saint with his lofty mysticism, with this demanding journey towards the peak of perfection have anything to say to us, to the ordinary Christian who lives in the circumstances of our life today, or is he an example, a model for only a few elect souls who are truly able to undertake this journey of purification, of mystical ascesis?

To find the answer we must first of all bear in mind that the life of St John of the Cross did not “float on mystical clouds”; rather he had a very hard life, practical and concrete, both as a reformer of the Order, in which he came up against much opposition and from the Provincial Superior as well as in his confreres’ prison where he was exposed to unbelievable insults and physical abuse.

His life was hard yet it was precisely during the months he spent in prison that he wrote one of his most beautiful works. And so we can understand that the journey with Christ, travelling with Christ, “the Way”, is not an additional burden in our life, it is not something that would make our burden even heavier but something quite different. It is a light, a power that helps us to bear it.

If a person bears great love in himself, this love gives him wings, as it were, and he can face all life’s troubles more easily because he carries in himself this great light; this is faith: being loved by God and letting oneself be loved by God in Jesus Christ. Letting oneself be loved in this way is the light that helps us to bear our daily burden.

And holiness is not a very difficult action of ours but means exactly this “openness”: opening the windows of our soul to let in God’s light, without forgetting God because it is precisely in opening oneself to his light that one finds strength, one finds the joy of the redeemed.

Let us pray the Lord to help us discover this holiness, to let ourselves be loved by God who is our common vocation and the true redemption. Many thanks.

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7 Quick Takes

—1 —

Last night we went to the Mass for Our Lady of Guadalupe at a local parish – one of three locally that I know of which was celebrating in a big way. This just happens to be closest to us (and one in which Son #5 practices organ frequently during the day.)

It was lovely – my favorite aspect of these celebrations are the “VIVA!” call-and-responses. So much more authentically energetic and expressive than desultory God is good – All the time! – I didn’t hear you – louder! 

Anyway, some images from earlier in the day (when we were over there practicing organ) of the display of devotional objects people bring for blessing – of course once Mass starts, the number of objects arrayed here was at least double what it was in the afternoon:

 

Tomorrow morning, I’ll be going to this– it was surprising and moving last year, the first year our parish has done this. It was surprising (to everyone) the number of people in attendance, as well. Come back for a report!

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— 2 —

Tomorrow: St. John of the Cross. He’s in the Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints – here are a couple of the pages that I can reproduce for you. He’s in the section, “Saints are people who create.”

Others in that section: Fra Angelico, Hildegard of Bingen, and Miguel Pro

— 3 —

Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life is being released. Steven Greydanus reviews:

The film movingly portrays Franz and Fani’s faith challenged and tested, yet deepening in the process. What is perhaps at first naive confidence that those who are faithful to God will enjoy his protection yields to misgivings, disappointment, desperation, fear, anguish, anger — yet also a growing acceptance that even this can be entrusted to God and that he will make all things new.

Glimpses of grace in extremis are a comfort. Though struggling with the farm in Franz’s absence, Fani offers kindness to neighbors in need, and occasionally this kindness comes back to her.

Malick is a cinematic giant, but the increasing narrative fragmentation of his most recent work has alienated even many devotees. I’ve sometimes wished, on the other hand, he would dispense with narrative entirely, at least for one film.

Yet Jägerstätter’s story poses for him an ideal narrative and thematic challenge — to my mind, the most fruitful he has taken up in over 20 years. I am awed by parts of The New World, The Tree of Life and To The Wonder; A Hidden Life overwhelms me in its totality.

— 4 —

From the Smithsonian, discoveries confirming the early expansion of Christianity into Ethiopia:

In the dusty highlands of northern Ethiopia, a team of archaeologists recently uncovered the oldest known Christian church in sub-Saharan Africa, a find that sheds new light on one of the Old World’s most enigmatic kingdoms—and its surprisingly early conversion to Christianity.

An international assemblage of scientists discovered the church 30 miles northeast of Aksum, the capital of the Aksumite kingdom, a trading empire that emerged in the first century A.D. and would go on to dominate much of eastern Africa and western Arabia. Through radiocarbon dating artifacts uncovered at the church, the researchers concluded that the structure was built in the fourth century A.D., about the same time when Roman Emperor Constantine I legalized Christianty in 313 CE and then converted on his deathbed in 337 CE. The team detailed their findings in a paper published today in Antiquity.

The discovery of the church and its contents confirm Ethiopian tradition that Christianity arrived at an early date in an area nearly 3,000 miles from Rome. The find suggests that the new religion spread quickly through long-distance trading networks that linked the Mediterranean via the Red Sea with Africa and South Asia, shedding fresh light on a significant era about which historians know little.

“The empire of Aksum was one of the world’s most influential ancient civilizations, but it remains one of the least widely known,” says Michael Harrower of Johns Hopkins University, the archaeologist leading the team. Helina Woldekiros, an archaeologist at St. Louis’ Washington University who was part of the team, adds that Aksum served as a “nexus point” linking the Roman Empire and, later, the Byzantine Empire with distant lands to the south. That trade, by camel, donkey and boat, channeled silver, olive oil and wine from the Mediterranean to cities along the Indian Ocean, which in turn brought back exported iron, glass beads and fruits.

— 5 –

In Italy, the Daughters of Jesus the King is a religious community of blind and visually-impaired women:

In Turin, Italy, the Daughters of Jesus the King is a religious community of  blind and visually impaired sisters who aim for holiness, and to be a sign that in Christ, there are no barriers that cannot be overcome.

Sister Lorena Logrono, superior of the Daughters of Jesus the King, told ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner, that the origin of the congregation traces back to the Poor Daughters of Saint Cajetan, which was founded by Blessed Giovanni Maria Boccardo 135 years ago.

“When Blessed Giovanni Maria Boccardo became ill, he left the Congregation of the Poor Daughters of Saint Cajetan  in the hands of his brother Luigi, who was also appointed head of the institutes for blind girls in Turin,” she explained.

“There a young woman asked Fr. Boccardo about becoming a religious, but she couldn’t be admitted because she was blind. Some time later, he received the inspiration to found a congregation for blind people, which would have the charism of the Poor Daughters of Saint Cajetan but be dedicated to contemplation.”

“And then, in 1932, the contemplative branch, the Daughters of Jesus the King, began,” the sister said.

— 6 —

In the Atlantic, a very fair-minded look at the SSPX presence in St. Marys, Kansas:

Throughout American history, religious groups have walled themselves off from the rhythms and mores of society. St. Marys isn’t nearly as cut off from modern life as, say, the Amish communities that still abjure all modern technology, be it tractor or cellphone. Residents watch prestige television on Hulu and catch Sunday-afternoon football games; moms drive to Topeka to shop at Sam’s Club. Yet hints of the town’s utopian project are everywhere. On a recent afternoon, I visited the general store, where polite teens played bluegrass music beside rows of dried goods. Women in long, modest skirts loaded vans that had enough seats to accommodate eight or nine kidsunlike most American Catholics, SSPX members abide by the Vatican’s prohibition on birth control. At housewarming parties and potluck dinners, children huddle around pianos for sing-alongs.

In their four decades in St. Marys, the followers of SSPX have more than doubled the town’s size. Even with six Masses on Sundays, parishioners fill the Society’s chapel to capacity; overflow services are held in the gym of the Society’s academy, which inhabits an imposing campus built by the Jesuit missionaries who called St. Marys home in the 19th century. The school is constantly running out of classroom space. The parish rector, Father Patrick Rutledge, has to scramble each summer to accommodate rising enrollment. Real estate sells at price points closer to those of Kansas’s big cities than of its other small towns.

The prism that writer Emma Green views the story through is there Dreherist Benedict Option discussion. This means that one very interesting aspect of the story isn’t touched on at all: the relationship of the SSPX to the broader Church, both internationally and locally. After all, there is a diocesan Catholic Church in this town – and there’s no discussion of the reactions to the group from that end or the relation between the two. As I said, the piece has a specific focus, and diving into those waters would certainly distract from that, but still – it’s a question that rises organically from the material. Green said on Twitter that she’d might be talking about those intra-Catholic issues at some point. 

 

— 7 —

If you’re interested in ordering signed (or unsigned!) books as gifts from me…go here. 

Loyola books

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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Our Lady of Guadalupe

Some resources from me:

First, from the Loyola Kids Book of Catholic Signs and Symbols. 

Today’s entry from 2020: A Year of Grace-Filled Days. 

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Remember – the devotional goes all the way to 12/31/2020 – so even if you get it right now, you still have over a year’s worth of entries – I think you’d be getting your money’s worth!

St. Juan Diego in The Loyola Kids Book of Saints under “Saints are People Who See Beyond the Everyday.”

(An earlier post on…Wishbone’s version of Guadalupe.)

We spent Holy Week 2018  in Mexico – Mexico City and Puebla. All of the posts are linked here,and the visit to the Guadalupe shrine is described here, including the total lack of build-up I experienced in viewing the tilma:

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Finally – a .99 book on the Blessed Mother, here!

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A New Pope

Gotcha!

You probably didn’t notice, but a trailer for the second season of The Young Pope has dropped – with this season being called The New Pope. 

Now, I never watched more than a couple of episodes of The Young Pope. I wasn’t going to watch any of it at all until I read this essay in Dappled Things:

Yes, the show takes a number of obsessive low-blows at aspects of Catholicism and that can’t be excused – again, a total lack of both religious literacy and an understanding of things Sorrentino’s wanting to subvert. He has his characters make horrendous generalizations about the priesthood and religious life that ring worse than hollow. But I would argue these happen more out of ignorance than malice – what Sorrentino’s going for here is the abiding humanity of the Vatican and its people. And, in the spirit of a certain Ignatian principle (if one is bent too far one way for too long, the correct response is to go a little too far the other way to correct the inclination in preparation for living a healthy, balanced life), the inhuman and inhumane stuffiness of too many Vatican depictions is swapped for excessive vitality.

How many biopics of saints and clergy could one Google***** that lack a basic sense of humour or, worse, anything resembling a pulse? One might get the impression, watching certain low-budget productions, that the chief Catholic virtue is a stiff upper lip. In contrast, Jude Law’s mouth could give Meryl Streep a run for her Oscars. Depicting the energy, embarrassment, disappointed joys, unexpected delights and even the pettiness of Vatican officials merely presents them as human in all our fallacy and wonder.

Yes, the Vatican Secretary of State harbours uncomfortable feelings for a certain ancient statue, but he also finds solace in the openness of a boy whose mental disabilities leave him alone and hidden in Rome. Yes, one of the cardinals close to the Pope struggles with his vows of purity, but he admits himself weak and a work in progress. Yes, there are power struggles driven as much by personal ambition as by concern for the Church’s future. Who are we to deny the high clergy their humanity in all its dimensions?

Talking about material that’d be iffy for Catholic audiences: there are brief moments of sexually explicit imagery that would recommend viewer discretion. There are cheap shots that could only come from a world that misunderstands the Catholic tradition and what it stands for. The harsh tone and early religious insensitivity might make it a hard watch for some. There’s an abundance of irreverence, but it never robs God of awe nor people of their dignity – in fact, the main thing being deconstructed is the pride that typically comes with attaining positions of global standing. The Pope, Sister Mary, Voiello (the Cardinal Secretary of State), Cardinal Spencer (Lenny’s former mentor…played by James Cromwell) and others look ridiculous because we, as people, are ridiculous. Everyone experiences profound encounters with humiliation in its classical sense: the challenge to humility. No one, in the end, is left a buffoon. Just human.

So, in the end, is The Young Pope’s take offensive? Fleetingly, and mostly when it slips up with religious literacy. But is the show necessary? Heavens, yes.

 

So…I gave it a shot. I can’t remember why I stopped – perhaps I wrote about it somewhere – I don’t recall. My general memory is that it didn’t live up to what the essayist and some of the clips I’d seen promised. That is, the dumb moments outweighed anything insightful.

But now, hey, there’s a new season dropping, and I have to say, given our present situation – and by that I mean, a retired Pope, an acting pope, bishops and other hierarchs who seem to barely believe anything, who can’t seem to take real responsibility for sins and crimes committed under their watch, who prefer to fund fads and Elton John biopics rather than anything that really helps anyone – it doesn’t seem unreasonable to look at this trailer and wonder what this extravagant, admitted non-believing artist is filtering from what he sees and hears through the lens to the screen….

 

 

I have no idea what this will be like. Maybe super-offensive, maybe lame, maybe completely off. But I’m kind of….on board at this point.

 

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Silicon Valley – the end

Fix what, Richard? The network is doing exactly what we told it to do.
The AI is optimizing the compression and the compression is optimizing the AI.
Everything that makes it successful is exactly what makes it dangerous.
It’s a feature, not a bug.

 

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I ventured to Silicon Valley years ago because of Mike Judge, one of the few able satirists out there these days. I can’t say I was a big “fan” of the show – the bro-vulgarity bored me and I ultimately found the big plot arcs repetitive. And when the actor playing the central character really gets on your nerves with every slack-jawed, bug-eyed sideeye and nervous tic –  well, that’s another strike.

But…I did, mostly enjoy and appreciate the show, which ended its run this past Sunday with what I thought was a strong episode.

What was good about Silicon Valley? The hilarious excavation of all the terrible people involved in this world: the greedy investors, the greedy developers, the unethical – well, everyone – the hypocrites, the opportunists and the enablers. The crashing-and-burning and the failing upward.

The bigger point of the show has always been about hubris and unintended consequences, which it dealt out several times per episode. The takeaway from Silicon Valley is not “Look at these cool people doing great things for the world,” but rather “Watch out for these greedy, self-absorbed lunatics who would choose an elegant code over the human race any day of the week.”

And so we come to the final chapter, in which all the crazy hard work and ups and downs of the past few years finally seems as if it will bear fruit – the fruit that founder Richard wanted: an “internet for everyone” that would be decentralized and safeguard privacy.

And make everyone involved very rich, it goes without saying.

But then – of course – a glitch. I won’t go into the details, but let’s just say that at the last minute, it’s discovered that the real consequence of this system will be the exact opposite of what’s intended – as one of the characters says above –  the process will continue on the way of destruction and chaos.

Everything that makes it successful is exactly what makes it dangerous.

And if there isn’t a more succinct summary of all those digitally-driven forces that seem to define our lives these days – I don’t know what is.

A couple of other notes:

  • I’m always a sucker for ten years later frameworks. Used in this final episode, it didn’t disappoint. The best physical aging was Gilfoyle – oh my word – perfect. And I’ve watched the moment in which the documentary maker suggests to Big Head the reason for his nickname probably five times – and those three seconds of reaction make me laugh out loud each time.
  • I want to comment on one story note from a previous episode – when Jared meets his biological parents. It’s a plot point that was widely criticized, saying that it just went “too far” and that Jared, being one of the few near-decent characters on the show, didn’t deserve such a painful revelation – basically, he was placed for adoption by his parents – not because they were poor or unmarried, but because they already had two kids and having a third would mess up their car travel arrangements – and then he finds out that later, they did actually have a third kid after all. Poor Jared! Well, it explains a lot, that’s for sure. But this was my take: these are not real people. I mean – the characters aren’t even supposed to evoke that type of sympathetic vibe from us – they’re satiric cartoons, really, in a show about how terrible and cold human beings can be. The Jared story probably served a bit to explain his neediness as an adult, but it also, more importantly to me, shone a light on the selfishness that Silicon Valley has been about dissecting since the beginning. Nno other character has gotten an explanatory backstory like that, so I’m thinking the emotional aspect of said backstory is really not the point.

…..so…maybe it’s more that here, we see the series-long blinkered selfishness and greed lived out in the “typical” American family, which prioritizes material comfort and status more than anything else – and is therefore ripe to receive whatever empty promises that the guys in the valley peddle to them. Maybe?

 

 

 

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I toss the same general post up every year. I don’t care. No need to search my brain for heartfelt spiritual metaphors from Daily Life™. When we have the Monkees!

Riu riu chiu, la guarda ribera;
Dios guardo el lobo de nuestra cordera,
Dios guardo el lobo de neustra cordera.

El lobo rabioso la quiso morder,
Mas Dios poderoso la supo defender;
Quisola hazer que no pudiese pecar,
Ni aun original esta Virgen no tuviera.

Riu, riu chiu…

Este qu’es nacido es el gran monarca,
Christo patriarca de carne vestido;
Hemos redemido con se hazer chiquito,
Aunqu’era infinito, finito se hiziera.

Translation:

River, roaring river, guard our homes in safety,
God has kept the black wolf from our lamb, our Lady.
God has kept the black wolf from our lamb, our Lady.

Raging mad to bite her, there the wolf did steal,
But our God Almighty defended her with zeal.
Pure He wished to keep Her so She could never sin,
That first sin of man never touched the Virgin sainted.

River, roaring river…

He who’s now begotten is our mighty Monarch,
Christ, our Holy Father, in human flesh embodied.
He has brough atonement by being born so humble,
Though He is immortal, as mortal was created.

River, roaring river…

Here’s a helpful video that someone put up with subtitles. 

And the Kingston Trio:

More from Fr. Steve Grunow on the song and the feast.

Here’s my book on Mary, available in a Kindle version for .99:

 And for even more substance from a homily hB16 gave in 2005 on the feast – it was also the 40th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council.  It’s lengthy but SO worth it, an excellent reflection of what he has written elsewhere on it (for example, in this book):

But now we must ask ourselves:  What does “Mary, the Immaculate” mean? Does this title have something to tell us? Today, the liturgy illuminates the content of these words for us in two great images.

First of all comes the marvellous narrative of the annunciation of the Messiah’s coming to Mary, the Virgin of Nazareth. The Angel’s greeting is interwoven with threads from the Old Testament, especially from the Prophet Zephaniah. He shows that Mary, the humble provincial woman who comes from a priestly race and bears within her the great priestly patrimony of Israel, is “the holy remnant” of Israel to which the prophets referred in all the periods of trial and darkness.

In her is present the true Zion, the pure, living dwelling-place of God. In her the Lord dwells, in her he finds the place of his repose. She is the living house of God, who does not dwell in buildings of stone but in the heart of living man. She is the shoot which sprouts from the stump of David in the dark winter night of history. In her, the words of the Psalm are fulfilled:  “The earth has yielded its fruits” (Ps 67: 7).

She is the offshoot from which grew the tree of redemption and of the redeemed. God has not failed, as it might have seemed formerly at the beginning of history with Adam and Eve or during the period of the Babylonian Exile, and as it seemed anew in Mary’s time when Israel had become a people with no importance in an occupied region and with very few recognizable signs of its holiness.

God did not fail. In the humility of the house in Nazareth lived holy Israel, the pure remnant. God saved and saves his people. From the felled tree trunk Israel’s history shone out anew, becoming a living force that guides and pervades the world.

Mary is holy Israel:  she says “yes” to the Lord, she puts herself totally at his disposal and thus becomes the living temple of God.

The second image is much more difficult and obscure. This metaphor from the Book of Genesis speaks to us from a great historical distance and can only be explained with difficulty; only in the course of history has it been possible to develop a deeper understanding of what it refers to.

It was foretold that the struggle between humanity and the serpent, that is, between man and the forces of evil and death, would continue throughout history.

It was also foretold, however, that the “offspring” of a woman would one day triumph and would crush the head of the serpent to death; it was foretold that the offspring of the woman – and in this offspring the woman and the mother herself – would be victorious and that thus, through man, God would triumph.

If we set ourselves with the believing and praying Church to listen to this text, then we can begin to understand what original sin, inherited sin, is and also what the protection against this inherited sin is, what redemption is.

What picture does this passage show us? The human being does not trust God. Tempted by the serpent, he harbours the suspicion that in the end, God takes something away from his life, that God is a rival who curtails our freedom and that we will be fully human only when we have cast him aside; in brief, that only in this way can we fully achieve our freedom.

The human being lives in the suspicion that God’s love creates a dependence and that he must rid himself of this dependency if he is to be fully himself. Man does not want to receive his existence and the fullness of his life from God.

He himself wants to obtain from the tree of knowledge the power to shape the world, to make himself a god, raising himself to God’s level, and to overcome death and darkness with his own efforts. He does not want to rely on love that to him seems untrustworthy; he relies solely on his own knowledge since it confers power upon him. Rather than on love, he sets his sights on power, with which he desires to take his own life autonomously in hand. And in doing so, he trusts in deceit rather than in truth and thereby sinks with his life into emptiness, into death.

Love is not dependence but a gift that makes us live. The freedom of a human being is the freedom of a limited being, and therefore is itself limited. We can possess it only as a shared freedom, in the communion of freedom:  only if we live in the right way, with one another and for one another, can freedom develop.

We live in the right way if we live in accordance with the truth of our being, and that is, in accordance with God’s will. For God’s will is not a law for the human being imposed from the outside and that constrains him, but the intrinsic measure of his nature, a measure that is engraved within him and makes him the image of God, hence, a free creature.

If we live in opposition to love and against the truth – in opposition to God – then we destroy one another and destroy the world. Then we do not find life but act in the interests of death. All this is recounted with immortal images in the history of the original fall of man and the expulsion of man from the earthly Paradise.

Dear brothers and sisters, if we sincerely reflect about ourselves and our history, we have to say that with this narrative is described not only the history of the beginning but the history of all times, and that we all carry within us a drop of the poison of that way of thinking, illustrated by the images in the Book of Genesis.

We call this drop of poison “original sin”. Precisely on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, we have a lurking suspicion that a person who does not sin must really be basically boring and that something is missing from his life:  the dramatic dimension of being autonomous; that the freedom to say no, to descend into the shadows of sin and to want to do things on one’s own is part of being truly human; that only then can we make the most of all the vastness and depth of our being men and women, of being truly ourselves; that we should put this freedom to the test, even in opposition to God, in order to become, in reality, fully ourselves.

In a word, we think that evil is basically good, we think that we need it, at least a little, in order to experience the fullness of being. We think that Mephistopheles – the tempter – is right when he says he is the power “that always wants evil and always does good” (J.W. von Goethe, Faust I, 3). We think that a little bargaining with evil, keeping for oneself a little freedom against God, is basically a good thing, perhaps even necessary.

If we look, however, at the world that surrounds us we can see that this is not so; in other words, that evil is always poisonous, does not uplift human beings but degrades and humiliates them. It does not make them any the greater, purer or wealthier, but harms and belittles them.

This is something we should indeed learn on the day of the Immaculate Conception:  the person who abandons himself totally in God’s hands does not become God’s puppet, a boring “yes man”; he does not lose his freedom. Only the person who entrusts himself totally to God finds true freedom, the great, creative immensity of the freedom of good.

The person who turns to God does not become smaller but greater, for through God and with God he becomes great, he becomes divine, he becomes truly himself. The person who puts himself in God’s hands does not distance himself from others, withdrawing into his private salvation; on the contrary, it is only then that his heart truly awakens and he becomes a sensitive, hence, benevolent and open person.

The closer a person is to God, the closer he is to people. We see this in Mary. The fact that she is totally with God is the reason why she is so close to human beings.

For this reason she can be the Mother of every consolation and every help, a Mother whom anyone can dare to address in any kind of need in weakness and in sin, for she has understanding for everything and is for everyone the open power of creative goodness.

In her, God has impressed his own image, the image of the One who follows the lost sheep even up into the mountains and among the briars and thornbushes of the sins of this world, letting himself be spiked by the crown of thorns of these sins in order to take the sheep on his shoulders and bring it home.

As a merciful Mother, Mary is the anticipated figure and everlasting portrait of the Son. Thus, we see that the image of the Sorrowful Virgin, of the Mother who shares her suffering and her love, is also a true image of the Immaculate Conception. Her heart was enlarged by being and feeling together with God. In her, God’s goodness came very close to us.

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Some related images from my books.

 

More on the root of Jesse here. 

More on the books here. 

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