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Archive for the ‘art’ Category

— 1 —

Lent’s happening. Here we are.

Take a look at this marvelous photography project:

I’ve always been a street photographer. It just so happened that I was out photographing on Ash Wednesday in 1997. Out of only maybe six sheets of film, I had two really good pictures that day, which are amazing odds and it felt lucky. After the second year of doing it (when I photographed the police officer) I realized I had something. Because it’s only one day of shooting a year, it never makes me feel like it is enough, I feel compelled to do it again and again each year. It’s like an addiction.

From the book’s website:

“When I first saw someone with a cross of ashes on their forehead, it seemed like they were revealing a secret about themselves that was almost mystical. The idea, then, of asking this complete stranger if I could take their picture felt more personal than usual, like I was asking for their soul. But my subject’s response was “sure,” as if I had just asked to photograph them with their hat or scarf.

While Ash Wednesday is a solemn day for practicing Christians, meant to observe one’s mortality and repent, my primary interest is in the visual juxtaposition of the contemporary with the ancient. I encounter my subjects on their way to Saks Fifth Avenue, running to an important meeting or to catch a train, yet they wear the mark of a sacred ritual.”

 — 2 —

Just a reminder about artist Daniel Mitsui. He has a blog here, in which he always has interesting things to say about his particular art projects and art in general – for example, how he makes a living as an artist. This recent post on the “Lenten veil” is fascinating. I learn something new every time I visit his site.

Of course the most important thing to remember about Daniel Mitsui is – support his work. 

— 3 —

I had a lot of Lent-related posts this week, and will have more over the next couple of days. Just click back and forth to see. 

–4–

Earlier this week, First Thing’s Matthew Schmitz tweeted about the film The Salesman. I’d never heard of it. It’s on YouTube. I’ve watched about half of it and will finish on Friday, probably. It’s fascinating.

 

–5 —

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Today, my 13-year old and I attended a school concert presented by Your Alabama Symphony! (that’s how they’ve branded themselves) – the theme was music related to Alabama history (this year is the 200th anniversary of us becoming a territory, next year, of statehood.) That, with a bit of 1812 Overture tossed in. As usual, the orchestra was excellent, the audience was cooperative and had clearly been well prepared by their teachers (there was a lot of singing along) and at one point the folk singer leading the program said something like:

You know, when we sing the songs that people two hundred years ago sang, in a way, we’re joined with them – we’re all sharing the same life. 

Hmmm…I keep running across this notion, articulated in relation to music and literature (remember the poetry article from a few months ago?).

The truth is that memorizing and reciting poetry can be a highly expressive act. And we need not return to the Victorians’ narrow idea of the canon to reclaim poetry as one of the cheapest, most durable tools of moral and emotional education — whether you go in for Virgil, Li Po, Rumi or Gwendolyn Brooks (ideally, all four)

How does memorizing and reciting someone else’s words help me express myself? I put this question to Samar.as young, and he was talking about love. I related to him,” Ms. Huggins said. (He writes: “We talked a lot and feel a kiss on our lips/Trembling there like a small insect.”)

“Reciting a poem will help you express what you’re trying to say,” she told me. “It’s like when I need to pray about something, I’ll look into a devotional, and those words can start me off.” Ms. Huggins grew up Episcopalian, but even the resolutely secular need to borrow words of supplication, anguish or thanks every now and then.

..do you think there might be something to it?

Nah….let’s sing a new church into being instead! That will be much better!

 

— 6 —

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Tonight we attended a screening of Grassroots Film’s Outcasts, presented at our Cathedral of St. Paul. It was moving, powerful, sad and hopeful. Filmmaker Joe Campo was in attendance, along with two friars. The film was a powerful witness to the friars’ apostolate around the world, but, just as importantly, an opportunity to think about the huge need for all kinds of Gospel-guided presence in our own community…and what might be happening on that front.

— 7 —

Guess what! I didn’t make cheese pizza for Ash Wednesday!

But nor did I make ….this:

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(Spoiler alert: I made this. It was delicious, but then I, for some reason, adore lentils.)

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

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— 1 —

You know, people ask me all the time:

Amy? How do you maintain your sanity in these crazy political and ecclesiastical times? How?

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Honestly, people. Just get it together.

Okay, there are a few parts to the actual answer to that question, but one of the most important is:

Instead of engaging fevered discussions on social media, I prefer to spend my free time reading about 18th century Vietnamese priests traveling to Portugal.

You should try it!

More on that at the end. So for now, some super quick takes on watching and reading:

 

 

 — 2 —

 

First, Happy Candlemas:

 Roseanne T. Sullivan in Dappled Things. 

On Candlemas, the prayers said by the priest as he blesses the candles with holy water and incense include the symbols of fire and light as metaphors for our faith and for Christ Himself. The choir sings the Nunc Dimittis or Canticle of Simeon with the antiphon “Lumen ad revelationem gentium et gloriam plebis tuæ Israel” (“Light to the revelation of the gentiles and the glory of your people Israel”) after each verse. A solemn procession may be made into the church building by the clergy and the faithful carrying the newly blessed candles to reenact the entry of Christ, the Light of the World, into the Temple.

From a sermon by Saint Sophronius, bishop in today’s Office of Readings.

In honour of the divine mystery that we celebrate today, let us all hasten to meet Christ. Everyone should be eager to join the procession and to carry a light.

  Our lighted candles are a sign of the divine splendour of the one who comes to expel the dark shadows of evil and to make the whole universe radiant with the brilliance of his eternal light. Our candles also show how bright our souls should be when we go to meet Christ.

— 3 —

From a 1951 book of family faith formation:

Finally on the feast of the presentation of Christ in the Temple, we put the light of Christ into our children’s hands for them to carry still further into the world. The Church has never been reluctant to place her destiny in the hands of the rising generations. It was once the custom at Candlemas for her to give each of her members a blessed candle to hold high and bear forth to his home. It was a beautiful sign of our lay priesthood and its apostolate in action. Now the blessed candles seldom get beyond the altar boys who are wondering whether to turn right or left before they blow them out.

Because the ceremony has died of disuse in many places, because we want our family to appreciate the great gift of light as a sign of God’s presence, because we all must have continual encouragement to carry Christ’s light of revelation to the Gentiles on the feast of Hypapante (Candlemas), we meet God first at Mass and then we meet Him again in our home in the soft glow of candles relighted and carried far.

 

–4–

On a somber note, I recommend this New Yorker article on brain death, centered on the tragic story of Jahi McMath – the whole thing is sad, but the chain of events in the hospital that led to her current condition are horrifying.

The point of the article, though, is not the potential malpractice, but, indeed, the question of brain death – how it came to be widely accepted as a standard, but is now being questioned:

Jahi’s family believes that she is capable of a fuller range of thought than she is able to express, an idea that Shewmon has also considered. “Given the evidence of intermittent responsiveness,” he wrote in a declaration to the court, “we should be all the more willing to remain agnostic regarding her inner state of mind during periods of unresponsivity, rather than automatically equate it with unconsciousness.” Recent advances in neuroimaging have led some clinicians to consider the possibility that a significant portion of patients thought to be in a vegetative state—those who demonstrate no overt awareness of their environment and do not make purposeful movements—have been misdiagnosed; they may be periodically conscious and capable of some degree of communication.

Nailah said that nearly every day she asks Jahi, “Are you O.K. with what I’m doing? Do you want to live? Are you suffering?” She said, “I know that things change—people change. If Jahi has given up and doesn’t want to be here anymore, I’m just going to go with what she wants.” She said that Jahi answers her questions by either squeezing her hand or pressing her own index finger toward her thumb, a signal for “yes” that Nailah taught her. “When I see that,” she said, “I think, Who am I to not want to live? Because many days I do want to die. But then I see her every day, trying her best.”

–5 —

Is your child’s school glued to its seat on the Tech Train full of tablets, apps and Chromebooks?

Try this, from the news release from the College of William and Mary (one of my older kids’ alma mater) about a recipient of one of its teaching awards:

A stickler for his total ban on electronic distractions in his classroom, Glasser almost completely eschews the use of PowerPoint to keep the focus on material to be discussed.

“The biggest thing for me in teaching is that it’s a dialogue, teaching students how to carry on that dialogue with one another and with me,” he said.

Education is fraught and complex – always has been, and is even more so today for thousands of reasons. But guess what? None of those reasons are, “We don’t have enough technology in our classrooms.”  Not one. 

 

— 6 —

Perhaps you heard this:

A bishop, seven Trappist monks and 11 other religious men and women killed by extremists in Algeria between 1994 and 1996 have been recognized as martyrs by Pope Francis on Saturday.

The decree signed by the pontiff was released on Saturday morning Rome time, confirming that the Servant of God, Pierre Lucien Claverie, bishop of Oran, together with 18 companions have been acknowledged as dying in odium fidei, meaning in “hatred of the faith.”

The monks of Tibhirine knew that they were in danger and would likely be killed if they remained in Algeria, at the time divided by a war between extremist rebels and the Algerian government forces. Their story was depicted in a 2010 French drama “Of Gods and Men,” recipient of the Grand Prix, the second most prestigious award of the Cannes Film Festival.

Here’s what I wrote about the film in 2011. 

— 7 —

Ah, and about the 18th century Vietnamese priest…

Yes, I read history to relax. More importantly, I read history to understand. I am driven to try to understand life and the ways of God and men. My primary lens for doing so is history. I find even the bad news of the past – perhaps especially the bad news – comforting. Surrounded by craziness and worse, we are tempted to despair. Regularly reading some history – really, any history – is an effective antidote. Human beings have always been short-sighted, stupid and cruel – but they’ve also been noble and loved sacrificially. In the present and in the past. Nothing changes except scale and speed.

Some of you, particularly if you are involved in academics, are aware of JSTOR, the online academic journal and book resource. I don’t have easy access to an academic library Super Secret Code, and I don’t want to pay, so I’m limited in what I can read on the JSTOR site – they have a convoluted system in which you can borrow three academic articles at a time for your “shelf” – each article has to remain on the shelf for two weeks before you can trade it out. This generally satisfies my random wanderings, the digital version of long afternoons spent in the stacks.

JSTOR has recently (I think) put a slew of material on “open access,” though, including books. I’ve not looked through the list – it’s here – but one that just popped up on a search for me was a book published last year on one Fr. Philiphe Binh. A summary:

A Vietnamese Moses is the story of Philiphê Binh, a Vietnamese Catholic priest who in 1796 traveled from Tonkin to the Portuguese court in Lisbon to persuade its ruler to appoint a bishop for his community of ex-Jesuits. Based on Binh’s surviving writings from his thirty-seven-year exile in Portugal, this book examines how the intersections amy_welborn7of global and local Roman Catholic geographies shaped the lives of Vietnamese Christians in the early modern era. The book also argues that Binh’s mission to Portugal and his intense lobbying on behalf of his community reflected the agency of Vietnamese Catholics, who vigorously engaged with church politics in defense of their distinctive Portuguese-Catholic heritage. George E. Dutton demonstrates the ways in which Catholic beliefs, histories, and genealogies transformed how Vietnamese thought about themselves and their place in the world. This sophisticated exploration of Vietnamese engagement with both the Catholic Church and Napoleonic Europe provides a unique perspective on the complex history of early Vietnamese Christianity.

It’s quite interesting. I’ve learned quite a bit. Before reading the book, when I would think “Vietnam” and “Catholic,” I would next think, “French.” That’s a relatively late association – for, if you think about it, Catholicism came to southeast Asia via the Portuguese and Spanish – and so it came to Vietnam.

So what was the conflict alluded to in the description about? It’s pretty complicated, but it all comes down to disputes about ecclesiastical control of the region, especially after the Jesuits were dissolved. This dispute was played out in ways that seem unfathomably petty today. So, for example, the Jesuits had permitted the Vietnamese Catholics under their care to pronounce the word for grace (transliterated from Portuguese into Vietnamese), not as grasa – which would be transliteration – but as garasa – because they found that the Vietnamese just could not manage that “gr” sound – they needed the vowel in between.

Well, here comes a new bishop who happens to be Spanish. In Spanish, garasa means “grease of a fat pig.” No way!

The bishop announced that failure to pronounce the proper way would prevent Vietnamese Christians from participating in the sacraments of the Church….Binh regarded the bishop’s order as a scheme to depopulate the Padroado community: “The Dominicans wish to take all of the sheep of the Jesuit order, and were preventing the Christians from reading the word garasa, [stating] that anyone who did not give in could not have their confessions heard, nor could they have their children baptized….” (54)

This, and other conflicts led Fr. Binh to decide to travel to Lisbon, and, if needed, to Rome, to request a different administrative arrangement for his people. This effort is going to take years…including years just trying to travel from Vietnam itself, as these unsympathetic bishops keep sabotaging Binh and his companions’ efforts to get on ships, find safe passage and so on. It’s pretty incredible so far.

So do you see? Do you feel the need for a dose of perspective?

Read history. 

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

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It’s early January, yes, but temperatures today were supposed to get into the 60’s. And since the next few days promise rain followed by a precipitous drop in temperature, it seemed like a good day to get out of town.

Where to go?

I have a slew of daytrip ideas stacked up, but here’s what’s bugging me: I’d really like to take my 16-year old with us on most of them, too. For example:

  • M and I went to Memphis two summers ago and had a great time – and when the older boy (who’d been at camp, I think) heard about what we’d done, he said, “I want to go next time…”
  • During World War II, there was a huge POW camp in Aliceville,Alabama. Not a scrap of it remains, but there is a museum – that’s supposed to be rather good.
  • We’ve not yet made it to the important sights in Selma or Tuskegee – again – those are trips I’d like the older boy to be on, too.

So cross those off the list (well, and Memphis is too far for a day-trip anyway). Since it was going to be pleasant, we’d want to be outdoors. But somewhere different…where to go?

How about…here?

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It didn’t take long. We left well after the older son went to school and beat him back home, but it was just enough, and it was amazing.

Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge is a large area that embraces the banks of the Tennessee River and tributaries around Decatur and Huntsville, Alabama. If you’ve driven on I-65 across the Tennessee, you’ve touched the Wheeler Refuge.

Here’s the story:

Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge was established July 7, 1938 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a refuge and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife. It was the first refuge ever superimposed on a hydro-electric impoundment and in the early stages, considered an experiment to determine the possibility of attracting migratory waterfowl onto a multipurpose impoundment. 

 Although designated as a waterfowl refuge, Wheeler provides for a wide spectrum of wildlife. Its great diversity of habitat includes deep river channels, tributary creeks, tupelo swamps, open backwater embayments, bottomland hardwoods, pine uplands, and agricultural fields. This rich mix of habitats provide places for over 295 bird species to rest, nest and winter, including over 30 species of waterfowl (ducks and geese) and an increasing population of Sandhill cranes and a small number of Whooping cranes. 

 

I’m glad I honed in on it this week – the cranes will start migrating again soon. It had been on the edges of my radar for a while, but crept closer to the center this week because I saw a notice about a “Crane Festival” up there this weekend – I’d considered doing that, but then thought – why attack the place with thousands of others when we can just run up there during the week? I’m very glad we went.

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It was an astonishing sight that our cameras couldn’t capture – perhaps with a better telephoto lens, we could have. Also – a lot of the photos were taken through the glass of the observation building, which is, incidentally, apparently suffering from the same infestation of ladybug type beetles that we are down here.

Just know that to see, even from a bit of a distance, thousands of Sandhill Cranes hanging out, occasionally taking flight and making a lot of noise, is fascinating. There were apparently some whooping cranes in the crew as well, but I didn’t see them.

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Again – not a great photo, but just know – that mass of gray? Sandhill Cranes. Thousands. 

(If you want to hear them – or at least what I was able to capture – go check out Instagram.)

Here we are, toting our gear, poking around in the grasses, and there they are en masse, finding whatever it is they find, always together, never alone.

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There were, of course, a lot of waterfowl as well, and high up in a tree we spotted bees swarming around a cavity in the trunk.

There’s a decent little visitor’s center with exhibits to get you going. There were many other visitors, mostly older (ahem) folks as well as two school groups. It seems to be a well-used facility.

We drove north, along 565 (which takes you to Huntsville), and pulled off to walk a couple of other trails – we were told there were a lot of some type of waterfowl on a particular branch – which we saw, but from such a distance, even with binoculars, they were impossible to make out. The Beaverdam trail didn’t, unfortunately, have any beavers, or dams, but during our twenty minutes or so there, we walked through something different – a swamp populated, not by cypresses, as we usually see, but Tupelo trees.

And then back home, reading and being told about the Mayans, once again, as well as his latest read, Dune in which – he reported  – “Something happened. Finally.”

Next stop – eagles!

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And here, we are on Day Three of Christmastime in the City…

(Instagram summaries here…)

It was going to be cold. We all knew that. Everyone knew that. I’ve been cold before. I was born in Indiana. The formative part of my childhood was spent in Kansas. I lived in northern Indiana for seven years as an adult. I’ve been cold.

Still…this was cold.

The high in Manhattan on Thursday was to be around 20 degrees, so of course we weren’t going to be traipsing about the city (although my Birmingham friend did just that, and covered an impressive amount of ground, on foot, outdoors. But as I said, she’s a New Englander…), so that would be our Metropolitan Museum of Art day.

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(Other options: We’d been to the Guggenheim last summer, as well as the Morgan Library. The Frick might have been another option, but I did want to see the Michelangelo exhibit, so the Met it was.)

We – including they have been to the Metropolitan Museum a few times, including some time this past summer, most of that spent in the ancient Americas and Byzantine holdings. The focus this time would be Michelangelo, as well as  the Medieval and Renaissance holdings, including the lovely Neapolitan Christmas tree and presipio that was part of Ann Engelhart’s inspiration for Bambinelli Sunday.

But how to get there? That was the knotty issue. For you see, the Met is not on a subway line, and “our” subway options didn’t take us easily to the east side. If the weather had been good, it would not have been anything to wonder about – take the subway to the Natural History Museum and walk across the park to the Met. It was about ten degrees. I wasn’t walking across Central Park in that. Sorry. So after checking out of the Leo House, taking our backpacks with us, then taking the subway up, we took a cab from the Natural History Museum stop  – five bucks, quick trip, no problem.

But in my efficiency, I landed us there early – as in twenty minutes early, and apparently not even near-zero degree weather moves the rulers of the Met to let the freezing, IMG_20171228_095633.jpghuddling masses in out of the cold even a nanosecond early. We crowded in an alcove entrance to the educational wing with a few dozen others until my oldest arrived – he was working that day, but he’s a Met member, so he stopped by on his way to work to get us in – once they opened – and Ann soon followed.

 

Highlights:

I do love all the Madonna and Child statuary at the Met. They are mostly all smiles, mother and Child – and there is just a sense of warmth in those rooms – warmth mixed with regret, since all of that loveliness should still be in churches and chapels, still being used as objects of devotion.

These galleries also were relevant to a project I recently completed. As I wandered, I found myself wishing I’d had a chance to visit in the midst of my writing, but I was also reassured that I probably got the gist of the subject correct…

I love this Visitation group – both Mary and Elizabeth have clear oval bubbles on their abdomens – the cards indicated that there were once images of the babies visible through each.

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An interesting martyrdom. St. Godelieve – part of this larger piece. 

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This was, according to the placard, a devotional crib for the Christ Child, probably given as a gift to a woman entering a convent or upon taking final vows:

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The tree – not great photos, but I’m sure you can go to the website and see more:

The Michelangelo exhibit was very instructive and quite well done, helping us understand his development as an artist and his process.

After FOURTEEN DOLLAR HALF-BAGUETTES WITH A COUPLE OF PIECES OF HAM AND CHEESE on them  – Ann left, and we continued on up to the World War I exhibit – very, very good and sobering, of course. A presentation of visual art inspired by the experience of the Great War, the theme was, over and over, initial jingoistic enthusiasm brought up short by reality and suffering.

Museum Fatigue is a thing, of course. Think about it. Look at the maps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. How can anyone “do” this museum, even in a day? Even if you could whizz through every room, what would you really see? What would you absorb? That’s why I don’t push it, that’s why we take our time. Even if this were our first, only or last time at this massive museum, I wouldn’t insist on pushing through and seeing “everything,” or even a lot.

It’s like all of travel, it’s like learning, and it’s like life. There’s this much  (spreads arms wide) that’s out there. One person can only fruitfully and memorably encounter and absorb this much (holds fingers close together). It’s much more fruitful to go slowly, contemplate and see a few things in a thoughtful way rather than racing through a checklist, glancing at images and taking a few selfies in front of the more well-known pieces as you go.

In the context of art, consider that every piece you see is the fruit of weeks if not months of work and a lifetime of creative thought and energy, as well as the product of a complex culture and social setting that’s different than the one you live in. A glance and a checklist is not the point. Contemplation and conversation that might lead to a broader, deeper understanding is.

So slow down. Look carefully. Listen. Talk about it. Think some more. And then go see something else – or go home and think about that one thing. I’m not telling you. As I have to do all the time, I’m telling me.

Coda:

We left the Met about 4:30, took a super slow M4 bus down to Penn Station – seeing more IMG_20171228_181353.jpglights and windows as we went (speaking of checklists), found the Shake Shack, shared a table with a very nice pre-school teacher from Long Island, got on the train to the airport, arrived there, found the shuttle to the Doubletree, hopped on that, checked in, and leaving Boys with Screens, Mama went to the bar, took notes on the day and had a drink (or two) to help her sleep since a 3:30 AM alarm was in her future.

Coda II:

We did it! Woke up with our alarm, didn’t suffer too much, got the shuttle back to the airport, checked in for our 6:11 AM flight back to Atlanta. Which didn’t leave until 7. Arrived in Atlanta, got in the car, drove to Florida, dropped off boys with grandparents, aunts, uncle and cousins, then I drove to  Charleston where I’ve been all weekend with IMG_20171230_144002.jpgmy son, daughter-in-law and grandson. I’ve been babysitting, going to the Children’s Museum, stopped by the Daughters of St. Paul bookstore, and to Mass at the Cathedral, where former Mayor Riley was the lector. I found him after Mass and introduced myself – he’s good friends with Bishop Baker, and had been in Birmingham a year and a half ago to present at a conference on racial issues. I spent some time this fall editing those talks into a form that we hope will be publishable as a book, so I wanted to meet Mayor Riley and thank him for his leadership of Charleston and wise words, particularly after the Emanuel AME church shooting – and I did – he was, of course, very gracious, pointing out to us Bishop Baker’s steeple atop the Cathedral – because of seismic and weather issues, there had been no steeple until Bishop Baker revisited the issue during his tenure there.

And now, back to Life in 2018!

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First, today I’m in Living Faith. The devotional touches on the same theme as the NR piece  below, but from the perspective of our visit to Tyburn Chapel last summer:

On the last day of our week in London, we rushed across Hyde Park. Our destination was a small rowhouse squeezed among others and just like them in all but one respect: the huge crucifix affixed to the exterior wall, hanging above the busy road.

More…

Next:

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A piece I wrote for the National Review years ago on these feasts that fall after Christmas, including St. Stephen.

We might forget, we might wrap up Christmas in good cheer, but Christian tradition doesn’t. It’s striking that the next day–the very next day–after Christmas, the Church remembers not glad tidings, angels, and shepherd boys, but a bloody death by stoning. St. Stephen it is, the first Christian martyr. St. Stephen is followed by St. John on December 27th, who may not have met a violent death, but who, the tradition tells us, died in a prison of sorts, in exile for his faith, far away from the “civilized” powers that had sent him there. December 28th brings us back to babies, but with no relief–it is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, remembering the children Herod ordered slaughtered, according to Matthew’s gospel, in his rabid fear of the rival king.

The message is clear and hard: Following this baby, as he reaches to us from the resin manger, looking out at us with the soft-eyed cattle and docile sheep, comes at a price.

 

From past Angelus addresses by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI:

2005:

Yesterday, after solemnly celebrating Christ’s Birth, today we are commemorating the birth in Heaven of St Stephen, the first martyr. A special bond links these two feasts and it is summed up well in the Ambrosian liturgy by this affirmation: “Yesterday, the Lord was born on earth, that Stephen might be born in Heaven” (At the breaking of the bread).

Just as Jesus on the Cross entrusted himself to the Father without reserve and pardoned those who killed him, at the moment of his death St Stephen prayed: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit”; and further: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (cf. Acts 7: 59-60). Stephen was a genuine disciple of Jesus and imitated him perfectly. With Stephen began that long series of martyrs who sealed their faith by offering their lives, proclaiming with their heroic witness that God became man to open the Kingdom of Heaven to humankind.

In the atmosphere of Christmas joy, the reference to the Martyr St Stephen does not seem out of place. Indeed, the shadow of the Cross was already extending over the manger in Bethlehem.
It was foretold by the poverty of the stable in which the infant wailed, the prophecy of Simeon concerning the sign that would be opposed and the sword destined to pierce the heart of the Virgin, and Herod’s persecution that would make necessary the flight to Egypt.

It should not come as a surprise that this Child, having grown to adulthood, would one day ask his disciples to follow him with total trust and faithfulness on the Way of the Cross.

2006

It is not by chance that Christmas iconography sometimes depicts the Divine Newborn carefully lain in a little sarcophagus in order to indicate that the Redeemer is born to die, is born to give his life in ransom for all.

St Stephen was the first to follow in the footsteps of Christ with his martyrdom. He died, like the divine Master, pardoning and praying for his killers (cf. Acts 7: 60).

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Carlo Crivelli, 1476

In the first four centuries of Christianity, all the saints venerated by the Church were martyrs. They were a countless body that the liturgy calls “the white-robed army of martyrs”,martyrum candidatus exercitus. Their death did not rouse fear and sadness, but spiritual enthusiasm that gave rise to ever new Christians.

For believers the day of death, and even more the day of martyrdom, is not the end of all; rather, it is the “transit” towards immortal life. It is the day of definitive birth, in Latin, dies natalis. The link that exists then between the “dies natalis” of Christ and the dies natalis of St Stephen is understood.

2008

Dear brothers and sisters, in St Stephen we see materializing the first fruits of salvation that the Nativity of Christ brought to humanity: the victory of life over death, of love over hate, of the light of truth over the darkness of falsehood. Let us praise God, for this victory still enables many Christians today to respond to evil not with evil but with the power of truth and love.

2009

Stephen is also the Church’s first deacon. In becoming a servant of the poor for love of Christ, he gradually enters into full harmony with him and follows Christ to the point of making the supreme gift of himself. The witness borne by Stephen, like that of the Christian martyrs, shows our contemporaries, who are often distracted and uncertain, in whom they should place their trust in order to give meaning to their lives. The martyr, in fact, is one who dies knowing with certainty that he is loved by God, who puts nothing before love of Christ, knowing that he has chosen the better part. The martyr is configured fully to the death of Christ, aware of being a fertile seed of life and of opening up paths of peace and hope in the world. Today, in presenting the Deacon St Stephen to us as our model the Church likewise points out to us that welcoming and loving the poor is one of the privileged ways to live the Gospel and to witness credibly to human beings to the Kingdom of God that comes.

2011

"amy welborn"

This is why the Eastern Church sings in her hymns: “The stones became steps for you and ladders for the ascent to heaven… and you joyfully drew close to the festive gathering of the angels” (MHNAIA t. II, Rome 1889, 694, 695).

After the generation of the Apostles, martyrs acquired an important place in the esteem of the Christian community. At the height of their persecution, their hymns of praise fortified the faithful on their difficult journey and encouraged those in search of the truth to convert to the Lord. Therefore, by divine disposition, the Church venerates the relics of martyrs and honours them with epithets such as: “teachers of life”, “living witnesses”, “breathing trophies” and “silent exhortations” (Gregory of Nazianzus, Oratio 43, 5: PG 36, 500 C).

Dear friends, the true imitation of Christ is love, which some Christian writers have called the “secret martyrdom”. Concerning this St Clement of Alexandria wrote: “those who perform the commandments of the Lord, in every action ‘testify’, by doing what he wishes, and consistently naming the Lord’s name; (Stromatum IV, 7,43,4: SC 463, Paris 2001, 130). Today too, as in antiquity, sincere adherence to the Gospel can require the sacrifice of life and many Christians in various parts of the world are exposed to persecution and sometimes martyrdom. However, the Lord reminds us: “he who endures to the end will be saved” (Mt 10:22).

2012

On St Stephen’s Day we too are called to fix our eyes on the Son of God whom in the joyful atmosphere of Christmas we contemplate in the mystery of his Incarnation. Through Baptism and Confirmation, through the precious gift of faith nourished by the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, Jesus Christ has bound us to him and with the action of the Holy Spirit, wants to continue in us his work of salvation by which all things are redeemed, given value, uplifted and brought to completion. Letting ourselves be drawn by Christ, as St Stephen did, means opening our own life to the light that calls it, guides it and enables it to take the path of goodness, the path of a humanity according to God’s plan of love. Lastly, St Stephen is a model for all who wish to put themselves at the service of the new evangelization. He shows that the newness of the proclamation does not consist primarily in the use of original methods or techniques — which of course, have their usefulness — but rather in being filled with the Holy Spirit and letting ourselves be guided by him.

The newness of the proclamation lies in the depth of the believer’s immersion in the mystery of Christ and in assimilation of his word and of his presence in the Eucharist so that he himself, the living Jesus, may speak and act in his messengers. Essentially, evangelizers can bring Christ to others effectively when they themselves live in Christ, when the newness of the Gospel is reflected in their own life.

And then, two more, from other occasions.  The first from the General Audience of 1/10/2007, in which Benedict discusses Stephen as a part of the series he did on great figures in Christianity (collected in several books):

Stephen’s story tells us many things: for example, that charitable social commitment must never be separated from the courageous proclamation of the faith. He was one of the seven made responsible above all for charity. But it was impossible to separate charity and faith. Thus, with charity, he proclaimed the crucified Christ, to the point of accepting even martyrdom. This is the first lesson we can learn from the figure of St Stephen: charity and the proclamation of faith always go hand in hand.

Above all, St Stephen speaks to us of Christ, of the Crucified and Risen Christ as the centre of history and our life. We can understand that the Cross remains forever the centre of the Church’s life and also of our life. In the history of the Church, there will always be passion and persecution. And it is persecution itself which, according to Tertullian’s famous words, becomes “the seed of Christians”, the source of mission for Christians to come.

I cite his words: “We multiply wherever we are mown down by you; the blood of Christians is seed…” (Apology 50, 13): Plures efficimur quoties metimur a vobis: semen est sanguis christianorum. But in our life too, the Cross that will never be absent, becomes a blessing.

And by accepting our cross, knowing that it becomes and is a blessing, we learn Christian joy even in moments of difficulty. The value of witness is irreplaceable, because the Gospel leads to it and the Church is nourished by it. St Stephen teaches us to treasure these lessons, he teaches us to love the Cross, because it is the path on which Christ comes among us ever anew.

And then from 2012, as he was discussing prayer in the General Audiences, and in particular the relationship between Scripture and prayer:

Dear brothers and sisters, St Stephen’s witness gives us several instructions for our prayers and for our lives. Let us ask ourselves: where did this first Christian martyr find the strength to face his persecutors and to go so far as to give himself? The answer is simple: from his relationship with God, from his communion with Christ, from meditation on the history of salvation, from perceiving God’s action which reached its crowning point in Jesus Christ. Our prayers, too, must be nourished by listening to the word of God, in communion with Jesus and his Church.

A second element: St Stephen sees the figure and mission of Jesus foretold in the history of the loving relationship between God and man. He — the Son of God — is the temple that is not “made with hands” in which the presence of God the Father became so close as to enter our human flesh to bring us to God, to open the gates of heaven. Our prayer, therefore, must be the contemplation of Jesus at the right hand of God, of Jesus as the Lord of our, or my, daily life. In him, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we too can address God and be truly in touch with God, with the faith and abandonment of children who turn to a Father who loves them infinitely.

"amy welborn"

 

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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 "amy welborn"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.

And for children. 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.”

 

"amy welborn"

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In Rome…

bambinelli2017

..and elsewhere. 

In the past, I’ve done posts in which I’ve highlighted parishes that are celebrating Bambinelli Sunday – but the numbers are rising to the point that it’s just more efficient for me to point you to this search result (searching for “Bambinelli Sunday” over the past month). Very pleased to see that the Guadalupe Shrine in Wisconsin will be celebrating!

It’s very gratifying. Not that folks weren’t doing this before, but I don’t think there’s any question that our book has a role in popularizing the practice – and all credit on that score goes to Ann Engelhart, who had the idea in the first place. 

 

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