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— 1 —

This is a time of transition, as school begins. Lots of new experiences on the horizon, and no matter how much we plan, each day full of surprises.

A very moving post at the Bearing Blog on this theme:

Like all diarists and memoirists, I am an unreliable narrator.  I have been telling my story for years; maybe he was six or so when I started?  Kindergarten, or first grade?  In any case, I still felt fresh out of school myself.  (He was three and a half when I walked across the stage with his younger brother in a a baby wrap.) 

But the thing is, wherever I have written about my son, that first oldest boy, I have not really been writing the story that belongs to me.  My perspective is limited, by necessity and design,

If I myself had been a character written by a master, then the perceptive reader would have been able to see the true story between the lines, the story that managed to elude me even as I spooled it out in my own words.  But I am not so well-crafted as that.  

He has a story, and I am not the truthful narrator, and when I have tried to be one, I have fallen short.  I cannot even see where to bring the seams together, let alone stitch it up neatly for show.  And you cannot look through the seams.

 

 — 2 —

I always point you to this blog post this time of year: Why I don’t hate football. 

 

— 3 —

Dan Hitchens on “Two Resisters of Nazism” 

Von Hildebrand told his friends that, even inwardly, one must beware of adopting a neutral stance: Opposition must be “unconditional.” But that carries a risk, he adds, of sinking into bitterness and dejection. 

Here again Haffner’s account complements von Hildebrand’s. Haffner points out that, even among those who hated the Nazis, there were false “remedies.” Some, he says, especially the older generation, retreated into “superiority”: They mocked the childishness and stupidity of the regime. When the Nazis consolidated their power, and produced statistics about their success, many of these people collapsed.

Another temptation is “embitterment”—becoming addicted to gloom and rage. For the embittered, “The dreadful things that are happening have become essential to their spiritual wellbeing. Their only remaining pleasure is to luxuriate on the description of gruesome deeds, and it is impossible to have a conversation with them on any other topic.” This can drive people to madness—or to a despairing surrender. 

A third temptation, which Haffner says was his own, is the opposite: to flee from embitterment into illusion. According to Haffner, German literature of the mid-to-late 1930s was dominated by nature writing, childhood memoirs, and family novels. “A whole literature of cow bells and daisies, full of children’s summer-holiday happiness, first love and fairy tales” accompanied the rallies, the violence, and the blare of propaganda. For most of these escapist writers, Haffner relates, it ended in mental breakdown. 

Such are the psychological trials of resistance. Such trials may be the reason neither author finished his memoir: Both manuscripts were left unfinished and only published thanks to their families. That should be a warning to us not to make any thoughtless Nazi comparisons. And von Hildebrand and Haffner were the lucky ones. 

— 4 —

Here’s a great feature from one of our local television stations on Holy Family, our Cristo Rey high school: 

At Holy Family Cristo Rey Catholic High School in Ensley, the business model is based on students working one day a week at a company in the Birmingham area, which helps pay their tuition. This was first put into action in 1996 in Chicago and has grown to 35 schools across the country.

“Cristo Rey itself is actually a 20-year-old model of Catholic education for serving low-income, urban communities,” Chalmers said. “The model is complex; there really isn’t anything like it. It’s a combination of academic college-prep education and experience in a corporate work study program, where each one of our students shares in an entry-level part-time job at a local institution or corporation.”

 

 

— 5 –

I’m in Living Faith on Saturday, September 1. Go here for that. 

— 6 —

This coming Monday is the feast of St. Gregory the Great.

Here’s a page dedicated to Gregory the Great’s influence:

The influence of Gregory the Great is so widespread that the great scholar of exegesis, Henri de Lubac, dubbed the period from Gregory’s death up to the thirteenth century “The Gregorian Middle Ages.” Preachers were everywhere citing, referencing, and, generally, re-using the work of one they affectionately called “our Gregory” or “the homilist of the Church.”

And he’s in The Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints. 

amy-welborn-bookgregory-the-great

 

— 7 —

 

Don’t forget – The Loyola Kids Book of Signs and Symbols.

 

NOTE: If you really want a copy soon – I have them for sale at my online bookstore (price includes shipping)  Email me at amywelborn60 AT gmail if you have a question or want to work out a deal of some sort. I have many copies of this, the Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories, the Prove It Bible and the Catholic Woman’s Book of Days on hand at the moment.

Also – my son has been releasing collections of short stories over the summer. He’s currently prepping his first (published) novel, The Battle of Lake Erie: One Young American’s Adventure in the War of 1812.  Check it out!

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

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This is a reprint from previous years. Haven’t changed my mind on any of it, so here you go.

I spent some time today reading about and trying to sort out St. Rose of Lima.  I knew the basics that most of us know, and not much more: mystic, extreme ascetic.  When I was a girl, I remember reading about how she drove her metal-spiked crown of thorns into her scalp. That was, not surprisingly, my main takeaway.

So today, I decided to dig deeper. I read through most of this 19th century biography – a translation into English from French. I read what chapters I could (the first two) of this reassessment and psychological unpacking, and finally settled in a more comfortable place than either of those with a chapter from Four in Heaven (1962) by British author Sheila Kaye-Smith.

What to make of her, the first saint of the Americas, this young woman who engaged in such extreme mortifications that even some of her contemporary confessors and other observers, including her mother,  thought she was going too far?

It might be tempting for us moderns to dismiss figures such as Rose. She was, we might gently suggest, mentally ill.  She was a victim and product of a guilt-ridden Catholic culture who could not simply accept the grace of God, but thought she had to abnegate herself in order to merit it.

But we shouldn’t do that. It is not helpful or right, in a Catholic context, to be so dismissive. Nor is it necessary to uncritically embrace all the hagiography. We must also always remember that in the Catholic view of saints, we bring two perspectives: to imitate st. rose of limaand to admire. We are not called to imitation of every action of every saint, because we live in different cultures, with various personalities. So not feeling the pull to jam a crown of metal thorns into our scalps should not cause anxiety. It’s okay.

In thinking this over, this struck me: it seems to me that even the saints who pursued extreme ways of personal asceticism did not indicate that everyone do the same.

St. Catherine, in her many letters, does not advise her correspondents that the solution to their spiritual problems was to live as she did, on a single grain of rice a day and sleeping on a board (when she slept). There might be a call to change, to repent, and perhaps to embrace some small mortification, but mostly what we read in her writings, at least, is an urgent invitation to realize how deeply Christ loves us and to live in that light, not the darkness the world offers.

They seem quite aware of the uniqueness of their own path, and do not suggest that theirs is the standard by which all others should be judged. In fact, the saints seem to take the opposite tack: as stubborn as they are about their own mortifications, they tend to keep them secret as much as they are able and are uncomfortable with “followers” who are following them rather than following Christ.

In trying to understand St. Rose, these thoughts come to mind.

She sensed a call to belong to Christ alone. In her culture and her family circumstance, she had to go to extremes to make sure that was clear to everyone and she would not be forced into marriage. Perhaps you can see this as manipulation, or you can see it as a strong rejection of the world in a most personal way.

It is interesting and important to note that hardly anyone knew of these mortifications during her life. The people of Lima who flocked to her funeral by the thousands certainly did not – they came because this young woman radiated the love of Christ.

St. Rose would say that her mortifications were in fidelity to her call to conform herself completely to Christ. Christ sacrificed himself. Christ’s supreme act of love was his Passion and death.  Many of us think of this call differently today: to accept what sufferings happen to come our way in a sacrificial spirit, in imitation of Christ, rather than to create them ourselves. Perhaps the experience of St. Rose can expand our own approach by helping us understand that living as a disciple does, indeed mean conforming ourselves to the Crucified Christ, accepting that the Cross will be a part of whatever path we follow, but that if we do find ourselves conforming to the world instead, it is time to take action and be more intentional – to make sacrifices in addition to accepting them as they come.

I also wondered, based on the minimal reading I did on this, if perhaps Rose knew herself and we should trust her. Perhaps she knew that she had a tendency to vanity. Perhaps she knew that even if she gave up marriage and lived as sort of anchorite, intensely focused on Christ, that she would still draw attention and that attention, even if it is directed at spiritual rather than physical beauty, would be a temptation to her. Perhaps her extreme mortifications were directed at keeping herself conformed to the humble Christ in the most radical way, a way that she knew, for herself, would be at risk as people were drawn to her. Perhaps she wanted to keep herself radically open to Christ in her physical weakness so that she would always remember it was Jesus, not her, that the people of Lima desired and sought.

I don’t know. I’m just guessing.

It comes down to this. Different culture, but same Jesus, same faith. We are tempted to dismiss it, but that’s not Catholic. Instead, we dig deeper, realize our own cultural limitations, and listen. Because, you know, she’s not wrong.

It’s a mystery, but suffering can be beneficial and bear tremendous fruit. She’s not wrong.

Christian discipleship is about conforming ourselves to Christ. She’s not wrong. 

The world is beautiful (Rose grew flowers!) but can stand between us and God if we don’t know how to love properly.  She’s not wrong.

“Success”  in the spiritual life can lead to an inflated sense of self and hubris.

She’s not wrong.

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Eh, it works. Let’s try to knock this out in the time between the first rising noises and the appearance outside the door, bookbag in hand.

Update: He beat me. Next goal: get it done in less than fifteen minutes and move on.

Reading: Because of some watching (see below), I didn’t make much progress on I was Dancing, but will probably finish it today. I also remembered that last week I’d started Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the CountrySo that will be next, after the O’Connor.

Writing: Well, all I got done yesterday was blog posts because I remembered that we were serving dinner at one of the women’s shelters in town, and I hadn’t picked up our designated item, so I had to leave earlier than planned for the school pickup and make a Tuesdaytrip to Sam’s Club for that.

Listening: To people complaining about school. Does that count?

Watching: Yes, yesterday was Better Call Saul, and it was good, but not worth an entire post this week. It’s not where my mind is at the moment anyway, because I made the mistake (or not) of watching the new AMC series that they’ve position after BCS – Lodge 49. 

I’d heard a bit about it, but I usually don’t watch shows right when they premiere – it took me a year to get to Breaking Bad – my heart has been broken too many times! Mostly by HBO shows that I got all excited about and intrigued by, settled down to watch the minute they aired, but which then turned out to be overstuffed, pretentious duds – I’m looking at you, Carnivale and, come to think of it, John of Cincinnati, which immediately came to mind when I heard of the premise of this show:

Lodge 49 is a light-hearted, endearing modern fable set in Long Beach, California about a disarmingly optimistic local ex-surfer, Dud (Wyatt Russell), who’s drifting after the death of his father and collapse of the family business. Dud finds himself on the doorstep of a rundown fraternal lodge where a middle-aged plumbing salesman and “Luminous Knight” of the order, Ernie (Brent Jennings), welcomes him into a world of cheap beer, easy camaraderie and the promise of Alchemical mysteries that may — or may not — put Dud on the path to recover the idyllic life he’s lost.

I also thought: trying way too hard. 

But, um..guess what.

really liked it.

Not loved. Not thought was the Best Show Ever. But I’ll keep watching it, for sure. Here’s what I liked – and guess what – depending on the direction of the show over the next couple of weeks, yes, a full post on it will be coming. Because guess what – there’s a definite Catholic sensibility about the piece, something I can smell a mile – or a continent  – away, and sure enough, from an interview with the creator of the show, short-story writer Jim Gavin:

The first image in the book is of martyrdom! You can’t escape a Catholic childhood. My parents made a lot of sacrifices to put us through Catholic school. I’m a typical lapsed Catholic and have problems with the church for all the reasons you might imagine, but in my adult life I’ve discovered some of the theology and find a lot of beauty in it. There’s so much beauty in something like Dante.

Isn’t Dante best known for writing about the nine circles of hell?

(Laughs). Yeah — the beauty of hell! I’m a weird Catholic nerd. I like theology and the idea of mercy really runs through the book. A lot of the characters secretly wish for the world to take mercy on them for just one second. It’s very un-American to ask for help — we almost have to be taken by the collar.

So what’s the Catholic sensibility? I won’t commit fully yet, but right now, two episodes in, it’s about seeking wholeness and a place in the world despite loss, disappointment and a continual sense of indebtedness that seems to define the life of every character: everyone owes someone, everyone’s scrambling to meet that debt, everyone’s life is defined by the debt. Is there hope for restoration? Is there a way to lift the debt? Is there mercy – anywhere?

The answer seems to be maybe. And maybe it’s in this place, a place that Dudley, the ex-surfer at the center, happens upon. He finds a lodge ring in the sand on the beach, unsuccessfully tries to pawn it, and then runs out of gas in front of the lodge, a place he’s lived near his whole life, but never recognized for what it is until now because he’d just happened upon a sign.

So yearning, brokenness, an intuition that there’s something more and then finding it – perhaps even being led to it –  in a place rich with signifiers, a place where people gather in community, a place where mystery – perhaps even a merciful mystery –  is encountered: Catholic.

Ernie: Once we can see that you are dedicated, there's a whole secret 
ceremony.
Dud: Cool, a secret.  What happens at the ceremony? 
Ernie: Well, I can't tell you that.But basically, there's a solemn oath, 
and then, we will begin to entrust you with the mysteries.
Dud: Entrusted with the mysteries.That's so cool. That's all I ever wanted.

I’m prepared for disappointment, but yeah – for the moment, I’m in.

What else did I like about it: The cast and the look is refreshingly diverse – the Lodge’s membership is male and female, of varied backgrounds.  It’s got some familiar faces in it – David Pasquesi, who plays Selina Myers’ ex-husband in Veep is a delightfully loopy “apothecary” here and Adam  Godley – Elliot in Breaking Bad – is the British liason from Lynx HQ to Lodge 49, apparently.

Eating/Cooking: We ate the Ropa Vieja last night, and it was excellent.

 

 

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— 1 —

Today’s the feastday of St. Lawrence.

In 2016,  as part of our three weeks in Italy, we visited Ravenna.

There, in the Mausoleum of Gallia Placidia, is a wonderful mosaic of St. Lawrence. Above is my photograph, but you can find better ones elsewhere, such as this excellent site unpacking the iconography of St. Lawrence. 

 — 2 —

Tomorrow is St. Clare – I’ll point you to this older blog post of mine. An excerpt: 

The letters of St. Clare to Agnes of Prague. 

Agnes was the daughter of a king and espoused to the Emperor Frederick, who remarked famously upon news of her refusal of marriage to him, “If she had left me for a mortal man, I would have taken vengeance with the sword, but I cannot take offence because in preference to me she has chosen the King of Heaven.”

She entered the Poor Clares, and what makes the letters from Clare so interesting to me is the way that Clare plays on Agnes’ noble origins, using language and allusions that draw upon Agnes’ experience, but take her beyond it, as in this one: 

Inasmuch as this vision is the splendour of eternal glory (Heb 1:3), the brilliance of eternal light and the mirror 6477dcad09d8967545d8190b6c9cbdc1without blemish (Wis 7:26), look upon that mirror each day, O queen and spouse of Jesus Christ, and continually study your face within it, so that you may adorn yourself within and without with beautiful robes and cover yourself with the flowers and garments of all the virtues, as becomes the daughter and most chaste bride of the Most High King. Indeed, blessed poverty, holy humility, and ineffable charity are reflected in that mirror, as, with the grace of God, you can contemplate them throughout the entire mirror.

Look at the parameters of this mirror, that is, the poverty of Him who was placed in a manger and wrapped in swaddling clothes. O marvellous humility, O astonishing poverty! The King of the angels, the Lord of heaven and earth, is laid in a manger! Then, at the surface of the mirror, dwell on the holy humility, the blessed poverty, the untold labours and burdens which He endured for the redemption of all mankind. Then, in the depths of this same mirror, contemplate the ineffable charity which led Him to suffer on the wood of the cross and die thereon the most shameful kind of death. Therefore, that Mirror, suspended on the wood of the cross, urged those who passed by to consider it, saying: “All you who pass by the way, look and see if there is any suffering like My suffering!” (Lam 1:2). Let us answer Him with one voice and spirit, as He said: Remembering this over and over leaves my soul downcast within me (Lam 3:20)! From this moment, then, O queen of our heavenly King, let yourself be inflamed more strongly with the fervour of charity!

— 3 —

At the end of a week in which we think about the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, here’s related news from earlier in the summer: 

The places of “hidden” Christianity in Japan are the heritage of humanity. The UNESCO committee made its decision two days ago including 12 sites in Nagasaki and in the Amakusa region on its World listing. The places are symbols of the persecution perpetrated against Christians during the Edo period (1603-1867).

One of the sites recognized as a world heritage is the Oura Cathedral of Nagasaki, the oldest church in the country, already a national treasure. Built by two French missionaries of the Society of Foreign Missions in 1864 to honour the 26 Christian martyrs – 9 European and 16 Japanese – it is famous for an event that Pope Pius IX called a “miracle of the East”: after the inauguration, a group of people from the village of Urakami asked Fr. Petitjean – one of the two missionaries who built it – to be able to enter the church to “greet Mary”. They were “Kakure Kirishitans”, descendants of the first Japanese Christians forced into anonymity, and were followed by tens of thousands of underground Christians who came to the cathedral and resumed Christian practice.

The remains of the castle of Hara was also included in the UNESCO list.  It was one of the scenes of the Catholics revolt “Shimabara-Amakusa” (1637), as a result of which the persecution became harsher – and the village Sakitsu, in the prefecture of Kumamoto (Amakusa), where Christians continued to practice their faith in secret.

The UNESCO site on the sites.

— 4 —

What about a Latin Mass Schola…at San Quentin? 

Not only do we have 25 enthusiastic volunteers, all the men I spoke with, whether they joined the schola or not, are anxious to come and attend the Latin Mass on the 25th of August.

For some, it will be a trip down memory lane to the music of their Catholic boyhoods. But for many of the young men present, it is a fresh chance to participate in the ancient rituals of the Church, to share the noble sacred beauty that is their heritage too.

“One young man told me that he felt the Holy Spirit buzzing in his soul while he joined the choir in some chanting during the concert. I was especially delighted to see that so many men want to learn Gregorian chant and classical sacred choral music, and help bring the Latin Mass to San Quentin,” said Rebekah Wu who directs the Benedict XVI Institute Schola and Teaching Choir.

After the closing prayer by Archbishop Cordileone, more than a dozen men came up to talk to the singers and to Father Cassian, the Contemplative of St. Joseph monk who is going to celebrate the first Traditional Latin Mass on August 25 at San Quentin.

As one of the prisoners put it to one of our singers: “I don’t want to be in here. But if I have to be in here, I want to be in here listening to music like that.”

“From the large turnout in the Chapel, it was clear that the men at San Quentin have a hunger for beauty and prayer.  The concert by the Benedict XVI Institute was clearly enjoyed by those who attended.  They also appreciated the support and presence of Archbishop Cordileone who has made it a point to visit the prison often.” Notes Fr. George Williams, SJ,  who is the Catholic Chaplain at San Quentin State Prison.

“I saw these men, who humanly speaking are in a dire situation that may seem hopeless, be lifted up to God by sacred beauty and given new hope,” Archbishop Cordileone told me afterwards. “They love to sing, and they worship well. So the response of the men to the invitation to form a Latin Mass schola was overwhelming but not surprising.”  He added: “The Benedict XVI Institute teaching choir is clearly fulfilling an important need in ordinary parishes but also for those at the margins of society.”

— 5 –

You may or may not have heard that Bishop Robert Barron’s Catholicism series is ten years old now, and in honor of that anniversary, Word on Fire is making the entire series available for viewing at no cost for the next week or so. You have to sign up to get a free pass, but here you go for that. 

(My humble contribution: contributing to the Pilgrimage Journal, which is intended to help young people connect with the content of the series.  

For the subsequent series, Pivotal Players, I wrote an prayer/meditation book that accompanies the first installment: Praying with the Pivotal Players. 

— 6 —

This article is on the Washington Post site, and therefore might be behind some sort of firewall for you. I don’t pay for the Post, but for some reason, the article was fully accessible…today. 

Buka Island in the South Pacific remains remote to this day, but it takes a dose of imagination to conjure up how far it was from anywhere 78 years ago. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange set out from Los Angeles in September 1940 on a 704-passenger ship that took them to New Zealand and on to Australia. Next came a 48-passenger ship that carried them to the Solomon Islands — which sticks in memory because two years after sisters’ passage, U.S. Marines stormed ashore on Guadalcanal.

They boarded a 23-ton sailing boat just off Guadalcanal that made several stops as it moved northwest to their final destination.

Their journey had taken three months.

“They were young, they were zealous, they were educated and they felt called to do this,” McNerney said. “I don’t think they had a clue about the war.”

A year and one day after their arrival, Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor.

During that year, as detailed in journal kept by Sister Hedda Jaeger, the four nuns — two teachers and two nurses — became deeply enmeshed in the village of Hanahan on Buka, where they helped to set up schools and give medical care.

After Pearl Harbor, Japanese attacks spread quickly across the South Pacific, and the Australian government ordered evacuation of everyone other than “female missionaries and nurses” on Dec. 17. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange politely replied “we will remain at our station.”

Within weeks, Japanese bombers were flying overhead and Sister Hedda wrote: “The natives are all very much concerned about our welfare, and some have even expressed the wish that they could give us their black skin so we could pass unseen. We do not know what the future holds for us.”

Here’s  a link to the published diaries of one of the sisters. 

— 7 —

I have several earlier posts this week – on Better Call Saulon the first day of school, on a couple of saints. Scroll/click back for those posts.

And don’t forget The Loyola Kids Book of Signs and Symbols.

NOTE: If you really want a copy soon – I have them for sale at my online bookstore (price includes shipping)  Email me at amywelborn60 AT gmail if you have a question or want to work out a deal of some sort. I have many copies of this, the Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories, the Prove It Bible and the Catholic Woman’s Book of Days on hand at the moment.

Also – my son has been releasing collections of short stories over the summer. He’s currently prepping his first (published) novel, The Battle of Lake Erie: One Young American’s Adventure in the War of 1812.  Check it out!

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

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August is devoted to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which is an entry in my new book, The Loyola Kids Book of Signs and Symbols. 

For more on the book, go to the Loyola site here. 

Ask you local Catholic bookstore to order it!

I have copies here – you can get them and some of my other titles here. 

For more on the series, go here. 

amy-welborn3

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Seventeen – seventeen – years ago, I was asked by Loyola Press to write a saints book for saintscoverndchildren. I signed the contract – it would be the first book I’d written, along with, about the same time, Prove It God for Our Sunday Visitor. I procrastinated and procrastinated until it was early January, the book was due on March 1, and I had barely written a word. But I don’t miss deadlines. Even as I put off working….so I wrote the book in two months. Two intense months – and it’s still in print (as is Prove It God).  And it’s pretty good!

(To get a sample – the feastday of St. Ignatius Loyola is on July 31. Loyola has my entry from the saints book up on their website as “Saint Story” for his feast. Go here for that. )

The Loyola Kids Book of Heroes followed a few years later, and then several years later, we did The Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories. 

And now, here you go – The Loyola Kids Book of Signs and Symbols. 

amy-welborn3

I’m just so proud of all of these books. My words are okay, but what really makes them are the design and the art. I’m very grateful to Loyola for the editorial vision that produces these books and their ability to find such gifted designers and artists.

Now, a word about this book. 

It wasn’t my idea – it was Loyola’s, as was, this time, the structure, which I think is very smart.

Each entry has two pages. Top left is a beautiful illustration of the sign or symbol.

Under that is a simple, basic explanation, suitable for younger elementary aged children.

The right side page of the spread provides a more detailed explanation of the sign or symbol, suitable for older kids.

From the introduction:

The Kingdom of Heaven is like…..

…a mustard seed.

…a treasure hidden in a field

….leaven

                Think about the most important things in your life: feelings, ideas, emotions, realities, and hopes. Now try to explain these things in a way that communicates the depth and breadth and truth of what you’ve experienced.

                It’s hard. It might even be impossible. For we all know this: no matter how eloquent we are, what we express only touches on the surface of what’s real. What’s more, the deeper and more important the reality, the more challenging it is to adequately express.

                But we still try, because we are created to do so. We’re created in God’s image, which means we’re created to be in deep communion, to understand, to imagine, to love and create. And so to do so, we depend on metaphors and similes, signs and symbols.

                Signs and symbols are not add-ons to human communication. All Signs_Symbols_Amy_Welborncommunication, from letters to words to hugs to great paintings, is symbolic. For what are signs and symbols? They are expressions that represent something beyond themselves.

                So, yes, written and oral speech is symbolic. Gestures are symbols. Images, music, food, nature – all of what we see can be incorporated into life in symbolic ways.

                Just as Jesus himself used that most absorbing means of human communication – the story – to communicate with us, so did he use deeply symbolic language as well as signs. The Scriptures are woven with imagery that remains fundamental to our understanding of God: rock, shepherd, right hand…

Spirituality involves the deepest realities of all: the human soul and its relation to the Creator. Signs and symbols play an especially rich and important role in this part of life.

Signs and symbols have always been important in Christian life and faith. Human beings are, of course, natural artists and communicators, so we use symbols to express deep realities. Early Christianity developed in an environment in which persecution was a frequent fact of life, so symbols became a way to communicate and build bonds and pass on the truths of the faith in ways that hostile outsiders could not understand.

                Signs and symbols have played a vital role in Christian life over the centuries for another reason: for most of Christian history, most Christians could not read. In these pre-literate societies, most people learned about their faith orally, as parents, catechists and clergy passed on prayers and basic teachings. They also learned about their faith in the context of cultures in which spiritual realities were made visible throughout the year, through symbolic language and actions: they lived in the rhythm of liturgical feasts and seasons. They participated in the Mass and other community prayers, rich with symbolic gestures, images and even structured in a highly symbolic way, from beginning to end. Their places of worship, great and small, were built on symbolic lines, and bore symbolic artwork inside and out.

                These people might not have been able to read – but they could read.

Their books were made of stone, of paint, of tapestry threads, of gestures, chant and the seasons of the year.

                They could indeed read – they could read this rich symbolic language of the faith. Their language was one that communicated the realities of salvation history and God’s mercy and love through images of animals, plants, shapes and design.  They knew through these symbols that God is justice, God is beauty and with God, there waits a feast.

                We still, of course, speak this symbolic language, but the welcome increase in reading literacy has also privileged that particular form of symbolic communication, so that we often think that verbal expression – what we can read on the printed page – is somehow more “real” – more expressive of what’s true and certainly more appropriate for the mature believer who has surely moved beyond imagery, just as, when we are young, a sign of growing maturity to us is that we can read a book with no illustrations.

                But when we think about it, we realize that this privileging of the spoken or written word is just not true to what human beings really value.

                After all, what do we say?

Actions speak louder than words.

                And it’s true. The deepest realities of life – joy, love, passion, grief, hope – can certainly be expressed with words, how often to we raise our hands in resignation, knowing that in this moment, we’ve said all we can, even though we know and mean so much more?

There are no words…

…..

…..The rich world of Christian sign and symbols is a gift for children. The simplicity of imagery meets them where they are, and the depth and richness of this same imagery prepares the soil for deeper understanding. When a child’s faith is lived in the midst of a wealth of imagery at home, at church and in broader culture, she is continually assured that she is not alone, that God is present in every aspect of this world he created, and that God meets her where she is. She’s taught from the beginning this truth that the world is much more than what we can initially apprehend. She’s taught that the spiritual life involves soul and body, reason and imagination, ideas and the tangible. She learns to live faith in a Biblical, holistic, Catholic way.

The book is available from Loyola, of course. 

It is listed on Amazon, but apparently not yet in the warehouse. 

If you have a local Catholic bookstore, let them know about the book. I’d appreciate it.

I have copies here. I have loads, and I also have a lot of the Bible Stories. You can order them through my bookstore here, or if you want to do the exchange outside of the PayPal Universe, email me at amywelborn60 AT gmail.

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A final chapter from Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legends and Lies (full text available here for .99).  I have skipped a few – this is chapter 10, which describes the role of Mary Magdalene in the lives of late medieval and counter-reformation mystics and spiritual writers.

For excerpts from other  chapters:

Chapter one: Introducing Mary Magdalene in the Bible

Chapter two: Mary Magdalene at the Resurrection

Chapter three: Mary Magdalene in Gnostic writings

Chapter four: Mary Magdalene in Patristic writings

MARY AND THE MYSTICS

The heart of the Christian life is prayer, and throughout our history Mary Magdalene has often been found in that heart, pointing the way to Christ. Like any saint, Christians have looked to her as a model, and have prayed for her intercession.

In this chapter, we’ll look at some important figures in the Christian spiritual tradition, mostly women, and how they have been inspired and nourished by the example of Mary Magdalene. Some found parallels between their lives and hers. Others found strength in her identity as a repentant sinner, or in the model of solitary con-templation offered by the legends they knew. The lives of all of these prayerful people help us see the tremendous positive power the figure of Mary Magdalene has held in the lives of many Christians.

Like a Sister

Margery Kempe is one of the more vivid figures to emerge from the medieval period, partly because she left extensive autobiographical writings (dictated to a priest), but also because her experiences are so extreme to the point that today we might indeed diagnose her as mentally ill.

She was an Englishwoman, born in the late thirteenth century, married, and the mother of fourteen children. She eventually convinced her husband to live with her as a brother, and from that point embarked on a number of pilgrimages — to the Holy Land, Rome, Santiago de Compostela, Norway, and Germany. Her Book of Margery Kempe is an invaluable record of the period in general, and of religious life and sensibilities in particular.

The Book records visionary experiences, most of which involve Margery, who refers to herself as “said creature,” in the midst of a biblical scene, observing and interacting with the other participants, often weeping copiously. Her visions reflect a knowledge of some of the medieval religious plays featuring Mary Magdalene, as well as a work called Meditations on the Life of Christ, a very popular devotional believed to have been written by St. Bonaventure, but now ascribed to a figure known as “Pseudo-Bonaventure.”

Margery joins Mary Magdalene and others at the cross. She mourns with them. For ten years, on every Good Friday, she weeps for five or six hours. After the Resurrection, she displaces Mary Magdalene, and converses with Christ herself, receiving his assurance that if Mary Magdalene could be forgiven of her sins, so should Margery. She, along with the Virgin, expresses sorrow at the imminent physical departure of Jesus, and is comforted by him.

Margery draws strength from Mary Magdalene, then, as a model of a sinner who loved Christ and was devoted to him. The imagery she offers, of herself mourning over the dead Christ, kissing his feet and caring for his body, is evocative of spiritual writing and art of the period in which Mary Magdalene is playing that same role:

[Jesus to Margery Kempe:] “Also, daughter, I know . . . how you call Mary Magdalene into your soul to welcome me for, daugh-ter,I know well enough what you are thinking.You think that she is the worthiest, in your soul, and you trust most in her prayers next to my mother, and so you may indeed, daughter, for she is a very great mediator to me for you in the bliss of heaven.” (Book of Margery Kempe, chapter 86, in Medieval Writings on Female Spiritualityedited by Elizabeth Spearing [Penguin Books, 2002], p. 251)

The Second Mary Magdalene

Similar comfort was found by St. Margaret Cortona (1247-1297), who is actually called the “Second Mary Magdalene.” She was born in Tuscany, and as a young adult woman she became lovers with a nobleman, bore him a child, and lived with him for nine years. The man File:Giovanni Lanfranco - Ecstasy of St Margaret of Cortona - WGA12453.jpgwas murdered, at which point Margaret took her child and fled, first to her family’s home, where she was rejected, and then to a Franciscan friary. Her subsequent life as a Franciscan tertiary was marked by continued battles with temptations of the flesh (she is a patron saint of those battling temptation), repentance, and service to the poor.

Obviously, her past life led to her identification with the popular memory of St. Mary Magdalene, repentant sinner — and like Margery Kempe, Margaret found solace in Mary’s penitent life. The following was related by one of her early biographers:

“Shortly before her death, she had a vision of St. Mary Magdalene, ‘most faithful of Christ’s apostles, clothed in a robe as it were of silver, and crowned with a crown of precious gems, and surrounded by the holy angels.’ And whilst she was in this ecstasy Christ spoke to Margaret, saying:‘My Eternal Father said of Me to the Baptist:This is My beloved Son;so do I say to thee of Magdalene:This is my beloved daughter.’ On
another occasion we are told that ‘she was taken in spirit to the feet of Christ, which she washed with her tears as did Magdalene of old;and as she wiped His feet she desired greatly to behold His face,and prayed to the Lord to grant her this favor.’ Thus to the end we see she was the same; and yet the difference.” (
Saints for Sinners, by Alban Goodier, S.J. [Ignatius Press, 1993], p. 46)

Bathed in Blood

St. Catherine of Siena is one of the most fascinating women of the medieval period, and considering the competition, that is saying quite a bit.

Born in 1347, the youngest of twenty-five children, Catherine was intensely devout, but uninterested in taking the usual route for young women like herself, which would have been joining a reli-gious community. She became associated with the Dominicans — whose patron was Mary Magdalene, remember — as a tertiary, but operated with a startling degree of independence for a woman of her era. We remember her today for her letters, her spiritual writ-ings (dictated to her confessor, Blessed Raymond of Capua), and her determination to play a role in reforming the papacy, at that time in exile in Avignon, France, and corrupted by luxury.

Catherine saw Mary Magdalene as a second mother, having dedicated herself to her in a special way upon the death in child-birth of her sister, Bonaventura, an incident that seems to have been an important motivator in Catherine’s spiritual life. When Bonaventura died, Catherine envisioned herself at the feet of Christ, with Mary Magdalene, begging for mercy. Her biographer noted Catherine “doing everything she could to imitate her to obtain forgiveness” (quoted in Haskins, p. 179). Blessed Raymond summarizes Catherine’s devotion in the following passage:

“‘Sweetest daughter, for your greater comfort I give you Mary Magdalen for your mother.Turn to her in absolute confidence; I entrust her with a special care of you.’ The virgin gratefully accepted this offer. . . . From that moment the virgin felt entirely at one with the Magdalen and always referred to her as her mother.” (Quoted in Jansen, p. 303)

In terms of her personal spirituality, Catherine looked to Mary Magdalene as a model of repentance and faithfulness, never leaving Jesus at the cross. Nor, she determined, would she, faithfully persevering in fidelity despite the extraordinary risks she faced in confronting the most powerful figure of the day — the pope — with evidence of his own sins.

[Catherine of Siena on Mary Magdalene, the “loving disciple”:] “Wracked with love, she runs and embraces the cross.There is no doubt that to see her master, she becomes inundated with blood.” (Quoted in Haskins, p. 188)

St.Teresa of Ávila

The sixteenth century was a period of conflict and reform for the Catholic Church. At the beginning of the century, there was only one Christian Church in the West, but by the end there were scores of different churches and movements emanating from the Protestant Reformation.

The Catholic Church, faced with the consequences of, in part, its own weakness and corruption, responded to the Reformation with its own inner purification, commonly called the Counter-Reformation, or the Catholic Reformation. The Council of Trent, meeting over several years mid-century, standardized prayer and liturgical texts, mandated seminary training for priests, and confidently restated traditional Catholic teaching on justification, Scripture, Tradition, and the life of the Church.

Change doesn’t come only from the top, though. When a reforming spirit is in the Catholic air, inevitably groups rise up to meet the challenge and undertake the work. It happened, for example, in the thirteenth century with the rise of the mendicant orders.

Some argue it is happening today with the rising popularity of groups like Communion and Liberation, Opus Dei, and the Neo-Catechumenal Way.

The sixteenth century was no different. It was the era that saw the establishment of the Jesuits, who evangelized with vigor and focus, under the direct supervision of the pope. It was also the era that saw the reformation of many religious orders. One of the most important leaders on this score was St. Teresa of Ávila, who worked tirelessly to reform the Carmelites in Spain.

Not that she started out life as a reformer. Teresa entered religious life at an early age, but did not pursue holiness with much vigor. Many convents in that period had devolved to essentially groups of well-off women dwelling together, living only nominally religious lives.

Teresa lived this way until her forties, when illness prompted a change of heart. In the wake of her conversion, Teresa was inspired to reform existing houses of her order and establish new ones that would be expressions of a sacrificial road to holiness. Teresa was also a great mystic and teacher of prayer. Her works — including her Life, the Way of Perfection, and The Interior Castle — are still widely read today.

In these works, we see the influence of Mary Magdalene on Teresa, primarily, as she has been for the other women we’ve looked at, as a model of fidelity and repentance:

“I had a very great devotion to the glorious Magdalene,and very frequently used to think of her conversion — especially when I went to Communion. As I knew for certain that our Lord was then within me, I used to place myself at His feet, thinking that my tears would not be despised. I did not know what I was saying; only He did great things for me, in that He was pleased I should shed those tears,seeing that I so soon forgot that impression. I used to recommend myself to that glorious saint,that she might obtain my pardon.” (Life, 9:2)

The story of Mary Magdalene’s contemplative years in the wilderness and her association with the quiet, listening Mary (in contrast to the busy Martha) also Teresa_de_Jesúsappealed to Teresa, unsurprisingly:

“Let us, then, pray Him always to show His mercy upon us, with a submissive spirit,yet trusting in the goodness of God. And now that the soul is permitted to sit at the feet of Christ, let it con-trive not to quit its place, but keep it anyhow. Let it follow the example of the Magdalene; and when it shall be strong enough, God will lead it into the wilderness.” (Life, 21:9)

Asceticism, an important part of Teresa’s spirituality (although never to extremes, she firmly taught), was understood by her and others in this period as a means of penance for one’s own sins, as well as the sins of others. Here, again, Mary Magdalene was a model:

“Indeed the body suffers much while alive, for whatever work it does, the soul has energy for far greater tasks and goads it on to more, for all it can perform appears as nothing.This must be the reason of the severe penances performed by many of the saints, especially the glorious Magdalene, who had always spent her life in luxury.This caused the zeal felt by our Father Elias for the honor of God, and the desires of St. Dominic and St. Fran-cis to draw souls to praise the Almighty. I assure you that, for-getful of themselves, they must have passed through no small trials.” (Interior Castle, 4:16)

Teresa, like many other women, saw in Mary Magdalene a model for faithful discipleship through difficulty, an ideal penitent, and an inspiring contemplative.

Practical Advice

During this same era, another kind of Catholic reformer was working in another part of Europe. St. Francis de Sales — a gifted writer, preacher, and spiritual director — was the bishop of Geneva, although throughout most of his career, because of the Calvinist control of that city, he could not openly lead his flock. He wrote, unusually for this period, specifically for the laity, very aware of the particular challenges of living in the world.

His Introduction to the Devout Life is a lovely, practical, and charming classic, and it is still indispensable. His letters of spiritual direction, many of them written to his close friend and fellow reformer St. Jane Frances de Chantal, are carefully crafted to answer the specific needs of their recipients. In one of his letters of spiritual direction, written to one Rose Bourgeois, an abbess who, much like Teresa of Ávila, was attempting to reform her own life and that of her convent in a way more faithful to the demands of the Gospel, Francis draws on the image of the contemplative Magdalene in a lovely way:

“Dear daughter,what a good way of praying,and what a fine way of staying in God’s presence: doing what He wants and accept-ing what pleases Him! It seems to me that Mary Magdalene was a statue in her niche when,without saying a word,without mov-ing, and perhaps even without looking at Him, she sat at our Lord’s feet and listened to what He was saying.When He spoke, she listened; whenever He paused, she stopped listening; but always, she was right there.” (Letters of Spiritual Direction, by Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal [Paulist Press, 1988], p. 152)

Silent Witness

Mary Magdalene’s place in medieval and early modern Catholic spirituality was firm and clear. Her example encouraged Christians to see their own sins clearly and honestly, and hopefully approach the Lord for forgiveness. Her faithfulness to Jesus, an important part of the Passion narratives in the Gospels, was an accessible expression of fidelity. Her identity as a contemplative, fueled by the legend of her time in the wilderness, as well as her identification with Mary, sister of Martha, provided a model for women who sought to pursue a life of deep prayer, singularly devoted to Christ.

Questions for Reflection

  1. In what ways did these medieval spiritual writers find Mary Magdalene inspiring?
  1. How did they respond to her identity as “Apostle to the Apos-tles,” within the context of their times?
  2. Does the image of Mary Magdalene inspire you in similar ways?

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