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Today’s the memorial of St. Bernardine (Bernardino) of Siena:

At 22, he entered the Franciscan Order and was ordained two years later. For almost a dozen years he lived in solitude and prayer, but his gifts ultimately caused him to be sent to preach. He always traveled on foot, sometimes speaking for hours in one place, then doing the same in another town.

Especially known for his devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus, Bernardine devised a symbol—IHS, the first three letters of the name of Jesus in Greek—in Gothic letters on a blazing sun. This was to displace the superstitious symbols of the day, as well as the insignia of factions: for example, Guelphs and Ghibellines. The devotion spread, and the symbol began to appear in churches, homes and public buildings. Opposition arose from those who thought it a dangerous innovation. Three attempts were made to have the pope take action against him, but Bernardine’s holiness, orthodoxy, and intelligence were evidence of his faithfulness.

General of the Friars of the Strict Observance, a branch of the Franciscan Order, Bernardine strongly emphasized scholarship and further study of theology and canon law. When he started there were 300 friars in the community; when he died there were 4,000. He returned to preaching the last two years of his life, dying while traveling.

I’m sure there are other collections out there, perhaps some with more contemporary translations, but this is one I grabbed from archive.or. It’s worth your time. If you’re interested in that sort of thing. They give you an intriguing snapshot of the time, for these sermons were, of course, not being given during Mass, but outside of it, probably outdoors, to the entire community, wealthy and poor. The uses examples from all walks of life, from bakers to shoemakers to farmers, and has great concern for local political squabbles.

Beccafumi, Domenico, 1484/1485-1551; San Bernardino Preaching in the Campo, Siena

Source

So, for example, his sermons on vanity.

(I’ve embedded the book below. You can also go here – remember you can download these books as pdfs. The table of contents is at the back of the book.)

Sermon 28 is on vanity. It’s applicable to the present moment, perhaps not in every particular, since social morays and cultural expectations do change over time, but in the basic spiritual orientation, largely neglected today, even in the self-consciously Christian world. What’s deemed necessary and credible in “evangelization” is framed differently in an affluent, image-oriented culture.

This lengthy sermon goes all over the place and reflects, of course, his time – a time in which social and economic class and position were reflected in dress, sometimes by local law (called sumptuary laws). So there is a touch of that in this sermon – attempting to punch above your weight with your clothing is a manifestation of vanity – but just a bit. More important to Bernardine is the message that attempting to draw attention to oneself and using clothing as an indicator of wealth and privilege is vanity, and therefore sinful.

It’s also unjust:

The fifth sin and sign of the displeasure of God is injustice: and here we will pause a little, for if thou look well into this sin thou wilt see that of ten which thou dost commit, nine are comprised in this one. Thou wilt give thy daughter to a man as his wife; and neither he who taketh her in marriage, nor her father, nor her mother , doth consider whence come her possessions ; whereas if they were wise, they would have considered it their duty to think of this before all else : whence come these possessions, whence come these garments, of what is her dowry made up ?

For many times, and most times, it is made up of robbery, of usury, and of the sweat of the brow of peasants,, and of the blood of widows, and of the marrow of wards and orphans. “Who would take one ‘ of those petticoats and squeeze it and wring it, would see issue therefrom the blood of human beings. Woe is me ! Do you never think how great cruelty is this, that thou shouldst dress thyself in garments that this man hath gained for thee, who perisheth with cold? And thou sayest : my father stands well and is rich; he hath given me a very great dowry. And doth it not seem clear to thee that he stands well ? Yea, with his head down ! If the husband of a woman of this kind were to do that which he should do, things would go far better than they go now. Thou hast it that Christ was dressed in a purple garment, so that he should be held in derision, for they wished to mock him; and yet it was suited to him, since that such a garment is the most precious one that can be found in this life; so that he deserved it well, since that there was never a creature more precious than Christ. And therefore, by the example of Christ, woman, this morning learn this. Every time that thou dost wear violet, which hath in it the colour of vermilion, if thou dost wear it when it hath been ill-gained, thou dost wear it in mockery of Christ. And you have five of them, now take the other five.

The first of the other five is called superfluity: The first of the whereas you must reflect that when God gave the garment of skin to Adam, he gave it to him out of decency, and to protect him from the heat and the cold, so that it might be fitted to his needs, and in this all the holy Doctors agree; and he had one only and no more. thou who hast so many of them, and keepest them in a chest, see to it, forsooth, that they be not moth-eaten; see to it that thou dost put them out in the morning sun to air, and shake them well, and look to them often. And now weary thyself in such work as much as thou wilt, yet shalt thou not be able to hinder but that moths shall consume them, since that the garment which is not worn, is always spoiled; and that which is spoiled is a loss. Go, then, and give an account of this in the other life. And because of this said Saint James in the fifth chapter of his Canonical Epistle : Vestimenta tua a tineis contesta sunt –  Your garments are moth-eaten; and if they are not consumed by material moths, yet they will be consumed by spiritual ones.

Knowest thou what are spiritual moths ? They are cursed avarice. Tell me, whence cometh it, that thou dost weary thyself with so much work all the year for these, * and dost never wear them? Thou dost weary thyself all the year, shaking them and hanging them up on poles; and a poor woman standeth yonder and doth freeze with cold, because that she hath not even so much clothing as she hath need of. What thinkest thou that her shivering doth cry out to God in respect of thee ? ….And thou lookest on at the poor man who doth perish with cold, and thou takest no heed thereof. Thou dost not hear any sound of cries, forsooth. Knowest thou why ? Because thou sufferest not from the cold; thou dost fill thy belly with good food, thou dost drink thy fill, and thou hast many garments upon thy back, and ofttimes dost thou sit by a fire. Thou takest thought for naught else: with a full belly thou art comforted in thy soul. And how many shirts, women, have you sent down here to those unfortunate prisoners, eh ?

It’s an interesting alternative to a world in which evangelists and spiritual thought leaders get (and seek, even indirectly) flattery and are emulated for their makeup tips, hair, skin and clothing choices, in which spiritual encouragers and inspirers are really just influencers with Bible quotes on their feed.

And then this sermon on accumulating stuff and alms.

Now consider for a little that which God doth command us. A very little thing doth he command us. He doth not command that thou should give  more than thou canst give. He doth not wish that thou shouldst leave thyself with naught. He saith: Wouldst thou give an alms ? Then give it. Canst thou not give a loaf? No ? Then give a part of one. Canst thou not give wine ? Then give some water which hath -been poured over the lees. If thou canst not give even such wine, then give some vinegar mixed with water. Canst thou not clothe a poor man? No. Give him at the least, as perchance thou canst, a pair of drawers, or a shirt. Canst thou not aid the sick man ? See that thou hast at least pity upon him : have compassion on him, comfort him with words. Canst thou not deliver him from prison? No. Visit him, send him some- times a little soup, and have compassion for him. If thou dost take thought for this, it will be well for thee ! Aad therefore do I say that God will judge with perfect justice.

In a time in which, in one way or another, the prosperity Gospel reigns, Bernardine – as well as other spiritual writers from the breadth and depth of Christian tradition – serve as a corrective. He preached to mixed groups, to wealthy and to poor, and his words to the wealthy are always about the folly of putting faith in these worldly things and God’s judgment that awaits those who hoard and ignore the cries of the poor.

Following Christ, it seems, is not about mimicking and attempting to baptize contemporary values of achievement and self-fulfillment, but of something more simple and basic: loving as Christ did and treating the gift of life on earth as one to keep giving, poured out as He did.

You might also like his sermon on the tongue – that is, on speech, in which he riffs off his understanding of the anatomy of the tongue to offer his listeners advice on the wise and charitable use of the gift of speech.

God put the tongue ‘in man’s head.

Knowest  thou why he put it in the head rather than in any other place ? Because in the head are all the senses. And these senses surround the tongue placed among them, showing that whatsoever thou speakest, thou shouldst speak with caution, since thou canst do naught which the senses do not perceive, and according as thou speakest, so shalt thou be esteemed.

11.God placed the tongue lower than the ears, and he placed one ear on this side, and the other on that side,  and they keep the tongue in the middle between them, and keep guard over it one on each side. And therefore when thou speakest thou shouldst consider : from which side do I speak ? I shall be overheard if I speak here, for here is the right ear. If I speak there, there is the left ear, which doth hear what I say.

12. The tongue is placed under the two eyes, signifying the two kinds of knowledge that a man ought to have; the namely, to know how to distinguish the true and the false, and when a thing is not true, never to say it. And the true thing if thou knowest it, thou mayest say it most times without sinning, but not always.

13. The tongue is placed below the nostrils of the nose, it is also below so that when thou sayest aught about thy neighbour, first thou touchest thyself, to see whether thou hast the same fault. I know not whether thou hast given heed to this, that when one man wisheth to speak of another, first he toucheth his nose, and then commenceth to speak, proving first in regard to himself that he is full of the very fault of which he doth accuse his neighbour. And therefore do ” not point out that thou art good and thy neighbour bad ; look first to thyself, and afterwards to thy neighbour. And of such as these speaks Saint Matthew, in the seventh chapter: Hypocrita, eilce primum trabem de oculo tuo. Thou hypocrite, who wishest to show that thou art esteemed a good man, cast out first the beam out of thy own eye, and then re- prove others. Thou, on the other hand, who art reproved by some one for that which thou hast not done, but which he himself hath done, say to him : Wipe thy nose !

 

 

 

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There’s a lot of scolding going on.

So much scolding. All the scolding! Just… a lot. 

Scolding, along with posturing, virtue signaling, and presumption of motives.

I really don’t know a way out. I am resisting the temptation to, you know, scold.

But every day, I wonder,

What happened to #Resist? 

And moving back the referential point a few decades:

What happened to “Question authority?”

It’s funny, sad and weird. But not so weird, because this is just human nature and human behavior: to follow crowds, to get caught up in mass hysteria and to be so, so selective in our outrage and judgment.

What seems to be at the heart of so much of the fraughtness of public discussion on the response to Covid-19 is, no matter what “side” you are on, is an insistence on the absolute veracity of the evidence supporting your side, invariably accompanied by an insistence on the condemnation-worthy motives of those you see as your opponent. 

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I’m sure students of rhetoric and argument have categories for all of that.

I find the first point – the insistence of the absolute veracity of your “evidence” – as amusing and incomprehensible, for the most part. More on that in a bit.

And I find the second point – the judgment and condemnation of your opponents’ motives – as predictable, since the internet seems to have exacerbated that very common tic.

But you put those together, and you get massive toxicity, which is deeply unhelpful in maintaining any civil society, making wise public policy decisions or helping anyone grow in wisdom or charity.

And you see it in the Catholic world, too. Proclamation of infallibles, invariably accompanied by hurling of excommunications.

You call yourself pro-life.

You say you care about the common good. 

I’m not offering a simple formula. How to Discuss a Pandemic Without Losing Your Mind or Your Soul. 

I wish.

But I’m just saying  – skepticism is…fine. 

What do I mean by “skepticism?” I mean simply an attitude that accepts how little we know about anything: about cause and effect, about what helps and hurts, about institutional and individual motives.

And above all, it’s an attitude that understands the existence of a specific reality that we know for sure exists, even if we can’t be certain about anything else:

Unintended Consequences. 

They. Will. Come. And they bite. 

It’s not an invitation to paralysis or agnosticism. It’s an invitation to realism and charity and most of all, humility.

So:

  • “Science” is wrong all the time, and always has been. “Science,” in fact, learns and grows from its mistakes and misapprehensions and limitations. There is no particular virtue in waving the flag of “the science says.” “The Science” has said a lot of bonkers things over the years.
  • With a moving target, a newly-emerged illness like this, of course the “science” is going to change and develop – we do what we can with the knowledge we have, adjust and change as new knowledge comes forth, and knowing this, it’s okay to have healthy skepticism about any current status. That’s not the same as dismissing – it’s simply humility.
  • Skepticism about science as it converges with government and/or with profit-making is absolutely called for. This kind of skepticism doesn’t make you a “conspiracy-monger” (remember what I said about presuming motives?) It might just mean you know about things like the Tuskegee Study, the Guatemala Syphilis Study, the American military Mustard Gas study….and countless others. As well as the ways in which the results of scientific studies are massaged and controlled in order to promote products or desired results by research labs, corporations and other entities.
  • Skepticism about social and civil response to crisis. We can get things very wrong. We can go down wrong paths. It’s happened. We can enslave, oppress, put people in internment camps, experiment on vulnerable populations, engage in unjust wars and commit atrocities. To put the brakes on and question is a good thing. 
  • Skepticism about social and civil response to crisis because of incomplete information and because of the motives of those with vested interests in certain outcomes. Who’s profiting from this – is not an unreasonable question.

And see..here’s the thing. We know this.  We look back on history and we’re amazed at how gullible people were, how unquestioning their trust was, how their fears moved them to support injustice. But somehow, when we get in the midst of a crisis like this, it becomes a thoughtcrime to apply the questions we willingly ask of the past to the present.

…you’d think we’d know better.

Short Version of all of this:  To gripe about the inefficiencies, dishonesty, graft and corruption of government in the past, to note mistaken, misleading, outright deceptive and self-aggrandizing postures from science, tech and other entities, especially in crisis, in the past, to be explore serious issues of economic inequality and exploitation and the balance between economic and human cost of our actions in the past –  but then to treat similar concerns about the present as simply beyond the pale  – makes no sense.

And I could go on. Okay, I will.

  • Skepticism about lockdowns. To want everything shut down for safety? Sure. Tell me about it. Talk about it. What’s your experience? To want things opened up to various degrees? To be concerned about the cost, about jobs lost, about schooling interrupted, about lives interrupted, about domestic abuse, about loneliness? Sure. Tell me about it. Talk about it. What’s your experience? Neither perspective makes you a monster. Let’s talk about why you think what you do, why you propose your particular solution.
  • Skepticism about the long-term consequences of government action in a moment of crisis. Patriot Act, etc.
  • Skepticism about various individuals and entities stake in a lockdown situation. Sure, why not? Dig through it. Question why Amazon and the Walton family should enjoy amazing profits right now. Question the stimulus bills and who’s getting what and why.
  • Skepticism about the response of health care institutions and the more general impact on public health. Asking questions about the impact of current restrictions on treatment of non-Covid-related conditions – on the availability of services, on reduction of services, particularly in already underserved areas, on the unwillingness of those suffering to seek help, either out of fear of contracting Covid or – just as powerfully – the fear that if something is found wrong and they must be treated – they will be going at it alone, with No Visitors Allowed. Asking questions about that, wondering what the right course is to balance the risk of infection with treatment of non-Covid ailments and the mental health of patients – does not mean you want to kill grandma or HONESTLY HOW CAN YOU CALL YOURSELF PROLIFE. MONSTER. 
  • Skepticism about information and information sources. Agendas, biases, motives. All there, all worth exploring, nothing taken for granted.

And now…the Church.

Lots and lots of scolding out there, sniffing for the travails of our poor bishops. Well, maybe. I know a few, and sure, this is not easy. There are so many factors to consider and balance, and many, many clergy and others in pastoral ministry find this truly agonizing and difficult.

But again. Given history? It’s okay to be skeptical and to ask questions. From the perspective of humility and respect, but sure. Given history – that no, it is not true that Church officials always make decisions with the common good in mind and are never craven, lazy, protective of turf, fearful or indifferent to their most profound responsibilities to God and to the faithful –

….yeah…

Remember what I said about not judging motives? Yup, that applies here, too. Not assuming anything, not judging decisions we know nothing about.

But …asking questions and posing them and exploring different options? In a spirit of humility and co-operation? And being willing to answer and discuss, rather than dismiss with platitudes?

Absolutely necessary. 

Robust discussion of facts and figures and policies is so important in a crisis, but it’s just as important that this discussion happen in a spirit of humility – about the information we have and the motivations of those who might disagree with our perspective.

I do not, for the life of me, understand why it’s seen as acceptable, especially among those who call themselves Christian, to respond to disagreement with, “Well, you obviously just…” instead of “Okay. I’m interested in your perspective. Why do you think that? Let’s talk about it some more.”

 

 

 

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In a week to few weeks, most Catholic parishes will be reopening for regular Sunday Mass. It’s already begun in some places. There will be much reflection about What This Has All Meant and How We Have Been Changed.

I’m going to do something I generally try very hard not to do – which is to make suggestions about what other people should do. Sharing information and trying to make connections is more what I’m about. Hell, I don’t even see myself in the business of encouraging and inspiring you.  But I am feeling, as we say, a burden on my heart, so here goes – from someone who just sits in the pews and listens. And is sort of dreading it.

Speaking of burdens, it will be a heavy burden and responsibility to get up in front of a congregation – deacons, priests, bishops – and preach for the first time after months of empty churches. There is a great deal to unpack. But here’s my simple suggestion as a way to begin thinking about an approach:

Don’t assume that everyone has had the same experience of this time. 

Just start there.

And for sure..

Don’t assume that everyone shares your experiences and opinions of this time. 

Let’s survey the range you might find in a typical congregation:

  • Those who have suffered from Covid-19 personally. Those who have been ill. Those who have known individuals who have been ill and cared for them. Those who have known individuals who have died from Covid-19.
  • Those who have seen their businesses skate to the edge because of shutdowns, those who have lost their businesses.
  • Those who have lost their jobs.
  • Those who have have been sent home from school, who have missed milestones like graduation.
  • Those who have been negatively impacted by the shutdowns and are sanguine about it.
  • Those who have been negatively impacted by the shutdowns and are confused, angry and resentful.
  • Those who haven’t known anyone personally impacted.
  • Those who have kept working during this time, who’ve not lost time or money.
  • Those worried about the stock market, not because they are fat cats, but because there goes their retirement income.
  • Those who have welcomed this as an opportunity for change and growth.
  • Those who have resented the experience and are angry. Outraged, even.
  • Those who are impacted in a negative way by the constant flow of news and speculation.
  • Those who are at peace with it all.
  • Those who are totally on board with restrictions.
  • Those who are restriction-skeptics.
  • Those who are afraid of being infected.
  • Those who aren’t afraid – those who don’t think that they are at risk, or those who are accepting of whatever comes.
  • Those who started wearing a mask on March 1.
  • Those who pull their shirt collar up over their nose for a mask and resent that. 
  • Those whose family lives have been deepened and enhanced by the time in quarantine
  • Those for whom the quarantine and extended time with family has exacerbated tensions and made problems more obvious
  • Those who think this is a Very Big Deal
  • Those who think this is Not Such a Big Deal
  • Those who have experienced this as a call to change.
  • Those who just want things to go back to the way they were.
  • Those who have, for the first time in their lives, thought seriously about questions of life and death. And are maybe coming back to the church for the first time, or for the first time in a long time because of it.
  • Those who are rethinking their priorities and choices as a consequence of the shutdown and the mystery and possibility of serious illness

You may not find every permutations of this variety in your pews, but I think you’ll find a lot of it. Don’t be fooled by the echo chamber of news, reporting and discussion that most of us fall into that confirms our own biases. Some of those perspectives might drive you crazy and strike you as so very wrong, but well…there are as many different experiences and opinions of this time as there are human beings. That’s just the way it is.

My point?

I am dreading a slew of homilies that do little more than echo the endless drumbeating of We’re All In This Together PSAs with a particular modern Catholic flourish of We’re an Easter People, everything will be all right!  Nice to see you again!

So how can a preacher, teacher or speaker communicated in this moment without assuming too much, but then, as a consequence, simply falling into platitudes and pious generalizations?

I don’t know. There! That solves it!

Well, perhaps part of the answer might come from Bishop Robert Barron, whose homily we watched yesterday.

(We have, as I mentioned, been attending Mass at the parish where my son is employed as an organist. But a week ago, he had a bike accident, lacerated his elbow, and is still on the mend, so we stayed home this weekend. He’ll be back on the bench this coming weekend.)

 

 

Here’s the recording.The point Bishop Barron makes, in his words mostly addressed to other preachers, but applicable to all of us, since all of us are called to give witness, is to look to Peter’s approach, as described in the first reading from Acts:

Focus on Jesus, not yourself, your own doubts, your own experience, your own ideas. And pray, not that your words give superficial comfort, but that they cut to the heart. 

I’ve always felt that the great strength of Catholic liturgy – of any high liturgical tradition – is to give space. It all seems, from the outside, very full  – but all of the proscribed words, gestures and symbols function, in the end, as a space of freedom. Your worship is not about an individual standing up in front of you telling you how to feel in a certain moment or how to respond to God right now.

Within the space of a highly structured, rich liturgy, there’s room for everyone to feel whatever they are bringing with them – joy, sorrow, confusion, doubt – and to sit with it, pray with it, present it to God, and respond to him freely. And it does so in whatever context it’s happening, in a place of privilege or poverty, comfort or insecurity.

It’s a space in which, when we are open, no matter who we are, or where we’re coming from, there is the chance that we might be cut to the heart. 

Powerful preaching, it seems to me, should fit that paradigm. Proposing the Gospel, presenting it in all its fullness, pointing to Jesus, clearly and joyfully – but without manipulation, respecting the wild variety of hearers, respecting God’s power to redeem and save, offering the Gospel that the Church has always preached, forcefully, clearly and humbly – and then stepping back. Letting the Spirit do its work.

So where do we start? Where we always do.

With the liturgical season, with the liturgy, the Scriptures that we’ve been given. It’s Easter Season. Maybe your parish will be gathering for the first time on Pentecost, or Trinity Sunday or Corpus Christi. That’s where we begin.

And I do think, no matter how different the experiences of each of us have been, it’s possible to draw connections without platitudes or incorrect generalizations.

For what have we all experienced?

The cold hard fact that the “control” each of us have over our lives is limited.

My life on earth is transitory. Ephemeral.

I don’t walk on earth as an isolated individual. I’m impacted by things I can identify, and many which I can’t, and are unpredictable and mysterious. It may not have felt like it over the past weeks, but I am in deep communion with every other person on earth. I affect them, they affect me.

Suffering and death are real. Unintended consequences are real.

Human beings stumble as they attempt to solve problems.

Life surprises us. Maybe I don’t know as much as I thought I did – about my own life, my family, about how the world works and why.

Maybe I need to change.

A yearning for permanence, health, security, normality, life – but a realization that none of that can be promised to me on earth. But still I yearn for it. Why? Is it perhaps because I’m created to yearn for this Good, and it is, indeed promised? Promised to me in an eternal way, to feed my eternal yearning?

 

Traditionally, Catholic spirituality is intensely centered on the Incarnate presence of Jesus in this broken world, in our broken hearts. It’s about reassuring us that yes, indeed, he’s present, that he loves us and that his Risen Life can be ours as well.

And it’s about helping each of us – no matter where we are or who we are – recognize that Presence and that Voice.

Essentially:

Where is God present in this weird, unpredictable life we lead?

and

What is God teaching me right now? 

Posing the question isn’t the same as answering it. The crucial thing is to propose that ancient truth that every moment of life on earth, no matter who we are,  provides an opportunity to do the most important thing: to know Him. To hear these words that we’ll hear in next Sunday’s Gospel and understand that they are true – right now. 

Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life.
No one comes to the Father except through me.

And no matter who we are, and where we’ve been over the past weeks, no matter what our opinions or experiences are – that’s what we all have in common. We need Him. Every experience we have can, if we are open, alert us more deeply to that reality – that right here, right now, we need Him – our only Way, our only Truth, our only Life.

 

 

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When the officials had brought the apostles in to face the Sanhedrin, the high priest demanded an explanation. ‘We gave you a formal warning’ he said ‘not to preach in this name, and what have you done?

today’s first reading from Mass. 

Not, we hope, one of the boring parts. 

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Both this first reading from Mass today and the feast of St. George jostle our consciences with reminders of the role of courage in the Christian life – its source and why it is always needed. In other words, there’s always resistance to the Good News, from within and without.

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Today is the commemoration of St. George.

St. George is in the Loyola Kids Book of Saints.  In the first part of the chapter I try to strike the balance between what we think we know about George and the legendary material. But I also always try to respect the legendary material as an expression of a truth – here, the courage required to follow Christ. He’s in the section, “Saints are people who are brave.”

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Here’s a bit more on context of this feast from The New Liturgical Movement:

The Byzantine Rite has no such reservations about St George, as is often the case with some of the best loved legends and traditions about the Saints. He is honored with the titles “Great Martyr”, meaning one who suffered many and various torments during his martyrdom, and “Bearer of the Standard of Victory”; in the preparation rite of the Divine Liturgy, he is named in the company of martyrs second only to St Stephen. His feast always occurs in Eastertide, unless it be impeded by Holy Week or Easter week; one of the texts for Vespers of his feast refers to this in a very clever way.

Thou didst suffer along with the Savior, and having willingly imitated His death by death (thanato ton thanaton … mimesamenos), o glorious one, thou reignest with Him, clothed in bright splendor, adorned with thy blood, decorated with the scepter of thy prizes, outstanding with the crown of victory, for endless ages, o Great-Martyr George.

The phrase “having willingly imitated His death by death” makes an obvious reference to words of the well-known Paschal troparion, “Christ is risen from the dead, by death he conquered death (thanato ton thanaton … patesas), and gave life to those in the tomb.”

 

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From yesterday’s NYTimes: 

A few years ago, I set out to research my grandmother’s early childhood in Philadelphia, looking for clues about what the world was like in the first precarious years of her life. I knew that she was born in October 1917, that she had lived through the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 as a baby, but I was unprepared for the harrowing details I uncovered in my search.

Reading about the fall of 1918 left me grappling with a series of images of the outbreak as it was experienced locally: hushed streets, shut doors, bodies piled up in basements and on porches because the morgues had run out of coffins. Businesses and public Image result for Work of the Sisters during the epidemic of influenza, October, 1918spaces citywide were shuttered, including churches, schools and theaters. In a single day, on Oct. 16, more than 700 people in Philadelphia died from influenza.

But as I read the first alarming headlines about the coronavirus in January, what came to mind from my family research was one particular document, an oral history published in 1919 by the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia to preserve living memories of the Spanish flu. “Facts unrecorded are quickly lost in the new interests of changing time,” its author began; here, he meant to “gather information for the future.” Within these unassuming pages, I found the story of an extraordinary act of generosity and compassion, carried out at the height of a pandemic. Titled “Work of the Sisters During the Epidemic of Influenza, October 1918,” within this document was evidence of the enormous human capacity for personal sacrifice in the name of public good.

In early October, the Red Cross warned that Philadelphia did not have enough nurses to treat and minister to the sick, whose numbers were growing rapidly. “The nursing forces of the city have been depleted by the war. There was a serious shortage in many of the hospitals before the epidemic broke upon us,” an official cautioned. “Now it is a matter of life and death.” It was in this tense atmosphere that the archbishop of Philadelphia called on nuns in his diocese to leave their convents and take up posts caring for the sick and dying across the city.

You can read the entire document here.

 

Really – go read. 

 

There is a summary in the journal of the ACHS from 1919, which includes this note about church closings and the use of church property to treat the sick:

Letter of the Archbishop Authorizing the Opening of Parish Buildings, Halls and Schools for the Use of the Sick, also the Nursing and Relief Work of Uncloistered Sisters. Archbishop’s Residence 1723 Race St. Phila. October 10, 1918.

During the Influenza Epidemic, permission is given to utilize church edifices, particularly halls and parochial schools, as hospitals. Permission is also granted for un- cloistered Sisters to serve as nurses. If need be, the aid of the St. Vincent de Paul Societies should be utilized in each parish. The members of these Societies can help to nurse the patients and also open kit-chens to provide soup and other foods for the sick. These foods could be brought to the doors of the suffering by messengers, particularly by the school-boys. It is left to each pastor to devise the best means to combat the epidemic in his own parish. Priests and nuns are advised to obtain and use masks whilst attendng those attacked by influenza. Very affectionately yours, D. J. Dougherty, Abp. of Phila.

 

In connection with the closing of churches during the epidemic the following points seem to deserve notice and record :

First – The action of Pastors and Rectors of churches was in accordance with the orders of civil authorities – the State Board of Health, city and local departments of health and public safety – as directed by the letter of his Grace, the Most Revē Archbishop, which follows :

Archbishop’s House 1723 Race St. Philadelphia October 4th, 1918.

Rev. Dear Sir: We hereby direct your attention to the order of the Board of Health, issued on Thursday, October 3d, which prohibits the assemblage of all persons in the churches and schools of Philadelphia until further notice. Yours faithfully in Xto., D. J. Dougherty, Archbishop of Philadelphia .

Second – In many, probably all, the city churches this order was given during the afternoon and evening of Thursday, October 3, when usually there are many Confessions in our churches in view of Communions for the ” First Friday “. The notice to close was generally brought to the church or the rectory by the police then and there on duty. Some of the churches were closed, as reported to the compiler, at 6 o’clock p. m., others at 8 o’clock. Permission was granted in some at least of the churches to allow the people to come to the church on Friday morning, October 4, for Holy Communion. This permission was granted when requested by ‘phone from departments of health or public safety.

Third – While formally and legally closed, the doors of churches were not locked, and attendance at private Masses during the week and on Sundays was not forbidden. Devout and prayerful visits in acknowledgment of the Real Presence, in the churches of the business section of the city were apparently quite as regular and frequent as in normal times.

Fourth – Some of the city churches tried to meet the difficulty by Mass in the open air on Sunday, October 6 and 13. There was no prohibition or public protest against this, so far as the compiler has been able to find; but the practice did not meet with general approval, and, after the second Sunday was discontinued.

Fifth – City churches were closed October 6, 13, 20. The permission to open churches for Sunday, October 27, was followed by unusually large crowds for Confessions on Saturday evening, October 26. The list of the dead in the announcements at Masses on October 27 seemed almost interminable; in some churches more than one hundred names. Outside the city the date for ” reopening ” the churches varied according to different views taken by local boards, and different interpretations given to the action of the State Board of Health in ” lifting the ban “. Some country churches followed the order of city churches and assumed the right to open October 27; others in the same townships, and under the same local boards, did not reopen until November third.

 

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…for kids. 

"amy welborn"

 

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From the Loyola Kids Book of Saints. 

 

 

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From previous years, but still worth a read!


How did I happen up on this? In the usual, wandering way. I went to archive.org and typed in “ash wednesday” in the search box, and after wading through a bunch of sermons and pamphlets (including one had written!), I happened upon this, and stumbled into a huge rabbit hole.

In that rabbit hole I was introduceed to one Baron Ferdinand de Geramb, (probably) born in Lyons, but of Hungarian descent. An adventurer, a soldier, a prisoner of Napoleon, and eventually…a Trappist. From the old Catholic Encyclopedia:

In 1808 he fell into the hands of Napoleon, who imprisoned him in the fortress of Vincennes until 1814, the time when the allied powers entered Paris. After bidding farewell to the Tsar and Emperor of Austria, he resolved to leave the world. It was at this time that he providentially met the Rev. Father Eugene, Abbot of Notre Dame du Port du Salut, near Laval (France), of whom he begged to be admitted as a novice in the community. He pronounced his vows in 1817.

After having rendered great services to that monastery, he was sent, in 1827, to the monastery of Mt. Olivet (Alsace). During the Revolution of 1830 de Géramb displayed great courage in the face of a troop of insurgents that had come to pillage the monastery; though the religious had been dispersed, the abbey was at least, by his heroic action, spared the horrors of pillage. It was at this time that Brother Mary Joseph made his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. On his return in 1833, he went to Rome, where he held the office of procurator-general of La Trappe. He soon gerambgained the esteem and affection of Gregory XVI, who, though he was not a priest, named him titular abbot with the insignia of the ring and pectoral cross, a privilege without any precedent.

Abbot de Géramb is the author of many works, the principal of which are: “Letters to Eugene on the Eucharist”; “Eternity is approaching”; “Pilgrimage to Jerusalem”; “A Journey from La Trappe to Rome”, besides many others of less importance and of an exclusively ascetical character. They were often reprinted and translated. His style is easy and without affectation. The customs, manners, and incidents of the journey which he describes, all are vividly and attractively given, and the topographical descriptions are of an irreproachable accuracy. Even under the monk’s cowl the great nobleman could occasionally be seen distributing in alms considerable sums of money which he had received from his family to defray his expenses.

I spent a good deal of time skimming through the book to which the search took me: A Pilgrimage to Palestine, Egypt and Syria.  It is quite evocative, as this excerpt about Ash Wednesday shows:

 On the 20th I was awake long before dawn. I went
out of my tent, and seated myself at the entrance. My
Bedouins, at a little distance, were sleeping around some
half-extinct embers. At the slight noise which I made
their camels raised their heads, but laid them down
again immediately on the sand. Silence reigned around
me. It was Ash- Wednesday, a day specially set apart
by the Church, to remind its members of the curse pro-
nounced against the first man after his fall, and in which
his whole posterity is involved. I picked up a handful
of the dust of the desert, marked my brow with it, and,
giving myself the salutary warning which it was not pos-
sible for me to receive at the foot of the altars of Christ,
from the lips of one of his ministers, I pronounced these
words : — ” Recollect, O man, that dust thou art, and
unto dust shalt thou return.”

Then, joining in spirit and in heart the Christian
people, who, on this day more especially, beseech the
Lord ” to have pity upon them according to his great
mercy’ I waited for sunrise, meditating upon that
awful sentence of death pronounced upon the human
race, the execution of which none can escape, and which
it will by and by be my turn to undergo. It has often
been the case, my dear Charles, that I have felt deeply
moved and violently torn from the things of this world,
while listening to the powerful words demonstrating
their nothingness, issuing from the pulpit amidst the
doleful solemnities with which the holy season of penance
commences ; but I declare to you that this desert, where
the plant itself cannot live ; this soil, which is but dust,
and from which the blast sweeps away in the twinkling
of an eye all traces of the footsteps of man, telling him
that thus shall he be swept away by the blast of death;
this universal silence, not even interrupted like that of
the grave by the voice of grief or the song of mourning;
those ruins, and those empty sepulchers ; those carcasses
of kingdoms and of cities, which had just passed before
my eyes ; and that holy Bible, which related to me the
crimes of generations upon the spot where they were
committed, explained to me the transitory nature, the
paltriness, and the term of human life, and showed to
me, as still dwelling in the heavens, Him who will have
man know that he is the Lord, and that He infallibly
overtakes by his justice the presumptuous mortal who
disdains his mercy — all this spake to my soul in much
stronger language, in a language the energy of which
no words can express.


Now…for the 12-year old….

 

…1935 style.

More from a 1935 7th-grade text, part of the The Christ Life Series in Religion.

Note, again, how the child is treated as a full-fledged member of the Body of Christ, with responsibilities and the capacity to know his or herself and receive grace fruitfully and grow in union with Christ. No pandering, no dumbing-down. Nor is it about rule-following or a shallow embrace of external actions, as our caricatures of pre-Vatican II life tell us it must have been.  It is, as the textbook says, about becoming “more intimately united with Christ.”

Read and contrast to the prevalent contemporary understanding of Lent, which is that it’s about focusing my efforts so God can help me get my life together and feel better about it all.

There is a difference between the two emphases. Subtle, but real between “strengthening the soul’s life” and “having a great Lent.” It’s all about the focus. Is it about me or about Jesus, the Gospel and our mission, as parts of his Body, in a broken world?

And news flash: there is not much about Lent in the CCC, but what is there emphasizes that yes, it is still a penetential season. 

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As living members of Christ’s Mystical Body we must participate in all His life. Today this means waging war on those passions which have been gaining ground in our soul and usurping the reign which belongs to Christ alone. Only a coward flees from a call to arms in a just cause. We, who in Confirmation have been sealed with the Spirit as soldiers of Christ, must fight courageously under His leadership. Is there any special self-indulgence weakening our spiritual life? Let us have entire confidence that with God’s grace we can overcome our faults.

Lent is a time of action and spiritual growth—not a time of gloom and repression, but a time of strong positive effort. Through our vigorous efforts of this season, we grow stronger spiritually, for we become more intimately united with Christ. It is in the Mass, above all, that we receive the grace we need in order to be victorious in the struggle upon which we are entering. Is it possible for you to assist at daily Mass during Lent, offering yourself with the divine Victim to atone for sin and to gain renewed vigor? Exactly what spiritual gains will you aim to make during this Lent? Join in the prayer of the Church today “that our fasts may be acceptable to thee and a means of healing to us. Through our Lord”

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I’ll be posting snippets and observations from our NYC trip last week over the next few days.

(No, I don’t take a blog/social media break for Lent. This is my work, so…no.)

One of the many highlights of our trip was the opportunity, on Thursday afternoon, for my organist son to meet and play the historic (built in 1868)  Erben Organ in the Old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.

Here’s the website for the organization supporting maintenance and restoration of the organ.

And the Cathedral website.

Lana, of the Friends of the Erben Organ, was very generous with her time. She met us in the afternoon after we’d stuffed ourselves in not one, but two different Chinatown spots, talked to us about the history of the instrument, showed us the distinct factors of this type of tracker organ, led us around the back to see the innards, both in rest and in motion as she played, and then let my son play – no organ shoes were packed, so it was socks on the pedals.

For those of you not familiar with organs – and I don’t claim to be familiar, just vaguely aware – most organs, even pipe organs, that you see and hear today are electric and/or digital – since the two major actions of the organ – the movement of the air through the pipes and the connecting between the keys and the valves – are powered by electricity.

Of course, before the advent of electricity, this wasn’t possible. So organs were entirely mechanical. The key/valve action was by tracker action, and the air moved through the pipes by human-powered bellows.

(You may have seen old, smaller “pump” organs – in which the organist has to manually, with his or her foot, pump a large pedal to keep air flowing through the instrument. In larger organs, it would take another person to do so – in the case of the Erben Organ, there was a large wheel at the back to turn that would activate the bellows. Now, that element is electrically powered.)

There are pros and cons to electrical v. tracker action organs. My limited understanding is that an ideal instrument is a combination of both.

Playing an historic tracker action organ certainly is a different experience than playing a modern digital pipe organ, though. As my son said, he had to work a lot harder to produce sound (because of the force required to push the keys, in contrast to the light touch required for an electrical instrument), and because of that, the experience was more like playing a piano – which he, honestly, prefers to organ – than his usual instrument at church/work.

The pipe organ really is an amazing instrument – when you think about the large pipe organs that were being built even in the 14th and 15th centuries, the level of technological skill and knowledge required is astonishing.

Here’s the Facebook post on the afternoon, and here’s the Instagram post from the Friends, and from me, which includes a bit of video.

Please support them if you can – and support all your local church musicians and sacred music endeavors!

 

 

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Here are some images from beginning-of-Lent related material from a couple of my books.

The entry on “Ashes” from The Loyola Kids Book of Catholic Signs and Symbols. 

The beginning of the account of the Temptation in the Desert – always the Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent – from The Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories.

Remember, those stories are arranged in sections according to the liturgical season in which one would normally hear that particular Scripture narrative. So, this is in the “Lent” section.

 

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This is a bit of a repeat, but I took the time to transcribe some of this from a scan of the book, so I thought it merited a separate post.

I wrote about Quinquagesima Sunday, and shared scans on the day from the 1935 7th-grade religion textbook, With Mother Church, from the Christ Life Series in Religion.  I’ve rescanned in a larger format and transcribed part of the text, for easier reading and quoting.

Remember – this is written for 7th graders. These days, we appeal to 7th graders by anxiously assuming that we must entertain them and constantly assure them of how fantastic they are and assure them that we’re offering them something appealing – as consumers, in other words. This is not the case here, is it? The 7th graders are treated respectfully, as full members of the Body of Christ with responsibilities and a role that contributes to the good of the whole, and are encouraged to be attentive to the Scriptures and prayers of the day’s liturgy, see their relationship to their lives and daily struggles, and to live in their framework.

Also note, belying the stereotype of those bad-old-days of-rules-and-rigidity, the theme of charity, aka, love. Also, the sensible, Gospel-rooted understanding of love – which is not about feeling awesome, excited, warm or …anything, but all about living in communion with God’s will – responding in love to His love. 

(Remember the first reading would have been Paul’s words on charity from 1 Corinthians 13) 

Thus we find that the perfect observance of the law of charity will make us perfect Christians. But how can we know that we have charity? Perhaps we do not feel a sensible love for God such as we feel toward our parents. Our Lord Himself has told us, “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). This is the test. The first three commandments, you know, relate directly to God; the others, to our neighbor. Hence, “if any man say, I love God, and hateth his brother; he is a liar” (I John 4 : 20).

In time of temptation do we pray and resist because we do not want to break God’s commandments? Then we have charity. If, through weakness, we fall but are sorry and resolve not to sin again, then we have charity. If we are longing always to do the will of God, we shall certainly please Him by loving and bearing with our neighbor. God created and redeemed him and loves him in the same manner as He loves us. During Lent frequently offer the eucharistic Sacrifice, in which you are intimately united with Christ and with your neighbor in Christ through the sweet bond of charity.

Today is the final part of our preparation for Lent. Let us remember that our penances and good works depend for their value on our charity. On the last Sunday before Lent Christ Himself invites us to go up to Jerusalem with Him, and He says, “All things shall be accomplished which were written by the prophets concerning the Son of man, for he shall be delivered to the Gentiles, and shall be mocked, and scourged, and spit upon; and after they have scourged him, they will put him to death; and the third day he shall rise again” (Gospel). Face to face with the mystery of suffering, we must pray for light to understand and charity to endure. With the blind man in the Gospel let us cry out, “Lord, that I may see.”

This program of suffering and penance must not cause us to be fearful or sad. If it does, our repentance does not spring from charity or love of God. In the Tract today we join King David in saying: “Sing joyfully to God all the earth; serve ye the Lord with gladness. . . . He made us, and not we ourselves; but we art his people and the sheep of his pasture.” Only through frequent union with Christ in His Sacrifice, can we expect the grace to be generous and joyous in our Lenten penances. In the Postcommunion we are shown where to expect to find the light and strength necessary for victory. “We beseech thee, almighty God, that we who have received this heavenly food may by it be safe-guarded from all adversities.”

 

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