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Archive for the ‘Cross’ Category

—1 —

Thanks to Catholic World Report for picking up one of this week’s blog posts – reprinted here. 

Look for me in Living Faith next week. Friday, I believe.It will be here. 

Here’s a post on St. Rita for today. 

— 2 —

I thought this was just excellent:

By focusing so minutely and carefully on their ordinary holiness of life, rather than solely on his martyrdom, the film points out a further irony. We look to the martyrs as heroic precisely because of the martyrdom. But what led the martyrs to their martyrdom? We can be blinded by our need for heroes, blinded by the particular heroism of martyrdom; fascinated by it, the rest of the martyrs’ lives remain hidden to us by our own lack of interest, our narrowness of vision, like the way our desire for stunning miracles can obscure from us the ubiquitous and ordinary but just as holy ways of God’s providence.

If the Church canonizes and so proclaims a saint to us in order to provide objects of admiration and thus models of holiness for us to emulate, then it is really a kind of cheap grace for someone like me to admire Jägerstätter’s martyrdom; I cannot connect with him at all in his martyrdom, except hypothetically—well, if I am ever in that situation, I pray I will do what he did. Right, if I am ever in that situation . . . But what the film shows is that his martyrdom was the fruit of the holiness of his ordinary hidden life. And that is a portrait of the life of a man I can connect with, a life I can seek to emulate—a man at home with his wife, children, friends, a job, living a life that is hidden, “unhistorical,” but holy.

That hidden life was not a conscience hidden from the world around him. It was the life of a conscience as clear and bright as a cloudless day, alive in its impact upon the lives of those around him. For me to emulate that hidden life would not be cheap grace. And maybe, just maybe, it would not then be cheap grace for me to pray, if I am ever confronted with a situation as bad as he was, however unlikely that is, that I could emulate his martyrdom, because I have already emulated the holiness of his hidden life. “If you found out you were going to die in fifteen minutes, what would you do?” “Same thing I have been doing.” The Little Way, day by day.

— 3 —

Well, I love this. In the Milan Duomo, on the feast of the Ascension, the huge and elaborate paschal candle holder is…raised to the ceiling during the proclamaion of the Gospel. 

In the Roman Rite, there is a rubric that simply says the Paschal candle is extinguished after the Gospel on the feast of the Ascension, and therefore lit again only for the blessing of the baptismal font on the vigil of Pentecost. In the Duomo, the rite is something a little more impressive, as you can see in this video of Pontifical Mass held last year on the feast of the Ascension (starting at 21:38, with the beginning of the Gospel. 

More, including the video, at the link.

Catholic traditions are the best – unfortunately, our local version of Pentecost petals from the ceiling is not happening this year, for reasons we can all guess…

— 4 —

Continuing the tradition of the Church Mothers and Fathers – in the Arctic.

But another type of desert, which also features extreme weather and hardship, is the site of a new monastic community: the white desert of ice, snow, and cold in the northern hemisphere, specifically in the tiny village of Lannavaara, in Swedish Lapland. Home to only about one hundred inhabitants, it is located 250 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. It is here, amid silence, prayer, and very low temperatures, that two religious sisters are laying the foundations for a new order at Sankt Josefs Kloster (the Monastery of St. Joseph): the Marias Lamm (Mary’s Lambs) community.

The community’s story begins in 2011, when Swedish Sister Amada Mobergh received permission from the bishop of Stockholm, now-Cardinal Anders Arborelius, to undertake contemplative religious life in Sweden. Sister Amada, who converted to Catholicism in her 20s while living in London, had spent 30 years as a member of the Missionaries of Charity, serving in India, then-Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Italy, Albania, Iceland, and the United Kingdom. In a 2015 interview with the Italian Catholic news agency SIR, Sister Amada recounted that after discerning that a more contemplative life was God’s will for her, she and another sister, Sister Karla, visited several monasteries in southern Sweden. While Bishop Arborelius expressed his happiness over their decision, he had made it clear that he would not be able to support them financially, since the Catholic Church in Sweden is very small. Following a series of what the sisters considered miracles, they were able to find temporary free accommodations far to the north. “We arrived December 24th, 2011, the temperature was -30 C. I immediately understood that this is where I had to be,” Sister Amada recalled in the SIR interview.

After a year and a half, the sisters had to move, in part because their residence was too small to accommodate all the people who had begun to come to visit and to pray with them.

— 5 –

From McSweeney’s: “What Your Favorite Requiem Mass says about you.”  

As someone on FB said, “I suspect the infamous Onion Trad is now writing for McSweeney’s.”

(I never was a part of any conversations about the “infamous Onion Trad” but it was very clear to me for a time that there was someone who wrote for the Onion who was very familiar with Catholic life and lingo. )

Anyway:

Victoria: You, an American, went to “university,” where you discovered you held very strong opinions about Requiem masses. None of your “friends” cared…

….Fauré: Someone very close to you has given you a “live, laugh, love” print, and you don’t have the heart to tell them how you felt about it…

…Duruflé: You taught yourself Latin, and now phrases like “vita incerta, mors certissima” are staples of everyday conversation. You pay too much for your glasses.

 

— 6 —

This week, I read Greene’s Ministry of Fear. It’s one of his self-described “entertainments” but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t contain extraordinary writing and engagement with important themes. 

It’s got one of the more compelling opening chapters I’ve ever read in a novel. We meet a man, Arthur Rowe, in London during the Blitz. He happens upon a church carnival of sorts, which brings forth all sorts of memories of childhood – a completely other time, distant in more ways than one. A strange thing happens to him there. He wins a cake – made with real eggs – because the fortune-teller, for some reason, told him the exact weight – someone tries to get him to give up the cake…and we’re off in a story of espionage, intrigue, mistaken identity and memory loss.

There are loads of near-perfect passages and descriptions, which I’ll highlight below, but what I want to focus on is the theme of pity.  Greene wrote this novel during World War II – the only book he wrote during the war –  while on post in Sierre Leone – the setting of The Heart of the Matter, the theme of which was also the contrast pity pity and real, authentic love. 

Which, incidentally, is also a theme of both Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor, who uses the term “tenderness” in this famous quote, but I think pity is an apt synonym:

“In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced-labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.”

Essentially – and this is the case in the book – pity is essentially dehumanizing. Or, as Green puts it in the novel, Pity is cruel. Pity destroys.

And of course, loss of innocence factors large here, as Greene’s protagonist is always recalling a more innocent past  – both his personal past and his country’s – in the context of bombed-out, continually threatened London. A dream he has while sheltering:

“This isn’t real life any more,” he said. “Tea on the lawn, evensong, croquet, the old ladies calling, the gentle unmalicious gossip, the gardener trundling the wheelbarrow full of leaves and grass. People write about it as if it still went on; lady novelists describe it over and over again in books of the month, but it’s not there any more.”

His mother smiled at him in a scared way but let him talk; he was the master of the dream now. He said, “I’m wanted for a murder I didn’t do. People want to kill me because I know too much. I’m hiding underground, and up above the Germans are methodically smashing London to bits all around me. You remember St. Clement’s – the bells of St. Clement’s. They’ve smashed that – St. James’s, Piccadilly, the Burlington Arcade, Garland’s Hotel, where we stayed for the pantomime, Maples and John Lewis. It sounds like a thriller, doesn’t it, but the thrillers are like life – more like life than you are, this lawn, your sandwiches, that pine. You used to laugh at the books Miss Savage read – about spies, and murders, and violence, and wild motor-car chases, but, dear, that’s real life; it’s what we’ve all made of the world since you died. I’m your little Arthur who wouldn’t hurt a beetle and I’m a murderer too. The world has been remade by William Le Queux.”

I enjoyed Ministry of Fear – even as I was, not surprisingly, confused by it. Some more quotes:

He had in those days imagined himself capable of extraordinary heroisms and endurances which would make the girl he loved forget the awkward hands and the spotty chin of adolescence. Everything had seemed possible. One could laugh at daydreams, but so long as you had the capacity to daydream there was a chance that you might develop some of the qualities of which you dreamed. It was like the religious discipline: words however emptily repeated can in time form a habit, a kind of unnoticed sediment at the bottom of the mind, until one day to your own surprise you find yourself acting on the belief you thought you didn’t believe in.

 

His heart beat and the band played, and inside the lean experienced skull lay childhood.

 

 

— 7 —

"amy welborn"Here’s a short story for you that’s about a hundred and seventy-five levels below the writing of Graham Greene. It was a finalist for the Dappled Things J. F. Powers competition, but not the winner. So here it is – I wanted to put it on a platform that was not my blog, and Wattpad was the quickest way to go. It undoubtedly does not quite fit the site, but it was easy and let me keep my italics, so it won.

It may not be there forever, as I’ll still keep looking.

And here’s a novel  –     from Son #2! (Check out his other writings here)

 

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

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—1 —

Well, that was interesting. Somehow, this post went viral, as we say, yesterday, with thousands more hits than I usually get around here. Very odd. I still don’t know why or how.

This also got a big bump, mostly because Ross Douthat retweeted a reference to it. Just glad to get the message out there!

Click back for other posts – on how 9th grade homeschooling ended up and on season 2 of Fargo. 

The other “extended reach” story of the week involved musician son-in-law, who had a song featured at the end of Tony Kornheiser’s podcast. 

— 2 —

The Real Lord of the Flies. A fascinating piece.

 

The kids agreed to work in teams of two, drawing up a strict roster for garden, kitchen and guard duty. Sometimes they quarrelled, but whenever that happened they solved it by imposing a time-out. Their days began and ended with song and prayer. Kolo fashioned a makeshift guitar from a piece of driftwood, half a coconut shell and six steel wires salvaged from their wrecked boat – an instrument Peter has kept all these years – and played it to help lift their spirits. And their spirits needed lifting. All summer long it hardly rained, driving the boys frantic with thirst. They tried constructing a raft in order to leave the island, but it fell apart in the crashing surf.

Worst of all, Stephen slipped one day, fell off a cliff and broke his leg. The other boys picked their way down after him and then helped him back up to the top. They set his leg using sticks and leaves. “Don’t worry,” Sione joked. “We’ll do your work, while you lie there like King Taufa‘ahau Tupou himself!”

They survived initially on fish, coconuts, tame birds (they drank the blood as well as eating the meat); seabird eggs were sucked dry. Later, when they got to the top of the island, they found an ancient volcanic crater, where people had lived a century before. There the boys discovered wild taro, bananas and chickens (which had been reproducing for the 100 years since the last Tongans had left).

Much more hopeful turn of events than in the novel.

— 3 —

America ran a very nice piece on Wyoming Catholic College:

The first class every student takes is an introduction to the Experiential Leadership Program, ELP 101. In the summer before the start of the new school year, freshmen take a wilderness first aid course, then embark on a 21-day backpacking trip in the Wyoming backcountry. Like most everything at W.C.C., the course is grounded in Western philosophy. “The term ‘gymnastic,’” the Philosophical Vision Statement of the college reads, “comes from the Greek gymnos, meaning ‘naked.’ Gymnastics, broadly speaking, refers to the naked or direct experience of reality.” Through their direct encounter with the grandeur of nature, the founders believed, students would grow in virtue.

Students continue their outdoor education all four years at W.C.C.: a week of winter camping after the first Christmas break; week-long hiking, rafting or rock-climbing excursions once a semester; and a required course in horsemanship. But it is the 21-day trip that forms the foundation of what will follow in and out of the classroom.

“There’s nothing more empowering than when those students can go backpacking in wolf country and grizzly bear country by themselves without an instructor,” Mr. Zimmer says. “And that allows them to know that [when they take] the final they’re going to have in humanities or Euclid or Latin, they’re going to be fine. Just like their 21-day trip, they have to put effort and energy and time into their training.”

Ms. Stypa agrees. “There are so many nights out there where you’re freezing or it’s raining, and your sleeping bag got wet and someone has a blister that needs to get taken care of. And it’s 11 p.m. and you’re supposed to get up at 6 a.m., and it’s just hard,” she says. “That toughness that it gives you sticks with you when you come back into the semester when you’re slammed by paper after paper.”

She also described a more subtle connection to the classroom. “You’re just thrust into the wilderness, into the mountains and these mountain lakes, snow and wildlife and lightning storms. It’s terrifying, and it’s beautiful,” she says. “And then we come back, and we study poetry, and we talk about ancient Greece and ancient Rome. And I think you really draw on your experience and fill your imagination as you’re reading the Great Books.”
Jason Baxter, an associate professor of fine arts and humanities, also finds a deep resonance between the freshmen expedition and the Great Books curriculum. “There’s something severely beautiful about ancient texts, which are not trying to accommodate us in any way,” he tells me over tea at Crux, the corner coffee shop staffed by students and frequented by faculty and local residents alike. “And there’s something fascinatingly analogous to the Wyoming landscape, which is severely beautiful but does not exist in order to accommodate human beings. Without railroads or now interstates, we would not be here.”

 

— 4 —

You know the tune Tuxedo Junction? 

Well….Tuxedo Junction is actually here in Birmingham, Alabama. I did not know that until this week.

The second floor of the Belcher-Nixon building located in Ensley was the dance hall and center of all The Junction happenings. Many talented performers hailing from Birmingham got their beginnings by entertaining there.

Among these was the acclaimed musician and performer Erskine Hawkins. In 1939, Hawkins released the Birmingham favorite “Tuxedo Junction” in honor of his hometown. He writes about the magical place that he can count on to raise his spirits, where he can lose himself by dancing the jive all night to his favorite jazz.

 

— 5 –

A really, really good piece on fear and faith, taking off from Cyprian or Carthage’s work On Mortality – written in a time of plague. 

The paradoxical nature of a Christian view of life and death shows up remarkably in Cyprian of Carthage’s treatise On Mortality. Written only a few years after he became bishop in 248, in the midst of a ravenous plague that nearly destroyed the Roman Empire, Cyprian reflects on what it means for Christians to be alive to God, and so not to fear death.

The plague broke out in Egypt around 249 (the “exotic” East for a Roman) and had reached Carthage by 250 or 251. Historian Kyle Harper suggests either pandemic influenza (like the Spanish Flu) or a viral hemorrhagic fever (like Ebola). Ancient sources say that it could have carried away 5,000 persons a day, decimating the population by as much as 60% in some cities. Another source says that it seemed to spread through contact with clothing or even simply by eyesight. It is often called “The Plague of Cyprian” because it is the Carthaginian bishop who provides one of the most graphic accounts of its effects: severe diarrhea (“As the strength of the body is dissolved, the bowels dissipate in a flow”), fever (“a fire that begins in the inmost depths, in the marrow, burns up into wounds in the throat”), and incessant, “intestine-rattling” vomiting (§14). In some cases, a person’s hands or feet were putrefied to the point of falling off, resulting in disfigurement or a loss of hearing and sight.

It was not a physical loss of sight, however, that worried Cyprian most. It was rather a loss of spiritual sight. 

 

— 6 —

Cyprian invites his hearers to see the plague as revelatory for how we view our life in reference to God. As an occasion for Christian sanctification, a time of plague reveals what we really care about, what we really love. The plague, in other words, makes visible what normally remains hidden in our ordinary lives of comfort and distraction. 

What a significance, beloved brethren, all this has! How suitable, how necessary it is that this plague and pestilence, which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the justice of each and every one and examines the minds of the human race—whether those who are well care for the sick, whether relatives dutifully love their kinsmen as they should, whether masters show compassion to their ailing slaves, whether physicians do not desert the afflicted begging their help, whether the violent repress their violence, whether the greedy, even through the fear of death, quench the ever insatiable fire of their raging avarice, whether the proud bend their necks, whether the shameless soften their affrontery, whether the rich, even when their dear ones are perishing and they are about to die without heirs, bestow and give something!

Although this mortality has contributed nothing else, it has especially accomplished this for Christians and servants of God: that we have begun gladly to seek martyrdom while we are learning not to fear death. These are trying exercises for us, not deaths; they give to the mind the glory of fortitude; by contempt of death they prepare for the crown. (§16)

The plague is a test, a spiritual exercise, not a death. 

 

— 7 —

"amy welborn"Here’s a short story for you. It was a finalist for the Dappled Things J. F. Powers competition, but not the winner. So here it is – I wanted to put it on a platform that was not my blog, and Wattpad was the quickest way to go. It undoubtedly does not quite fit the site, but it was easy and let me keep my italics, so it won.

It may not be there forever, as I’ll still keep looking.

And here’s a novel  –     from Son #2! (Check out his other writings here)

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

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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. 

****

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.

******

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.”

"amy Welborn"

EPSON MFP image

"amy Welborn"

 

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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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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I’m not taking a stand on that specifically because there’s plenty of related verbiage out there, and most gravitate towards the view that confirms their political views anyway.

But here’s an slightly off-topic take.

Consider this:  for a few decades now, the mainstream view of the narrative in question, among Biblical scholars and those formed by them in seminary and divinity school (which would be most those preaching and teaching at most of you)  is that…wait for it…

none of it actually happened  anyway. 

Right?

Am I right?

Brown, Fitzmyer, Meier, etc., etc.

Now, I don’t want to get simplistic about this. It’s not a matter of Modern Skeptical Absolutism v. Literalist Absolutism. The question, for most scholars and their students is not as simple as: it’s all history and that’s why it’s valuable or it’s all myth and only valuable as such.

Subtle distinctions were made and teased out: the Gospel narratives are testimonies of faith rooted in experience, not 20th century histories, and should be treated and studied as such. There is a difference between exploring what the Gospel writers and their Paperback Jesus of History, Christ of Faith Bookcommunities were pointing to Christologically and saying that one or the other dogma can be “proven” historically. This is what drew questions about Brown and others, most famously,  about the Virginal Conception and the Resurrection. They’d say, “The normal methods of historiography can’t prove that these things happened. They’re in another realm of experience.” And it would be interpreted as “These scholars are saying that the Virginal Conception and the Resurrection weren’t historical events that occurred in the temporal sphere.”

Which sometimes they weren’t – and sometimes they were.

One person’s subtlety is another’s obfuscation.

But through the massive popularity of Raymond Brown’s The Birth of the Messiah  – THE authority on the infancy narratives from the time of its original publication in 1977 to perhaps the present –  historical skepticism gained the upper hand over more nuanced theological goals. Brown was “conservative” in a sense –this piece is a fair-minded treatment of his work, I think, but this conclusion, from another paper, authored by a (self-defined) non-conservative scholar, captures the essence of Brown’s project from a (liberal) critical perspective. This fellow says that Brown tried to have it both ways – to undermine the historicity of the infancy narratives, but at the same time saying that the essential Christological truths being communicated weren’t dependent on that historicity.  Brown himself says that the historical-critical method has cast doubt on the historicity of the events in the narratives, and that his project is to show that even if there are questions about historicity by 20th century standards, that doesn’t diminish their value to faith. Dawes disagrees, saying,

In pursuing this question I shall take Raymond Brown’s study of the infancy narratives as exemplary. Let me begin by avoiding some possible misunderstandings. I am not questioning the results of Brown’s exegesis. I shall assume that his results are substantially correct, that he has identified what the authors of these narratives intended to convey to their audiences. In his respect, I greatly admire Brown’s indefatigable detective work. Nor do I wish to dispute Brown’s generally negative judgments regarding the historicity of these stories. He produces excellent reasons to believe that there probably were no magi, that there probably was no star, and so on. I have no personal difficulty with these conclusions. What I wish to dispute is Brown’s assumption that these negative conclusions regarding historicity have no theological significance, that we can embrace the theological significance of these stories while no longer believing that the events they relate really occurred.

I am aware that I am not the only person to question this assumption. There are theologically conservative commentators—with whom I otherwise have little in common—who raise similar concerns. Their conclusion would be that we must regard these stories as reports of actual events, for they would otherwise lose their religious significance. I think that such commentators have sound theological instincts, but I have no desire to embrace their conclusion. I agree with Brown that for the most part we cannot regard these stories as historically accurate. But if it is true that the religious significance of these stories depends on their historicity, what follows? 

Point: There was hedging and tentative language, but honestly, the weight of Catholic Biblical scholarship for the past few decades has assumed that the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke have very, very limited value as history.  It’s a pastiche, a midrash composed, not from the memories of those who were there, but from a mix of Jewish tradition, messianic prophecies and concerns of the communities out of which and for whom the narratives were produced.

And it filtered down, of course.

Consider this summary page from the very popular high school textbook by Thomas Zanzig, Jesus of History, Christ of Faith. 

“In fact, in their infancy narratives, Matthew and Luke may have moved beyond historical concerns altogether, focusing instead on insights into the origins of Jesus that only people of faith would be concerned about.”

amy_welborn-book

Again, let’s not be simpletons about this.  Catholic Biblical interpretation has never been stuck in bare-boned literalism and historicism. That’s not what this is about. In terms of the Flight to Egypt, of course – as the Fathers long observed – the entire narrative in Matthew evokes the life of Moses, beginning here. We observe that, we meditate on it – but does that invariably drive us to conclude that Matthew wove the tale from threads he spun himself, divorced from historical events? It might surprise you to know how many would say “yes.”

So this is simply my typically over-long way of pointing out something that struck me as, well, ironic.

I mean – if we’re characterizing the Holy Family as refugees…does that mean we’re back to saying that the Flight to Egypt actually happened?

Great!

 

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…is kind of a big deal.

It’s a feast, not just a memorial. That means that there are Sunday-like three readings at Mass, rather than the usual daily two. You can read them here. 

More:

This day is also called the Exaltation of the Cross, Elevation of the Cross, Holy Cross Day, Holy Rood Day, or Roodmas. The liturgy of the Cross is a triumphant liturgy. When Moses lifted up the bronze serpent over the people, it was a foreshadowing of the salvation through Jesus when He was lifted up on the Cross. Our Mother Church sings of the triumph of the Cross, the instrument of our redemption. To follow Christ we must take up His cross, follow Him and become obedient until death, even if it means death on the cross. We identify with Christ on the Cross and become co-redeemers, sharing in His cross.

We made the Sign of the Cross before prayer which helps to fix our minds and hearts to God. After prayer we make the Sign of the Cross to keep close to God. During trials and temptations our strength and protection is the Sign of the Cross. At Baptism we are sealed with the Sign of the Cross, signifying the fullness of redemption and that we belong to Christ. Let us look to the cross frequently, and realize that when we make the Sign of the Cross we give our entire self to God — mind, soul, heart, body, will, thoughts.

O cross, you are the glorious sign of victory.
Through your power may we share in the triumph of Christ Jesus.

Symbol: The cross of triumph is usually pictured as a globe with the cross on top, symbolic of the triumph of our Savior over the sin of the world, and world conquest of His Gospel through the means of a grace (cross and orb).

The Wednesday, Friday and Saturday following September 14 marks one of the Ember Days of the Church. See Ember Days for more information.

In 2012, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI signed a post-Synodal exhortation for the Synod of the Bishops of the Middle East on this date. He said – and note what I’ve bolded:

Providentially, this event takes place on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, a celebration originating in the East in 335, following the dedication of the Basilica of the Resurrection built over Golgotha and our Lord’s tomb by the Emperor Constantine the Great, whom you venerate as saint. A month from now we will celebrate the seventeen-hundredth anniversary of the appearance to Constantine of the Chi-Rho, radiant in the symbolic night of his unbelief and accompanied by the words: “In this sign you will conquer!” Later, Constantine signed the Edict of Milan, and gave his name to Constantinople. It seems to me that the Post-Synodal Exhortation can be read and understood in the light of this Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, and more particularly in the light of the Chi-Rho, the two first letters of the Greek word “Christos”. Reading it in this way leads to renewed appreciation of the identity of each baptized person and of the Church, and is at the same time a summons to witness in and through communion. Are not Christian communion and witness grounded in the Paschal Mystery, in the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Christ? Is it not there that they find their fulfilment? There is an inseparable bond between the cross and the resurrection which Christians must never forget. Without this bond, to exalt the cross would mean to justify suffering and death, seeing them merely as our inevitable fate. For Christians, to exalt the cross means to be united to the totality of God’s unconditional love for mankind. It means making an act of faith! To exalt the cross, against the backdrop of the resurrection, means to desire to experience and to show the totality of this love. It means making an act of love! To exalt the cross means to be a committed herald of fraternal and ecclesial communion, the source of authentic Christian witness. It means making an act of hope!

Source

Jump back to 2006, and the Angelus on 9/14:

Now, before the Marian prayer, I would like to reflect on two recent and important liturgical events: the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, celebrated on 14 September, and the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows, celebrated the following day.

These two liturgical celebrations can be summed up visually in the traditional image of the Crucifixion, which portrays the Virgin Mary at the foot of the Cross, according to the description of the Evangelist John, the only one of the Apostles who stayed by the dying Jesus.

But what does exalting the Cross mean? Is it not maybe scandalous to venerate a shameful form of execution? The Apostle Paul says: “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (I Cor 1: 23). Christians, however, do not exalt just any cross but the Cross which Jesus sanctified with his sacrifice, the fruit and testimony of immense love. Christ on the Cross pours out his Blood to set humanity free from the slavery of sin and death.

Therefore, from being a sign of malediction, the Cross was transformed into a sign of blessing, from a symbol of death into a symbol par excellence of the Love that overcomes hatred and violence and generates immortal life. “O Crux, ave spes unica! O Cross, our only hope!”. Thus sings the liturgy.

In 2008, Benedict was in Lourdes on 9/14:

“What a great thing it is to possess the Cross! He who possesses it possesses a treasure” (Saint Andrew of Crete, Homily X on the Exaltation of the Cross, PG 97, 1020). On this day when the Church’s liturgy celebrates the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, the Gospel you have just heard reminds us of the meaning of this great mystery: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that men might be saved (cf. Jn 3:16). The Son of God became vulnerable, assuming the condition of a slave, obedient even to death, death on a cross (cf. Phil 2:8). By his Cross we are saved. The instrument of torture which, on Good Friday, manifested God’s judgement on the world, has become a source of life, pardon, mercy, a sign of reconciliation and peace. “In order to be healed from sin, gaze upon Christ crucified!” said Saint Augustine (Treatise on Saint John, XII, 11). By raising our eyes towards the Crucified one, we adore him who came to take upon himself the sin of the world and to give us eternal life. And the Church invites us proudly to lift up this glorious Cross so that the world can see the full extent of the love of the Crucified one for mankind, for every man and woman. She invites us to give thanks to God because from a tree which brought death, life has burst out anew. On this wood Jesus reveals to us his sovereign majesty, he reveals to us that he is exalted in glory. Yes, “Come, let us adore him!” In our midst is he who loved us even to giving his life for us, he who invites every human being to draw near to him with trust.

This is the great mystery that Mary also entrusts to us this morning, inviting us to turn towards her Son. In fact, it is significant that, during the first apparition to Bernadette, Mary begins the encounter with the sign of the Cross. More than a simple sign, it is an initiation into the mysteries of the faith that Bernadette receives from Mary. The sign of the Cross is a kind of synthesis of our faith, for it tells how much God loves us; it tells us that there is a love in this world that is stronger than death, stronger than our weaknesses and sins. The power of love is stronger than the evil which threatens us. It is this mystery of the universality of God’s love for men that Mary came to reveal here, in Lourdes. She invites all people of good will, all those who suffer in heart or body, to raise their eyes towards the Cross of Jesus, so as to discover there the source of life, the source of salvation.

The Church has received the mission of showing all people this loving face of God, manifested in Jesus Christ. Are we able to understand that in the Crucified One of Golgotha, our dignity as children of God, tarnished by sin, is restored to us? Let us turn our gaze towards Christ. It is he who will make us free to love as he loves us, and to build a reconciled world. For on this Cross, Jesus took upon himself the weight of all the sufferings and injustices of our humanity. He bore the humiliation and the discrimination, the torture suffered in many parts of the world by so many of our brothers and sisters for love of Christ. We entrust all this to Mary, mother of Jesus and our mother, present at the foot of the Cross.

Of course, this feast is related to St. Helena:

St. Helena is in the Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints….first page here…her section is “Saints are people who are strong leaders.”

"amy welborn"

"amy welborn"

Also – check out this thread on St. Helena from one of the few useful and interesting Twitter accounts – Eleanor Parker/the Clerk of Oxford. 

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“No life, except the life of Christ, has so moved me as that of St. Peter Claver.”

Pope Leo XIII

A statue of Peter Claver and a slave in Cartagena. This is a very good introduction, from a Cartagena page. 

From Crisis:

Claver’s heroism in dealing with the diseased and sick is astounding. Even so, it was an everyday occurrence. Claver would wipe the sweat from the faces of the slaves with his own handkerchief. Moreover, he would often clothe the sick and diseased in his own cloak. As some of his interpreters witnessed, the cloak had to be washed up to seven times a day from the stink and filth which it had accumulated. It was routine for Claver to console his fellow man by joyfully undertaking practices which were considered extremely repugnant to most. As one eye-witness notes, “Most admirable was that he not only cleansed these plague-ridden ulcers with the two handkerchiefs he kept for that, but did not hesitate to press his lips to them.” He plainly saw Christ “in the least of these brethren.”

The chief problem in the evangelization of the slaves lay in the numerous languages used by the many “races” of Africans. Although Claver himself never mastered the African languages, he did have some facility with Angolese, the most common of them. On account of these linguistic difficulties, he continually worked with a team of interpreters, black slaves who had a fine ear and tongue for languages. It is important to note that Claver empowered these slave interpreters to become true leaders, diligently training them in the Christian faith. Treating them as his equals, close friends, and true collaborators in the work of evangelization, he always carefully looked after their food, clothing, and medicines. If they were seriously sick, he gave up his bed to them, and slept on the floor.

As images are the books of the illiterate, Claver was liberal in his use of pictures in catechizing the new converts. In his instructions, he taught them the rudiments of the faith. He especially enjoyed teaching them about the life, passion, and death of Christ through illustrations and the crucifix. At times, he even used the monitory pictures of hell to inspire in them a true sense of contrition for their own sins. At the same time, he also gave them hope, teaching them about the glories of heaven. It was not an easy task. The slaves had to be patiently drilled in such simple matters as the sign of the cross. At all times, however, he reminded them of their own dignity and worth, teaching them that Christ had redeemed them at a great price with his blood.

Every spring, Claver would set out on rural missions to plantations surrounding Cartagena. Here he would check up on the lives of his charges as much as he was able. Refusing the hospitality of the plantation owners, he dwelt in the Negro slave quarters. On many occasions, he was ill-received by the plantation owners and their wives. They looked at his spiritual ministrations among their slaves as a waste of their time. Throughout his life, he was never a revolutionary, a “hater of the rich and embittered protector of the poor.” Although he had a special predilection for the poor black slaves, he did not ignore the rich; rather, he exhorted the wealthy to carry out their social duties and he promoted cooperation between the classes.

He’s in The Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints

An excerpt:

Peter claver

If you’re ever in Cartegena…from Lonely Planet:

This convent was founded by Jesuits in the first half of the 17th century, originally as San Ignacio de Loyola. The name was later changed in honor of Spanish-born monk Pedro Claver (1580–1654), who lived and died in the convent. Called the ‘Apostle of the Blacks’ or the ‘Slave of the Slaves,’ the monk spent all his life ministering to the enslaved people brought from Africa. He was the first person to be canonized in the New World (in 1888).

The convent is a monumental three-story building surrounding a tree-filled courtyard, and much of it is open as a museum. Exhibits include religious art and pre-Columbian ceramics, and a new section devoted to Afro-Caribbean contemporary pieces includes wonderful Haitian paintings and African masks.

You can visit the cell where San Pedro Claver lived and died in the convent, and also climb a narrow staircase to the choir loft of the adjacent church…. The church has an imposing stone facade, and inside there are fine stained-glass windows and a high altar made of Italian marble. The remains of San Pedro Claver are kept in a glass coffin in the altar. His skull is visible, making it an altar with a difference.

 

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EPSON MFP image

From the Loyola Kids Book of Catholic Signs and Symbols

Her feast is coming up next Monday.

As I’ve done for the past couple of years, I’m going to offer a daily excerpt from my book Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legends and Lies, now available as an e-book for .99.

Remember, that the book was written in the context of the Da Vinci Code fever, so I pay particular attention to the gnostic writings that Brown and others whose work he used depended on for their claims.

Not many people may be looking to DVC as anything but an artifact on the remainder table (we can hope), but as is always the case with these, er, teachable moments – it remains a teachable moment. How do we understand the Gospels? How do we understand the complexity of tradition?  Mary Magdalene is a good way to enter into those discussions.

So.

Chapter 1:

Before the legends, myths, and speculation, and even before the best-selling novels, there was something else: the Gospels.

The figure of Mary Magdalene has inspired a wealth of art, devotion, and charitable works throughout Christian history, but if we want to really understand her, we have to open the Gospels, because all we really know for sure is right there.

The evidence seems, at first glance, frustratingly slim: an introduction in Luke, and then Mary’s presence at the cross and at the empty tomb mentioned in all four amy-welborn-book2Gospels. Not much to go on, it seems.

But in the context, the situation isn’t as bad as it appears. After all, no one besides Jesus is described in any detail in the Gospels, and even the portrait of Jesus, as evocative as it is, omits details that we moderns are programmed to think are important. Perhaps, given the context, the Gospels tell us more about Mary Magdalene than we think.

Trustworthy?

Before we actually meet the Mary Magdalene of the Gospels, it might be a good idea to remind ourselves of exactly what the Gospels are and how to read them.

The word “Gospel” means, of course, “good news,” or evangel in Greek, which is why we call the writers of the Gospels evangelists. The four Gospels in the New Testament have been accepted as the most authoritative and accurate writings on Jesus’ life since the early second century. Even today, scholars who study early  Christianity, whether they are believers or not, know that when studying Jesus and the early Christian movement, the Gospels and other New Testament writings are the place to begin.

Sometimes in my speaking on this issue, I have fielded questions about the reliability of the Gospels. A questioner will say something like, “Well, they were written so long after the events, how can we trust them to tell the truth?”

In addition, even those of us who have received some sort of religious education might have been taught, implicitly, to be skeptical of the Gospels. We’re reminded, right off, that the Gospels are not history or biography, and that they tell us far more about the community that produced them than about Jesus himself.

In short, all of this gets distilled into the conviction that when it comes to early Christianity, all documents and texts are of equal value in telling us about Jesus. You can’t pick the best according to historical reliability, so you pick the one with the “story” that means the most to you. So, if the Gospel of Mark displeases you, you can go ahead and create your Jesus from what you read in the Gospelof Philip or the Pistis Sophia.

Sorry, but it just doesn’t work that way. As we will see in more detail when we get to the Gnostic writings, there is simply no comparison between the four canonical Gospels and other writ-ings. The canonical Gospels were not written that distant from the events described — forty or fifty years — and were written in an oral culture that took great care to preserve what it heard with care; the community’s history depended on it. When you actually read the Gospels, you see comments here and there from the evangel-ists themselves about what they were trying to do, and part of that involved, according to their own admission, being as accurate as possible (see Luke 1:1-4, for example).

No, the Gospels are not straight history or biography in the contemporary sense. They are testaments of faith. But they are testaments of faith rooted in what really happened. The evangelists, and by extension, the early Christians, were not about making up stories for which they would later, oddly, give their lives. They were not cleverly presenting their inner psychological transformations in the form of concrete stories. They were witnesses to the amazing action of God in history, through Jesus. amy-welborn-book3They are testimonies of faith, yes, but faith rooted in the realities of God’s movement in the world.

It’s also good to listen to modern Gospel critics carefully. More often than not, those who disdain the Gospels are quick to claim some other text as “gospel,” as the source of truth. Their choice of what to believe usually has far less to do with historical reliability than it does with other factors.

So, no, not all historical texts are equally reliable. When it comes to Jesus and the events of the mid-first century, the canonical Gospels are really the only place to begin.

Now, on to Mary Magdalene.

Magdala

Luke introduces us to Mary Magdalene in chapter 8 of his Gospel:

 

“Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, preach-ing and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out,and Joanna,the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.” (Luke 8:1-3)

So here she is: a woman from whom Jesus had driven seven demons, joined with other women, also healed by Jesus, who had left their lives behind to follow him.

Mary is mentioned first in this list, as she is in every list of female disciples, in every Gospel, similar to the way that in lists of the twelve apostles Peter’s name always comes first. The precise reason for Mary’s consistent preeminence is impossible to determine, but we can guess that it might have much to do with her important role related to the Resurrection, as well as to recognition of her faithfulness to Jesus.

These women “provided for them out of their means.” This might mean one of two things, or both: that the women assisted Jesus and his disciples by preparing meals and so on, or that they supported them financially. The second explanation is supported by the presence of Joanna, the wife of a member of Herod’s court, on the list. Perhaps some of these women were, indeed, wealthy enough to give Jesus’ ministry a financial base. (Some legends about Mary have played off of this, as we will see later, suggesting that she was quite wealthy and actually owned the town of Magdala.)

What stands out about Mary is that she’s identified, not by her relationship to a man, as most women would be at that time, but to a town. This indicates that Mary wasn’t married, and perhaps even that she had outlived her father and other male relatives: she was a single woman, able to give support to Jesus out of gratitude for what he had done for her.

Magdala was located on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, about four miles north of the major city of Tiberias. Today, it is a village with a few hundred inhabitants, some abandoned archaeological digs, and only the most inconspicuous memorials to its most well-known inhabitant.

“Magdala” is derived from the Hebrew Migdal, which means “fortress” or “tower.” It was also called “Tarichea,” which means “salted fish,” a name which reveals the town’s primary industry during the first century, the salting and pickling of fish. Excavations led by Franciscans in the 1970s revealed a structure that some think was a synagogue (others a springhouse), as well as a couple of large villas and, from later centuries, what might be a Byzan-tine monastery. Magdala is described by Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, as having forty thousand inhabitants, six thou-sand of whom were killed in one of the battles during the Jewish Revolt (A.D. 66-70), but most modern historians believe those numbers are far too high.

Jewish tradition suggests that Magdala was ultimately destroyed as a punishment for prostitution, and another strain holds that in ancient times Job’s daughters died there. Pilgrim accounts from the ninth through the thirteenth centuries report the existence of a church in Magdala, supposedly built in the fourth century by St. Helena, who discovered the True Cross in Jerusalem.

By the seventeenth century, pilgrims reported nothing but ruins at Magdala.

Possessed

Mary — like Peter, Andrew, and the other apostles — walked away from life as she knew it, abandoned everything to follow Jesus. Why?

“. . . from whom seven demons had gone out.”

Exorcism is an aspect of Jesus’ ministry that many of us either forget about or ignore, but the Gospels make clear how important it is: Mark, in fact, describes an exorcism as Jesus’ first mighty deed, in the midst of his preaching (1:25). Some modern com-mentators might declare that what the ancients referred to as pos-session was nothing more than mental illness, but there is really no reason to assume that is true. The “demons,” or unclean or evil spirits, we see mentioned sixty-three times in the Gospels were understood as forces that indeed possessed people, inhabiting them, bringing on what we would describe as mental problems, emotional disturbances, and even physical illness. The symptoms, however, were, to the ancient mind, only that: symptoms. The deeper problem was the alienation from the rest of the human family and from God produced by this mysterious force of evil.

In the world in which Jesus lived, seven was a number that symbolized completion, from the seven days of creation (Genesis 1:1-2:3) to the seven seals on God’s book in Revelation (5:1) and the seven horns and eyes of the Lamb in the same vision (5:6). Mary’s possession by seven demons (also explicitly mentioned in Mark 16:9) indicates to us that her possession was serious and overwhelming — total, in fact. She was wholly in the grip of these evil spirits, and Jesus freed her — totally.

So of course, she left everything and followed him.

It’s worth noting now, even though we’ll discuss it more later, that nowhere in the New Testament is the condition of possession synonymous with sinfulness. The “sinners” in the Gospels — the tax collectors, those who cannot or will not observe the Law, the prostitutes — are clearly distinguished from those possessed. Some Christian thinkers have linked Mary Magdalene to various sinful, unnamed women in the Gospels because of her identification as formerly possessed. There may be reasons, indeed, to link Mary to these women, but possession is not one of them, because the conditions — possession and sinfulness — are not the same thing in the minds of the evangelists.

Disciple

The evangelists used the texts, memories, and oral traditions they had at hand to communicate the Good News about Jesus. Because they were human beings, their writing and editing bears the stamp of their unique concerns and interests. Just as you and a spouse might tell the same story, emphasizing different aspects of it to make different points — perhaps you want to tell the story of your missed flight as a warning about being organized and prepared, and he wants to tell it as a way to highlight the need to go with the flow — the evangelists shaped the fundamental story of Jesus in accord with what struck them as the most significant points of his life and ministry, what their audiences most needed to hear.

In the eighth chapter of his Gospel, Luke has finished introducing Jesus, and is ready to really help his audience understand what being a disciple means. He begins by describing who is following Jesus — the Twelve and the women — and then offers a general description of what Jesus’ ministry is about. Jesus then tells his first parable (the parable of the sower and the seeds, which is the first parable Jesus relates in all of the Gospels), then quickly calms a storm, performs another dramatic exorcism, raises a little girl back to life, and in the midst of it tells his followers, firmly, that his blood relations are not his family, but rather those who “hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21).

So that’s the context of the introduction of Mary Magdalene and the other women — not just to set the stage, to complete the cast of characters, because Luke, like all of the other evangelists, didn’t have vellum to spare to do such a thing. Every word he wrote had a purpose, and it was very focused — here, to set before us, in quick, strong strokes, what this kingdom of God was all about. What do we learn from the presence of the women?

First, we learn that women are present, period. Women were not chattel slaves in first-century Judaism, by any means, but neither were they often, if ever, seen leaving their ordinary lives to follow a rabbi. In fact, scholar Ben Witherington describes this conduct as “scandalous” in the cultural context (Women in the Ministry of Jesus [Cambridge University Press, 1984]):

“We know women were allowed to hear the word of God in the synagogue but they were never disciples of a rabbi unless their husband or master was a rabbi willing to teach them.Though a woman might be taught certain negative precepts of the Law out of necessity,this did not mean they would be taught rabbinic explanations of Torah. For a Jewish woman to leave home and travel with a rabbi was not only unheard of, it was scandalous. Even more scandalous was the fact that women, both respectable and not, were among Jesus’ traveling companions.” (Witherington, p. 117)

And not just any women, either. As we noted earlier, Mary Magdalene was once possessed by seven demons. In this culture, those possessed were ostracized — one man Jesus exorcised is described as living in a cemetery (Luke 8:27). Mary Magdalene, formerly at the margins of society, has been transformed by Jesus and is now welcomed as a disciple. The barriers of class, too, are broken, Luke hints, with the presence of Joanna, the wife of a per-son of stature. In God’s kingdom, Luke makes clear, the world we know is being turned upside down.

Just as every phrase and scene in the Gospels is carefully chosen under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so are the parts of the Gospel related. We meet Mary Magdalene here, but we will not see her again for many chapters — until the Passion narrative begins. But when we do encounter her — again, with the other women — here’s what she will be doing: she will be standing near the cross, she will then be preparing Jesus’ body for burial, and later she will see and witness to the empty tomb, and encounter the risen Jesus.

Mary will be serving, still. She serves, watches, and waits, the only remaining link between Jesus’ Galilean ministry, his Passion, and the Resurrection. She is introduced as a grateful, faithful dis-ciple, and that she will remain, a witness to the life Jesus brings.

 

Already, there’s a sort of mystery: what were these demons? What exactly happened to Mary? The evangelists don’t tell us, perhaps because they and Mary herself knew that life with Jesus is not about looking back into the past, but rather rejoicing in God’s power to transform our lives in the present.

 

Questions for Reflection

 

  1. What do we know about Mary Magdalene’s life from the Gospels?
  1. What does her presence in Jesus’ ministry tell you about the kingdom of God that Jesus preached?
  2.   How has God acted in your life with power? How do you respond to that? How would you like to respond?

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Just get out there. Go. Live that faith as if it’s actually real to you.

Here’s an excerpt from The Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories. It’s not the whole thing – just the first page and the last two. I’m sharing the last two with you, both in jpeg and text form, so you can see my take here. As I’ve very tediously said before, the structure of this book involves retelling Bible narratives at age-appropriate levels, and then tying the story into a more specifically Catholic theme.

Here you go:

 

Click on images for larger versions. Here’s the text of the last section:

In the ages before the computer or even the telephone or the printing press, men and women listened carefully to the words of Jesus that the Apostles remembered. They passed on those words and wrote them down. They took these Gospels and the prayers of the Church with them, written on scrolls and in books. They carried the love of Jesus in their hearts and climbed over icy mountains, walked through dark forests, and sailed over oceans to share Jesus’ words with others. Often, they had to learn other languages to do this. Sometimes, traveling to new places was dangerous and uncertain.

Jesus’ friends told women, men, boys, and girls from every continent in the world this truth that would change their lives. They told them the Good News that they were here on earth because God wanted them to be here. Jesus had come to earth to forgive their sins and bring them close to God. They told them that this world is not all there is: when people say yes to God, they will live forever in God’s presence. Christians traveled into jungles, villages, and cities, teaching what Jesus had taught and remembering that he was always with them.

Over the centuries, since just a few people stood on the mountain with Jesus, women, men, boys, and girls have been baptized into the Body of Christ in every corner of the world. They have heard the Great Commission and lived by it. They have passed on prayers and rituals. They have encountered Jesus in the sacraments. They have painted pictures, sculpted statues, and written music as a way of telling people about Jesus. They have taken children on their laps and, by the light of a flickering fire, guided their tiny hands across their bodies in the Sign of the Cross:

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit ..

Because of them—all of them—you and I can say our prayers. Because those first friends of Jesus accepted the mission he gave them, you and I can meet Jesus in the Eucharist.

Jesus’ earthly body ascended into heaven that day but as he promised, he is always present. We don’t look up at the sky. We don’t have to. He is all around us: the Body of Christ.
To read the whole story in the Bible, go to Matthew 28:16-20 and Acts 1:6-11.
Think Quietly: What mission did Jesus give the Apostles? How has the Church fulfilled Jesus’ Great Commission?
Pray Together: Jesus, you send us out in your name. Be with us as we spread the Good News.

 

More.

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Well, it’s been a few days since we digested, so let’s go for it:

amy_welbornWriting:  I was in Living Faith last Sunday. Next appearance won’t be until the beginning of May.

Several blog posts – just scroll back for those. Lots of travel blathering to assuage my guilt about privilege and such. Dug up an old piece I wrote on St. Benedict the Black (Moor), posted that and discovered that I’ve been annoyed by the same things for a long time.

Lots of sitting around, staring and jotting notes.

Oh! The Loyola Kids Book of Signs and Symbols is a finalist for an “Excellence in Publishing Award” from the Association of Catholic Publishers. 

Listening:   Much Liszt and Ginastera still, but not as much Beethoven – we may be almost done with this particular piece for the year after last Saturday. Hopefully not img_20190409_200229completely done – that would mean he didn’t do well enough to advance to the state level – but we’ll see. Waiting for those results.

As that area of piano winds down, the jazz and organ levels up. Lots of listening to this this week – and for the next few weeks. 

Reading: All right, here we go. First, let’s do what’s in progress.

Rare for me, I purchased a brand new book, simply on the basis on a recommendation. I don’t remember where I saw this mentioned, but since it involved the Gospel of Mark – along with John, one of my two favorites – and seemed to take on some of my concerns, I was in: The Memoirs of St. Peter: A New Translation of the Gospel of Mark. 

Simply reading the introduction was a revelation and prompted me to regret, once again, the thrust of Biblical studies in the era in which I came of age – the 80’s and 90’s – rooted in the historical-critical method, aka – as it panned out for most of us –  skepticism. I suppose what we are seeing now needed that stage to exist. Perhaps this moment couldn’t have come to life without both the shaking of old pietistic assumptions as well as the hard contextual work of the historical-critical scholars, but still. What time wasted, what distance created between the reader and Christ by fixating us – even the lay reader via Bible studies and homiletics – on what Matthew is saying to his Jewish readers here and how it differs from what Luke is saying to his Gentile readers there. 

More as I go along.

I’ve read two novels since last we spoke on these matters:

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

Why this and how? The typical rabbit-trail route. Browsing the “new releases” I came upon her TranscriptionIt looked mildly interesting, which led me to go to the “A’s” in the fiction section and see what else she’d written – a lot, as it turned out – so I plucked out a couple to try. I ended up starting with this one rather than the newest. It was..okay.

She writes well, and that’s why it wasn’t time wasted for me. I learned some things from reading her. But the novel wasn’t ultimately satisfying for me and led me to decide to just return the others I’d checked out and move on.

There are three mysteries introduced in the story, which end up being…sort of connected. I think what put me off was, first, I figured things out pretty early, and I never figure mysteries out. Maybe I’m just getting smarter, but I doubt that.

Secondly, there is a theme of abuse within a family which is treated rather lightly by surviving family members when it comes to light. The abuse was terrible, and I found the reaction of characters both unbelievable and – hate to use the word, but this is it – offensive.

My only other comment on the book is that once again  – Catholic themes and imagery pop up, and I wasn’t even looking for them – again. A family member ends up in a convent and while the treatment of this tumbles a little bit into caricature, and I honestly don’t think this person would have actually been accepted into religious life considering her issues and weirdness, still – there was a theme of contrition and doing penance for one’s sins that required a working out, and where do you go when you need to make that happen? Catholic Land, of course!

Now, for a much better, more serious book – The Blood of the Lamb by Peter de Vries. 

(The link goes to an archive.org version that you can “borrow.” The book is still in print, though and easy to find. )

As I mentioned the other day, de Vries was a favorite of my father’s and was quite popular in the 60’s. I’d never read anything by him, and this novel is a departure from his usual humorous work – although it has its moments as well.

I rarely, if ever suggest to you “You should read this book” –  simply because life is short, people’s tastes vary, and who am I?

But I’m going to make an exception here. I think you should read this book – if you’re interested in faith, period, but particularly faith and art.

Here’s an excellent essay from Image introducing de Vries, and particularly this book:

IT WAS AN ORDINARY autumn night in suburban Chicago when I received the most disturbing book I have ever read. I was seventeen, slouching in my bedroom making a half-hearted attempt at homework, my sweaty cross-country clothes festering on the floor. My father appeared at the doorway and handed me a yellowed paperback that looked at least a few decades old.

“You might like this,” he said.

It was The Blood of the Lamb by Peter De Vries. I had heard De Vries’s name for the first time only a few days earlier. It came up at the family dinner table, and as I learned about him, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of him sooner. He was once a well-known satirist who published twenty-six novels, most of them commercially successful. He spent forty-three years as an editor at TheNew Yorker, his short stories appearing regularly in its pages. He enjoyed a privileged perch in the cultural landscape, friends with J.D. Salinger and James Thurber.

And he came from our people—the Dutch Calvinists of Chicago. He attended my religious high school and college. He grew up in the same South Side neighborhood as my grandmother, worshipping at the same church, Second Christian Reformed on Seventy-Second Street. According to a family story, he had dated her, or tried to date her. Or they shared a hymnal at a Sunday evening church service. By Dutch Calvinist standards, that’s practically second base.

A short synopsis:

Don Wanderhope is , as the essay above says, from Dutch Calvinist stock, living in Chicago, when we first meet him, in the late 1920’s. His father runs a refuse company (common among Dutch Calvinists, according to this essay), and he grows to adulthood listening in on theological arguments, helping his father, going to school, discovering girls, and yearning for a different, more refined life.

Image result for blood of the lam de vriesHe gets into a bit of trouble with one girl (a hilarious scene – I mean, who can blame them for not anticipating the model home being shown on a Sunday evening?) but is spared from marrying her by a TB diagnosis. He goes to Colorado sanatorium (I always enjoy fictional sanatorium scenes because my mother had TB and spent time in one in New Hampshire in her youth – and remembered the time, in a way, as the best time of her life.) where he meets another girl, falls in love, but that ends and he heads back to Chicago, mostly healed (if he was ever really that ill at all) discovers his father in the beginning stages of dementia, goes to college, marries, moves to New York, works in advertising, has a daughter who eventually dies of leukemia.

I won’t say spoiler alert because everyone knows that the illness, suffering and death of the character’s daughter is the center of the novel – because it’s autobiographical. The novel was published a year after de Vries’ own 10-year old daughter died of leukemia, and oh, it is raw and painful and sorrowful.

So, no – if subject matter like that would be difficult for you to handle, you shouldn’t read it.

But if you can handle it, and you want to be immersed in a very honest, challenging exploration of faith and theodicy – pick it up.

Before I read it, I was under the impression that the book was the cry of an atheist soul, but it’s really not. It’s the cry of a suffering, loving soul who just doesn’t understand. It’s a dramatization of the question: You, a human parent, would do everything you could to alleviate your child’s suffering – why doesn’t God do the same for his own suffering children? This. Makes. No. Sense.

Jeffrey Frank, writing in The New Yorker in 2004 about De Vries’s legacy, calls the following hospital scenes “as unbearable as anything in modern literature.” I can’t say that he’s exaggerating. Don and Carol make a series of visits to a New York hospital, each time receiving assurances from her oncologist, Dr. Scoville, about his progress researching cures. De Vries charts the development of her leukemia in excruciating detail, tracking the cycles of remission and broken hopes, with each medication more desperate than the last.

Don joins the other parents in trying to preserve a sense of normalcy. They throw birthday parties and speak of returning to school in the fall. He watches a dying infant crawl the hallway “wearing a turban of surgical gauze, whom a passing nurse snatched up and returned to its crib.”

He describes these incidents as if laying out evidence against a heartless God. Here the book’s title becomes clear. It refers not to the blood of Jesus, the lamb of scripture, but to the young girl. Don’s innocent lamb is poisoned by her own blood.

When I read the book at seventeen, it was De Vries’s intensity that rattled me so deeply. The Blood of the Lamb attacked my community’s faith, furiously, from within. That’s something that Hitchens and the so-called New Atheists couldn’t do. We were taught to expect “the world” to mock our faith. But here was one of our own doing the same, and he struck me as funny, sophisticated, and intelligent in doing so. I felt an uncomfortable shiver of recognition, because I knew, even if it went unspoken, that our faith clashed with modern science, that our scriptures carried contradictions, and that religion often fueled as much bigotry as good in the world. I couldn’t defend the reasons for my faith against De Vries.

Returning to the book as an adult, I realize I misremembered two things. First, De Vries reserves as much rage for medical authorities as religious ones. When Dr. Scoville glibly tells him about the “exciting chase” of developing chemotherapy drugs, Wanderhope responds, “Do you believe in God as well as play at him?”

Second, I remembered Wanderhope as a settled unbeliever from his university days onward. Yet it’s clear that he keeps searching for divine guidance until the very end of his daughter’s life, even carrying a crucifix and medal of Saint Christopher. His retort to Dr. Scoville is a bitter joke, yet it’s also the question he can’t stop asking.

I’m going to close with a few quotes from the novel, but I want to point out something alluded to in what the essayist says here, something that is so interesting to me. De Vries’ background was solid Dutch Calvinist, and the theological discussions at the beginning take on faith in that context – predestination, and so on. But as the novel moves to New York, the religious context and imagery become very, very Catholic. The practical reason is that there’s a Catholic church on the way to the hospital. Wanderhope is always passing it and even stopping in. The crucifix outside the church becomes the focus of a final, enraged gesture.

Partly, I suppose because this reflects de Vries’ own actual experience, partly because well, Calvinists don’t have a lot of imagery that lends itself to dramatization of inner faith turmoil.

Once again. 

He resented such questions as people do who have thought a great deal about them. The superficial and slipshod have ready answers, but those looking this complex life straight in the eye acquire a wealth of perception so composed of delicately balanced contradictions that they dread, or resent, the call to couch any part of it in a bland generalization. The vanity (if not outrage) of trying to cage this dance of atoms in a single definition may give the weariness of age with the cry of youth for answers the appearance of boredom.

 

I made a tentative conclusion. It seemed from all of this that uppermost among human joys is the negative one of restoration: not going to the stars, but learning that one may stay where one is.

 

The greatest experience open to man then is the recovery of the commonplace. Coffee in the morning and whiskeys in the evening again without fear. Books to read without that shadow falling across the page.

Dead drunk and cold-sober, he wandered out into the garden in the cool of the evening, awaiting the coming of the Lord.

There is a point when life, having showered us with jewels for nothing, begins to exact our life’s blood for paste.

And then, on a light note, this – reflecting the mid-1930’s. The content is more explicit now, but really, has anything changed? The pride in putting something stupid out there and selling it as a manifestation of some sort of artistic progress?

One summer when Carol was attending day camp, Greta had an affair with a man named Mel Carter. He was an Eastern publicity representative for a film studio, and often instructed dinner parties to which we went in those days with accounts of the movies’ coming of age. ‘We have a picture coming up,’ he said once, ‘in which a character says “son of a bitch.” Lots of exciting things are happening. Still, it’s only a beginning. Much remains to be done.’

 

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