Archive for the ‘Cross’ Category


Yes, St. Patrick’s Day is a couple of days away, but don’t you want to prepare? Prepare yourself, prepare the kids…


St. Patrick's Well, Orvieto

What is this and what does it have to do with St. Patrick? See the end of the blog post…

From The Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints:

How do you teach a classroom that’s as big as a whole country? How do you teach a whole country about God?

St. Patrick’s classroom was the whole country of Ireland and his lesson was the good news of Jesus Christ. How in the world did he do it? Well, it was only possible because he depended totally on God.


God gave Patrick the courage to speak, even when Patrick was in danger of being hurt by pagan priests who didn’t want to lose their power over the people.

Patrick’s most famous prayer shows us how close he was to God. It’s called “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.” A breastplate is the piece of armor that protects a soldier’s heart from harm.

Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ within me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ at my right, Christ at my left.

I also  have a chapter on the beautiful Lorica prayer – or St. Patrick’s Breastplate in The Words We Pray. You can dip into it here and buy the book here. It’s one of my favorites of those I’ve written. 

The point of St Patrick to me has always been he went back.  He (like Isaac Jogues and many others) returned to the people who had caused him much suffering. Why did he return? Because he knew, first hand, that they needed to hear the Gospel. The Gospel is about forgiveness and reconciliation. Who better to bring it to them?

St. Patrick's Breastplate

St. Patrick’s Breastplate in a Wordcloud. Wordcloud made via this. Feel free to share. 

The photograph at the top of the blog post is of St. Patrick’s Well in Orvieto, Italy, taken during our 2016 trip. No, St. Patrick never traveled to Italy, and no one thinks he does, either. The assumption is that the name of this very deep, intriguingly constructed well is derived from the awareness of “St. Patrick’s Purgatory” in Ireland, a cave so deep it led to Purgatory. 

This incredible 16th century feat of engineering is 72 meters (174.4 feet) deep and 13 meters (43 feet) wide.  Two staircases circle the central opening in a double-helix design, meaning that one person (or donkey carrying empty buckets) can travel down the staircase in one direction and never run into another person (or donkey carrying full buckets) coming up in the other direction.  Seventy-two arched windows in the interior wall of the staircase filter light through the well and illuminate the brick and mortar used to seal it.

Why does a tiny town on top of a plateau of volcanic rock (or “tufa”) have such a thing? For the same reason it has such a stunning duomo!  After the troops of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sacked Rome in 1527, Pope Clement VII was held hostage in Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome’s holy fortress, for six months.  He finally escaped dressed as a servant and took refuge in Orvieto. It was the perfect spot with its vantage point over the valley.

It didn’t, however, have a reliable source of water without descending from the plateau, something the Pope feared could be a issue if it were sieged.  To solve the problem before it existed, Pope Clement VII commissioned Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, a visionary young Italian architect, to create a well that was at that time called “Pozzo della Rocca”, “Well of the Fortress”. Research had already been done to find the most suitable spot for a well and so the design and construction of Pozzo della Roca was begun immediately.  It was finished 10 years later in 1537, under the reign of Pope Paul III.

It wasn’t until the 1800′s that the well got its new name, as it reminded some of the “well” or “cave” in Ireland called “St. Patrick’s Purgatory”.



(I always like these vintage books more for the art than the text….)

Finally, you might be interested in this, dug up from the Internet Archive: A Rhymed Life of St. Patrick by Irish writer Katharine Tynan:

Irish nationalist writer Katharine Tynan was born in Clondalkin, a suburb of Dublin, in 1859. She was educated at the Dominican Convent of St. Catherine and started writing at a young age. Though Catholic, she married a Protestant barrister; she and her husband lived in England before moving to Claremorris, in County Mayo. Tynan was friends with W.B. Yeats and Charles Parnell.

 Involved in the Irish Literary Revival, Tynan expressed concern for feminist causes, the poor, and the effects of World War I—two sons fought in the war—in her work. She also meditated on her Catholic faith. A prolific writer, she wrote more than 100 novels, 12 collections of short stories, reminiscences, plays, and more than a dozen books of poetry, among them Louise de la Vallière and Other Poems (1885), Shamrocks (1887), Ballads and Lyrics (1891), Irish Poems (1913), The Flower of Peace: A Collection of the Devotional Poetry of Katharine Tynan (1914), Flower of Youth: Poems in Wartime (1915), and Late Songs (1917). She died in 1931.



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"amy welborn"

This is the cover of a pamphlet introducing the new, stripped-down, freedom-o-the-Christian-centered Lenten framework for American Catholics after the Second Vatican Council. It is part of Notre Dame’s Catholic Pamphlet Collection, which was available on archive.org for a very short time – I discovered it one night, and then, it seems as if a couple of weeks later, it had been taken down, I presume because of copyright issues. 

It being the first Friday of Lent, you’re probably going to herethere have been the usual minor rumblings about the purported relative ease of the fast for post-Vatican II Latin Rite Catholics.

Well, here’s my problem with that yearly ritual….

…(the apologizing and complaining, not the fasting, that is)…

The whole idea of the post-Conciliar changes to penitential fasting and abstinence was to present, as it were, a minimum on paper, with the expectation that the individual, flush with the glory of the Freedom of the Christian (and the Spirit of the Council), would take it from there.

The legal minimalism was supposed to unleash an internal maximalist lurking in all of us who had just been waiting to be treated like an adult instead of a child defined by adherence to rigid rules.

The rules are supposed to be minimal. That was the intention of the changes. 

And just a slight detour –

First, St. Francis de Sales had excellent advice on fasting. Read it here.

Secondly, a century and a half ago, people were complaining that the Catholic Lenten fast was too lax. John Henry Newman addressed it, and I talk about it here.  It’s startlingly prescient. Really…life and human nature does not change that much. These words could have been written today:

For example, in respect to curiosity. What a deal of time is lost, to say nothing else, in this day by curiosity, about things which in no ways concern us. I am not speaking against interest in the news of the day altogether, for the course of the world must ever be interesting to a Christian from its bearing upon the fortunes of the Church, but I speak of vain curiosity, love of scandal, love of idle tales, curious prying into the private history of people, curiosity about trials and offences, and personal matters, nay often what is much worse than this, curiosity into sin. … Hence this is the way in which we are called upon, with this Lent we now begin, to mortify ourselves. Let us mortify our curiosity.

So back to the issue of fasting and abstinence.

I think it’s a good idea to read Paul VI’s document on this, as well as the US bishops’.

From Paul VI, in February 1966

The US bishops, in November 1966.

I’m going to post excerpts in a second, but before we get lost in that, I’ll just venture to say that although I don’t think they should have eliminated the year-long Friday abstinence for any reason, in any way, these efforts to deepen a Catholic’s understanding of the practice are really not bad! In fact, Eamon Duffy, in his excellent article critiquing the loss of Friday abstinence, gives the American Catholic bishops a shout-out for offering a much more grounded articulation of the changes than the British bishops did, who, acccording to him, basically said, “We know this is a lot of bother, chaps, so you don’t have to do it anymore.”

In reading Catholic observers of the pre-Vatican II era, we do see concern with a distance between practice and understanding (that was the motive for the Liturgical Movement, as a whole, after all), and the rapidity with which Catholics after Vatican II ditched Friday abstinence without replacing it with any other penitential practice reveals that distance. Long ago, a Catholic blogger recounted his parents’ reaction to the lifting of Friday abstinence – they and their Catholic friends in the neighborhood celebrated by having a huge steak barbecue!

What I see then, is one more example of the misguided nature of the “renewal” of the Church. Instead of truly starting from where people were and what they already practiced, and trying to help people understand that, they moved to a state of minimalism, stripping the hard-to-follow and hard-to-understand stuff away, trusting in an ideal: people, flush in their mature Christian freedom, would just do what the deeper, yet now impenetrable intention of the “rules” had been guiding them toward through the centuries.

Perhaps for some that happened, but for the bulk it didn’t, and the other consequences were dire:

  • Loss of Catholic identity in that shared practice
  • A shaking of faith as Catholics, who had been presented with these practices as an expression of the solid, unchanging rock of the Catholic faith, were told, in essence: “KIDDING!” What was solid and worth taking seriously? What, that the Church taught, could be trusted?

Now, back to it. I’ll just end with two official documents detailing the changes in practice. They are worth reading, and honestly, when you are even lightly familiar with two thousand years of Catholic thinking and writing on fasting and other penitential practices, the call to go deeper than the minimal and just use that as a starting point that is the center of these documents, is not inconsistent with that tradition.

The mistake – and it was huge – was in, really, changing anything. It shouldn’t have been changed, for it stripped Catholic life of a deep connection to centuries of Catholic practice and was too idealistic about human nature.

From Duffy’s article:

The ritual observance of dietary rules—fasting and abstinence from meat in Lent, and abstinence from meat and meat products every Friday, as well as the eucharistic fast from midnight before the reception of Communion—were as much defining marks of Catholicism before the council as abstention from pork is a defining characteristic of Judaism. The Friday abstinence in particular was a focus of Catholic identity which transcended class and educational barriers, uniting “good” and “bad” Catholics in a single eloquent observance. Here was a universally recognized expression of Catholicism which was nothing to do with priests or authority.

Now to the US Bishops, from 1966:

  1. Wherefore, we ask, urgently and prayerfully, that we, as people of God, make of the entire Lenten Season a period of special penitential observance. Following the instructions of the Holy See, we declare that the obligation both to fast and to abstain from meat, an obligation observed under a more strict formality by our fathers in the faith, still binds on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. No Catholic Christian will lightly excuse himself from so hallowed an obligation on the Wednesday which solemnly opens the Lenten season and on that Friday called “Good” because on that day Christ suffered in the flesh and died for our sins.
  2. In keeping with the letter and spirit of Pope Paul’s ConstitutionPoenitemini, we preserved for our dioceses the tradition of abstinence from meat on each of the Fridays of Lent, confident that no Catholic Christian will lightly hold himself excused from this penitential practice.
  3. For all other weekdays of Lent, we strongly recommend participation in daily Mass and a self-imposed observance of fasting. In the light of grave human needs which weigh on the Christian conscience in all seasons, we urge, particularly during Lent, generosity to local,national, and world programs of sharing of all things needed to translate our duty to penance into a means of implementing the right of the poor to their part in our abundance. We also recommend spiritual studies, beginning with the Scriptures as well as the traditional Lenten Devotions (sermons, Stations of the Cross, and the rosary), and all the self-denial summed up in the Christian concept of “mortification.”


This paragraph relates to Vigils and Ember Days, but I think it succinctly summarizes the whole intent:

Vigils and Ember Days, as most now know, no longer oblige to fast and abstinence. However, the liturgical renewal and the deeper appreciation of the joy of the holy days of the Christian year will, we hope, result in a renewed appreciation as to why our forefathers spoke of “a fast before a feast.” We impose no fast before any feast-day, but we suggest that the devout will find greater Christian joy in the feasts of the liturgical calendar if they freely bind themselves, for their own motives and in their own spirit of piety, to prepare for each Church festival by a day of particular self-denial, penitential prayer and fasting.

On the Friday abstinence, year-round:

  1. Gratefully remembering this, Catholic peoples from time immemorial have set apart Friday for special penitential observance by which they gladly suffer with Christ that they may one day be glorified with Him. This is the heart of the tradition of abstinence from meat on Friday where that tradition has been observed in the holy Catholic Church.
  2. Changing circumstances, including economic, dietary, and social elements, have made some of our people feel that the renunciation of the eating of meat is not always and for everyone the most effective means of practicing penance. Meat was once an exceptional form of food; now it is commonplace.
  3. Accordingly, since the spirit of penance primarily suggests that we discipline ourselves in that which we enjoy most, to many in our day abstinence from meat no longer implies penance, while renunciation of other things would be more penitential.
  4. For these and related reasons, the Catholic bishops of the United States, far from downgrading the traditional penitential observance of Friday, and motivated precisely by the desire to give the spirit of penance greater vitality, especially on Fridays, the day that Jesus died,urge our Catholic people henceforth to be guided by the following norms.
  5. Friday itself remains a special day of penitential observance throughout the year, a time when those who seek perfection will be mindful of their personal sins and the sins of mankind which they are called upon to help expiate in union with Christ Crucified.
  6. Friday should be in each week something of what Lent is in the entire year. For this reason we urge all to prepare for that weekly Easter that comes with each Sunday by freely making of every Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ.


Back to Duffy:

The Church has always linked personal asceticism and the search for holiness with this demand for mercy and justice to the poor; the Lenten trilogy of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving is both fundamental and structural. By making fasting and abstinence optional, the Church forfeited one of its most eloquent prophetic signs. There is a world of difference between a private devotional gesture, the action of the specially pious, and the prophetic witness of the whole community—the matter-of-fact witness, repeated week by week, that to be Christian is to stand among the needy.


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— 1 —

Lent’s happening. Here we are.

Take a look at this marvelous photography project:

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

From the book’s website:

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

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

 — 2 —

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

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

— 3 —

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


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


–5 —


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


— 6 —


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

— 7 —

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

But nor did I make ….this:


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

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

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(This is a repeat, but worth a revisit. Feel free to use the image at the bottom of the post.)

(Welcome new visitors – check out a new posts with some more Vintage Catholic thoughts on fasting – from St. Robert Bellarmine and St. Augustine. )


What’s Lent? This thing that’s coming soon?

You might have the impression that Lent is all about you. Your personal growth. Your spiritual health. Your happiness.


Or maybe not. Maybe there’s more to Lent than how it’s going to make your life better.

For you see, there’s a difference between understanding Lent as a particularly listcicle-friendly (40 days! 3 disciplines!)  opportunity for an individual’s spiritual growth and understanding it as the entire Church’s solemn call and responsibility to do penance and grow in faith.

Are those different things? Yes.  Think about it. Not in tension, not opposed, but slightly different roads and paradigms.  The first is centered on pleasing ourselves, the second on pleasing God.

It is the distinction highlighted by Francis de Sales’ last of three pointers for a good fast, highlighted below: fast to please God alone.  To many of us, this sounds odd, since we have been formed to believe that we need to nothing to please God other than accepting ourselves as we are, haven’t we?

For what happens in modern spiritual discourse is that we have collapsed the two – we please God most of all when we are ourselves and are content with ourselves.  When you dig deeply, that’s true – when we are the selves God created and that above all brings us contentment and peace.

But what our spiritual wisdom has also reminded us of is that reaching that point requires stripping and sacrifice and a hard journey – not simply acceptance of the Good News that we are God’s creatures and loved by him. It is complicated, yes, but the bottom line seems to me that when you remove penance and the organic nature of fallen creation and the role of our fallen selves in that, you really are just left with individuals on a journey to feel okay about themselves, and not much more.

It’s an intriguing distinction. As an amateur student of the strangeness of modern Catholicism, I am most often struck by the sharp ironies and waves of unintended consequences that mark our slice of history.

We post-Conciliar Catholics were formed in a way that emphasized both individual spiritual freedom yet also the greater weight of  community, perhaps best encapsulated by the sense that no, Mass is not the time to come and focus on God’s presence as an individual. Rather, it is the time in which individuals freely come, but not to pray individually, but rather to do “the work of the people” in liturgy.

(This is why some liturgists think the worst sin one can commit during Mass is to kneel and pray quietly after receiving Communion instead of standing with the group and singing that you are bread ready to be chewed for justice or some such. We are here as the people of God, by God.)

The irony to me is that when you consider pre-Vatican II materials, the sense of communal identity was actually much stronger in those bad old days when (we are told) indvidual piety was emphasized above community.

So why is it that now, we are continually having to be told that we are community, experience community-building experiences and asked how we would like our parishes to create stronger communities?

Part of it is simply cultural and social.  “Community,” period was stronger, sometimes to oppressive extents.  You didn’t have to build community, you were born into it, you lived in it your entire life, and perhaps woe to you if you attempted to crack those walls.

Double-sided and full of shadows – that’s everything, that’s life.

But you see it in older treatments of Lent.   If you read pre-Vatican II popular and catechetical works on Lent, you encounter an unmistakable sense of the season being about the entire Church – the community – engaged in a journey – being willing to sacrifice in order to form itself to be more like Christ, in gratitude for all God has given, in sorrow for sin, with each individual’s efforts being a part of that greater whole, and being important because of it.

But today, we are on our own. Lent is about you and your walk with Jesus and making that better. It’s ironic. Matthew Kelly’s “Best Lent Ever” marketing campaign is the pinnacle of this sensibility: it’s all about Lent as a peak individual consumer experience – like Sandals for the soul.

As an aside on the “best Lent ever” slogan…I’m reminded of the more traditional way of inspiring spiritual fervor during the season, something an older priest up in Indiana used to regularly pull out and that I’ve heard on retreat…not make it your best Lent ever but a reminder that we should approach the season as if it were our “Last Lent ever.”

(The same template might be used for Advent or even about Sunday and reception of Communion….receive Communion as if it might be your last..)

Dire, yes, but as the kids say, you’re not wrong. 

Because it could be, indeed.  Both “best” and “last” indeed center us on the self and the needs of the soul, but with different orientations and expectations. 

And then there is penance.  Fasting serves many purposes, as St. Francis de Sales will tell us. But at root, it is a penitential act, not simply one to help us to “grow in faith” and find peace and joy and focus.  Yes it does, indeed do so, but it does so, Catholic tradition has normally held, because, among other things, the penitential act of fasting is part of the process of ridding our lives of sin and its effects – a process which  of course brings us closer to Christ. Not just because it’s fasting and giving stuff up, but because it is penitential.  I’ll let St. Francis de Sales explain.


To treat of fasting and of what is required to fast well, we must, at the start, understand that of itself fasting is not a virtue. The good and the bad, as well as Christians and pagans, observe it. The ancient philosophers observed it and recommended it. They were not virtuous for that reason, nor did they practice virtue in fasting. Oh, no, fasting is a virtue only when it is accompanied by conditions which render it pleasing to God. Thus it happens that it profits some and not others, because it is not undertaken by all in the same manner.

We find some people who think that to fast well during the holy season of Lent it is enough to abstain from eating some prohibited food. But this thought is too gross to enter into the hearts of religious, for it is to you I speak, as well as persons dedicated to Our Lord. We know very well that it is not enough to fast exteriorly if we do not also fast interiorly and if we do not accompany the fast of the body with that of the spirit.


The first condition is that we must fast with our whole heart, that is to say, willingly, whole-heartedly, universally and entirely. If I recount to you St. Bernard’s words regarding fasting, you will know not only why it is instituted but also how it ought to be kept.

He says that fasting was instituted by Our Lord as a remedy for our mouth, for our gourmandizing and for our gluttony. Since sin entered the world through the mouth, the mouth must do penance by being deprived of foods prohibited and forbidden by the Church, abstaining from them for the space of forty days. But this glorious saint adds that, as it is not our mouth alone which has sinned, but also all our other senses, our fast must be general and entire, that is, all the members of our body must fast. For if we have offended God through the eyes, through the ears, through the tongue, and through our other senses, why should we not make them fast as well? And not only must we make the bodily senses fast, but also the soul’s powers and passions — yes, even the understanding, the memory, and the will, since we have sinned through both body and spirit.

How many sins have entered into the soul through the eyes, as Holy Scripture indicates? [1 In. 2:16]. That is why they must fast by keeping them lowered and not permitting them to look upon frivolous and unlawful objects; the ears, by depriving them of listening to vain talk which serves only to fill the mind with worldly images; the tongue, in not speaking idle words and those which savor of the world or the things of the world. We ought also to cut off useless thoughts, as well as vain memories and superfluous appetites and desires of our will. In short, we ought to hold in check all those things which keep us from loving or tending to the Sovereign Good. In this way interior fasting accompanies exterior fasting.

This is what the Church wishes to signify during this holy time of Lent, teaching us to make our eyes, our ears and our tongue fast. For this reason she omits all harmonious chants in order to mortify the hearing; she no longer says Alleluia, and clothes herself completely in somber and dark colors. And on this first day she addresses us in these words: Remember, man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return [Gen. 3:19], as if she meant to say: “Oh man, quit at this moment all joys and merrymaking, all joyful and pleasant reflections, and fill your memory with bitter, hard and sorrowful thoughts. In this way you will make your mind fast together with your body.”

This is also what the Christians of the primitive Church taught us when, in order to spend Lent in a better way, they deprived themselves at this time of ordinary conversations with their friends, and withdrew into great solitude and places removed from communication with people…….


The second condition is never to fast through vanity but always through humility. If our fast is not performed with humility, it will not be pleasing to God…..

But what is it to fast through humility? It is never to fast through vanity. Now how can one fast through vanity? According to Scripture there are hundreds and hundreds of ways, but I will content myself with telling you one of them, for it is not necessary to burden your memory with many things. To fast through vanity is to fast through self-will, since this self-will is not without vanity, or at least not without a temptation to vanity. And what does it mean to fast through self-will? It is to fast as one wishes and not as others wish; to fast in the manner which pleases us, and not as we are ordered or counseled. You will find some who wish to fast more than is necessary, and others who do not wish to fast as much as is necessary. What causes that except vanity and self-will? All that proceeds from ourselves seems better to us, and is much more pleasant and easy for us than what is enjoined on us by another, even though the latter is more useful and proper for our perfection. This is natural to us and is born from the great love we have for ourselves.

Let each one of us examine our conscience and we will find that all that comes from ourselves, from our own judgment, choice and election, is esteemed and loved far better than that which comes from another. We take a certain complacency in it that makes the most arduous and difficult things easy for us, and this complacency is almost always vanity. You will find those who wish to fast every Saturday of the year, but not during Lent.{2} They wish to fast in honor of Our Lady and not in honor of Our Lord. As if Our Lord and Our Lady did not consider the honor given to the one as given to the other, and as if in honoring the Son by fasting done for His intention, one did not please the Mother, or that in honoring the Virgin one did not please the Savior! What folly! But see how human it is: because the fast that these persons impose on themselves on Saturday in honor of our glorious Mistress comes from their own will and choice, it seems to them that it should be more holy and that it should bring them to a much greater perfection than the fast of Lent, which is commanded. Such people do not fast as they ought but as they want.

There are others who desire to fast more than they should, and with these one has more trouble than with the first group.

The glorious St. Augustine, in the Rule that he wrote for his religious (later adapted for men religious), orders that one follow the community as much as possible, as if he wished to say: Do not be more virtuous than the others; do not wish to practice more fasting, more austerities, more mortifications than are ordered for you. Do only what the others do and what is commanded by your Rule, according to the manner of living that you follow, and be content with that. For although fasting and other penances are good and laudable, nevertheless, if they are not practiced by those with whom you live, you will stand out and there will be some vanity, or at least some temptation to esteem yourself above others. Since they do not do as you do, you experience some vain complacency, as if you were more holy than they in doing such things.

Follow the community then in all things, said the great St. Augustine. Let the strong and robust eat what is ordered them, keeping the fast and austerities which are marked, and let them be content with that. Let the weak and infirm receive what is offered them for their infirmity, without wishing to do what the robust do. Let neither group amuse themselves in looking to see what this one eats and what that one does not eat, but let each one remain satisfied with what she has and with what is given to her. By this means you will avoid vanity and being particular.


The third condition necessary for fasting well is to look to God and to do everything to please Him, withdrawing within ourselves in imitation of a great saint, St. Gregory the Great, who withdrew into a secret and out-of-the-way place where he remained for some time without anyone knowing where he was, being content that the Lord and His angels knew it.


This is all that I had to tell you regarding fasting and what must be observed in order to fast well. The first thing is that your fast should be entire and universal; that is, that you should make all the members of your body and the powers of your soul fast: keeping your eyes lowered, or at least lower than ordinarily; keeping better silence, or at least keeping it more punctually than is usual; mortifying the hearing and the tongue so that you will no longer hear or speak of anything vain or useless; the understanding, in order to consider only holy and pious subjects; the memory, in filling it with the remembrance of bitter and sorrowful things and avoiding joyous and gracious thoughts; keeping your will in check and your spirit at the foot of the crucifix with some holy and sorrowful thought. If you do that, your fast will be universal, interior and exterior, for you will mortify both your body and your spirit. The second condition is that you do not observe your fast or perform your works for the eyes of others. And the third is that you do all your actions, and consequently your fasting, to please God alone, to whom be honor and glory forever and ever.

Lent 2016

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This is a reprint of a couple of posts from last year. I went to Mass last night thinking, “Wow, it’s almost Lent,” and expecting some kind of mention of the fact…which never came…which brought this to mind again. Perhaps you’ll appreciate it. 

I have been on a bit of a hobby horse about pre-Lent. And yes, I am still on it.

In reading over some older devotional materials (more on that in the next post) and thinking about this Sunday’s Mass readings, the problem (one of them) clicked into place in a very simple way.

Lent begins next Wednesday, Ash Wednesday. Which means tomorrow is the last Sunday before Lent begins. What are the Mass readings?

They are the readings from the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year B) – the Gospel being the healing of a leper from Mark. 

How about last year? 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A.   Matthew 6, Jesus, Sermon on the Mount, Matthew.

And the year before? 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C: Jesus calling Peter to follow him. 

Quinquagesima Sunday readings, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, everywhere in the Catholic world before the Second Vatican Council?

(Remember there were only two readings at Sunday Mass)

Corinthians 13:1-13 – ….but do not have love…

Gospel: Luke 18:31-43

At that time Jesus took unto Him the twelve and said to them: Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and 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.

And they understood none of these things, and this word was hid from them, and they understood not the things that were said.

Now it came to pass, when He drew nigh to Jericho, that a certain blind man sat by the wayside, begging. And when he heard the multitude passing by, he asked what this meant. And they told him that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. And he cried out, saying: Jesus,  son of David, have mercy on me. And they that went before rebuked him, that he should hold his peace. But he cried out much more: Son of David, have mercy on me. And Jesus standing, commanded him to be brought unto Him. And when he was come near, He asked him, saying: What wilt thou that I do to thee? But he said: Lord, that I may see. And Jesus said to him: Receive thy sight, thy faith hath made thee whole. And immediately he saw and followed Him, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God.

So the entire Catholic world would hear these Scriptures , not just whatever happens to be the readings of that last Sunday of Ordinary Time, but these Scriptures (and Propers and prayers) specifically and organically evolved with the coming of Lent in view.

(Catholics who participate in the Extraordinary Form or the Anglican Ordinariate still experience this form of pre-Lent, and of course Eastern Rite Catholics have their own form as well, with set readings that don’t change from year to year.)

In that older post I highlight the work of scholar Dr. Lauren Pristas, who wrote an essay detailing the thought and politics that went into the elimination of pre-Lent in the Latin Rite. As I say there, the conclusion is essentially that it was too hard for us poor lay folk to keep it all straight and stay focused.

Unintended consequences, anyone? Not to speak of weirdly wrong thinking. Pistas entitled her essay “Parachuting into Lent” and that is exactly the effect, isn’t it?

The best-intentioned post-Conciliar reformers (in contrast to those who simply didn’t believe any of the stuff anymore) seemed to me to be operating from the assumption that the  Church’s life and practice as it had developed over time functioned as an obstacle to deeply authentic faith, and that what was needed was a loosening of all this so that Catholics would develop a more adult faith, rooted in free response rather than adherence to structures.

Well, you know how it is. You know how it is when, on one day out of a million you have a blank slate in front of you? No rigid walls hemming you in? No kids to pick up, you don’t have to work, no one’s throwing obligations and tasks at you? And you think, Wow…a whole day free. I’m going to get so much  done! 

And then it’s the end of the day, and you realize that maybe what you had thought were restrictions were really guides and maybe not so bad because you look back on your Day Without Walls and you wonder…wait, how many cat videos did I watch today? Do I even want to know?

Yeah. That.

Where’s my parachute?


All right then, now that I have vented, some reading. And perhaps the reading will make more sense having read the venting and knowing that these writers have a common reference point: the Scripture readings for Quinguasesima Sunday, which are 1 Corinthians 13 on love and Jesus’ speaking of his coming passion and healing of a blind man.

Of course, you can check out this post for some links to readings I dug up last year.

Reading Vintage Lent, you might come away with a slightly different sense of self than much contemporary Spiritual-Speak delivers. You – the person embarking on this Lenten journey – are not a Bundle of Needs whose most urgent spiritual agenda is to feel accepted, especially as your energy is consumed by staring sadly at walls erected by rigid hypocritical churchy people.

No. Reading Vintage Lent, you discern that you’re a weak sinner, but with God’s grace for which your Lenten penance makes room, you are capable of leaving all that behind, and you must, for Christ needs you for the work of loving the world.

Here, as per usual, is an excerpt from my favorite vintage Catholic text book, published in 1947 for 7th graders:

Then this, from a book of meditations tied to the Sunday Scripture readings, published in 1904. It’s called The Inner Life of the Soul, and it really is quite a nice book. Not all older spiritual writing is helpful to us – the writing can be florid or dense in other ways, it can reflect concerns that perhaps we don’t share. This isn’t like this, and the reason, I think, is that the chapters were originally published as columns in a periodical called Sacred Heart Review.  The author is one S.L. Emery, and contemporary reviews of the book indicate that many readers assumed that the author was male, but a bit more research shows that this is not true. Susan L. Emery was, obviously a woman, and is cited in other contemporary journals for her work in translating Therese of Liseux’s poetry. 

Anyway, Emery’s reflections, which tie together Scripture readings, the liturgy, the lives and wisdom of the saints and the concerns of ordinary experience, are worth bookmarking and returning to, and, if I might suggest to any publishers out there…reprinting.

What I think is important to see from this short reading, as well as the Ash Wednesday reflection that follows, is how mistaken our assumptions and stereotypes of the “bad old days” before Vatican II are. Tempted to characterize the spirituality of these years as nothing but cold-hearted rigidity distant from the complexities of human life, we might be surprised at the tone of these passages. The call to penance is strong. The guidelines are certainly stricter and more serious than what is suggested today. But take an honest look – it is not about the law at the expense of the spirit or the heart. Intention is at the core, and there are always qualifications and suggestions for those who cannot or are not required to follow the strictest reading of the guidelines: those who are young, old, or sick, or, if you notice, the laborer who must keep his or her strength up.

The season of Lent is at hand; in three days Ash
Wednesday will be here; our Mother the Church calls
upon us to fast, and pray, and to do penance for our sins.
Each one who cannot fast should ask for some practical
and methodical work of piety to do instead ; and perhaps
few better could be found than ten minutes’ serious medi-
tation, every day, upon the Passion of our Lord. This
practice can be varied in many ways, some of them being
so simple that a child might learn them ; and God alone
knows of what immense value to us this practice, faith-
fully continued through one Lent, would be. Let us con-
sider, then, by His assisting grace, that most helpful spiritual
devotion called meditation.

In our day the necessity is really extreme of keeping
the minds of Christians filled and permeated with an abid-
ing sense of the love and care of Almighty God for each
individual soul. The ceaseless hurry and worry prevalent
amongst us, to become rich, to be counted intellectual, to
know or to have as much as our neighbor, tends to destroy
that overruling sense of spiritual things which would give
ballast and leisure to our souls. Then, when earthly props
fail us, and loiieliness, sickness, or great trouble of any kind
confronts us, the utter shallowness of our ordinary pursuits
opens out in its desert waste before us, and our aching eyes
see nothing to fill the void. The ambition dies out of life.
If we have means, people begin to talk of change of scene
and climate for tired souls who know but too well that they
cannot run away from the terrible burden, self ; though their
constant craving is, nevertheless, to escape somehow from
their “ waste life and unavailing days.” The unfortunate,
introspective and emotional reading of our era fosters the
depression, and suicide has become a horribly common

Even a Christian mind becomes tainted with this pre-
vailing evil of despondency, which needs to be most forc-
ibly and promptly met. Two weapons are at hand, — the
old and never to be discarded ones of the love of God and
the love of our neighbor. …

Oh, if in our dark, dark days we could only forget our-
selves ! God, Who knows our trials, knows well how
almost impossible to us that forgetfulness sometimes seems ;
perhaps He ordains that it literally is impossible for a while,
and that it shall be our hardest cross just then. But at
least, as much as we can, let us forget ourselves in Him
and in our suffering brothers; and He will remember us.

I did a search for “Quinquagesima” on Archive.org and came up with lots of Anglican results, but here’s a bit of an interesting Catholic offering – an 1882 pastoral letter from the Archbishop of Westminster to his Archdiocese. The first couple of pages deal specifically with Lent, and the rest with Catholic education, which is interesting enough. But for today, I’ll focus on the Quinquagesima part. He begins by lamenting a decline in faith – pointing out the collapse of Christian culture. And then turns to Lent:

We are once more upon the threshold of this
sacred time. Let us use it well. It may be our last Lent, our
last time of preparation and purification before we stand in the
light of the Great White Throne. Let us, therefore, not ask
how much liberty may we indulge without positive sin, but how
much liberty we may offer to Him who gave Himself for us.
” All things to me are lawful, but all things edify not ; ” and
surely in Lent it is well to forego many lawful things which
belong to times of joy, not to times of penance.

The Indult of the Holy See has so tempered the rule of
fasting that only the aged, or feeble, or laborious, are unable to
observe it. If fasting be too severe for any, they may be dis-
pensed by those who have authority. But, if dispensed, they are .
bound so to use their liberty as to keep in mind the reason and
the measure of their dispensation. A dispensation does not
exempt us from the penitential season of Lent. They who use
a dispensation beyond its motives and its measures, lose all
merit of abstinence, temperance, and self-chastisement. If you
cannot fast, at least abstain. If you cannot abstain, use your
dispensation as sparingly as can be, and only as your need re-
quires. If in fasting and abstinence you cannot keep Lent,
keep it by prayer, and Sacraments, and alms, and spiritual
mortifications. Chastise the faults of temper, resentment, ani-
mosity, vanity, self-love, and pride, which, in some degree and
in divers ways, beset and bias if they do not reign in all our
hearts. In these forty days let the world, its works and ways,
be shut out as far as can be from your homes and hearts. Go
out of the world into the desert with our Divine Redeemer.
Fast with Him, at least from doing your own will ; from the
care and indulgence of self which naturally besets us. Examine
th^ habits of your life, your prayers, your confessions, your
communions, your amusements, your friendships, the books
you read, the money you spend upon yourselves, the alms you
give to the poor, the offerings you have laid upon the Altar, and
the efforts you have made for the salvation of souls. Make a
review of the year that is past ; cast up the reckoning of these
things ; resolve for the year to come on some onward effort,
and begin without delay. To-day is set apart for a test of your
charity and love of souls. We may call it the commemoration
of our poor children, and the day of intercession for the orphans
and the destitute.

Finally…do you want to be correct? Well, here you go.

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They’re in the Loyola Kids Book of Saints:





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

(Instagram summaries here…)

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

Still…this was cold.

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


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

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

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

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



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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Coda II:

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

And now, back to Life in 2018!

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