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Archive for the ‘Gospels’ Category

Today we remember the Dutch Carmelite, outspoken critic of the Nazis, who died in Dachau on July 26, 1942. 

From a Carmelite website:

Born in the Frisian city of Bolsward, Holland, in 1881, Bl. Titus Brandsma joined the Carmelites while still young and was ordained priest in 1905. He undertook further studies in Rome and was awarded a doctorate in philosophy at the Gregorian Pontifical University.

Returning to Holland, he taught in a number of schools before taking up a post as Professor of Philosophy and the History of Mysticism at the Catholic University of Nijmegen where he was titus_brandsmalater appointed Rector Magnificus. A noted writer and journalist, in 1935, he was appointed adviser to the bishops, for Catholic journalists. He was noted for being ready to receive anyone in difficulty and to help in whatever way he could. In the period leading up to and during the Nazi occupation in Holland, he argued passionately against the National Socialist ideology, basing his stand on the Gospels, and he defended the right to freedom in education and for the Catholic Press. As a result, he was imprisoned. So began his Calvary, involving great personal suffering and degradation whilst, at the same time, he himself brought solace and comfort to the other internees and begged God’s blessing on his jailers. In the midst of such inhuman suffering, he possessed the precious ability to bring an awareness of goodness, love and peace. He passed from one prison or camp to another until he arrived in Dachau where he was killed on 26th July 1942. He was beatified as a martyr by Pope John Paul II on 3rd November 1985.

You can read his last few letters here.

Brandsma came to the United States in 1935, where he lectured at Catholic University.  These writings on Carmelite spirituality were based on those talks.

I included Blessed Titus in The Loyola Kids Book of Saints under “Saints are People Who Tell the Truth.”

"amy welborn"

A couple of pages are online available for viewing, here. Well, and here:

 

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I picked these up at a religious goods shop in Saltillo, Mexico several years ago.

The salt, oil and incense with the St. Benedict holy card are “bendita,” I was assured by the clerk. (Blessed by a priest).

I was particularly interested in the saint in the center – San Charbel Maklouf – for I had seen his image in several homes during the week.  Why is a Lebanese saint so popular in Mexico?

(For, I was told, he is – along with St. Jude, one of the most popular saints in Mexico.)

The person I was talking to didn’t really know, but I assume at least part of the reason has to do with the fact that Lebanese are an important minority in Mexico, with deep roots going back more than a century. One of the world’s wealthiest men, Mexican telecommunications magnate and New York Times owner  Carlos Slim, is Lebanese -Mexican Maronite. Salma Hayak is part Lebanese-Mexican.

Most of all, of course, he’s popular because of the power of his intercession. I didn’t see it, but it’s common in Mexico to drape statues of San Charbel with ribbons on which you’ve written prayers. You can see lots of images of this here. 

Speaking of St. Charbel, readers may or may not know that Maronite Catholics are not unknown in the South.  Particularly along railroad lines – the Lebanese were one of the ethnic groups that showed up to do the work.  I gave a woman’s day of recollection over in Jackson, Mississippi, once and a huge proportion of the women present claimed Lebanese roots.  Here in Birmingham, the Maronite Catholic Church, St. Elias, is venerable and established.  The Catholic elementary school my boys used to go to had a Maronite school Mass twice a year. Fr. Mitch Pacwa, who lives here, is bi-ritual and regularly celebrates the Maronite liturgy at St. Elias when he is in town. Here is a photo of Fr. Mitch on the occasion of the tour of St. Charbel’s relics, which stopped here a couple of years ago. 

A few years ago, I went to an estate sale, and this one was unusual because there was lots of Catholic stuff.  That’s not a normal feature of estate sales in Birmingham, Alabama.  But this one was very Catholic and specifically, very Maronite.  This was one of my treasures from that day:

Do you have a St. Charbel thermometer?

Didn’t think so.

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— 1 —

So, yes, some of us are in Guatemala this week. As a backup for this blog, I scheduled reprints of Mary Magdalene posts from last year. For the life of me, I can’t remember if I actually proofread and updated them, so this all might be quite awkward. My internet has been mostly terrible, and when I’ve had it, I’ve used it mostly to make sure my ATM card hasn’t been skimmed and my bank account drained, so I hope you have enjoyed the Mary Magdalene posts, whatever they say. Read the book! 

— 2 —

The rest of this post will be mostly photos, and not the best ones, even. I have been using a real camera for this trip, but failed to bring the little card reader I need to put them on my computer, since this tiny thing doesn’t have an SD slot. So you’ll have to make do with my phone photos, which are okay, but not as comprehensive as what’s on the…camera. Remember those?

But …I will say this, and I will say it here mostly to hold myself to it. I am not going to post a comprehensive trip report. I’m going to write it in book form and publish it on Amazon – for a very nominal fee, yes, but I really think I have enough to write about here for at least 20-25,000 words, but I don’t want to bother with a traditional publisher – and I don’t think a traditional publisher will be interested.  I mean, who the hell wants to go through a year of writing/editing/thinking about marketing/rewriting/selling some little book about my Guatemala trip? Nobody, not even me. But I’m willing to spend a few weeks on it, and toss it out there for whomever is interested.

There was a day when writers did this sort of thing all the time, and there were magazine publishers who were willing to put out a long-form article or newspaper publishers who would serialize, but no more. I’ve decided that for this kind of experience, a series of blog posts is selling myself and interest readers short. So hopefully, when I get back, I can buckle down and do this thing.

Send thoughts and prayers my way, please!

amy-welborn8

Hate  ” thoughts and prayers your way,” by the way. We pray to God, not send prayers to each other. So, just kidding. 

— 3 —

So, yes. This has been a week of ruins:

 

Tikal, Yaxha, Uaxactun, Aguateca and Ceibal have been visited. Not all pictured. 

— 4 —

Nature has been spotted:

Just the tiniest fraction. Most photos were taken with the camera. The oddest thing is – you think before you go to somewhere like this that Seeing a monkey in the wild in a tree will be the most amazing thing ever!” And the first two times, it is. And then you realize that they’re like Guatemalan squirrels, and you get over it.

— 5 —

Food:

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And all of it has been fantastic, and none of it been served in anything but fairly basic restaurants. Comedors – sort of like a diner.

The very humbling thing is that every bit of it has been actual food, not  Cysco can contents warmed up or stuff from Sam’s or Cotsco’s thawed and heated. It’s real food, really cooked right there in the kitchen using ingredients that someone nearby either grew or caught or raised. This is real farm-to-table, and for far less than 30 bucks a plate and without the attitude or pretense.

Left: dining room in Flores. Right: Kitchen in village near Uaxactun ruins. 

— 6 —

And just encounters and experiences:

 

— 7 —

Oh, and Star Wars background scenes. That, too.

amywelborn8

For further reference…go here. 

 

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

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And here we go with chapter 4 of De-Coding Mary Magdalene. This chapter covers the earliest stages of patristic thinking about the saint. It’s shorter.

I hope what you notice that one of the things I try to do here (and in everything I write along this line, as well) is to help the reader understand not only Mary Magdalene herself, but broader (to use a big word) epistemological matters as well. How to read the Bible. How to understand early Church History. It’s one thing to throw factoids at people. It’s important in the long run, however, to open them up to the greater issues of, not just what to know, but how to know – especially about religious matters – in a culture in which they are told, repeatedly, that all knowledge, especially about religion, is fundamentally uncertain, relative, and ideological.

For previous chapters:

Chapter one: Introducing Mary Magdalene in the Bible

Chapter two: Mary Magdalene at the Resurrection

Chapter three: Mary Magdalene in Gnostic writings

As I have said before, feel free to use this material in any way you wish, even copying them for parish discussion groups. The full pdf is available here. 

While Gnostic writers were — or perhaps weren’t – – writing about Mary Magdalene, favored student of the Gnostic Jesus, orthodox Christian writers had a few things to say as well during those early centuries of Christianity.
She didn’t dominate the scene, but a few thinkers found her an intriguing figure, helpful in understanding the nature of faith and redemption. She’s represented in art from the period as well, most often in her role as “myrrhophore” — one of the women bringing oils and spice to Jesus’ tomb.

It’s that theme that we see most frequently: Mary Magdalene as faithful disciple and witness to the empty tomb, and then, digging a little deeper, Mary as the New Eve and Mary as the Church, symbolized with power and passion in the Old Testament Song of Songs.

Those who think that the Gnostics were more appreciative of Mary Magdalene than were orthodox Christians who were perhaps busy demonizing her might be in for a surprise. Many early Church Fathers had no problem identifying Mary Magdalene in quite exalted terms: “Apostle to the Apostles” and “Equal-to-the-Apostles,” titles which may be now neglected in the West, but which remain her primary identification in Eastern Christianity to this day.

‘Come, My Beloved’

It might be helpful, before getting to Mary herself, to set the scene. When we talk about the “early Church” and the “early Church Fathers” and their writings, what exactly do we mean?

For the purposes of this chapter, “early Church” means Christianity up to the late sixth century, at which point we start creeping into the early Middle Ages, or the Dark Ages, as they are quite unfairly called.

During this period, Christianity spread throughout the Middle East, into Africa, far into Europe, and even into India. The time began, of course, with most of that area (with the exception of India) as part of the Roman Empire, where Christianity was illegal. By the time the sixth century rolled around, the old Roman Empire had collapsed, new kingdoms and empires had taken shape, and Christianity was not only legal in all of them, but was the established religion in most as well, a situation that would last until the rise of Islam in the eighth century.

By the end of the first century, a basic church structure of presbyters (priests) and bishops was beginning to evolve (we can even see this in the New Testament: for example, in the First Letter of Paul to Timothy). The religious landscape was not the same as it is today: there were no seminaries, no universities, and of course, no publishing houses or religious newspapers. But there were theologians, spiritual writers, and bishops, who wrote and preached. Many of their works have survived and are available in English — even on the Internet — today.

Most commonly, the texts that we can read that give us an idea of what these Christians were thinking and how they believed and practiced their faith are:

  • Defenses of Christianity against skeptics and heretics.
  • Commentaries on Scripture.
  • Catechetical instructions.
  • And not coming from individuals but from church communities were liturgies and,beginning in the fourth century,
  • decrees from gatherings of bishops.

So you see, although there is much we don’t know, a great deal of evidence has survived that gives us an excellent picture of Christian life in its first five centuries of life. It is not as mysterious and ambiguous as some claim. Christian thinkers were seeking to deepen their understanding of the Gospel, in the context of a culture that was extremely hostile to them, as well as intellectually and religiously diverse.

There’s a good reason people still read the writings of these early Church Fathers. Their situation was not that different from ours. They were dealing honestly and tenaciously with the most fundamental aspects of Christian faith, and they were trying to make them understandable to a world that, while skeptical, was obviously deeply in need of Christ. Two thousand years is a long time — but not long enough for human nature and humanity’s need for Christ to change.

These early Christian writers viewed the literal truth of Scripture — in which they firmly believed, by the way — as a starting point. From that factual level, they routinely set off exploring nuance, making connections, and discovering useful analogies and allegories. Patristic writing is extremely rich in that way.

So for them, Mary Magdalene was more than a woman at a tomb, just as Jesus had been more than a man on a cross. In Jesus, all of history is redeemed and all of creation is reconciled to God.

Into this richness step ordinary men and women like you and me, people like Peter, Levi, John, and Mary. As they live and move in Jesus’ shadow, listening and responding to him, they, too, become more. Their actions evoke other figures’ responses to God’s out-stretched hand. Their doubt, faith, sin, and redemption become more than just their own, as we look at them and see echoes of our own lives and, in fact, of the whole human story.

So, for example, when some of these writers meditated on Mary Magdalene, they saw her responding to the Good News of redemption and eternal life — in a garden. It recalled another scene, at the beginning of salvation history, also in a garden in which a woman and a man disobeyed God, and humanity fell. And so, for some, Mary Magdalene became a sort of New Eve, long before the title had attached itself to the Virgin Mary.

For example, St. Cyril of Alexandria, who lived in the fifth century, said that because of Mary Magdalene’s witness at the empty tomb, all women were forgiven of Eve’s sin (Haskins, p. 89). St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, and St. Gregory of Nyssa also made the connection:

“She is the first witness of the resurrection, that she might set straight again by her faith in the resurrection, what was turned over by her transgression.” (St. Gregory of Nyssa,Against Eunomius3.10.16, quoted in The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament, by Jane Schaberg [Continuum International Publishing Group, 2002], p. 87).

The image of a woman grieving and waiting in a garden evoked another image for Christians: that of the great love poem in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Song of Songs (also known as the Canticle of Canticles or Song of Solomon).

The third-century Christian writer Hippolytus made a great deal of this in his own commentary on the Old Testament book. He brings in not only Mary Magdalene but also the other women reported at the tomb in the various Gospels, and sometimes in confusing ways. The female image, rooted in specific figures, becomes more generally symbolic but, with Mary Magdalene as one of them, echoes the deep desire of the bride in the Old Testament book, her desire for her beloved, as they seek Jesus at the tomb:

“ ‘By night, I sought him whom my soul loveth’: See how this is fulfilled in Martha and Mary. In their figure, zealous Synagogue sought the dead Christ. . . . For she teaches us and tells us: By night I sought him whom my soul loveth.” (Hippolytus,third century, quoted in Haskins, p. 61)

Finally, writers during this period cited Mary Magdalene for her witness at the tomb and sharing the Good News with the apostles. Hippolytus, who was also a bishop, referred to her as “Apostle to the Apostles.” Other Church Fathers also praised Mary for her role as a witness, some holding that through her example, all women are honored and, in a sense, redeemed.

A fourth-century Eastern poet named Ephrem used this image, although, confusingly to us, he conflates Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the following (as we saw in the last chapter, this was a characteristic of Syrian Christianity in this period):

“At the beginning of his coming to

earth A virgin was first to receive him, 

And at his raising up from the grave

To a woman he showed his resurrection.

In his beginning and in his fulfillment

The name of his mother cries out and is present.

Mary received him by conception

And saw an angel at his grave.”

(Quoted in Haskins, p. 90)

 

In this early period of Christian reflection, theological and spiritual writers worked in a relatively simple garden. Scripture — both Hebrew and Christian Testaments — was their primary source. Their sense of who Mary Magdalene was and of her importance for Christians was derived completely from that. She was historically significant because she was the first to see the empty tomb and the Risen Christ. Her role evoked other women in other gardens, and another layer of reflection was woven, celebrating Mary Magdalene as a New Eve or as representing the Church as the expectant bride seeking her bridegroom, Christ — but all because of what the Christian tradition had testified about her role in the events of the Resurrection.

The story of Mary Magdalene obviously does not end here, for at this point — the fifth and early sixth centuries — some images, quite familiar to us today, have not yet appeared. What of the penitent Magdalene? The prostitute? The evangelizer of the French?

Where these came from we shall soon see, as we enter the Middle Ages, a period of intense creativity and legend-building, in which the evidence of Scripture was revered, but popularly viewed as only the beginning to far more interesting tales.

 

Questions for Reflection

  1. Why did early Christian thinkers refer to Mary Magdalene as the “New Eve?”
  2. Why did they connect Mary Magdalene to the Song of Songs?
  3. What do you think of this approach to interpreting Scripture? Do you find it helpful or not?

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— 1 —

This week’s takes are mostly about listening and watching. Things will get interesting over the next few days, but probably mostly on Instagram – so head over there to keep up.

— 2 —

In Our Time has sadly gone into its summer break, but it ended on a very high note with an excellent program on bird migration. What I particularly enjoyed about it was Melvyn Bragg’s infectious awestruck attitude about the whole business, which mirrors mine – How do they know?  – and the fact that he just couldn’t get over it, which is the proper attitude in the face of mystery. Secondly, the scientists on the program were all refreshingly honest about the answers to Melvyn’s questions, which most of the time involved a lot of we’re not sure and maybe and…we just don’t know. 

So much of the media’s reporting on science is couched in almost religious and certainly ideological certainty – a certainty which many, if not most scientists themselves would reject. I always enjoy the scholars on In Our Time, who are willing to admit what they don’t know and engage in respectful disagreement about what they think they might have a handle on.

— 3 —

Also this week, I listened to In Our Time broadcasts on the poet John Clare, of whom I am ashamed to say I had never heard, and Hannah Arendt. 

The program on Clare was interesting because, well, it was all new to me, but also because of the material presented about Clare’s relationship with publishing. He was a farmer, and while we might think, “poor lower class poet rejected by the smart set,” in fact the truth was the opposite – ever since Burns, the search had been on for the next Big Country Poet, and it was thought for while that Clare might be the one. And then he ended up in insane asylums for two decades, sadly, probably because of manic depression.

The program on Hannah Arendt set her work in helpful context, with a great deal of discussion about how she was misunderstood by critics. In brief, the “banality of evil” is not an invitation to diminish evil, but an explanation of how evil can become just another job to do.

— 4 —

And then I discovered a new BBC podcast program!

It’s called Science Stories and while the format is different than In Our Time, the general attitude and approach are the same, emphasizing the importance of  context as we seek to understand past scientific endeavors, which is something I appreciate so much, and is so refreshing, surrounded as we are in our media sea of context-free accusations, assertions, presumptions and fabrications.

And guess what? Religion is quite often part of the context – and might even be a paradigmatic framework for the context – and that is okay. 

On a science program!

So, for example, a program on Robert Grosseteste, 13th century Bishop of Lincoln and teacher, famously, of Roger Bacon. Grosseteste was, as many learned men of the time were, a polymath, but this particular episode of Science Stories focused on what the presenter termed his proto-“Big Bang” theory rooted in his observations of light and informed by his Genesis-shaped faith. It’s only 28 minutes and well worth your time. A taste:

Scientist: The story I was told when I was growing up was before 1600, all was darkness and…theology and dogmatism…and then suddenly Newton, Galileo, Kepler, who-hoa – all is light and Enlightenment and we get back on track with science. And you know, that’s never rung true because science doesn’t work like that – we all make little steps and we all, as Newton said, stand on the shoulders of giants. I think in Grosseteste, we’ve come across one of the giants on which the early modern scientists stood…..

….Presenter: And the motivation, certainly, for people like Grosseteste was ultimately a religious one, a theological one.

Scientist: Yes, it’s very clear that he would have been mystified by the question, “Can you reconcile your science with your religion?”  – he would have looked at you very askance and said, “What do you mean? That’s why I’m doing this science!”

.

— 5 —

The episode on “The Anglo Saxon Remedy that kills MRSA”  was also fascinating, involving researchers who are exploring these 1100-year old books of remedies with the aim of not only figuring out the origins of these remedies but also their effectiveness.

As in the previous program, spirituality is given due credit and respect as are techniques and approaches we might want to initially wave off as nothing more than superstition – for example, chanting a rhyme or prayer in association with the application of the remedy. As the researchers pointed out, it was not mere superstition at work here – in a world without clocks, this would be a way of keeping time as you applied the compress or shook the mixture.

— 6 —

My older son has been working a lot at night, so we haven’t been doing a lot of movies – two we have watched over the past week have been The Seven Samurai and Twelve Angry Men.  We spread out The Seven Samurai over two nights, although I think we could have done it all in one, in retrospect. It’s quite absorbing and didn’t feel at all like an almost 4-hour movie (as opposed to the Heston Ben-Hur which felt every minute of it to me during last year’s rewatch after 40 years, probably –  #confessyourunpopularopinion)

They really liked The Seven Samurai, and so I see more Kurosawa in our future, whenever we can manage another evening, which won’t be for a while, it looks like, what with travel and work. Probably The Hidden Forest, which inspired Star Wars, would make the most sense, although I’m more interested in Stray Dog. We won’t do Rashomon. 

Twelve Angry Men is, of course, much shorter – having begun as a television drama – and quite an efficient and compelling way to introduce a good discussion of appearance, reality, truth and integrity. There’s one simplistic psychological-torment-motivation subplot that was annoying and overwrought, but then that is par for the late-50’s course.

Oh, and one night after work, the 16-year old pulled Doctor Strangelove off the shelf and "amy welborn"took it in his room to watch it. Speaking of context, what I offered him afterwards was that early 60’s context of nuclear terror which led the young parents of a two-year old, living in Texas in the fall of 1962, to formulate a plan about what they’d do if the bombs dropped – a plan that involved an overdose of sleeping pills, as they calmly reminisced a few decades later. The grown daughter was startled, to say the least, but the fact that her quite traditional parents had felt driven to concoct such a plan showed how frightened people really were at the time. They weren’t building bomb shelters just for the fun of it.

Speaking of mid-century psychological-torment-subplots..

Kidding!

— 7 —

Okay! Let’s have a saint!

Today is the feast of Kateri Tekakwitha. She’s in The Loyola Kids Book of Saints – a couple of pages of which are available online. 

 

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

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This is a repost from last year, but I thought since the Benedict Option talk reached a peak of sorts this year, it was worth repeating. 

Today is the feast day of St. Benedict of Norcia.

Buy some beer!

Listen to some music!

Pray!

Blog-Ma-2

There is much talk about St. Benedict these days, as people consider how to live in a culture increasingly hostile to the Gospel. You might come away from these conversations thinking that Benedict and the Benedictine Way is essentially about “withdrawal.”  I don’t think that is correct.  Looking at the origins of Benedictine monasticism might help understand why.

Christian monasticism did, indeed, begin with withdrawal from the world. In the 3rd century men and, to a lesser extent, women, began heading to the desert to live in solitude. But even these anchorites did not shut themselves off from interaction with others, as they accepted visitors seeking to benefit from their wisdom and assist them.

But Benedictine monasticism was different, of course. Cenobitic, as opposed to anchorite, monasticism, was a call to live in community, together, with brothers. But is this “withdrawal?”

In fifth century Europe, most people lived their lives in small communities of extended family and small settlements. Most people did not travel far from where they had been born, unless driven to do so by war or natural catastrophe. As towns developed, they built walls, and in general, one could not just pop into any walled settlement you happened to be passing by. The walls were there for a reason, and access to all communities  was guarded and controlled.  These kinds of restrictions on travel and entrance into unfamiliar towns is not just a feature of medieval life, either. Last year, I read a history of hotels and tourism in the United States, and was quite interested to see how serious travel restrictions were even in the US, up to the mid-19th century and the development of the railroad. The traveler, in short, was usually viewed with suspicion before welcome.

My point is this, moving back to 4th and 5th century Europe. Benedictine monasticism developed on a  continent in serious, violent transition, parts under constant siege, and it was radical and transforming, but the basic instinct – to form a community with a strong sense of self-identification vis-a-vis the outside world was a fundamental paradigm of social organization of the period. 

One could even say that during this period, all communities that valued their survival and identity were, in a sense, semi-cloistered, guarded against the influence of the outside world. 

The difference is that Benedictine monastic communities were intentional, with ties rooted, not in family or geography, but in brotherhood in Christ. A new family, a new community in a continent of other communities formed out of different paradigms.

I also think the argument could be made that Benedictine communities, while they were certainly withdrawing from worldly influence in terms of turning from marriage, familial ties and the political arrangements of the world, they were probably more open to the world than your average family-based walled settlement down the valley from the monastery. They were more open to learning, more open to visitors from other areas, more cosmopolitan and just as economically engaged – at least before the growth of commerce.  

So to position Benedictine monasticism as an option that, at heart, is a means of protection from the world, period, is a simplistic misunderstanding of the origins of this movement that misses the opportunity to explore what St. Benedict and his monks really have to say to us today. It is about community, yes. It is about cutting ties with some aspects of the world and intentionality, yes. It is about expressing the instinct that human beings are made, fundamentally, for communion with God and that aspects of the world actively work against spiritual growth and fully human life as God desires. That is fundamental to Christian spirituality, as we can see from St. Paul on. But withdrawal from everything, pushing away and closing-off? No. 

From Pope Benedict XVI, in 2008:

Throughout the second book of his Dialogues, Gregory shows us how St Benedict’s life was steeped in an atmosphere of prayer, the foundation of his existence. Without prayer there is no experience of God. Yet Benedict’s spirituality was not an interiority removed from reality. In the anxiety and confusion of his day, he lived under God’s gaze and in this very way never lost sight of the duties of daily life and of man with his practical needs. Seeing God, he understood the reality of man and his mission. In hisRule he describes monastic life as “a school for the service of the Lord” (Prol. 45) and advises his monks, “let nothing be preferred to the Work of God” [that is, the Divine Office or the Liturgy of the Hours] (43, 3). However, Benedict states that in the first place prayer is an act of listening (Prol. 9-11), which must then be expressed in action. “The Lord is waiting every day for us to respond to his holy admonitions by our deeds” (Prol. 35). Thus, the monk’s life becomes a fruitful symbiosis between action and contemplation, “so that God may be glorified in all things” (57, 9). In contrast with a facile and egocentric self-fulfilment, today often exalted, the first and indispensable commitment of a disciple of St Benedict is the sincere search for God (58, 7) on the path mapped out by the humble and obedient Christ (5, 13), whose love he must put before all else (4, 21; 72, 11), and in this way, in the service of the other, he becomes a man of service and peace. In the exercise of obedience practised by faith inspired by love (5, 2), the monk achieves humility (5, 1), to which the Rule dedicates an entire chapter (7). In this way, man conforms ever more to Christ and attains true self-fulfilment as a creature in the image and likeness of God.

The obedience of the disciple must correspond with the wisdom of the Abbot who, in the monastery, “is believed to hold the place of Christ” (2, 2; 63, 13). The figure of the Abbot, which is described above all in Chapter II of the Rule with a profile of spiritual beauty and demanding commitment, can be considered a self-portrait of Benedict, since, as St Gregory the Great wrote, “the holy man could not teach otherwise than as he himself lived” (cf. Dialogues II, 36). The Abbot must be at the same time a tender father and a strict teacher (cf. 2, 24), a true educator. Inflexible against vices, he is nevertheless called above all to imitate the tenderness of the Good Shepherd (27, 8), to “serve rather than to rule” (64, 8) in order “to show them all what is good and holy by his deeds more than by his words” and “illustrate the divine precepts by his example” (2, 12). To be able to decide responsibly, the Abbot must also be a person who listens to “the brethren’s views” (3, 2), because “the Lord often reveals to the youngest what is best” (3, 3). This provision makes a Rule written almost 15 centuries ago surprisingly modern! A man with public responsibility even in small circles must always be a man who can listen and learn from what he hears.

Benedict describes the Rule he wrote as “minimal, just an initial outline” (cf. 73, 8); in fact, however, he offers useful guidelines not only for monks but for all who seek guidance on their journey toward God. For its moderation, humanity and sober discernment between the essential and the secondary in spiritual life, his Rule has retained its illuminating power even to today. By proclaiming St Benedict Patron of Europe on 24 October 1964, Paul VI intended to recognize the marvellous work the Saint achieved with hisRule for the formation of the civilization and culture of Europe. Having recently emerged from a century that was deeply wounded by two World Wars and the collapse of the great ideologies, now revealed as tragic utopias, Europe today is in search of its own identity. Of course, in order to create new and lasting unity, political, economic and juridical instruments are important, but it is also necessary to awaken an ethical and spiritual renewal which draws on the Christian roots of the Continent, otherwise a new Europe cannot be built. Without this vital sap, man is exposed to the danger of succumbing to the ancient temptation of seeking to redeem himself by himself – a utopia which in different ways, in 20th-century Europe, as Pope John Paul II pointed out, has caused “a regression without precedent in the tormented history of humanity” (Address to the Pontifical Council for Culture, 12 January 1990). Today, in seeking true progress, let us also listen to the Rule of St Benedict as a guiding light on our journey. The great monk is still a true master at whose school we can learn to become proficient in true humanism.

 

 

 

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Once there were two brothers….

How many tales have begun that way?

Today’s first reading does not begin with that exact phrase, but it could, for it’s the story of Jacob’s deception of his father Isaac, and the theft of his brother Esau’s birthright.

Once there were two brothers….

A few weeks ago, the third season of the FX series Fargo concluded. Fargo is a different kind of television series. It is “inspired by” the Coen brothers movie of that name, but takes from the film, not the exact plot, but rather setting, tone and general theme: The Fargosetting of the upper Midwest, the tone of black humor, and the general themes of randomness and of human beings using their free will for evil, but also in very stupid ways that always end in someone’s death.

Accident, serendipity and just the craziness of being in the wrong place at the wrong time play a huge role in this universe – as they do in life, in my opinion, which is why I am so strongly drawn to the series, I think.

That said, although I enjoyed the first season of the series, I never got around to watching the second – I think it coincided with a busy time of life, and then I never could catch up – but I did watch this recently concluded third season, and, in contrast to some viewers, who saw it as a definite downturn, I liked it a lot – and in ways thought it was stronger than the first season.

I’ll hasten to say that the seasons of this program are not intricately connected – the first and second were, but the third (I think) is a completely different story with different characters doing similar, but different things.

There’s too much going on for review in a single blog post – and you can certainly get that in other places. I suppose what I’ll do then, is just focus on what pulled me into this third season of Fargo. I won’t say, “And why you should watch it,” because people’s tastes vary so widely, I never assume that others will agree with my reading, listening or viewing preferences. And come to think of it, you probably shouldn’t watch it. There. Does that cover my bases?

Fargo was wild and arresting, but as with all wild and arresting creations out there these days, you have to be careful and ask: Is there a point to this, or is it just random visual flailing to get my attention and make me think there’s Something Serious going on here? That happens a lot – in my opinion, it happened in Twin Peaks (the original – didn’t watch the recent reboot or whatever) – and is pretty much the norm These Days, since the norm for quite a bit of artistic energy in the modern era is just about the startling superficial image, and not really about anything – since there’s no substantive Anything for anything to be about.

So with Fargo, I held my judgment until the end. I suspected it was about something real, but I couldn’t be sure if I was being taken for a ride or not until the end. And then the end came, and while it was the most deeply satisfying ending I could have envisioned, like the ending of The Sopranos – it fit. Fargo seemed to me about something real, after all.

And what was it?

It was about all those things I spoke of at the beginning, those matters which fascinate me so much – how we are in the place where we’re in at any given moment, not so much because of our deliberate choices (no matter how much we like to think that’s the reason), but because of chance, accidents and the good and evil that’s happened in the past.

But Fargo was also about the nature of truth – and how much of what surrounds us, and what we construct our lives around is just fable, myth and self-serving lies – but – BUT – truth does exist. There is a true story, and there are, indeed, still small voices in our midst, doggedly witnessing to that truth, usually at a great price.

Fargo begins and ends with interrogations of accused men by government officials.

(My discussion will be as spoiler-free as possible. So if I’m vague…that’s why.)

The first scene of the series us to East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. A man has been hauled in for questioning. He protests his innocence and indeed maintains, with increasing panic, that he is not the man accused and there is no rational reason to suppose him to be.

Fargo

The government official, cool and calm in his assertions, constructs a narrative, and the narrative is that the man in front of him is guilty. He is imposing a new identity on this man, and this narrative that he is a criminal is now the “truth.” It is now a true story.

The series ends in another small room, decades and half a world away from the first scene. Another government official sits behind a desk facing another accused man. Truth again is the issue, but this time, the dynamic is different. The official and the accused face each other, each maintaining the truth of their stories. Identity is again at the core, but now the roles are reversed. The accused has assumed identities in order to avoid detection of his criminal activities, and the official is maintaining, calmly and coolly, that she knows the truth of who he really is. She knows the true story.

There is only the faintest direct connection between the two scenes – one figure common to both narrative strands – who is, by the way, not physically present in either one. But this character’s existence serves to reinforce that other important Fargo theme of the role of random human connection in the course of life.

In between the two scenes are ten episodes in which characters are seduced by greed, deluded, killed, in which they face the truth and construct more lies, and most of the time face the consequences of their actions as the universe – bizarre and mysterious, but ultimately just, it seems – doles them out.

For the reason the events in that last scene came to the point that they did are this, in part:

Decades ago, someone traveled to Los Angeles with literary and filmmaking stars in their eyes, was exploited and mistreated, and bearing the physical consequences of this mistreatment, decided to leave it all behind, including his identity, and change his name to one he saw on a toilet bowl.

And

Decades ago, two brothers (ah…here we are) watched their father die. One brother knew the real value of the inheritance and tricked his brother into letting him have what was most valuable, traded for what the younger brother thought he wanted and needed at the moment, but was of little value beyond that immediate moment.

And here we are in this moment – dealing with the fallout and making our own present-day choices, carrying that weight.

Given that this is a crime drama, of course the choices are heightened and expressive of the most deadly sins – primarily greed and pride – always pride – here. And you watch fargoalong, filled with dread as characters you know have a glimmer of good in them insist on making decisions that range from the stupid to the short-sighted to just evil.

Along the way, Fargo gives us gorgeous cinematography, memorable images and intriguing metaphors – bridge plays a huge role, and along the way we dip into Peter and the Wolf, and find ourselves in a mystical bowling alley – a la Big Lebowski, but different – and excellent acting. Ewen McGregor plays both brothers, and while some critiqued his accent at times, I thought he was fabulous – the greatest challenge being when McGregor must play the brother Ray pretending to be his brother Emmitt.

Fargo_-_Emmit_and_Ray_Stussy

The central character here, though, is really the villain – one mystery man V.M. Varga, played by David Thewlis, whom some of you might know from Harry Potter – he played Professor Lupin.

In Fargo, Varga is the man in charge of some sort of mysterious global entity that steps in to loan Emmit Stussy – the Parking Lot King of Minnesota – some money. The trouble begins when, seeking to repay the loan, Stussy discovers that he’s been had – that the money was not so much a loan as a buy-in to the company, and bit by bit, Varga and his people are taking control.

How sin begins: We open ourselves up to a bit of shadow, and find ourselves in its grasp.

Varga, played by Thewlis is mesmerizing and -yes – disgusting. The character is bulimic. He gorges himself with all manner of food, methodically and greedily, and then vomits it out. As a consequence, his teeth are rotting away – the work of stomach acid. Food is not nourishment here. It is something else, something to fill need both deep-seated and pressingly immediate, then to be vomited out.

FARGO -- Pictured: David Thewlis as V.M. Vargas. CR: Matthias Clamer/FX

Varga’s bulimia is echoed in his other actions, as he takes in more and more money, more and more property, and vomits it all out in the form of, first of all elaborate self-justifying tales of false history presented as fact, and secondly, human lives.

This character is, to me, an embodiment of the deadly sins, as he perverts what is good, ingests it, takes it all into himself, but for no purpose except for the consumption, discards it, spews out self-justifying lies, and ultimately rots away.

The villain in the first season of Fargo was named Malvo and was played by Billy Bob Thornton, who is always a pleasure to watch in anything, even when he’s playing a villain. Some critics prefer his villain to Varga, but to me, there’s no contest. Thornton was good, but there was an element of the plot and character that I found so unrealistic – even in the heightened, unrealistic world of Fargo – that I lost interest in him. (If you watched it – I’m talking about the dentist part). Varga was weird and lived on a level of exaggeration, to be sure, but there was, at times, fear in his eyes. He wasn’t invincible.

Which, lest you think this is all about the darkness, is the point. As is the case with every Fargo iteration, the beating heart of the series is a police officer – usually female – who is doggedly and patiently pursuing the truth and believes in justice. Here, she’s played by Carrie Coons (of HBO’s The Leftovers) and the character is certainly more than just a symbol of conscience. It’s her stepfather whose murder sets off another chain of events in the series, and although she is not onscreen as much as other characters, it’s clear she is subject to the same dynamics of the universe as they are: she is in the place she is in, both professionally and personally, because of weird, random things that happened in the past. What to make of it all? What’s the truth? And how do you live with it right now?

 

We like to think that life, as we’re living it, is the result of conscious choices that we and others have made.  We read history this way, don’t’ we? We know how the story ends, so we read it as a narrative with decisions and steps leading up to that ending.

But it’s not that way. The way it is, instead, is a way of missteps and accidents, and while I can know some of it, most of it I won’t know.  We do live in the midst of a narrative, but it’s not because there’s no True Narrative to be known – it’s because we’re too small, as God tells Job, to even begin to grasp it. But someday, we will. We cling to hope that we will, we try to find the True Story as we go, and try not to fabricate too many false narratives on the way.

That mystery and strangeness is at the heart of life, and it’s at the heart of the Scriptures – a messy narrative full of human weakness, a story of God working and ultimately victorious, not just through the saints and their great works, but even through the poor sinners  and their weaknesses, crimes and lies.

 “Are you really my son Esau?” 
“Certainly,” Jacob replied….

****

Note: I have a theory about the connection between the bowling alley and Nikki’s fate – but I’ll wait to discuss it in the comment section at some point. 

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