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….also called Nathanael.  From B16:

We have no special information about Bartholomew; indeed, his name always and only appears in the lists of the Twelve mentioned above and is therefore never central to any narrative.

However, it has traditionally been identified with Nathanael:  a name that means “God has given”.

This Nathanael came from Cana (cf. Jn 21: 2) and he may therefore have witnessed the great “sign” that Jesus worked in that place (cf. Jn 2: 1-11). It is likely that the identification of the two figures stems from the fact that Nathanael is placed in the scene of his calling, recounted in John’s Gospel, next to Philip, in other words, the place that Bartholomew occupies in the lists of the Apostles mentioned in the other Gospels.

Philip told this Nathanael that he had found “him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (Jn 1: 45). As we know, Nathanael’s retort was rather strongly prejudiced:  “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn 1: 46). In its own way, this form of protestation  is  important  for  us.  Indeed, it makes us see that according to Judaic expectations the Messiah could not come from such an obscure village as, precisely, Nazareth (see also Jn 7: 42).

But at the same time Nathanael’s protest highlights God’s freedom, which baffles our expectations by causing him to be found in the very place where we least expect him. Moreover, we actually know that Jesus was not exclusively “from Nazareth” but was born in Bethlehem (cf. Mt 2: 1; Lk 2: 4) and came ultimately from Heaven, from the Father who is in Heaven.

Nathanael’s reaction suggests another thought to us: in our relationship with Jesus we must not be satisfied with words  alone. In  his  answer,  Philip offers Nathanael a meaningful invitation:  “Come and see!” (Jn 1: 46). Our knowledge of Jesus needs above all a first-hand experience: someone else’s testimony is of course important, for normally  the  whole  of  our  Christian life begins with the proclamation handed  down  to  us  by  one  or  more  witnesses.

However, we ourselves must then be personally involved in a close and deep relationship with Jesus; in a similar way, when the Samaritans had heard the testimony of their fellow citizen whom Jesus had met at Jacob’s well, they wanted to talk to him directly, and after this conversation they told the woman:  “It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Saviour of the world” (Jn 4: 42).

Returning to the scene of Nathanael’s vocation, the Evangelist tells us that when Jesus sees Nathanael approaching, he exclaims: “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile!” (Jn 1: 47). This is praise reminiscent of the text of a Psalm: “Blessed is the man… in whose spirit there is no deceit” (32[31]: 2), but provokes the curiosity of Nathanael who answers in amazement:  “How do you know me?” (Jn 1: 48).

Jesus’ reply cannot immediately be understood. He says: “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig  tree,  I  saw  you” (Jn  1: 48).  We  do not know what had happened under this fig tree. It is obvious that it had to do with a decisive moment in Nathanael’s life.

His heart is moved by Jesus’ words, he feels understood and he understands: “This man knows everything about me, he knows and is familiar with the road of life; I can truly trust this man”. And so he answers with a clear and beautiful confession of faith: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (Jn 1: 49). In this confession is conveyed a first important step in the journey of attachment to Jesus.

Nathanael’s words shed light on a twofold, complementary aspect of Jesus’ identity: he is recognized both in his special relationship with God the Father, of whom he is the Only-begotten Son, and in his relationship with the People of Israel, of whom he is the declared King, precisely the description of the awaited Messiah. We must never lose sight of either of these two elements because if we only proclaim Jesus’ heavenly dimension, we risk making him an ethereal and evanescent being; and if, on the contrary, we recognize only his concrete place in history, we end by neglecting the divine dimension that properly qualifies him.

We have no precise information about Bartholomew-Nathanael’s subsequent apostolic activity. According to information handed down by Eusebius, the fourth-century historian, a certain Pantaenus is supposed to have discovered traces of Bartholomew’s presence even in India (cf. Hist. eccl. V, 10, 3).

In later tradition, as from the Middle Ages, the account of his death by flaying became very popular. Only think of the famous scene of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel in which Michelangelo painted St Bartholomew, who is holding his own skin in his left hand, on which the artist left his self-portrait.

St Bartholomew’s relics are venerated here in Rome in the Church dedicated to him on the Tiber Island, where they are said to have been brought by the German Emperor Otto III in the year 983.

To conclude, we can say that despite the scarcity of information about him, St Bartholomew stands before us to tell us that attachment to Jesus can also be lived and witnessed to without performing sensational deeds. Jesus himself, to whom each one of us is called to dedicate his or her own life and death, is and remains extraordinary.

The apostles are often portrayed in art with the means of their death, so you do see Bartholomew holding his flayed skin.  As Benedict mentions, the most well-known is the depiction in the Michelangelo’s Last Judgment.

"amy welborn"

Also impressive is the huge statue in St. John Lateran. It stands in the central nave, along with representations of all the apostles. 

"amy welborn"

Remember that all of Benedict’s General Audience talks on the apostles are available in book form. 

And take a look at this post from the Clerk of Oxford blog on some medieval traditions, with this lovely and true reflection:

This story suggests all kinds of interesting things about memory and oral transmission in eleventh-century England, and the way traditions were perpetuated within communities; it’s unusual to have such specific details of the means by which knowledge was transmitted from one generation to another. Young Eadmer, listening to Edwin and the others tell their story, was not very different from the children at St Bartholomew’s who ran the other day to receive their currant buns, watched over by their elders; one purpose of such ceremonies is to imprint their memory on the younger generation, specifically in this case the principle of St Bartholomew’s ancient tradition of charity. The elders were once children themselves, and one day the running children may be the watching hospitallians in their wheelchairs. With stories, current buns and biscuits, we ensure that our children know about the past so that one day they will remember and acknowledge it as we do.

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(Repost….but why reinvent the wheel.)

What do we know about St. Clare of Assisi?

As is the case with many historical figures, separating legend and history can be a challenge with Clare and the effort can even miss the point because…well, who knows?

But it can be helpful and important to try to tease the two apart, not just for the sake of accuracy, but also so that we engage the willingness to be critical, not so much of the record that comes to us, but of our own assumptions.  Are we, for example, molding the figure of St. Francis to a particular modern agenda by  embracing some exaggerated legendary material about him but ignoring aspects of his life that are actually historically verifiable  – his strict views on liturgy and reverence, for example?

So, Clare.

58d729de3674eabab7869868b547b9aaIn his excellent and necessary biography of Francis, Fr. Augustine Thompson, O.P. writes a bit about Clare, what we know about her and what is disputed.

He says that it is not clear how Francis and Clare came to meet. For his part, as an historian, he leans toward the view that it was via one of Francis’ early followers, Rufino, who was also Clare’s cousin. We don’t know how many times they met, but, as Fr. Thompson says, “The eventual result, however, was a plan for Clare to ‘leave the world,’ just s Francis had nearly seven years earlier.” (46)

The night of Palm Sunday 1212,  Clare and her sister Pacifica left the family home and went to the Porziuncula. “They found Francis and the community waiting for her in prayer before the candlelit altar. Francis cut the young woman’s hair and gave her a habit like that of the brothers, but with a veil. Before the ceremony, as Clare later recounted herself, she made profession of religious obedience for life directly to Francis…Francis now faced a new problem: what to do with his first female disciple. As on several other occasions of need, he turned to Benedictines.” (47)

After some time, they were settled at San Damiano. Francis prepared a rule of life for them by which they were charged to “follow the perfection of the holy Gospel.” (48)

And from that point, until his death, we have no record of contact between Francis and Clare.

When he died in 1226, his body was taken to the sisters at San Damiano for reverence.

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The letters of St. Clare to Agnes of Prague. 

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

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

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

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

Now, more on Clare herself, from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, first from a General Audience in 2010

Especially at the beginning of her religious experience, Francis of Assisi was not only a teacher to Clare whose teachings she was to follow but also a brotherly friend. The friendship between these two Saints is a very beautiful and important aspect. Indeed, when two pure souls on fire with the same love for God meet, they find in their friendship with each other a powerful incentive to advance on the path of perfection. Friendship is one of the noblest and loftiest human sentiments which divine Grace purifies and transfigures. Like St Francis and St Clare, other Saints too experienced profound friendship on the journey towards Christian perfection. Examples are St Francis de Sales and St Jane Frances de Chantal. And St Francis de Sales himself wrote: “It is a blessed thing to love on earth as we hope to love in Heaven, and to begin that friendship here which is to endure for ever there. I am not now speaking of simple charity, a love due to all mankind, but of that spiritual friendship which binds souls together, leading them to share devotions and spiritual interests, so as to have but one mind between them” (The Introduction to a Devout Life, III, 19).

After spending a period of several months at other monastic communities, resisting the pressure of her relatives who did not at first approve of her decision, Clare settled with her first companions at the Church of San Damiano where the Friars Minor had organized a small convent for them. She lived in this Monastery for more than 40 years, until her death in 1253. A first-hand description has come down to us of how these women lived in those years at the beginning of the Franciscan movement. It is the admiring account of Jacques de Vitry, a Flemish Bishop who came to Italy on a visit. He declared that he had encountered a large number of men and women of every social class who, having “left all things for Christ, fled the world. They called themselves Friars Minor and Sisters Minor [Lesser] and are held in high esteem by the Lord Pope and the Cardinals…. The women live together in various homes not far from the city. They receive nothing but live on the work of their own hands. And they are deeply troubled and pained at being honoured more than they would like to be by both clerics and lay people” (Letter of October 1216: FF, 2205, 2207).

Jacques de Vitry had perceptively noticed a characteristic trait of Franciscan spirituality about which Clare was deeply sensitive: the radicalism of poverty associated with total trust in Divine Providence. For this reason, she acted with great determination, obtaining from Pope Gregory IX or, probably, already from Pope Innocent III, the so-called Privilegium Paupertatis (cf. FF., 3279). On the basis of this privilege Clare and her companions at San Damiano could not possess any material property. This was a truly extraordinary exception in comparison with the canon law then in force but the ecclesiastical authorities of that time permitted it, appreciating the fruits of evangelical holiness that they recognized in the way of life of Clare and her sisters. This shows that even in the centuries of the Middle Ages the role of women was not secondary but on the contrary considerable. In this regard, it is useful to remember that Clare was the first woman in the Church’s history who composed a written Rule, submitted for the Pope’s approval, to ensure the preservation of Francis of Assisi’s charism in all the communities of women large numbers of which were already springing up in her time that wished to draw inspiration from the example of Francis and Clare.

In the Convent of San Damiano, Clare practised heroically the virtues that should distinguish every Christian: humility, a spirit of piety and penitence and charity. Although she was the superior, she wanted to serve the sick sisters herself and joyfully subjected herself to the most menial tasks. In fact, charity overcomes all resistance and whoever loves, joyfully performs every sacrifice. Her faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist was so great that twice a miracle happened. Simply by showing to them the Most Blessed Sacrament distanced the Saracen mercenaries, who were on the point of attacking the convent of San Damiano and pillaging the city of Assisi.

Such episodes, like other miracles whose memory lives on, prompted Pope Alexander IV to canonize her in 1255, only two years after her death, outlining her eulogy in the Bull on the Canonization of St Clare. In it we read: “How powerful was the illumination of this light and how strong the brightness of this source of light. Truly this light was kept hidden in the cloistered life; and outside them shone with gleaming rays; Clare in fact lay hidden, but her life was revealed to all. Clare was silent, but her fame was shouted out” (FF, 3284). And this is exactly how it was, dear friends: those who change the world for the better are holy, they transform it permanently, instilling in it the energies that only love inspired by the Gospel can elicit. The Saints are humanity’s great benefactors!

St Clare’s spirituality, the synthesis of the holiness she proposed is summed up in the fourth letter she wrote to St Agnes of Prague. St Clare used an image very widespread in the Middle Ages that dates back to Patristic times: the mirror. And she invited her friend in Prague to reflect herself in that mirror of the perfection of every virtue which is the Lord himself. She wrote: “Happy, indeed, is the one permitted to share in this sacred banquet so as to be joined with all the feelings of her heart (to Christ) whose beauty all the blessed hosts of the Heavens unceasingly admire, whose affection moves, whose contemplation invigorates, whose generosity fills, whose sweetness replenishes, whose remembrance pleasantly brings light, whose fragrance will revive the dead, and whose glorious vision will bless all the citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, because the vision of him is the splendour of everlasting glory, the radiance of everlasting light, and a mirror without tarnish. Look into this mirror every day, O Queen, spouse of Jesus Christ, and continually examine your face in it, so that in this way you may adorn yourself completely, inwardly and outwardly…. In this mirror shine blessed poverty, holy humility, and charity beyond words…” (Fourth Letter to Blessed Agnes of Prague, FF, 2901-2903).

And then from a 2012 letter to the bishop of the area on the occasion of the anniversary of her conversion.

According to St Clare’s Testament, even before receiving his other companions Francis prophesied the way that would be taken by his first spiritual daughter and her sisters. Indeed while he was restoring the Church of St Damian, where the Crucifix had spoken to him, he proclaimed that women would live in this place who would glorify God by the holy tenor of their life (cf. FF 2826; cf. Tommaso da Celano, Vita Seconda, 13: FF 599).

The original Crucifix is now in the Basilica of St Clare. Christ’s large eyes which had fascinated Francis were to become Clare’s “mirror”. It is not by chance that the looking-glass would become a topic so dear to her that in her fourth letter to Agnes of Prague she would write: “Look into this mirror every day, O queen, spouse of Jesus Christ, and continually examine your face in it” (FF 2902).

In the years in which she met Francis to learn from him about the way of God, Clare was an attractive young woman. The “Poverello” of Assisi showed her a loftier beauty that cannot be measured by the mirror of vanity but develops in a life of authentic love, following in the footsteps of the Crucified Christ. God is the true beauty! Clare’s heart was lit up with this splendour and it gave her the courage to let her hair be cut and to embark on a life of penance.

For her, as for Francis, this decision was fraught with difficulty. Although some of her relatives understood her immediately — and Ortolana, her mother, and two of her sisters even followed her in the life she had chosen — others reacted violently. Her escape from home on the night between Palm Sunday and the Monday of Holy Week had something of an adventure about it. In the following days she was pursued to the places Francis had prepared for her but the attempts, even with force, to make her go back on her decision were in vain.

Clare had prepared herself for this struggle. Moreover although Francis was her guide, several clues hint that she also received fatherly support from Bishop Guido. This would explain the prelate’s gesture in offering the palm to her, as if to bless her courageous decision. Without the bishop’s support it would have been difficult for Clare to follow the plan that Francis had devised and that she put into practice, both in her consecration in the Church of the Porziuncola in the presence of Francis and his friars, and in the hospitality she received in the days that followed at the Monastery of San Paolo delle Abbadesse and at the community of Sant’Angelo in Panzo, prior to her definitive arrival at St Damian.

Clare’s story, like Francis’, thus has a specific ecclesial trait: an enlightened pastor and two children of the Church who entrust themselves to his discernment. In it institution and charism wondrously interact. Love and obedience to the Church, so marked in Franciscan-Clarissian spirituality, are rooted in this beautiful experience of the Christian community of Assisi, which not only gave birth to the faith of Francis and of his “little plant”, but also accompanied them, taking them by the hand on the path of holiness.

Francis saw clearly the reason for suggesting to Clare that she run away from home at the beginning of Holy Week. The whole of Christian life — hence also the life of special consecration — is a fruit of the Paschal Mystery and of participation in Christ’s death and Resurrection. The themes of sadness and glory, interwoven in the Palm Sunday liturgy, will be developed in the successive days through the darkness of the Passion to the light of Easter. With her decision Clare relives this mystery. She receives the programme for it, as it were, on Palm Sunday. She then enters the drama of the Passion, forfeiting her hair and, with it, renouncing her whole self in order to be a bride of Christ in humility and poverty. Francis and his companions are now her family.

Sisters were soon to come also from afar, but as in Francis’ case, the first new shoots were to sprout in Assisi. And Clare would always remain bound to her city, demonstrating her ties with it especially in certain difficult circumstances when her prayers saved Assisi from violence and devastation. She said to her sisters at the time: “We have received many things from this city every day dear daughters; it would be quite wicked if we were not to do our utmost to help it now in this time of need” (cf. Legenda Sanctae Clarae Virginis 23: FF 3203).

The profound meaning of Clare’s “conversion” is a conversion to love. She was no longer to wear the fine clothes worn by the Assisi nobility but rather the elegance of a soul that expends itself in the praise of God and in the gift of self. In the small space of the Monastery of St Damian, at the school of Jesus, contemplated with spousal affection in the Eucharist, day by day the features developed of a community governed by love of God and by prayer, by caring for others and by service. In this context of profound faith and great humanity Clare became a sure interpreter of the Franciscan ideal, imploring the “privilege” of poverty, namely, the renunciation of goods, possessed even only as a community, which for a long time perplexed the Supreme Pontiff himself, even though, in the end, he surrendered to the heroism of her holiness.

How could one fail to hold up Clare, like Francis, to the youth of today? The time that separates us from the events of both these Saints has in no way diminished their magnetism. On the contrary, their timeliness in comparison with the illusions and delusions that all too often mark the condition of young people today. Never before has a time inspired so many dreams among the young, with the thousands of attractions of a life in which everything seems possible and licit.

Yet, how much discontent there is, how often does the pursuit of happiness and fulfilment end by unfolding paths that lead to artificial paradises, such as those of drugs and unrestrained sensuality!

The current situation with the difficulty of finding dignified employment and forming a happy and united family makes clouds loom on the horizon. However there are many young people, in our day too, who accept the invitation to entrust themselves to Christ and to face life’s journey with courage, responsibility and hope and even opt to leave everything to follow him in total service to him and to their brethren.

The story of Clare, with that of Francis, is an invitation to reflect on the meaning of life and to seek the secret of true joy in God. It is a concrete proof that those who do the Lord’s will and trust in him alone lose nothing; on the contrary they find the true treasure that can give meaning to all things.

From St. Pope John Paul II

Due to a type of iconography which has been very popular since the 17th century, Clare is often depicted holding a monstrance. This gesture recalls, although in a more solemn posture, the humble reality of this woman who, although she was very sick, prostrated herself with the help of two sisters before the silver ciborium containing the Eucharist (cf. LegCl 21), which she had placed in front of the refectory door that the Emperor’s troops were about to storm. Clare lived on that pure Bread which, according to the custom of the time, she could receive only seven times a year. On her sickbed she embroidered corporals and sent them to the poor churches in the Spoleto valley.

In reality Clare’s whole life was a eucharist because, like Francis, from her cloister she raised up a continual “thanksgiving” to God in her prayer, praise, supplication, intercession, weeping, offering and sacrifice. She accepted everything and offered it to the Father in union with the infinite “thanks” of the only-begotten Son, the Child, the Crucified, the risen One, who lives at the right hand of the Father.

In the fall of 2012, as it happens, we visited Assisi.

The way to San Damiano:

"amy welborn"

The room where St. Clare died – the far corner, in fact.

"amy welborn"

Photographs are not allowed in the chapel – the site where Francis discerned the voice of Christ.  The “San Damiano” cross that is in the chapel at San Damiano is a reproduction – the original is in the church of S. Chiara, back up in Assisi.

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S. Chiara basilica. 

And….part of the fruit is Adventures in Assisi…so even if you can’t have a photo of the cross inside S. Chiara, you can have a gorgeous watercolor..

9. Santa Chiara basilica - spread 8 copy

and of San Damiano’s interior:

8. San Damiano Chapel - spread 7

assisi

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I’m going to write today about What We Did In The Homeschool, but it’s ironic I’m doing it the morning of M’s first day in a brick-n-mortar school in four years.

I’m a little melancholy, but also hopeful. Meet the teacher day was a success, and my intuitions were confirmed. It was absolutely right that we homeschooled for that “elementary” part of life and quite right – I think – that he’s going back for middle school in this school. The teachers all seem to be working at a level that’s challenging and interesting, but imbued with caritas, as their motto says they should be. Religion will be Old Testament and history is Ancient History, and the material will be integrated in creative ways by a great teacher. Science is in a new, up-to-date lab, taught by a Ph.D (who incidentally taught my daughter in a public school International Baccalaureate program several years ago). Spanish is taught by an experience native speaker. We had good experiences with many of these teachers two years ago with my older son, so that’s no surprise, but I was still concerned that this one’s extraordinarily deep and frankly, unusual for his age – imagination, level of interest in and openness to learning might be constrained in a school environment. I’m not thrilled with presenting “1.5-2 hours of homework a night” as a feature, either,  but I’m hoping that it won’t be the case for M, and if it is…we’ll recalibrate. Life is too short for an 11-year old to spend 7 hours a day at school and then have two hours of homework. But as I tell them both frequently – if it doesn’t work for you, we’ll do something else.

This morning I said to the older one, “Do you have any advice for your brother?”

He shrugged. “You’re going to be hungry and you’re going to be tired.”

#Truthteller

#Tradeoffs

All right, so you’re going to homeschool. What next?

I hear Europe is nice. Let’s go there.

Yes, that’s what we did. Spent the fall of 2012 in Europe.

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Here.

I’m not going to relive that experience and go over it in detail, but I’ll just focus on what that absolutely crazy decision was about in the context of the decision to homeschool.

In short, it really was a way to force my own hand.

If I made us leave the country, there was no way I could, come August 1, change my mind and race back to school, registration forms in hand, begging for them to open the doors.

Yes, I was in a privileged position. But it was a privileged position that came out the fact that my father had died the previous year and I was an only child. Frankly, I would trade my father being not dead at 77 from the effects of 60 years of heavy smoking for that fall in Europe, but it was what it was, and as I contemplated what he would want me to do with part of what he had left behind, I was sure he would be just fine with it. This was something he could give these kids through me and this moment, so it happened.

So we went.

Oh, and I should mention that this time in Europe was also a trial run. I was seriously toying with the idea of moving to Europe for a time. Didn’t know where, but it struck me as another solution to the American-education-is-mostly-terrible dilemma. Before we went, I spent time studying the possibility of life in various mid-sized cities like Turin, for example – looking at homeschool rules, the experiences of American kids going to school in European schools and so on.

Well, that almost-four months cured me of that notion. Not in any dramatic fashion, and not in negative terms, but I simply came to understand that as much as we all like visiting European countries, my kids are American kids, they like living in America, and I like raising them in America. With all the stress of being a little family whose husband and father had died, I saw very clearly that taking us to Europe to live would just be…stupid.

So yes, we were in Europe, doing the Roamschool thing, and here’s what we did:

First, I said from the beginning of this that they would be perfectly free to return to school in January. It was going to be completely up to them. And I wasn’t joking, and I wasn’t playing psychological games. I meant it, they knew it, and the school knew it.

With that in mind, we did some formal “schooling” in Europe, mostly with the curricula that their school used in the basics, so that in case they did return, they would be on track with their classes. That meant the second-grader did his class’s spelling words and math program. The sixth grader did the same, plus the vocabulary book. I have photos of them sitting at tables in a gite in the Pyrenees with their books open, pencils going. I am insufferable and awful. But you know…I meant well. And really, I had no expectations that they would want to keep homeschooling come January – I thought they would be thoroughly sick of me and my constant, insufferable teachable moments, and if so, they wouldn’t want to “be behind.”

Journaling and doing Envision Math in Appy, Montignac and Lausanne. Crazy. Not the journaling part, but…

The rest of the education was absolutely, er,  teachable moment from one day to the next – but I did prepare and I did teach. I even sort of designed the trip to hit the high points in chronological order. We started in the Montignac area where there are a lot of prehistoric sites. Then moved to Provence (with Lourdes in between) where we took in Roman Gaul. Then Paris for a month..well, Paris. Then to Italy. Well, okay, it was all over the place. But it was all very intentional and how can you not learn tons in that context?

And today, I look back, and I think…I did what? I planned four months in Europe with these two and we did it, and every day we did this thing and saw everything…and we lived?

It wasn’t that long ago, but I swear..I can’t imagine undertaking that kind of trip today. It was mostly glorious and amazing and I prayed for my dad – and everyone else – at every shrine.

 

EPSON MFP image

“I have to tell you it has been fun.” Haha.

 

 

As the end approached, the question started coming up.

Well? Do you want to go back to school?

Most of the time while we were over there, the answer was either that they didn’t know or “probably.”

But then we actually got back home, we went to the Homewood Christmas Parade they saw their friends, saw that they would be able to be thick into basketball and scouts with these friends and didn’t need school to see them, then considered the reality of waking up early every morning, putting on uniforms and sitting in classrooms, compared it, not to Europe, but to what I suggested we would be doing – work, sure, but also science center classes, zoo classes, “school” done, if everyone cooperated, by noon every day at the latest….

We’ll stay home. Homeschooling will be fine.

And it was.

Now, I’m not going to go into great detail on our days. If you want to see how crazy that was, you can click on these links, which should take you to most of the posts I wrote on homeschooling over the past few years.

Homeschool Daily Report

Learning Notes.

What I am going to talk about will also be a bit limited because I don’t want to go into too much detail about my kids. There was nothing bad or problematic, but I just don’t think it’s my right to write about the particulars of their personalities in relation to education. That’s their business. But what I’ll try to cover is what we did and how it worked without crossing that line of privacy.

First, what did I envision?

To be honest, I really did envision being far more Unschoolish than we ended up being and I do harbor regrets that I never could pull it off. I had hoped that they really would take charge of their own learning and I would just facilitate, and it would be a glorious, busy little hive of self-directed learning, projects and entrepreneurship, but it didn’t work out that way for reasons having to do with them, and having to do with me.

It’s hard to explain, but I think part of it was that the compliance that school demands had…worked. They were perfectly cooperative with authority to the extent that they – especially the older one who had been in school longer – were in the mode of “Learning is about doing what a teacher tells me to do.” I knew this before we went, and indeed, it was something about him that I had discerned and hoped homeschooling would break. But perhaps it is just his personality. As the years went on, he really just preferred to be taught and get it over with for the day so he could go on with his life – and I never could work the “go on with his life” into some sort of educational path. Eh, it was fine.

And secondly, well, there’s…me. I’m not a control freak,  but you know, there were some things I really thought they should do. Yes, we’ll unschool. We’ll be roamschooling unschoolers!

But you know, you know…you have to know how to write properly. Oh, and you’re not going to get out of homeschooling without some Latin. And this math program is fantastic. Oh, and here are some poems to memorize. Look, Shakespeare!

Yeah, I know some unschoolers, and I admire them. I wish I could claim the mantle, but I just can’t.

I guess I should also mention my own personality and how it worked into the homeschooling paradigm. This might be useful to readers, since this is something you have to consider as you get into this. I’m not a robot. I’m a person with certain characteristics and a particular personality. Forget the kids. How am I going to fit into homeschooling?

I mentioned before that I’m an introvert and that the surge of relief I feel when I’m finally alone is probably felt three houses away. I usually explain it by telling a story:

For a time, a few years ago, one of my older sons was living with us, right after he returned from some time teaching English in Rome and while he was going to graduate school. At the time, the younger ones were in school. The day would dawn. They’d go to school. I’d come back, and my older son would be in his room with the door closed. I’d sit at the my desk, ready to work, but finding it difficult. I’d fidget, find distractions and generally feel not quite settled. A couple of hours later, my up-to-then invisible and silent son would come out of his room. “I’m going to class now, Mom,” he’d say, and he’d leave.

Finally, I’d think. Now I can concentrate.

Pretty crazy, huh? Well, that’s an introvert for you.

So yes, I was going to have to be aware of that – as if I couldn’t be – and take care of myself so that I would, at some point, just lose it because no one ever goes away.

And then there’s the personality thing. I don’t set a whole lot of store by personality inventories, except when I do. Like any of you who have worked in group settings, particularly during the 80’s and 90’s, I had to take various personality tests – Enneagram, Myers-Briggs, etc. They are mostly fantasy, but you know…I actually have always found the Myers-Briggs reasonably predictive of my own personality. I always tested as an INFP, and that introvert/intuitive/perceiver is right on. I like to research my tail off, but I don’t like to plan, and my actions within situations are very reactive – in a good way, I think. I’m ready to go in any direction, and I go in what I perceive the needs of the moment call for instead of imposing my will on the situation.

This means that as a homeschooling parent, there was no way we were going to do a boxed curriculum. It meant that as much as possible, I was going to follow their lead and facilitate – much easier, as I have indicated, with one of then than with the other.

And honestly, what it meant was that I spent a lot of time researching resources of all kinds, often late into the night, seeking out interesting nature and history videos, copywork materials, online math, grammar and language games, places for us to go and information about whatever was the topic of the moment.

My life would have been “easier” if I’d done a boxed curriculum or just depended on textbooks, but that is not why I was homeschooling. At all. And of course, I love researching. I love doing travel research, I love digging up recipes…I’m a library rat, and the Internet is the Biggest Library of All.

At one point, there was an attempt to bring a hybrid Catholic school into the area: kids would be in a school maybe two days a week, I think, then finish up work at home. I love the idea of a hybrid school – it really is my ideal – but every time I would think, “Maybe…” I would look at the curriculum again, and think, What they would be doing that I like…we are already doing at home. And I don’t like some of it. And I would be paying a good chunk of money for it. And we would be constrained in our travel and their other fun classes that they like to do.

So I never signed up for it, and as it turned out, not enough people did in the area, so it didn’t happen.

Homeschoolers are hard to plan for, I tell you. They are an independent lot!

And so that’s how it went for two years for both of them, and then for the younger one alone when the older one went, first to 8th grade in school, and then high school. My goal was to get what I considered basics in every day: a bit of writing practice, math and Latin. Everything else was ad hoc and geared to the moment. If their science center class was on molecules one week, we’d talk about that a lot and do more experiments. If we were going to be seeing a Shakespeare play in a few weeks, we’d be reading that. If it was Lent, we’d be paying attention to that. They took lots of classes in the community, and we traveled in the area quite a bit. “School” took no more than three hours a day.

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Fancy. 

For you see, this is something I had learned from classroom teaching: You can’t teach everything, so just try to teach what you can, and do it well. For example, I taught Church History to high schoolers, and as I would explain it, holding my arms out as far as they could go, “There’s this much history.” Then I would hold my fingers very close together. “And we have time to study this much.”

In other words, I had to constantly tell myself, THEY ARE TWELVE AND NINE YEARS OLD. THEY WILL READ MORE SHAKESPEARE. THEY WILL ENCOUNTER CHEMISTRY AGAIN. THEY MIGHT EVEN TAKE LATIN AGAIN. CALM DOWN.

So what did I want for them?

To develop a lifestyle of looking at the world with open eyes and open minds, learning from every moment, and learning how to understand that world and communicate what they see. I wanted them to see how fluid life is and how our understanding of the world changes through time, and to understand this, as much as possible via the world itself without the mediation of textbook companies and state curricula guidelines and their narrow, shallow, secular viewpoints.  I wanted them to see that the world is beautiful, fascinating, but broken, and to be open to the intuitions within them that are prompting them to contribute to that beauty and heal the brokenness, whether that be as an artist, an engineer, a researcher, a physician, a zookeeper..or who knows what else God is calling them to.

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I took this our first full day in Europe in 2012, and it remains my favorite, expressing everything I hoped for them from that roamschool adventure.

Tomorrow, I’ll write about my favorite resources, and Friday, I’ll wrap up with a big “What I Learned” post, so…#rantingahead

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Dominicans in Benin, courtesy of the always interesting and inspiring African Catholics Instagram feed. 

Here’s Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on the saint, in one of his General Audiences, part of the series that focused on great figures in the Church, beginning with the Apostles:

This great Saint reminds us that in the heart of the Church a missionary fire must always burn. It must be a constant incentive to make the first proclamation of the Gospel and, wherever necessary, a new evangelization. Christ, in fact, is the most precious good that the men and women of every time and every place have the right to know and love! And it is comforting to see that in the Church today too there are many pastors and lay faithful alike, members of ancient religious orders and new ecclesial movements who spend their lives joyfully for this supreme ideal, proclaiming and witnessing to the Gospel!

Many other men then joined Dominic de Guzmán, attracted by the same aspiration. In this manner, after the first foundation in Toulouse, the Order of Preachers gradually came into being. Dominic in fact, in perfect obedience "amy welborn"to the directives of the Popes of his time, Innocent iii, and Honorius iii, used the ancient Rule of St Augustine, adapting it to the needs of apostolic life that led him and his companions to preach as they travelled from one place to another but then returning to their own convents and places of study, to prayer and community life. Dominic wanted to give special importance to two values he deemed indispensable for the success of the evangelizing mission: community life in poverty and study.

First of all Dominic and the Friars Preachers presented themselves as mendicants, that is, without vast estates to be administered. This element made them more available for study and itinerant preaching and constituted a practical witness for the people. The internal government of the Dominican convents and provinces was structured on the system of chapters which elected their own superiors, who were subsequently confirmed by the major superiors; thus it was an organization that stimulated fraternal life and the responsibility of all the members of the community, demanding strong personal convictions. The choice of this system was born precisely from the fact that as preachers of the truth of God, the Dominicans had to be consistent with what they proclaimed. The truth studied and shared in charity with the brethren is the deepest foundation of joy. Blessed Jordan of Saxony said of St Dominic: “All men were swept into the embrace of his charity, and, in loving all, he was beloved by all…. He claimed it his right to rejoice with the joyful and to weep with the sorrowful” (Libellus de principiis Ordinis Praedicatorum autore Iordano de Saxonia, ed. H.C. Scheeben [Monumenta Historica Sancti Patris Nostri Dominici, Romae, 1935].

Secondly, with a courageous gesture, Dominic wanted his followers to acquire a sound theological training and did not hesitate to send them to the universities of the time, even though a fair number of clerics viewed these cultural institutions with diffidence. The Constitutions of the Order of Preachers give great importance to study as a preparation for the apostolate. Dominic wanted his Friars to devote themselves to it without reserve, with diligence and with piety; a study based on the soul of all theological knowledge, that is, on Sacred Scripture, and respectful of the questions asked by reason. The development of culture requires those who carry out the ministry of the Word at various levels to be well trained. I therefore urge all those, pastors and lay people alike, to cultivate this “cultural dimension” of faith, so that the beauty of the Christian truth may be better understood and faith may be truly nourished, reinforced and also defended. In this Year for Priests, I ask seminarians and priests to esteem the spiritual value of study. The quality of the priestly ministry also depends on the generosity with which one applies oneself to the study of the revealed truths.

Dominic, who wished to found a religious Order of theologian-preachers, reminds us that theology has a spiritual and pastoral dimension that enriches the soul and life. Priests, the consecrated and also all the faithful may find profound “inner joy” in contemplating the beauty of the truth that comes from God, a truth that is ever timely and ever alive. Moreover the motto of the Friars Preachers contemplata aliis tradere helps us to discover a pastoral yearning in the contemplative study of this truth because of the need to communicate to others the fruit of one’s own contemplation.    More

Then, in 2012, on this feast at Castel Gandolfo, he focused on Dominic and prayer:

There are, then, nine ways to pray, according to St Dominic, and each one — always before Jesus Crucified — expresses a deeply penetrating physical and spiritual approach that fosters recollection and zeal. The first seven ways follow an ascending order, like the steps on a path, toward intimate communion with God, with the Trinity: St Dominic prayed standing bowed to express humility, lying prostrate on the ground to ask forgiveness for his sins, kneeling in penance to share in the Lord’s suffering, his arms wide open, gazing at the Crucifix to contemplate Supreme Love, looking heavenwards feeling drawn to God’s world.

Thus there are three positions: standing, kneeling, lying prostrate on the ground; but with the gaze ever directed to our Crucified Lord. However the last two positions, on which I would like to reflect briefly, correspond to two of the Saint’s customary devotional practices. First, personal meditation, in which prayer acquires an even more intimate, fervent and soothing dimension. After reciting the Liturgy of the Hours and after celebrating Mass, St Dominic prolonged his conversation with God without setting any time limit. Sitting quietly, he would pause in recollection in an inner attitude of listening, while reading a book or gazing at the Crucifix. He experienced these moments of closeness to God so intensely that his reactions of joy or of tears were outwardly visible. In this way, through meditation, he absorbed the reality of the faith. Witnesses recounted that at times he entered a kind of ecstasy with his face transfigured, but that immediately afterwards he would humbly resume his daily work, recharged by the power that comes from on High.

Then come his prayers while travelling from one convent to another. He would recite Lauds, Midday Prayer and Vespers with his companions, and, passing through the valleys and across the hills he would contemplate the beauty of creation. A hymn of praise and thanksgiving to God for his many gifts would well up from his heart, and above all for the greatest wonder: the redemptive work of Christ.

Dear friends, St Dominic reminds us that prayer, personal contact with God is at the root of the witness to faith which every Christian must bear at home, at work, in social commitments and even in moments of relaxation; only this real relationship with God gives us the strength to live through every event with intensity, especially the moments of greatest anguish. This Saint also reminds us of the importance of physical positions in our prayer. Kneeling, standing before the Lord, fixing our gaze on the Crucifix, silent recollection — these are not of secondary importance but help us to put our whole selves inwardly in touch with God. I would like to recall once again the need, for our spiritual life, to find time everyday for quiet prayer; we must make this time for ourselves, especially during the holidays, to have a little time to talk with God. It will also be a way to help those who are close to us enter into the radiant light of God’s presence which brings the peace and love we all need. Thank you.

From Word on Fire , by Fr. Paul Murray, O.P.:

Dominic, it is clear, possessed a strong instinct for adventure. He was daring both by nature and by grace. Dante calls him ‘il santo atleta,’ the holy athlete. No matter how difficult or unforeseen the challenge of the hour, he was not afraid to take enormous risks for the sake of the Gospel. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that within a few years it could be said of the young friars who followed in his wake, and whom he himself had dispersed far and wide to preach the gospel, that they had made the ocean their cloister. But was this spirit of risk and adventure reflected in the intellectual life of the first Dominicans? Study, we know, was given a place that was unheard of before in the history of religious life. It was no longer simply one exercise among others. It was now a central and sacred task. But, in terms of actual content and imaginative range, how striking and original were the studies of those first friars? The principal point to be made in answer to this question is that the early Dominicans were not attempting to be ‘striking and original’. Their studies were shaped by the needs of others, and given the nature of the crisis at that time, what was most urgently required for the task of preaching and the cura animarum was straightforward moral and doctrinal catechesis.

Here’s one of the many interesting Dominican web sites out there – focused on the Dominican liturgy. 

Godzdogs, the blog site of the Dominicans of England and Scotland.

The litany of Dominican saints and blesseds

Earlier this summer, we traveled to Bologna and enjoyed just a few minutes at the tomb of St. Dominic. We were shooed away by the caretaker because, of course, we arrived right as the gates to the tomb area were being closed for the lunch hour. And we didn’t hang around the church itself because there was a school Mass about to begin…but it was a nice moment, anyway, to be at the tomb of St. Dominic and to see the fruit of his labor – young people gathering for Mass – 800 years after his death.

Tomb of St. Dominic

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(Last image from Snapchat – amywelborn2 to follow)

And….St. Dominic is in the Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints.  Only a page is available in online, so here it is. He’s in “Saints are people who teach us new ways to pray” section.

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Tomorrow (August 4), Pope Francis will visit Umbria, with the particular destination of the Porziuncola (or Portiuncula), a small chapel standing within a huge church, Santa Maria degli Angeli, which in turns stands at the base of the hill on which Assisi is built.

(If you ever go to Assisi and arrive by train, your station is at Santa Maria degli Angeli, and you then take some other means to get up the hill.)

The occasion is – a couple of days late – the 800th anniversary of the “Pardon of Assisi.”

EWTN Vatican correspondent  Joan Lewis gave a good explanation of both the Porziuncola and the Pardon last year:

Having prayed and meditated and discovered his vocation here in 1209, St. Francis founded the Friars Minor and eventually obtained the chapel from the Benedictines as a gift to be the center of his new Order.

Here, on March 28, 1211, Clare, the daughter of one Favarone di Offreduccio received the habit of the Poor Clares from Francis, thus instituting that Order.

And now we come to 1216 when St.Francis, in a vision, obtained what is know as the Pardon of Assisi or Indulgence of the Porziuncola (also written Portiuncula), approved by Pope Honorius III. This special day runs from Vespers on August 1 to sundown of August 2.

According to the official Porziuncola website, one night in 1216 Francis was immersed in prayer when suddenly the chapel was filled with a powerful light, and he saw Christ and His Holy Mother above the altar, surrounded by a multitude of angels.

They asked him what he wanted to be able to save souls and Francis’ answer was immediate: “I ask that all those who, having repented and confessed, will come to visit this church will obtain full and generous pardon with a complete remission of guilt.”

The Lord then said to Francis: “What you ask, Brother Francis, is great but you are worthy of greater things and greater things you will have. I thus accept your prayer, but on the understanding that you ask my vicar on earth, in my name, for this indulgence.”

Francis immediately went to Pope Honorius who listened attentively and gave his approval. To the question, “Francis, for how many years do you wish this indulgence?” the saint replied: “Holy Father, I do not ask for years, but for souls.”

And thus, on August 2, 1216, together with the bishops of Umbria, he announced to the people gathered at the Porziuncula: “My brothers, I want to send all of you to Heaven.”

Francis gathered his brother Franciscans here every year in a general chapter to discuss the Rule of the Order, to be renewed in their work and to awaken in themselves a new fervor in bringing the Gospel to the world.

It is also the site of St. Francis’ death. 

” He was at that time dwelling in the palace of the Bishop of Assisi, and therefore he asked the brethren to carry him with all speed to the “place” of St. Maria de Portiuncula, for he wished to give back his soul to God there, where (as has been said) he first knew the way of the truth perfectly….

…Then, for that he was about to become dust and ashes, he bade that he should be laid on sackcloth and sprinkled with ashes. All the brethren (whose father and leader he was) came together, and, as they stood reverently by and awaited his blessed departure and happy consummation, his most holy soul was released from the flesh and absorbed into the abyss of light, and his body fell asleep in the Lord. But one of his brethren and disciples, a man of no small fame, whose name I think it right to suppress now because while he lives in the flesh he chooses not to glory in such an announcement, saw the soul of the most holy father ascending over many waters in a straight course to heaven, and his soul was as it were a star having in some sort the bigness of the moon and possessing somewhat of the brightness of the sun, and borne up by a little white cloud.

It is also the spot where, according to her Spiritual Autobiography, Simone Weil prayed for the first time. From John Paul II’s letter on the occasion of the re-opening of the Porziuncola after the 1996 earthquake. 

The little church of the Porziuncola preserves and hands on a message and a special grace deriving from the actual experiences of the Poverello of Assisi. Message and grace still continue, and form a powerful summons to any who will allow themselves to be drawn by his example. This is borne out by the witness of Simone Weil, a daughter of Israel who fell under the spell of Christ: “Alone in the tiny romanesque chapel of St Mary of the Angels, a unique wonder of purity in which Francis had often prayed, I experienced a force greater than myself that drove me, for the first time in my life, to my knees”

 

The Porziuncola plays a part, naturally, in Adventures in Assisi It provides a climax of sorts, in the story in which the two children have walked in the footsteps of St. Francis, both literally and spiritually, having learned some lessons about humility and poverty of spirit.

Ann found it a challenge to do a painting in which the scale of the small chapel in the huge basilica was evident, but still include the children. But I think she did a great job!

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Remember, if you would like to order this book from me – you can go here. Perhaps it would be a good gift for you local Catholic classroom??

 

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Seven Quick Takes

— 1 —

Happy feast day of St. Mary Magdalene. In case you haven’t been around, all week, I have been posting big chunks of the book I wrote on her a while back (now out of print, so it’s okay), De-Coding Mary Magdalene.  

Chapter one: Introducing Mary Magdalene in the Bible

Chapter two: Mary Magdalene at the Resurrection

Chapter three: Mary Magdalene in Gnostic writings

Chapter four: Mary Magdalene in Patristic writings

Chapter ten: Mary and the Mystics

— 2 —

You can access the entire book, in pdf form here. 

As far as I know, it’s the only book-length popular treatment of Mary Magdalene put out by a Catholic publisher in recent years, and I remain mildly bitter that it was put out of print. A little more creative marketing and a title that wasn’t so tied to a particular moment (The Da Vinci Code) might have helped.

— 3 —

Summer chugs along. For us, the end is sadly near – school in the South starts super early – August 8 for the high school, which means the week before for orientation and so on.

So, because of that and a couple of scout trips our family travel has been pretty low-key. Memphis last week for me and the kid left at home, next week a couple of days in Charleston, and that will be about it.

 

 — 4 —

That same younger son has been given most of his piano repertoire for the coming year, and I’m buying stock in Kleenex or Puffs or something. I mean…his teacher has been instructing him for two years and has a Master’s in this stuff and knows what he’s doing (M won the state concerto competition in his age group last spring) but still. Is he really going to be able to play this in eight months or so? Plus other stuff??

So weird (and good)  when your kid surpasses you in things like this…

— 5 

Here’s a new book!  Colleen C. Mitchell’s Who Does He Say You Are? is very good – honest and true and substantive. It would be great for a parish study group this fall..or any time.

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6–

Oh, we did go to a water park this week. I am not a fan of such places – I don’t like to spend the money, the concrete and the mess get to me – it was so hot, the pool of which we are a member had lost its appeal for that day, and we hadn’t been in a couple of years, so…off we went.

It was fine. The place has come under new ownership since the last time we had gone. It was much cleaner, they didn’t charge for parking (that always sets me off), and they had somehow gotten a handle on the wasp issue, which was huge last time we were there – attracted by both the water and trash, it was a big, annoying problem.

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— 7 —

Tomorrow I think that the younger son and I (since older son is off scout-ing) will head down to the southern part of the state for a little adventure. Follow on Instagram and Snapchat (amywelborn2) for more of that..

 

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

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A final chapter from De-Coding Mary Magdalene.  I have skipped a few – this is chapter 10, which describes the role of Mary Magdalene in the lives of late medieval and counter-reformation mystics and spiritual writers.

For the whole book, in pdf form, go here. 

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

Chapter four: Mary Magdalene in Patristic writings

 

MARY AND THE MYSTICS

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

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

 

Like a Sister

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The Second Mary Magdalene

 

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

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

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

 

Bathed in Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

St.Teresa of Ávila

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Practical Advice

 

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

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

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

Silent Witness

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

 

Questions for Reflection

 

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

 

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