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Archive for the ‘pilgrimage’ Category

—1 —

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

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

Here’s a post on St. Rita for today. 

— 2 —

I thought this was just excellent:

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

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

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

— 3 —

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

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

More, including the video, at the link.

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

— 4 —

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

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

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

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

— 5 –

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

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

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

Anyway:

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

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

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

 

— 6 —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

— 7 —

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

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

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

 

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

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It is invariably, unfailingly true, that if I wait long enough, my inchoate thoughts on a topic find expression in someone else’s knowledgeable, rational words. I’ll link to those more knowledgeable words in a second.

First, let me just run this by you. This is the kind of post that back in the day, I used to be able to toss out,  and some would feel strongly one way or the other, sure, but for the most part, the conversation would be genial and people would be able to laugh and see the oddities, inconsistencies and questions, not only in the opposing point of view, but in their own.

But that really doesn’t happen much any more. I have loads of ideas about why that is and who or what to blame, but none of that really matters. What matters is the pronounced lack of chill in the world these days. Geez, people. Relax. It’s a joke. Everything’s a mess. Cry, then laugh.

(But, as Ann Althouse frequently points out, we’re in the Era of That’s Not Funny, so what can you do?)

So. I’ve been following the news, as I do, and particularly following the Catholic news related to the pandemic. Over the past few days, hints have come from various bishops and dioceses that we, the laity, might be permitted to attend public Masses again.

Thanks!

You can search for the various policies that are being proposed and promulgated, but the conditions that seem to be most common involve:

  • Asking the vulnerable to stay home. Which I generally have no problem with because, of course, the vulnerable are never obligated to attend Mass. My only issues are two: First I trust – I trust that all of these vulnerable, sick and elderly people who are being told to stay away from the parish grounds are also being told that pastoral ministry will certainly be coming to them because FieldHospitalAccompanimentLoveYa.  Secondly, these dioceses are…suggesting a cutoff age to define these vulnerable populations.Fort Worth, for example, has put it at…60. SIXTY. SIX-TY.

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Ahem.

  • Also, social distancing.
  • Masks, sometimes.
  • No touching. No hand-holding at the Lord’s Prayer, no Sign of Peace.
  • No singing.
  • People should super cautious about receiving Communion. No Communion from the shared chalice for the congregation. Congregants maybe don’t take for granted that they will receive, or no Communion distributed during Mass, or only in the hand.

So, I’m reading through all of these, and I’m getting the picture: a Mass where’s there’s more silence, where social aspects are minimized, people sort of keep to themselves, where they’re not touching, there’s no Sign of Peace in the congregation, and people aren’t looking at each other and constantly talking or singing and aspirating material all over each other, and it’s not taken for granted that you’ll receive Communion…

Hmmm. I’m thinking..

…thinking..

…something’s coming….

…I think I can conjure that up…

 

 

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Hahahaha. Come on. Laugh. You can do it. 

It sort of reminds me of a few months back, when a parish in these parts started advertising regular sensory-friendly Masses. I read about what that would be like, and I thought, “So, a traditional low Mass, right?”

The point about the Mass pictured above is made even more sharply when you understand that it was quite common for Communion to be distributed outside of Mass, during this time. I wrote about that here, in this post on the sociological study, St. Denis – a small Quebec community in which the laity would go to Confession and receive Communion before Mass, and then attend the Mass itself.

Look. Here’s what this is about. It’s about what I point out over and over and over AND OVER.

There is wisdom in tradition. 

Traditional practices grew out of human experience – human experiences of joy, sorrow, difficulty and challenge. Human experiences of trying to obey Christ, bring his presence into the world as it is –  in peace, war, plenty, famine, health and disease.  I wrote a bit about this earlier this week., Yes, tradition and traditional practices are always subject to reform and development. But it helps if, as we reform, we keep the wisdom of the tradition in mind and are realistic about life in this world as well.

Short version: Maybe they knew what they were doing, after all.

 

As promised, here’s the smarter take from a slightly different angle, from  Joseph Shaw of the UK Latin Mass society on “Epidemic and Liturgical Reform.”

Clearly, a carefully controlled approach to distributing Holy Communion outside Mass will place a limit on the numbers able to receive, and even on the most optimistic view Catholics will have to get used to another aspect of standard past practice: infrequent Communion. Today, not only is Communion outside Mass hard to imagine, but for many Catholics so is attendance at Mass without the reception of Communion. This implies a casual attitude towards the reception of Holy Communion which perfectly accords with the placing of the meal-symbolism ahead of other considerations, but is not a positive development from other points of view.

It certainly would not have been the way I would have chosen to do it — I have previously argued for the restoration of a longer Eucharistic fast — but the enforced infrequency of Holy Communion will do much to restore the fame eucharistica, “eucharistic hunger,” the lack of which Pope John II so lamented. It is to be hoped that priests will encourage the Faithful who are able to receive less frequently to make the most of it when it is possible, by careful preparation, ideally including fasting, an act of perfect contrition (or, if possible, sacramental Confession), and prayer, and to follow it with a serious thanksgiving.

It is dangerous to speculate too early about the long-term consequences of the current epidemic, but it will certainly have some. It seems likely that among them will be a shedding of the naivety about hygiene which characterizes modern liturgical practice. It is to be hoped that this will be accompanied by a restoration of a more acute awareness of spiritual realities, and of the practices which have historically served to nurture that awareness.

Update:  An example – the guidelines issued by the Diocese of Wichita. All of what I spoke of above, including specific directives about not greeting each other before or after Mass in the church, and no congregational singing.

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As many of you know, my youngest son has, since October, been the paid, staff organist at a local Catholic parish. He works with a music director, who is also the cantor. There’s no choir at this point. It’s just the organist and a cantor.

When the virus lockdowns hit, the media-savvy pastor immediately went to streaming Masses and holy hours (and doing drive-through confession, btw – which was featured on Good Morning, America.) There was no thought of having the organ continue, which was fine and seemed correct.

Then the week before Palm Sunday, we were at the church exchanging some keys, when it occurred to me, Wouldn’t it be nice to have the organ playing for the Easter livestreaming Mass?

I suggested it, and the suggestion was immediately embraced and expanded – why not start with Palm Sunday?

So…get home, scramble, find the music, and start practicing!

(Here’s some of the Easter practice.)

Then on the Saturday before Palm Sunday, the reality hit me.

We’ll be among a few thousand Catholics in this country, and maybe even worldwide, who will be attending a Catholic Mass this Sunday.

It honestly shook me a little. As I shared this with the others, I emphasized something: What a privilege. And what a responsibility. Not only to contribute to the beauty of the liturgy through music, but to be present at Mass, receive Jesus in the Eucharist, when so many cannot and are yearning to. Start now – think of all the people you want to pray for.

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As it has for many of us without access to the Mass at this time, it prompted thoughts of those persecuted for the Faith, those in mission territories – which is really, most Catholics, through most of history – with only sporadic participation in the sacraments. This present situation will pass, and most of us will have our weekly Mass again. Will we remember this? Will we slip back into resigned sighs that we “have to go to Mass?”

I have no profound spiritual experiences to report from those Masses the past couple of weeks. I felt a bit uncomfortable that I could be there simply because the organist isn’t old enough to drive and requires a chauffeur. I was angry about so many dimensions of the current situation. I did some soul-searching about what I take for granted.

But mostly what I tried to do was to pray, and, as much as I could, in whatever mystical way my small soul could muster, to bring the prayers of everyone I could think of into that moment – all of my kids, my kids-in-law, my grandchildren, my in-laws, my many deceased family members, my friends. They were at home, some of them watching, all with needs and hopes and fears, and so that privileged, mysterious time with Christ couldn’t be just for myself. How could it be? I had to bring them with me, somehow. And not only them, but also those I don’t know and will never know.

I can’t really explain the mechanics of what it means to “offer it up” or to “offer my Communion” for another. All I know is that after my husband died over eleven years ago, hundreds and maybe even thousands of people prayed for us, and I received more notices than I can count of people telling me they’d offered their Communion for us and for his soul, that their Mass intentions were offered for us.

And all I know is that, bluntly put, it worked. We’re fairly fine. I think we’re fine, at least. And we were well on the road to health and acceptance not too long after that shock. Because, I’m convinced, of the prayers.

Human beings tend to have a self-referential perspective on spirituality. For Catholic human beings, that means a temptation to a self-referential perspective of the sacramental life. Modern individualism doesn’t help. Being deprived maybe doesn’t help either.

But having the humbling privilege of going to Mass the past couple of weeks reminded me – again – that it’s not about me. If I am baptized, confirmed, and am a part of the Body of Christ that’s nothing to boast about for my own sake, as Paul says over and over again. It says nothing about me. It’s all about him. Going to Mass in this situation is really a microcosmic illustration of that truth. The Christian life, no matter the circumstances in which we live it, is not about building ourselves up, but about opening ourselves so we, like him, can be poured out.

The gift Jesus gives is, indeed, grace showered on me, salvation and redemption for my soul, but whether I’m the only person in attendance or one of hundreds – or millions – it’s a gift not be hoarded and treasured because it’s mine and even less because it’s my “right” to receive it. It’s a gift. A gift of the freedom that comes only from Christ, a freedom that this broken world so desperately needs. Every moment I have the opportunity to be in communion with Him – in the Mass, outside of it – is a call to remember. To remember not only how much *I* need him, but how much the world needs him, to take, as much as I am able, those needs along with me – and when I have the privilege – to lay them at his feet.

He turned to them expectantly, hoping to get something from them, but Peter said, ‘I have neither silver nor gold, but I will give you what I have: in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, walk!’

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

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

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

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

 

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

But here’s an slightly off-topic take.

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

none of it actually happened  anyway. 

Right?

Am I right?

Brown, Fitzmyer, Meier, etc., etc.

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

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

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

One person’s subtlety is another’s obfuscation.

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

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

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

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

And it filtered down, of course.

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

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

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

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

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

Great!

 

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Cullman, Alabama, about fifty miles north of here, was founded by Germans. A brief history: 

Cullman was founded by Col. Johann Gottfried Cullmann, a German refugee from Frankweiler (which was then Bavaria) who came to America in 1866. While working at a bookstore in Cincinnati, Ohio, he began formulating ideas of a special colony of working people – specifically a place for immigrants from countries such as his native Germany. He read about the vast unsettled lands in the South, and bought passage on a boat to Florence, Alabama. There he met with Governor Patton and presented his idea. The Governor furnished men and horses for him to explore available lands in North Alabama.

He finally met with Lewis Fink, the land agent for the great South-North Railroad (later the L&N), which had just built a line through the wilderness from Decatur to Montgomery, After a careful survey, he contracted with the railroad for 349,000 acres with the stipulation that Col. Cullmann would pay for all advertising of the land and other expenses incurred in bringing the desired immigrants to the area. Col. Cullmann found the area to be perfect for his dream colony.

Cullmann then went back north and began to advertise for colonists. In April of 1873, the first five families came by train to the spot where Cullman now stands. Each was allotted a plot of ground. The colony quickly grew, with American citizens and German immigrants moving to the area.

Not long after, German Benedictines came and founded an abbey – St. Bernard’s. I’ve mentioned the famed “Ave Maria Grotto”several times – if you’ve traveled on I-65, you’ve seen the billboards. Trust me – it’s not a cheesy roadside attraction – it’s well worth your time!

The history of Saint Bernard Abbey is a rich one. In the 1840s monks from Metten Abbey in Germany, a monastery founded c. 700 A.D., came to America to plant the Benedictine monastic life in the United States and to minister to the growing German-speaking immigrant population. St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, became the first foundation, and in the 1870s monks from St. Vincent were sent to Alabama to serve the needs of German Catholics here. In 1891 those monks gathered to establish St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, Alabama. One year later, 1892, a school was opened at the new abbey.

The town continues to celebrate its German heritage, although for most of its history, the county was bone-dry. I think the county still is, but a few years ago, the city of Cullman voted to allow alcohol sales, which meant for the first time in its history, the town’s Oktoberfest could serve…beer. 

There are other dry counties in Alabama (some with “wet” towns in them, making them “moist”), but I always wondered if the persistence of Cullman county’s anti-alcohol laws was rooted in anti-German/immigrant/Catholic/Lutheran sentiments….

Anyway.

As part of the town’s Christmas celebration this year, they brought in some Germans from Germany to construct an enormous Christmas pyramid! We dashed up there to see it on Saturday, and here are some images – note, if you can, the different themes for each level. It’s lovely! More (in German) on the construction here. 

Here’s the website of the company that constructed it – and makes them on a smaller scale!

And if you head to my Instagram page, you can see video. 

(Our humble not-really-a-pyramid from Germany presented for contrast)

 

 

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…is kind of a big deal.

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

More:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"amy welborn"

"amy welborn"

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

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Gregory’s story has a lot to teach us about that tricky thing called discernment.

Back in 2008, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI devoted two General Audiences to this saint.  He began with a helpful outline of his life – born into an important Roman family, serving as prefect of Rome, turning his family’s land into a monastery togregory the greatwhich he retired, then entering the service of the pope during very difficult times in Rome, including the plague, which killed the pope, and then…

The clergy, people and senate were unanimous in choosing Gregory as his successor to thend  See of Peter. He tried to resist, even attempting to flee, but to no avail: finally, he had to yield. The year was 590.

Recognising the will of God in what had happened, the new Pontiff immediately and enthusiastically set to work. From the beginning he showed a singularly enlightened vision of realty with which he had to deal, an extraordinary capacity for work confronting both ecclesial and civil affairs, a constant and even balance in making decisions, at times with courage, imposed on him by his office.

Benedict engages in some more analysis in the second GA. This is useful and important to read. 

Wanting to review these works quickly, we must first of all note that, in his writings, Gregory never sought to delineate “his own” doctrine, his own originality. Rather, he intended to echo the traditional teaching of the Church, he simply wanted to be the mouthpiece of Christ and of the Church on the way that must be taken to reach God. His exegetical commentaries are models of this approach.

And that is what any teacher of the faith, especially a pastor, is called to do.

Moving on:

Probably the most systematic text of Gregory the Great is the Pastoral Rule, written in the first years of his Pontificate. In it Gregory proposed to treat the figure of the ideal Bishop, the teacher and guide of his flock. To this end he illustrated the seriousness of the office of Pastor of the Church and its inherent duties. Therefore, those who were not called to this office may not seek it with superficiality, instead those who assumed it without due reflection necessarily feel trepidation rise within their soul. Taking up again a favourite theme, he affirmed that the Bishop is above all the “preacher” par excellence; for this reason he must be above all an example for others, so that his behaviour may be a point of reference for all. Efficacious pastoral action requires that he know his audience and adapt his words to the situation of each person: here Gregory paused to illustrate the various categories of the faithful with acute and precise annotations, which can justify the evaluation of those who have also seen in this work a treatise on psychology. From this one understands that he really knew his flock and spoke of all things with the people of his time and his city.

Nevertheless, the great Pontiff insisted on the Pastor’s duty to recognize daily his own unworthiness in the eyes of the Supreme Judge, so that pride did not negate the good accomplished. For this the final chapter of the Rule is dedicated to humility: “When one is pleased to have achieved many virtues, it is well to reflect on one’s own inadequacies and to humble oneself: instead of considering the good accomplished, it is necessary to consider what was neglected”. All these precious indications demonstrate the lofty concept that St Gregory had for the care of souls, which he defined as the “ars artium”, the art of arts. The Rule had such great, and the rather rare, good fortune to have been quickly translated into Greek and Anglo-Saxon.

Another significant work is the Dialogues. In this work addressed to his friend Peter, the deacon, who was convinced that customs were so corrupt as to impede the rise of saints as in times past, Gregory demonstrated just the opposite: holiness is always possible, even in difficult times.

He proved it by narrating the life of contemporaries or those who had died recently, who could well be considered saints, even if not canonised. The narration was accompanied by theological and mystical reflections that make the book a singular hagiographical text, capable of enchanting entire generations of readers. The material was drawn from the living traditions of the people and intended to edify and form, attracting the attention of the reader to a series of questions regarding the meaning of miracles, the interpretation of Scripture, the immortality of the soul, the existence of Hell, the representation of the next world – all themes that require fitting clarification. Book II is wholly dedicated to the figure of Benedict of Nursia and is the only ancient witness to the life of the holy monk, whose spiritual beauty the text highlights fully.

Above all he was profoundly convinced that humility should be the fundamental virtue for every Bishop, even more so for the Patriarch. Gregory remained a simple monk in his heart and therefore was decisively contrary to great titles. He wanted to be – and this is his expression – servus servorum Dei.Coined by him, this phrase was not just a pious formula on his lips but a true manifestation of his way of living and acting. He was intimately struck by the humility of God, who in Christ made himself our servant. He washed and washes our dirty feet. Therefore, he was convinced that a Bishop, above all, should imitate this humility of God and follow Christ in this way. His desire was to live truly as a monk, in permanent contact with the Word of God, but for love of God he knew how to make himself the servant of all in a time full of tribulation and suffering. He knew how to make himself the “servant of the servants”. Precisely because he was this, he is great and also shows us the measure of true greatness.

And he’s in The Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints. 

amy-welborn-bookgregory-the-great

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— 1 —

Blogging this past week – lots of saints, including Mary Magdalene (Monday), and a bit of travel – we went to central Georgia, to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit and Andalusia, Flannery O’Connor’s farm in Milledgeville. Go here and here for that. 

And while in Spain, we found the answer to a Very Important Question. 

No travelling for a while. Not even a day trip right now. Lots and lots of stuff going on. Lots. 

Oh yes – these came. I guess they are available online  – definitely from Loyola – but also I have them here. Obviously. If you would like to order one or two – or other titles – please check out my bookstore!

img_20190720_144840

 — 2 —

When I was in college, there was a certain type of person – usually male – whose idea of a fun Saturday night was to gather with friends and do a group reading of the screenplay of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. 

Well, I seem to ….have produced one of those types of persons. Huh.

Except now with effortlessly-available recordings, the reading-aloud has fallen by the wayside. Sadly, I think. Consider  – the late 70’s was right before VCRs became easily available – I distinctly remember seeing my first VCR at a classmate’s house (dad was an MD)  during a high school graduation party – that would have been June 1978. So, yeah – if you wanted to relive a movie on demand in your apartment – you’d have to relive it.

So, yeah. I don’t have to play a Knight Why Says Nie. I just have to…listen to it every time I get in the car.

Actually, this part of the script strikes me as a brilliant and spot-on parody of convoluted Scripture Speak:

And the Lord spake, saying, ‘First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin. Then, shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, nor either count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out! Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thou foe, who being naughty in my sight, shall snuff it.'”

Image result for holy hand grenade monty python

— 3 —

Oh, let’s stay medieval. It’s been a while since I’ve driven you away with academic journal article summaries. Let’s correct that!

Here’s one about midwives. Very interesting – as midwives in many European countries were officially sanctioned, usually by the church. In some areas they were appointed by church authorities, and in others, they were elected by the women of an area. Their appointments meant that their work and livelihood was guaranteed by authority (aka – they would be paid) and that they had spiritual responsibilities, primarily to be be prepared to baptize if necessary.

The court’s specific expectations are not indicated, but scholars have done much to bring to light the services midwives provided for the church. For instance, Taglia describes midwives’ important role in ensuring the baptism of moribund infants, and Green notes that Thomas of Cantimpré believed curates must instruct midwives in the baptismal formula as a part of their general vocation to care for their parishioners’ souls. Broomhall presents evidence from sixteenth-century France of midwives acting as expert witnesses in ecclesiastical and secular cases of  infanticide, contested virginity, abortion, and sterility and assisting the church in lessening illegitimacy and child abandonment.40 Similarly, in Germany, midwives were expected to perform emergency baptisms and employed to verify pregnancy in prisoners and as expert witnesses in cases of alleged abortion, infanticide, and illegitimacy. In the Low Countries in the sixteenth century, midwives were likewise expected to aid the church in minimizing illegitimacy, abortions, and infanticide and were useful to the church in ensuring infant baptism, especially against Anabaptist resistance to the practice. Midwives were important defenders of orthodoxy in seventeenth-century England where they were involved in witchcraft trials more often as expert witnesses than as defendants.

-4–

By the same author, exploring the same sources on a slightly different subject. This is how one area of historical research works – you find a trove of evidence – in this case ecclesiastical court records from the Archdiocese of Paris from a certain era – and you simply examine the records in light of various topics. So, in the first article, it was regulations related to midwives. Here, she looks at what court records reveal about priests and sacramental stipends. 

One can easily cry “sophistry,” but really, this is just what life is really about. The cleric has to live – how is he to be paid for his work? In the middle ages, many clerics lived off benefices – moneys earned by church properties – but not all. And during this period, there seemed to have been a bit of a surfeit. One Archbishop of Paris attempted to strike a balance in his legislation:

In rituals surrounding birth and death, therefore, Poncher made a tripartite distinction among the types of money that should or should not change hands in relation to a sacrament. Firstly, priests could not receive money for the act of administering the sacrament itself. Secondly, priests could receive variable amounts of money as gifts of appreciation after the sacrament had been given. Thirdly, priests were entitled to receive predetermined payments for labor associated with the administration of sacraments, such as writing and sealing documents. By setting specific prices for priests’ labor, Poncher at-tempted to realize his dual goal of safeguarding a fair income for priests while protecting parishioners from chicanery in the form of being charged forbidden fees or inflated licit fees.

But still, there were problems that popped up and had to be dealt with:

This case shows that ecclesiastical licensing procedures might create a dilemma for priests. Priests were obligated to provide the sacraments to parishioners who needed them but were forbidden from administering the sacraments outside their parishes without permission, on pain of excommunication.  Should a priest lack either the time or the money to obtain a license, he could opt to perform the sacraments against church law and face the legal consequences. Should he, however, conform to church law and refuse to administer the sacraments without a license, he fell short of his spiritual duties and likewise could find himself cited by the archidiaconal court. While ecclesiastical regulations were intended to ensure the quality of sacerdotal work, they also had the potential to impede its availability.

A remarkable case heard on 16 April 1496 demonstrates what could happen when a priest attempted to resolve this dilemma. The defendant was Robert de Villenor, who was a clericus fabricus at the church of Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs, meaning that he monitored the churchwarden’s storeroom there. He stood ac-cused of administering extreme unction to several sick parishioners even though he was not ordained a priest. Villenor admitted to having administered extreme unction to one parishioner because on the night of 9 April the curate, Pierre Picard, was summoned to the bedside of two parishioners at the same time. Both were dying of the plague, which, Villenor emphasized, was particularly virulent in Paris that year. Unable to attend to both parishioners, Picard instructed Villenor to administer extreme unction to one of the dying, named Pierre Noneau. Picard assured Villenor that there would be “no danger” in performing this rite because Picard would supply him with unconsecrated bread rather than the true Host. The priest told the court that he “did not believe he had done evil, but that he had done good, and if he had believed he was doing evil, he would not have gone” to the other parishioner, who is not named in the records. 69 The cleric Villenor complied with Picard’s orders and performed extreme unction for Noneau with an unconsecrated Host. Providentially, Noneau survived the night and Picard was able to administer true last rites the following day. Two days later, Noneau died in the appropriate spiritual state.

Villenor’s case demonstrates the difficulty of attending to a sudden need for supplemental sacerdotal labor. Picard was unable to attend both deathbeds and did not have access to an additional licensed practitioner. As much as he could, Picard attempted to fulfill his spiritual obligations. He delegated the task of ad-ministering extreme unction to the next most appropriate person to himself: a cleric who worked for the church but who was not a priest. Picard gave Villenor a proxy Host, enabling him to avoid profaning the sacrament. The register does not explain what motivated Picard to do this, but perhaps he hoped that perform-ing an ersatz rite of extreme unction would comfort the dying man and his family while exonerating him from the charge of failing to provide the rite at all. Know-ing, however, that this rite was salvifically insufficient, Picard would have un-avoidably revealed the ruse when he returned the next day to administer extreme unction with a genuine Host. Although the strategy was less than ideal, Picard and Villenor’s actions demonstrate their willingness to contravene ecclesiastical regulations concerning sacerdotal quality and ritual standardization to attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable spiritual needs of parishioners. Picard’s scheme did not enable him to escape the restrictions of ecclesiastical statutes, however, and Villenor took the fall. He was given a large fine of four gold ecus for having acted like a priest, having administered false sacraments, and having created a scandal.

–5 —

Are you bored yet? Well, sorry – go to Academia.edu or Jstor and find your own articles!

The point is – as I say repeatedly and all the time – history helps illumine the present – not only helping us see how we got here, but more importantly, to help us see that the present way is not the only way. Simply looking at these two articles about obscure matters in medieval French ecclesiastical records might shake up a reader’s sense of what Church organization looks like, what clerics do, how women have related to the Church through history and how clergy misconduct has been handled.

— 6 —

I was reading New York magazine – this profile of Lulu Wang, the director of a film called Farewell. These were the final paragraphs:

Wang isn’t religious either, but she is spiritual in the way that she believes the universe can converge in strange, magical ways if you’re paying attention. When she was little, her mother used to tell her a story about what kind of person she would be. While she was pregnant with her, shehad gone to see a blind psychic in a remote Chinese village. “He said, ‘You’ll have four children, and your first will be a daughter,’ ” Wang recalls. “And he said, ‘You are water, but you’re like a river. You have a lot of talent and you have a lot of gifts, but you can’t hold on to any of it. It flows. But your first child is your daughter. She’s also water, but she is the great ocean, and all of your gifts will flow into her.’

“My mother always told me that as I was growing up, so it gave me this certain expectation: On top of being an immigrant, what if I can’t be an ocean? That’s too much! But my mother is very matter-of-fact. She’s like, ‘This is what was said, and so this is your fate. This is your destiny.’ I said, ‘But what does he know? You never had four children.’ And she’s like, ‘Yes I did, because I had you and I have Anthony, and there were two in the middle while I was in China that I wasn’t allowed to keep.’ She was pregnant four times, and she had forced abortions because of the one-child policy.”

We’re in the back of a car driving along the water in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and the light scatters on the East River where it empties into the neck of the bay. “Who knows what we believe?” she says. “Is it a self-fulfilling prophecy, or is it a prophecy? We don’t know.”

Oh. So maybe….?

— 7 —

Since Ordinary Time started back up, we’ve been hearing some salvation history from Genesis, and these days, Exodus, in our daily Mass readings. Today’s the giving of the Decalogue to Moses. Here’s a relevant entry from the Loyola Kids Book of Catholic Signs and Symbols. Get one! For your local Catholic parish or school! 

Coming next week…Ignatius Loyola, Alphonsus Liguori, and me in Living Faith. 

Also – check out my son’s novel!

And his film writing – posted almost daily – here.

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

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From: The Loyola Kids Book of Catholic Signs and Symbols

 

And here we go with chapter 4 of Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legends and Lies.  This chapter covers the earliest stages of patristic thinking about the saint. It’s shorter.

(Why do this? Because her feast is Monday – July 22.)

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  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

For the entire book, available for Kindle for .99 – 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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