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Today is the feast day of St. Lawrence of Brindisi, a Capuchin who lived in the Counter-Reformation period.

His story offers the open-minded an opportunity to learn more about the course and form of the Church throughout the ages and the varied forms that sanctity takes….

The best brief-ish biography I found of this saint is, not surprisingly on a Capuchin site. Here. 

Language scholar, humanist, philosopher, theologian, biblicist, preacher, missionary, professor, international administrator, confidant of Popes, Emperors, Kings and Princes, diplomatic envoy, army chaplain, military strategist and morale builder, polemicist, prolific writer – these are but some of the key skills and professional assets you might find on the CV of Julius Caesar Russo.Few modern multinational corporations would not vie to have this practical academic, influential publicist and versatile polyglot as part of their dream team.

But career chosen by this gifted sixteenth century man involved becoming part of a different kind of dream team, an alternative dream team, namely the ‘troubadours of the King of Heaven’ founded by Saint Francis of Assisi and called ‘the Order of Capuchin Friars Minor’. As part of this band of Brothers and as their servant-leader, he travelled barefoot all over Europe and founded churches and religious houses throughout the Holy Roman Empire. He evangelized and encouraged people. When necessary, corrected them while always inspiring them.  He washed dishes and said Mass humbly. He prayed almost incessantly and he willingly lent a listening ear to his Brothers and to all who turned to him for help. In the end, he would die among strangers, while undertaking a mission of mercy far from his native land. This epitome of a Renaissance man, this multi-talented genius and learned Capuchin Brother was none other than Saint Lawrence of Brindisi, one-time Vicar General of the Order of Capuchin Friars Minor.

Beatified by Pope Pius VI in 1783, he was canonized by Pope Leo XIII on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception 1881, and proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1959 by Blessed Pope John XXIII. At the command of the King of Spain, his body is enshrined in the monastery church of the Discalced Franciscan Sisters at Villafranca del Bierzo in Galicia, Spain.

The basics:

  • Born in Brindisi, Italy and named “Julius Caesar” by his father!
  • Both parents died fairly early, he became associated with the Franciscans and then with their branch the Capuchins.
  • A brilliant student known for his mastery of languages, including Hebrew, a rare feat at that time.
  • An accomplished preacher, who, in the Franciscan model, traveled widely.

Brother Lawrence prepared his preaching through prolonged prayer and penance, meditating for hours on the Gospel before preaching a homily. The following quotation may help to give us an insight into how Brother Lawrence’s studied the scriptures, going beyond the literal meaning to the deeper spiritual meaning. The text also gives us a taste of his style of preaching. “When Christ decided to give sight to a man, blind from birth, he placed mud in the man’s eyes – an action that was much more suited to blinding those who see than giving sight to the blind who could not see! So too the Passion and Death of Christ was more likely to destroy the faith of those who believed that He was the Only-begotten Son of God than to commend faith to non-believers. Christ came into this world to do battle with Satan, to turn the world to faith and the true worship of God. He could have accomplished this by using the weapons of His Might and coming as He will come to judge – in glory and majesty just as he manifested himself in his Transfiguration. Who would not then have believed in Christ? But in order that His Victory might be the more glorious, He willed to fight Satan in our weak flesh. It is as if an unarmed man, right hand bound, were to fight with his left hand alone against a powerful army. If he emerged victorious, his victory would be regarded as all the more glorious. So Christ conquered Satan with the Right Hand of His Divinity bound and used against him only the Left Hand of his weak Humanity.”

Already in 1599, three years prior to his election as General Vicar, Brother Lawrence was sent to Austria and the present-day Czech Republic as a missionary to establish the Order in those lands and help buttress the Catholic faith against the constant onslaught of Protestantism. Taking with him with him twelve other Brothers, some of whom had German roots, he established local Fraternities at Vienna, Prague, and Graz a city of in south-east Austria. When the Brothers arrived in Prague they first lived in a hospital caring for the plague victims and preaching to the locals on Sundays and other Church festivals. Their sermons were effective in touching the hearts of many lukewarm Catholics who returned to the practice of the Faith. But at the same time they also were met with derision, which turned at times to life-threatening violence, from Protestants and hostile lapsed Catholics. The citizens scoffed at their poor dress-sense and the fact they went around in their bare feet. Their long beards too became the subject of mockery. Lutheran soldiers in the Imperial Army would call Brother Lawrence “the Wolf-monk’. On another occasion, a Protestant mob tried to push Brother Lawrence off a bridge in Prague and throw him into the river below. But he was rescued at the last minute by the Papal Nuncio’s nephew who happened to be passing by in the company of some of his friends.

Varied Evangelizing Approaches Adapted to Meet Local Needs
In the lands ruled by the Habsburg Emperors at the time there were Anti-Catholics, Non-Catholics, wavering Catholics and pious Catholics; some lived in thriving cities, others lived in isolated country farmhouses. Different audiences required different evangelizing methods. So Capuchins would use what they called “Apostolic Missions’ to visit the country people in their homes or work places and teach them the basic truths of the faith. In the cities they promoted devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and especially the devotion of ‘Forty Hours Adoration’ as well as setting up penitent confraternities dedicated to honouring the Passion and Death of Christ. Brother Lawrence relished every opportunity to engage Protestant Pastors in lively debate and used his writings to persuasively convince them and their adherents of their mistaken way of thinking. Seeing that this mission band was very successful, a new band of Capuchin missionaries was invited to help out. Blessed Benedict to Urbino was one of this second group of missionaries.As Provincial Vicar of Venice, Brother Lawrence began establishing a chain of Capuchin friaries connecting Venice, Trent, and the Tyrol. With an influx of native vocations, these houses of presence and mission would later mushroom, becoming in time six independent Provinces of the Capuchin Order.

  • He engaged with secular leaders at many levels for many purposes.
  • And then…there is that battle:

In 1601 the large Turkish army invaded the lands of the Holy Roman Emperor and were threatening to overrun the Habsburg-ruled lands before going to Rome to stable their horses in Saint Peter’s Basilica. The Pope and Emperor were alarmed and patched together an army to block the Turkish threat. Brother Lawrence’s skills as a diplomat were used to cement together a Christian allied force which also included Protestants. At the Emperor’s request Capuchins served as army chaplains to the soldiers and Lawrence was among those appointed. However the small and badly equipped Imperial forces were no match for the invading Turkish army which with 80,000 men was more than four times larger than the 18,000 Christian soldiers who tried to block them.

At the The Battle of Székesfehérvár in Hungary the hopelessly outnumbered Christian army’s field commanders counselled retreat. but Brother Lawrence would not hear of this. Instead he urged the Imperial Forces on to victory, encouraging the flagging soldiers with his fiery words and personally leading the army into the thick of battle with his cross raised aloft for all to see. “Advance! Advance! Victory is ours!” he shouted over and over again and in the end a revitalized Christian army totally routed the Turks. Even the Lutheran soldiers were impressed by this and Brother Lawrence’s morale-boosting efforts were deemed pivotal in snatching a surprising last minute major victory over the invading Turkish forces.

In this noble and excellent two things are especially outstanding: his apostolic zeal, and his mastery of doctrine. He taught with his word, he instructed with his pen, he fought with both. Not deeming it enough to withdraw into himself, and dedicate himself to prayer and study in the refuge of his monastery, and occupy himself only with domestic matters, he leaped forth as if he could not contain the force of his spirit, wounded with the love of Christ and his brothers. Speaking from many pulpits about Christian dogma, about morals, the divine writings, and the virtues of the denizens of heaven, he spurred Catholics on to devotion, and moved those who had been swallowed up by the filth of their sins to wash away their crimes, and undertake the emendation of their lives. … outside the sacred precincts, when preaching to those who those who lacked the true religion, he defended it wisely and fearlessly; in meetings with Jews and heretics, he stood as the standard-bearer of the Roman church, and persuaded many to renounce and foreswear the opinions of false teaching. …

In the three volumes called “A Sketch of Lutheranism” (Lutheranismi hypotyposis), this defender of the Catholic law, mighty in his great learning, seeks to disabuse the people of the errors which the heretical teachers had spread. Therefore, those who treat of the sacred disciples, and especially those who seek to expound and defend the catholic faith, have in him the means to nourish their minds, to instruct themselves for the defense and persuasion of the truth, and to prepare themselves to work for the salvation of others. If they follow this author who eradicate errors, who made clear what was obscure or doubtful, they may know they walk upon a sure path.

With a fine theological sensitivity, Lawrence of Brindisi also pointed out the Holy Spirit’s action in the believer’s life. He reminds us that the Third Person of the Most Holy Trinity illumines and assists us with his gifts in our commitment to live joyously the Gospel message.

“The Holy Spirit”, St Lawrence wrote, “sweetens the yoke of the divine law and lightens its weight, so that we may observe God’s commandments with the greatest of ease and even with pleasure”.

I would like to complete this brief presentation of the life and doctrine of St Lawrence of Brindisi by underlining that the whole of his activity was inspired by great love for Sacred Scripture, which he knew thoroughly and by heart, and by the conviction that listening to and the reception of the word of God produces an inner transformation that leads us to holiness.

“The word of the Lord”, he said, “is a light for the mind and a fire for the will, so that man may know and love God. For the inner man, who lives through the living grace of God’s Spirit, it is bread and water, but bread sweeter than honey and water better than wine or milk…. It is a weapon against a heart stubbornly entrenched in vice. It is a sword against the flesh, the world and the devil, to destroy every sin”.

St Lawrence of Brindisi teaches us to love Sacred Scripture, to increase in familiarity with it, to cultivate daily relations of friendship with the Lord in prayer, so that our every action, our every activity, may have its beginning and its fulfilment in him. This is the source from which to draw so that our Christian witness may be luminous and able to lead the people of our time to God.

The sketch offered here is just that…a sketch.  Go to the Capuchin site I linked above for more, or this one – is also good.

I think the life and proclaimed sanctity of St. Lawrence of Brindisi, even as sketched here, points out the inadequacy of some approaches to the Catholic questions and issues.

It is easy, it seems, to read the Gospels and proclaim:  Engaging with power is bad. War is bad. Simplicity is good. Tolerance is good. Embrace. Mercy. Welcome. 

But read this saint’s story carefully. A man who apparently found it not at contradictory to give himself to Christ, hold up St. Francis of Assisi as the emblematic disciple, devote himself to attempt to convert – not simply dialogue with – non-Christians and non-Catholics, move among the corridors of power, minister to the powerful, and inspire an army to go to battle.

Does that fit with what you’ve been hearing about what a “true Christian” does and doesn’t do?

This is why simplistic, The Gospels – n – Me – n- the Holy Spirit Today – doesn’t work.  It can’t coherently account for the complexity of Catholic history because there’s no systematic thinking brought to the table.  There is certainly plenty of space to talk about the shape of the Church and the vision of sanctity through the centuries, but without principles and systematic thinking, we really have nowhere to go.  Simplistic, idealistic thinking cuts us off from the breadth, depth, complexity and even ambiguity of human history and Christ’s church and saints within that history and offers us only the present moment in however those in authority choose to frame the present moment.

Oh…and slightly off topic, as I was reading, a concise expression of how saints deal with church office and authority came to me.

Saints don’t seek office; they seek mission. 

(And the hard part for most saints happens when the mission comes in the form of an office.)

(If you’d like a quick, interesting read – go to archive.org and check out this short book called The Saints of 1881 written by a British priest, about the saints canonized by Leo XIII that year.  Catholic publishing – always looking to build on current events, even then!)

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—1 —

A bit of blogging this week. Perhaps of the most interest will be this post on the movie The Sound of Metal.

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Pentecost is coming, of course.

Pages above are (left) from the Loyola Kids Book of Catholic Signs and Symbols  and (right) from the Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories.  Click on images for larger versions. Remember that for the Signs and Symbols entry, there’s another page –  a full page of more detailed text.

— 3 —

Pentecost is one of the events in The Loyola Kids Book of Heroes. 

(The book is structured around the virtues. Each section begins with an event from Scripture that illustrates one of those virtues, followed by stories of people and events from church history that do so as well)

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This hasn’t been published in a book – yet – but it’s a painting byAnn Engelhart, illustrator of several books, including four with my writing attached – all listed here. It’s a painting of the tradition of dropping rose petals through the oculus in the Pantheon in Rome.

pentecost

(Our Cathedral here in Birmingham has also done this regularly over the past few years – it’s happening this coming Saturday for the Vigil of Pentecost, which will be livestreamed here.

For more on the Cathedral’s livestreaming, go here.

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By the way, please follow Ann on Instagram. She features her beautiful art and regularly posts live painting sessions on Instagram Stories. 

— 5 –

Hopefully this weekend,  you’ll be hearing/singing/praying Veni Creator Spiritus.  I have a chapter on it in The Words We Pray. A sample:

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— 6 —

Speaking of art, from Daniel Mitsui:

— 7 —

Daniel has designs available as wallpaper and fabric here. Gorgeous.

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And finally, here’s an excerpt from a lecture he delivered earlier this year. Food for thought for artists of all kinds – and any of us, really.

So how does an artist who wants to make religious art, who wants to make it both beautiful and traditional, to glorify God and edify men through it, answer the challenge of doing that in a changing world?

He should choose his influences – both visual and intellectual – out of love. He should love them for what they are, rather than for what they are not.

No matter how devoted he is to a certain kind of art or school of thought, he should remember that it is incomplete and imperfect. He can and should try to make it better. This is an altogether traditional thing to do.

He should be open to whatever medium, whatever materials, whatever methods work best to express his artistry. A willingness to be bold, technically, is another altogether traditional thing to do.

He should not consider religious art to be a political tool, or encourage its use as such.

He should look to every kind of art – whether it comes from within the Church or without it – asking the questions: what works? and what can this teach me to make my art better? God is the author of all beauty; as Augustine says, the mines of his providence are everywhere scattered abroad.

He should ask the same question even of art that he considers generally bad: What works? What can this teach me? The answer may be: very little. But if it is anything at all, he should accept the lesson.

More.

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

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A few years ago, we were in Puebla Mexico for Holy Thursday. It was a revelation. Here’s an excerpt and some photos. More here. 

What to do now? Well….I ventured…there’s this tradition of visiting seven churches where the Eucharist is reserved on Holy Thursday night. I’ve always wanted to do it, but doing so in Birmingham would require driving all around town – there are so many churches here – we could probably knock of seven in about thirty minutes.

They were not super enthusiastic, as well as doubtful about my claim, but you know what? I wasn’t too far off. If we had been totally business-like about the whole thing, and not stopped to watch and observe and figure out some new sights we were seeing it wouldn’t have taken longer than thirty minutes.

So we set out. And discovered something new and quite wonderful. Those of you with roots in this culture won’t be surprised. But I don’t and I was. This visitation of the seven churches is A Thing.  It’s what everyone is doing on Holy Thursday night – wandering around the center of the city with their families and friends, stopping in churches, praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament and enjoying the end of Lent -for at the door of every church were vendors set up selling the typical snacks of this area – the corn, the little tortillas, frying, topped with salsas and cheese, and turnovers.

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I was stunned. I don’t know if this is the “correct” way of seeing it, but this is what came to me as we walked amidst the other families, joined them in prayer and smelled the scents of bounty:

More

From here:

“Lachrimae Amantis“
Lope de Vega Carpio (1562-1613), translated by Geoffrey Hill

What is there in my heart that you should sue
so fiercely for its love? What kind of care
brings you as though a stranger to my door
through the long night and in the icy dew

seeking the heart that will not harbor you,
that keeps itself religiously secure?
At this dark solstice filled with frost and fire
your passion’s ancient wounds must bleed anew.

So many nights the angel of my house
has fed such urgent comfort through a dream,
whispered ‘your lord is coming, he is close’

that I have drowsed half-faithful for a time
bathed in pure tones of promise and remorse:
‘tomorrow I shall wake to welcome him.’

Agony in the Garden

"amy welborn"

"amy welborn"

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Some Annunciation-related material from my books:

The Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories

EPSON MFP image

The Loyola Kids Book of Catholic Signs and Symbols

EPSON MFP image

And…here’s the chapter from Mary and the Christian Life on the Annunciation. (pdf)

The entire book is available for free here until midnight tonight. 

There’s also, of course, a chapter on the Hail Mary in here.

Here’s the first page.

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Happy New Year to you. Just a note on how life changes, and how time goes on in case you are wondering if you will ever be out of this or that stage of life…

Our New Year’s Eve? Well, besides the far-flung in NYC, Charleston and Louisville, all celebrating in their own ways, the three of us here spent the evening, first at Mass – two of us downtown at the Cathedral, and then the youngest playing at his parish job, driving himself now. After our Mass, College Guy drove off to meet up with friends, youngest drove from church to a friend’s house, then drove back here and walked down to a neighborhood friend’s house for the rest of the night.

And I sat and read Gogol and Don Quixote and listened to Mary Lou Williams.

How about that.

Just as no time is tricky to navigate, so, when it surprises you is so much…time.

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Not much writing in this space this week. Te Deum is here. I was in Living Faith on Tuesday – and will return there in a couple of weeks. A new set of those is due Monday (for the July-August issue), so I’ll be working on those over the weekend, as well as planning out at least the first part of American Literature for the high schooler.

Although we might start with The Overcoat for some general work in symbolism and such. I spent so much time thinking about it…why let it just rest in my head? Might was well share the bounty…

I will say that I’ve been gratified and humbled over the past few days as I’ve received several notes regarding my 2020: A Book of Grace-Filled Days that wrapped up yesterday. Folks said they were actually sorry it had come to an end, and they appreciated what I had to share. So kind! It was not a super-fun book to write (just imagine writing almost 400 individual devotional entries…..) and I don’t plan on doing it again any time soon. Maybe in another ten years when more life has happened.

But it is so nice when people take time to write and let you know that your work was helpful to them in some way. Thank you!

(And I’ll just mention that it’s not out of print – still for sale, as are all past editions by other writers – including 2021, of course. No, the dates won’t match, but you can still buy it and match the feast days yourself. And no, I don’t profit from your purchase in any way – it’s the kind of work for which you’re paid a flat fee – no royalties. Just making the suggestion!)

— 3 —

Are you making resolutions? Well, here’s a Twitter thread featuring some of Dorothy Day’s New Year’s resolutions over the years.

Here’s 1960:

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More.

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I recently discovered the Public Domain Review, which is such a treasure chest of fascinating, beautiful, interesting images and information.

Here’s a link to their top ten posts of the year. Including this post on 19th century Japanese firemen’s coats. Gorgeous.

— 5 —

What a lovely video this is, on Etsuro Sotoo, the Japanese stonemason who is now the Chief Sculptor at Sagrada Familia.

“Sotoo was motivated mainly by the opportunity to be exposed to stone,” says director David Cerqueiro, “and later by the admiration of the genius of Antoni Gaudí—back then a still-to-be-recognized figure of outstanding universal value.”

Known as quite a guarded and private character, Sotoo only granted Cerqueiro the opportunity to profile his life’s work after the director made several attempts to meet with him in person and over email. “Some of those attempts included having to attend mass at the basilica several times,” says the director. “The film briefly explores, tactfully but sincerely, the emotional inner workings behind a forty-year career devoted to one project.” 

Gaudí’s unfinished masterpiece continues to exercise its charms over Sotoo who converted to Catholicism so he could gain a deeper understanding of Gaudí’s genius and his relationship with God through architecture. “I discovered an artist profoundly driven by faith. Although encased by organized religion, his faith is more closely related to the transcendental aspirations of genuine art,” says the director. “That’s how I ended up with a subtle portrayal of an ontological inquiry, personified by a surprisingly little-known major artist who seems to be more preoccupied with the intrinsic moral legacy of his work than by its formal expression or its public recognition.”

Gaudi talked with God about something very big and profound. To this day, no one really knows what it was about.

-Etsuro Sotoo, Chief Sculptor, Sagrada Familia

— 6 —

Those of you who’ve followed me for a while know about the Sister Servants of Casa Maria here in Birmingham. A small order dedicated to prayer (of course) and retreat ministry – the also do catechesis of various kinds in parishes in the area.

They provided music for one of our Cathedral’s Sunday Vespers during Advent. You can listen here.

Both of my younger sons spent a few years serving Mass and Benediction at the convent, and we have another connection, as well – my college roommate from UT (the real one, in Knoxville) is a sister there.

They haven’t been able to have public Mass or retreats since March, of course, but I thought you’d enjoy reading their latest newsletter and taking a look at a couple of their videos – you might remember I posted a link to their offering of “I’ll Fly Away” a few months ago. This is simply of their Christmas preparation, with more at the linked Vimeo page.

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Therefore, we can ask ourselves: what is the reason why some men see and find, while others do not? What opens the eyes and the heart? What is lacking in those who remain indifferent, in those who point out the road but do not move? We can answer: too much self-assurance, the claim to knowing reality, the presumption of having formulated a definitive judgment on everything closes them and makes their hearts insensitive to the newness of God. They are certain of the idea that they have formed of the world and no longer let themselves be involved in the intimacy of an adventure with a God who wants to meet them. They place their confidence in themselves rather than in him, and they do not think it possible that God could be so great as to make himself small so as to come really close to us.

Lastly, what they lack is authentic humility, which is able to submit to what is greater, but also authentic courage, which leads to belief in what is truly great even if it is manifested in a helpless Baby. They lack the evangelical capacity to be children at heart, to feel wonder, and to emerge from themselves in order to follow the path indicated by the star, the path of God. God has the power to open our eyes and to save us. Let us therefore ask him to give us a heart that is wise and innocent, that allows us to see the Star of his mercy, to proceed along his way, in order to find him and be flooded with the great light and true joy that he brought to this world. Amen.  Source

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

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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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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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