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— 1 —

We’ll make this super quick.

 

2

All right! There’s one! Seriously, though – Thursday was a travel day. From Omaha down to College Freshman’s college, where we took him out for lunch, dropped off some treats, got the scoop (everything going fine, it seems), said, “See you at fall break” and then drove on.

 

— 3 —

We’d thought about stopping in St. Louis, but at some point earlier in the week, I realized that we’d get to St. Louis by probably 5 – which meant that all the “attractions” we might want to see would be closed. Sure, the wonderful City Museum would be open, but it’s not that we’re too old for that now (14), but more…who wants to do that without a partner in crime? And we’ve been to the Arch, which is great, sure, but worth a stop on a trip like this – a “stop” meaning an overnight? Nope.

So Memphis it is, with a brief stop in Ste. Genevieve – a place I’ve wanted to visit – the first permanent European settlement in Missouri. It was a somewhat illuminating sidetrip – many original structures crowded on small streets, far enough from the river to hopefully avoid the floods – a small river ferry just outside of town as well – but it would probably be better to do when things like the visitor’s center and the museum were open and the ferry was running.

-4–

We’ll do one major thing here this morning – a site we haven’t done yet (no, not Graceland – I went to Graceland years ago, and with a $40 admission charge now –  er, no.), eat at a favorite barbecue place, then head home. It really does seem impossible that it was only a week ago that we were heading through here with a about-to-be college freshman and me, a very nervous parent. It seems a million years ago, both in time and emotion.

Life, indeed, goes on.

–5 —

A couple of months ago, I was asked to write a Diary feature for the Catholic Herald. I wrote it – then rewrote it from scratch in the very early hours of the morning it was due in a hotel room in Caceres, Spain because, as I keep griping, my laptop for the moment is this STUPID Chromebook (don’t buy one) that I had to buy for former college senior’s former senior year in his former school, and little did I know that if you forget your Google password and think, “Eh, I’ll just reset it” – that resetting wipes everything from the Chromebook – including the Word app you’d downloaded because you hate Google Docs.

(Don’t buy a Chromebook)

Ahem. Okay. Well, so I wrote – and rewrote it, and then sort of forgot about it. They never sent me a link to the published version. Yesterday, I was thinking, “Hey, I wonder about that Corpus Christi piece – did it ever actually get published?”

Well, here it is!

Not a lot to it, but it might make ya think, as they say.

— 6 —

This is great. Absolutely great. We’ll be using this.

Aquinas 101 from the Dominicans (who else?)

— 7 —

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2020 Devotional available. 

Son’s new novel available.

Son posts film thoughts every day during the week. And, as I mentioned on Twitter earlier this week: He has a full-time job, writes fiction, watches tons of movies and writes about them daily (Tarantino this week) has a wife and a five-year old and still has found time to read War and Peace over the past couple of months. Yeah.

Here’s his blog post on the novel!

 

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

 

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Don’t be put off by the wall of text!

Take some time, scroll down, poke around. I’m offering you all the words with the hope that you can see – as is my constant mission – how the past can illuminate the present.

 

First: Who is he? From B16:

Belonging to a rich noble family of Naples, Alfonso Maria de’ Liguori [known in English as Alphonsus Liguori] was born in 1696. Endowed with outstanding intellectual qualities, when he was only 16 years old he obtained a degree in civil and canon law. He was the most brilliant lawyer in the tribunal of Naples: for eight years he won all the cases he defended. However, in his soul thirsting for God and desirous of perfection, the Lord led Alphonsus to understand that he was calling him to a different vocation. In fact, in 1723, indignant at the corruption and injustice that was ruining the legal milieu, he abandoned his profession — and with it riches and success — and decided to become a priest despite the opposition of his father.

He had excellent teachers who introduced him to the study of Sacred Scripture, of the Church history and of mysticism. He acquired a vast theological culture which he put to good use when, after a few years, he embarked on his work as a writer.

He was ordained a priest in 1726 and, for the exercise of his ministry entered the diocesan Congregation of Apostolic Missions. Alphonsus began an activity of evangelization and catechesis among the humblest classes of Neapolitan society, to whom he liked preaching, and whom he instructed in the basic truths of the faith. Many of these people, poor and modest, to whom he addressed himself, were very often prone to vice and involved in crime. He patiently taught them to pray, encouraging them to improve their way of life.

Alphonsus obtained excellent results: in the most wretched districts of the city there were an increasing number of groups that would meet in the evenings in private houses and workshops to pray and meditate on the word of God, under the guidance of several catechists trained by Alphonsus and by other priests, who regularly visited these groups of the faithful. When at the wish of the Archbishop of Naples, these meetings were held in the chapels of the city, they came to be known as “evening chapels”. They were a true and proper source of moral education, of social improvement and of reciprocal help among the poor: thefts, duels, prostitution ended by almost disappearing.

Even though the social and religious context of the time of St Alphonsus was very different from our own, the “evening chapels” appear as a model of missionary action from which we may draw inspiration today too, for a “new evangelization”, particularly of the poorest people, and for building a more just, fraternal and supportive coexistence. Priests were entrusted with a task of spiritual ministry, while well-trained lay people could be effective Christian animators, an authentic Gospel leaven in the midst of society.

Another talk on the saint from B16. 

Next some insights from his letters.  You can find his writings all over the place, but for some old-school reading time, head to archive.org. His letters are particularly interesting. I always like reading the letters and journals of saintly figures. They tend to be a little more revelatory than carefully written, re-written and edited works made for public consumption, approved by authorities.

What I’m hoping that you might see through a bit of poking around in these readings is the value – as Adam DeVille has pointed out – of being familiar with history. It teaches us many things, but I think in this present moment, two points in particular, both reflecting the theme “nothing new under the sun.”

  • The Church has always been a messy place in a messy world, full of human beings who are, at best, weak reflections of the faith they (we) claim to profess.
  • The Church, in obedience to Christ, has always reached out to the “peripheries” and margins, has always offered the mercy of Christ as the core of its mission. Always. This is nothing that was just discovered in 2013. Really.

So three areas of interest from the letters:  missions/preaching, liturgy and, yes…publishing.

I was interested in two lengthy letters – almost pamphlet-length, really – one about preaching and the "amy welborn"other about the usefulness of missions. (Remember Alphonsus Liguori founded the Redemptorists, an order originally dedicated to the preaching of parish missions.)

The letter on preaching begins on page 359, and might be of interest to..preachers, of course.  He is making the case for simplicity and directness of language in preaching, in opposition to those who would preach in flowery, self-indulgent or abstruse ways.

I was really interested in his letter to a bishop about the preaching of missions.  The bishop was supportive of missions being preached in his diocese, but had apparently written to St. Alphonsus seeking answers to the objections that others had voiced.  It begins on page 404.

A modern reader (like me) might read this as a reflection on evangelization, period.

 

But, it will be asked, are there not over the poor in the villages pastors who preach every Sunday? Yes, there are pastors who preach ; but we must consider that all pastors do not, or cannot break the bread of the divine word to the illiterate in the manner prescribed by the Council of Trent. ” They shall feed the people committed to them with whole some words, according to their own capacity, and that of their people, by teaching them the things which it is necessary for all to know unto salvation, and by announcing to them, with briefness and plainness of discourse, the vices which they must avoid, and the virtues which they must practise.”

2 Hence it often happens that the people draw but little fruit from the sermon of the pastor, either because he has but little talent for preaching, or because his style is too high or his discourse too long. Besides, many of those who stand in the greatest need of instruction do not go to the sermon of the parish priest. Moreover, Jesus Christ tells us that No prophet is accepted in his own country  And when the people always hear the same voice, the sermon makes but little impression upon them.

But the sermons of the missionaries who devote their lives to the missions are well arranged, and are all adapted to the capacity of the ignorant as well as of the learned. In their sermons, as well as in their instructions, the word of God is broken. Hence, in the mission, the poor are made to understand the mysteries of faith and the precepts of the Decalogue, the manner of receiving the sacraments with fruit, and the means of persevering in the grace of God : they are inflamed with fervor, and are excited to correspond with the divine love, and to attend to the affair of salvation.

Hence we see such a concourse of the people at the missions, where they hear strange voices and simple and popular discourses.

Besides, in the missions, the eternal truths which are best calculated to move the heart, such as the importance of salvation, the malice of sin, death, judgment, hell, eternity, etc., are proposed in a connected manner, so that it would be a greater wonder that a dissolute sinner should persevere in his wickedness, than that he should be converted. Hence, in the missions, many sinners give up their evil habits, remove proximate occasions of sin, restore ill-gotten goods, and repair injuries. Many radically extirpate all sentiments of hatred, and forgive their enemies from their hearts; and many who had not approached the sacraments for years, or who received them unworthily, make good confessions during the missions

His concern, over and over, is for the poor, the illiterate, particularly those in rural areas and villages.

Speaking of the missions given by the venerable priests of the Congregation of St. Vincent de Paul, the author of his Life says that, during a mission in the diocese of Palestrina in 1657, a young man whose arm had been cut off by an enemy, having met his enemy in a public street after a sermon, cast himself at his feet, asked pardon for the hatred he had borne him, and, rising up, embraced him with so much affection that all who were present wept through joy, and many, moved by his example, pardoned all the injuries that they had received from their enemies.

In the same diocese there were two widows who had been earnestly entreated but constantly refused to pardon certain persons who had killed their husbands. During the mission they were perfectly reconciled with the murderers, in spite of the remonstrance of a certain person who endeavored to persuade them to the contrary, saying that the murders were but recent, and that the blood of their husbands was still warm.

The following fact is still more wonderful: In a certain town, which I shall not mention,* vindictiveness prevailed to such an extent that parents taught their children how to take revenge for every offence, however small : this vice was so deeply rooted that it appeared impossible to persuade the people to pardon injuries. The people came to the exercises of the mission with sword and musket, and many with other weapons. For some time the sermons did not produce a single reconciliation; but on a certain day, the preacher, through a divine inspiration, presented the crucifix to the audience, saying: ” Now let every one who hears malice to his enemies come and show that for the love of his Saviour he wishes to pardon them : let him embrace them in Jesus Christ.” After these words a parish priest whose nephew had been lately killed came up to the preacher and kissed the crucifix, and calling the murderer, who was present, embraced him cordially.

By this example and by the words of the preacher the people were so much moved that for an hour and a half they were employed in the church in making peace with their enemies and embracing those whom they had before hated. The hour being late, they continued to do the same on the following day, so that parents pardoned the murder of their children, wives of their husbands, and children of their fathers and brothers. These reconciliations were made with so many tears and so much consolation that the inhabitants long continued to bless God for the signal favor bestowed on the town. It is also related that many notorious robbers and assassins, being moved by the sermon, or by what they heard from others of it, gave up their arms and began to lead a Christian life. Nearly forty of these public malefactors were converted in a single mission.

 I have said enough ; I only entreat your Lordship to continue with your wonted zeal to procure every three years a mission for every village in your diocese. Do not attend to the objections of those who speak against the missions through interested motives or through ignorance of the great advantages of the missions. I also pray you to oblige the pastors and priests of the villages to continue the exercises recommended to them by the missionaries, such as common mental prayer in the church, visit to the Blessed Sacrament, familiar sermons every week, the Rosary, and other similiar devotions. For it frequently happens that, through the neglect of the priests of the place, the greater part of the fruit produced by the mission is lost. I recommend myself to your prayers and remain,

From this section, I could only conclude…my. That’s a lot of violence happening….

Creativity. Zeal. Compassion. Inclusivity. Reaching to the margins and the peripheries.  Mercy.

Now, to liturgy:

This is from letter 345, to the clergy of Frasso, after a visitation:

 In the first place, we learn with deep sorrow, that there is not in the collegiate church of this place the proper distribution of the Masses on Sundays and feasts of obligation, as also on days of devotion when there is usually a great concourse of people. All the Masses, we are informed, are said, so to speak, at once, and in the early hours of the morning. In consequence, the people have, no opportunity of hearing Mass in the later hours, and particularly during summer when not only the choral service, but every other ecclesiastical function, also, is over at eight o clock.

We, therefore, ordain that, on all those days, Sundays and festivals, the Masses shall be celebrated two at a time and not more, and for this purpose the chief sacristan shall see that on those days only two chalices and two sets of vestments are prepared for the Masses. Moreover, the members of the collegiate body shall go to the choir on those days one hour later than usual, so that all the people who wish may be able to go to confession ; for experience teaches that the confessors, as well as the rest, leave the church after the Office is finished, even though they are wanted in the confessionals.

So basically, what it seems was going on was that all the Masses and confessions got it all done and over with super early so they could get out of there.

From 346:

  As there is nothing which so effectually hinders the reformation of manners and the correction of abuses that have been introduced among the people, as the bad ex ample of the clergy, “whose manner of living,” says the Council of Sardis, ” being exposed to the eyes of all, be comes the model of either good or wicked lives”, we take very much to heart the gravity of the obligation incumbent upon us of removing from our clergy and keeping at a distance from them, as far as lies in our power, whatever might be an occasion of scandal or bad example to the faithful. We are, likewise, solicitous that we should not have to render an account to Almighty God for the offences of ecclesiastics connived at or uncorrected by us.

Considering, therefore, the innumerable evils and sins that arise from certain classes of games, which have been prohibited with good reason by the sacred canons, we desire to apply a prompt and efficacious remedy to these abuses. Accordingly, we forbid all the ecclesiastics of this our city and diocese, under pain of suspension a divinis, reserved to ourselves, and to be incurred ipso facto, and other punishment at our discretion, to play at any game of chance whatever, be it with cards or dice, and in particular, basset, primero, Ouanto inviti, paraspinto, or by whatever names such games may be called. At the same time, we warn all that we shall be most diligent in pursuing those who dis obey this ordinance, and unrelenting in punishing them with necessary severity.

We desire, therefore, that the present regulation be made public and put up in the usual places, so that no one may be able to excuse himself on the plea of ignorance.

From letter 334 – this admonition that saying Mass in less than fifteen minutes is…a problem… reoccurs many times in the letters.

Everyone knows the great reverence which the holy sacrifice of the Mass demands. We, therefore, earnestly recommend to our priests attention in celebrating- this august sacrifice with all the ceremonies prescribed by the rubrics, and with the gravity befitting this sublime mystery, as well on account of the reverence due to God, as for the edification that may thence derive to the faithful. It was to secure this end that the Council of Trent imposed upon bishops the express obligation of preventing by every means all irreverence in the celebration of this sacred function ; irreverence which can scarcely be distinguished from impiety,….

Now , as grave irreverence must be understood any notable omission of the ceremonies prescribed in the missal, which in so far as they pertain to the celebration of holy Mass, are of precept, also the saying of Mass in a hurried manner. The common opinion of theologians is, that he is guilty of grievous sin who says Mass in less than a quarter of an hour; because to celebrate with becoming reverence not only must the prayers of the missal be pronounced distinctly, and the prescribed rubrics duly observed, but all this must be done with that gravity which is befitting, a thing that cannot be done in less than a quarter of an hour, even in Masses of requiem or in the votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin.

This is really interesting to me, and is an admonition that occurs regularly in the letters. From 343

 To afford perfect freedom of conscience, pastors are exhorted to procure a strange confessor for their people once a month, and to abstain from hearing confessions themselves on those day

There’s a lot more, but I’ll end this post with this. As best I can work out, it’s a description of how to add instruction to the Mass, particularly for children.  It seems to call for a reader to read aloud certain meditations at various points of the Mass.  Take a look at letter 339 for the whole thing, and share your observations:

The subjects of these meditations shall be, for the most part, the eternal truths and sin. On Fridays, however, the Passion of Jesus Christ, and on Saturdays, the Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin, shall form the topics of the medita ion. The children shall be taught to keep their eyes cast down, or to cover them with their hands, so as to pay attention to what has been read. The second point of the meditation shall be read after the Sanctus.

2. As soon as the reading of the first point is finished, the Mass shall begin. At the Offertory the reader shall say: ” Let us make an act of love: O my God, how good Thou art ! I wish to love Thee as much as all the saints love Thee ; as much as Thy dear Mother Mary loves Thee. But if I cannot love Thee so much, my God, my all, my only good, because Thou art worthy of all our love, I love Thee above all things, I love Thee with my whole heart, with my whole soul, with all my mind, with all my strength. I love Thee more than myself, and could I do so, I would make Thee known and loved by all men even at the price of my blood.” During the meditation, one or the other priest who is present may go around suggesting some brief reflections on what has been read.

3. After the Sanctus, the second point shall be read. It shall be on the same subject as the first, and read in the same manner.

4. After the elevation of the chalice, the reader shall say: “Let us make an act of love to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, and also an act of contrition : My Jesus, who for love of me art present in this Sacrament, I thank Thee for so great love, and I love Thee with my whole heart. Eternal Father, for the love of Mary, for the love of Thy dear Son Jesus dead upon the cross, and present in this Sacrament for love of us, pardon me all my sins, and all the displeasure I have caused Thee. I am heartily sorry for them, O my God, because I love Thee with my whole heart.”

5. After the Pater noster, the reader shall say: “Let us renew our resolution of never more offending Jesus Christ My Jesus, with the help of Thy grace, I desire to die rather than offend Thee again. As the fruit of this me ditation, let us make some particular resolution that will give pleasure to Jesus Christ, especially to rid ourselves of the fault we most frequently commit.” After a brief pause : ” Let us ask Almighty God for the love of Jesus Christ to give us the grace to fulfil the promise we have made.”

6. When the celebrant has said Domine non sum dignus or after the Communion of the people, if there are any com municants, the reader shall say: “Let us have recourse to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and ask her for some special grace: O Mary, my hope, I love thee with my whole heart. I would wish to die for thy love. My dearest Mother, take me under thy mantle, and there let me live and die. For the love of Jesus Christ, my dear Lady, obtain for me the grace which I now ask of thee.” Here each one shall ask of Mary with the utmost confidence the grace desired. After Mass, all shall recite the Hail, holy Queen, with the proper pauses, and add the prayer “Grant, we beseech Thee, O Lord”.

And while the content of what follows might bore some seeking out more elevated conversations, I was delighted, for it involves correspondence from the saint to his publishers, as well as others with an interest in the books he was writing and publishing.

There’s some theological material, as he explains why he is deleting this or that portion of a manuscript, but it’s mostly (so far) totally prosaic, and focused on practical matters of communication, orders and pricing.

The letters reflect quite a bit on his concern to get this books out there to people who will read them – Naples is always out of copies, but that’s one of the few places he has an interested audience, and the priests, well….

I am glad that the History of the Heresies is finished. Once more, I remind you not to send me any copies for sale, as the priests of my diocese are not eager for such books; indeed, they have very little love for any reading whatsoever.

Besides, I am a poor cripple, who am Hearing my grave, and I do not know what I should do with these copies.

Rest assured, that I regard all your interests as though they were my own. If I could only visit Naples, I might be able to do something personally. But confined here in this poverty-stricken Arienzo, I write letters innumerable to people in Naples about the sale, but with very little result. I am much afflicted at this, but affliction seems to be all that I am to reap from these negotiations.

So, writers….you’re not alone!

 

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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

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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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Kids and the Church, youth and religion, keeping kids Catholic…etc…etc…

People worry about such things. They think and write about them a lot.

Sometimes, finding a different angle is helpful: a story from another perspective, another time, another tradition.

Here’s one:

I learned about this short book – almost an extended essay, even – via one of my regular stops – the Neglected Books page. Here’s the entry.

It’s not a book you’ll find in your local library, but you can grab a digital copy via archive.org. By the time you read this, I’ll have returned my “copy” and you can have at it.

(Those engaged with children’s books will recognize the style of the cover art – it’s Edward Ardizzone, famed illustrator. Perhaps you know the Little Tim books? Don’t get your hopes up with this one, however – the cover is the only art. Nothing inside.)

The Long Sunday is a memoir of a very specific aspect of Fletcher’s life: his religious formation. You can see why it interested me. He was raised in a middle-class home in a Image result for the long sunday fletcherseaside town in the east of England (his father was a chemist  – pharmacist) by Wesleyan parents.

It is, of course, quite different from a Catholic upbringing – but in many ways the same and very valuable for anyone interested in the question of how we attempt to live out religious faith in communities and families – and how we attempt to pass it on. Essentially: it’s very good to be reminded how children and young people see and experience what adults are saying – and more importantly, doing.

Fletcher is, of course, writing as an adult and filtering his experiences, but he was also a psychologist and, it seems, attempting to be fair-minded about everything. Spoiler art: he doesn’t follow in his parents’ footsteps.

The Neglected Books entry goes into detail, but it basically comes down to a few factors:

  • Adult hypocrisy. Nothing rank and horrendous like thieving church elders or abuse, but smaller points that a child inevitably notices, for Fletcher here, mostly centered on judgmentalism.
  • The aura of judgment weighs heavily in other ways. The spiritual milieu of his youth was heavy with judgment of outsiders. Naturally, when he actually starts to experience “outsiders” and sees the goodness of which they are capable – he begins to question what he has been taught.
  • An awareness of manipulation. Some of what he writes benefits from hindsight, certainly, but the nudges were there as a child: seeing the bribery offered for attendance and achievement, prizes given for Sunday School performance and even turning other children in for their wrongdoing. On a broader level, Fletcher spends a lot of time delving into the machinations behind what we’d call revivals – this is the era of Billy Sunday, when mass evangelization, fueled by media and communications technology – is exploding.
  • Finally, a point which is, I think, pretty powerful and easily applicable today – and ties in with the other points. His puzzlement at a certain dissonance between the importance ascribe to these matters of faith and salvation – and the relatively small amount of energy and interest people actually seemed to devote to sharing it, except during those revivalistic bursts.

 

Even if they believed implicitly that the warnings so gravely uttered could safely be disregarded for themselves, since they had the assurance of salvation, I did not see how they could contemplate arriving in heaven to hear the welcoming words, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant’, with any satisfaction while knowing that the God who thus greeted them had made such very different arrangements for the reception of others who, for any reason at all, had failed to earn His good opinion. It was therefore extremely disconcerting to my simple mind to observe that while to all appearances, worshippers did take very seriously the ideas presented to them from the pulpit—whether about the evils of procrastination or some other subject of religious discourse—these ideas washed off like water off a duck’s back as soon as the service was over; or if not quite that, made an impression completely insignificant in relation to the portentousness of what was said.

In the course of my boyhood I reflected on this matter long and earnestly, and came slowly to the conclusion that in religious discourse nothing meant what it appeared to mean. For reasons best known to themselves the adults were by common consent playing, and thoroughly enjoying, a highly dramatic game of ‘let’s pretend’. Those who took it seriously, as a few did, and carried over into daily life the solemnity of foreboding and fear evoked by the game, or even the exaltation of conscious righteous-ness, did so precisely because they took themselves very seriously, and so did not perceive that they were at play. The others, knowing that it was a game—an interlude—squeezed out of it all the emotional excitement they could just as we children did when we dressed up for a charade, played ‘cops and robbers’ or in some other way exercised our imaginations to heighten the intensity of our enjoyment of the experience of living. Needless to say, I reached this conclusion intuitively. At no time during boyhood could I have put it into words; I was simply observant of my elders’ behaviour and mentally alert enough to want to make some kind of sense out of what would otherwise appear to be mutually incompatible forms of thought, feeling and action co-existing within apparently intelligent and rational human beings. More mature reflection has not convinced me that my intuition was very wide of the mark.

As you read The Long Sunday, it seems clear that Fletcher never reached a point of trying to evaluate the worth of the religious tradition in which he was raised based on any deep evaluation of its truth claims. His assessment of whether or not what he had been taught was “true” was based entirely (at least in his telling) on

  • Whether or not those who professed the faith behaved in ways consistent with the teachings
  • Whether or not those who professed the faith lived as if they actually believed it mattered and was as life-defining as they claimed
  • Whether or not certain claims related to human behavior seemed true to him – that is, were outsiders really “bad” or unhappy? Were the believers, who made him memorize Scripture verses about joy – joyful?

So it wasn’t – does God exist, did Jesus exist, what did Jesus teach, did Jesus rise from the dead, is the Wesleyan tradition faithful to what Jesus taught?

But you know – Fletcher’s youthful criteria – your behavior will tell me if this stuff is true, all right –  are probably far more common than the second set of deeper questions. We all know it – we know how human failure and hypocrisy impacts spiritual witness.

Which is why a faith formation and experience built on the “power” of personal witness and the strength and vibrancy and enthusiasm of human beings and their communities is flawed and maybe even doomed.

Join us because we’re an awesome, vibrant community where you’ll find faith and joy and peace in our awesome, vibrant community!

It’s a conundrum, a complex dynamic, and even a dance of sorts. What does Acts tell us that people noticed about the early Christians? What got their attention? The preaching? Not really. It was more: See how these Christians love one another.

As Fletcher’s experience tells us – the witness matters, deeply. Who among us hasn’t been drawn closer to faith because of another person’s sacrifice, patience or joy?

But, as the broad and deep experience of two thousand years of Catholic living has also told us – human beings will fail. Human beings will let you down. Every saint, every wise spiritual writer works hard to diminish their own role in any spiritual endeavor, beginning with Paul himself: I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.

So a healthy, whole Christian tradition, based on solid ground, always reminds us of the objective reality – God and God’s Word – that our human actions only faintly echo and weakly point to. I’m trying we say – but look – I’m going to fail. Every day. I’ll tell you what God has done and how God has changed me and yes, saved me, but every day is still a struggle, and I’m glad I’ve helped a little, but really – faith is much more than what you see here in our smiles and handshakes.

Anyway, The Long Sunday is an interesting, short read – if you’d like a glimpse into the past, into a religious tradition struggling a bit with modernity and some food for thought about the line between formation and manipulation – take a look.

Finally – this was an interesting passage I present for your consideration – he wrote the book in the late 50’s, but is reflecting on the early 20th century, when the earliest form of film was coming into vogue.

It’s startling how accurate the observation still is:

 

I have often thought that anyone who is going to write anything like a definitive history of religious life in the twentieth century will have to devote a chapter, and a long one, to the influence of the cinema. Until it became a popular form of entertainment, their church was, at any rate for people of the Nonconformist denominations, the focus of all their social activities and the only place of amusement most of them ever entered.

Curiously enough, when the `Bioscope’, as it was then called, came on the social scene, religious people took to it like ducks to water. Perhaps because the Magic Lantern was regularly used on church premises by returned missionaries, temperance lecturers and others who were above suspicion, it had already acquired an odour of sanctity; and as the Bioscope was no more than an improved form of Magic Lantern—indeed it had begun to supersede the Lantern as an instrument of religious instruction before it was commercialized—it was accepted without question.

Today the cinema has taken over a great part, not only the entertainment value of institutional religion, but of its spiritual significance as well. The modern cinema is a place of worship, corrupt and superstitious worship, no doubt; nevertheless it provides for millions of people the only experiences of the ‘numinous’ they ever have. It is indeed a remarkable fact, which religious historians will have to examine and account for, that as the cinema developed it took on more and more of the trappings of the church in a degraded or caricatured form, while at the same time more and more places of worship began to look like cinemas, complete with tip-up seats, organs of the Wurlitzer type, projection-rooms and screens; and to employ all the devices of commercial propaganda to popularize their wares. This strange convergence, or interchange, of roles, is not, I think, coincidental.

My own impression is that the cinema and all it stands for represents a break-through into overt expression of the impulses that were rigidly repressed by the religious prohibitions that conditioned the thought and behaviour of professing Christians in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. I suspect that the real inner significance of their life and faith is revealed when the secular and the religious institutions are seen as the obverse and reverse of the one spiritual coin. 33qq

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Image result for velazquez mary martha

We are now in the heart of summer, at least in the northern hemisphere. This is the period in which schools are closed and the greater part of the holidays are concentrated. Even the pastoral activities in parishes are reduced and I myself have suspended the Audiences for a while. It is therefore a favourable time to give priority to what is effectively most important in life, that is to say, listening to the word of the Lord. We are also reminded of this by this Sunday’s Gospel passage with the well known episode of Jesus’ visit to the house of Martha and Mary, recounted by St Luke (10: 38-42).

Martha and Mary are two sisters; they also have a brother, Lazarus, but he does not appear on this occasion. Jesus is passing through their village and, the text says, Martha received him at her home (cf. 10: 38). This detail enables us to understand that Martha is the elder of the two, the one in charge of the house. Indeed, when Jesus has been made comfortable, Mary sits at his feet and listens to him while Martha is totally absorbed by her many tasks, certainly due to the special Guest. 
We seem to see the scene: one sister bustling about busily and the other, as it were, enraptured by the presence of the Teacher and by his words. A little later Martha, who is evidently resentful, can no longer resist and complains, even feeling that she has a right to criticize Jesus: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me”. Martha would even like to teach the Teacher! Jesus on the other hand answers her very calmly: “Martha, Martha”, and the repetition of her name expresses his affection, “you are anxious and troubled about many things; only one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her” (10: 41-42). Christ’s words are quite clear: there is no contempt for active life, nor even less for generous hospitality; rather, a distinct reminder of the fact that the only really necessary thing is something else: listening to the word of the Lord; and the Lord is there at that moment, present in the Person of Jesus! All the rest will pass away and will be taken from us but the word of God is eternal and gives meaning to our daily actions.

Dear friends, as I said, this Gospel passage is more than ever in tune with the vacation period, because it recalls the fact that the human person must indeed work and be involved in domestic and professional occupations, but first and foremost needs God, who is the inner light of Love and Truth. Without love, even the most important activities lose their value and give no joy. Without a profound meaning, all our activities are reduced to sterile and unorganised activism. And who, if not Jesus Christ, gives us Love and Truth? Therefore, brothers and sisters, let us learn to help each other, to collaborate, but first of all to choose together the better part which is and always will be our greatest good.

****

Let’s talk about that painting. I do love it. But then, I just love Velázquez, period. I probably stood in front of Las Meninas for fifteen minutes when I saw it in the Prado a few years ago. I didn’t want to leave. I’ve seen many well-known paintings in person after getting to know them in reproduction form, but the difference between the real and the reproduction was never as vivid as it was to me with that work.

Anyway, what do you see in that painting?

There are varied interpretations. My initial gut reaction – immediate – was that the resentful-looking young woman in the foreground is Martha herself. But most experts don’t see it that way.

One view:

It is one Velázquez’s early genre paintings, referred to as bodegones, which seems simple at first sight, but may be harder to decipher. We are to interpret the kitchen scene in light of the image of Christ speaking to Mary and Martha in the upper right corner. Christ rebukes Martha for criticizing her sister Mary for sitting at Christ’s feet while she works to prepare the meal. Jesus explains that Mary has chosen the better part and that it will not be taken away from her. Is the older woman, in turn, rebuking the younger one? If so she seems to be calling her to harder work, not less of it. Or, is she pointing her directly to the scene, reminding her of her more important duties?

The young woman has a look that attracts sympathy. She’s been working hard: just look at her red hands! You can see her youth in her pale and smooth skin, which contrast strongly with the older woman. Is she new to the work and being taught how to do it (or chastised for not doing it well enough)? She’s looking away from it and must be longing for something else. Is she feeling like Martha, wanting to get away from it, either fed up with it and/or wishing for something better. Her red hands (unused to work?) contrast with her earrings and lace head-cover.

The older woman clearly has more experience and perhaps more wisdom. Is she more like Martha, encouraging harder work, or is she actually encouraging the opposite by pointing to Christ in the image? Her hand that points to the image also contains a rosary wrapped around it, showing her devotion to prayer. She’s clearly admonishing or encouraging the younger woman, which may place her in the role of Christ pointing to the “one thing necessary” that Christ named in Mary’s devotion.

The image from the Gospels could be a painting on the wall, though some have suggested it could also be a mirror or even a window into the scene. Any of those options, however, still indicate that the painting of the two women should be interpreted in light of Christ’s encounter with Mary and Martha in Luke 10. The relation of work, prayer, and hospitality are the key themes that connect them. 

Another:

“Christ in the House of Martha and Mary” depicts a scene of a maid preparing garlic mayonnaise to go with the fish that will be served for dinner. The maid’s expression indicates she is upset and the woman behind her is calling attention to a scene in the upper right corner of the painting. We can not be sure if the smaller scene (like an inset) is intended to be a reflection in a mirror, a hatch (an opening) through which we are looking into an adjacent room, or a painting on the kitchen wall. Velázquez used devices such as reflections and paintings within paintings throughout his career.

In the usual interpretation of this painting, the two figures in the kitchen and the figures in the upper right hand scene are many centuries apart in time. The smaller scene shows Jesus seated in the home of Martha and Mary (Luke 10: 38-42). Mary is seated at his feet and Martha is standing behind her. In the biblical story, Martha became busy serving food and drink while Mary seemed oblivious to the fact that her sister was doing all of the work alone. Instead of helping her sister, Mary sat down and listened to Jesus. Martha was frustrated at this and wondered if Jesus cared that her sister was leaving all of the serving chores up to her; she hoped Jesus would ask Mary to help her. Jesus told Martha that her concern was misplaced and that in sitting and listening to him, Mary had made a good choice.

The frustration of the maid pictured by Velázquez is similar to that of Martha. She is trying to make preparations for a meal but is working by herself and is distraught about all that needs to be done. The woman behind her is calling the maid’s attention to the scene of Jesus, Martha, and Mary; pointing out that spiritual nourishment is an important part of life as well.

It has been suggested this kitchen scene is not set in seventeenth century Spain but rather is in the home of Martha and Mary when Christ was there. If this interpretation of the painting is accepted, the person believed to be an upset maid in the kitchen is actually Martha herself and the second woman with Jesus in the smaller scene is another guest.

 

 

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Continuing with my “reprint” of portions of Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legends and Lies. (Part 1, Part 2)  This is a long chapter that lays out the claims of and arguments against the gnostic writings that some have asserted present Mary Magdalene as the special companion of Jesus and the leader of the real Christian movement, suppressed by the patriarchal Peter and his ilk.

In a way this is old news, for much of this moment seems to have passed beyond ten or so years ago when, thanks to The Da Vinci Code and other books, “Magdala Christianity” was all the rage in some quarters. It’s still around though. If you do a quick search, you’ll see some related events next week, and I’m sure there are more:

We welcome you to join us July 20, 21, and 22nd for our Online Mary Magdalene Sisterhood Retreat! …One of the Keeper’s of The Rose Code Lineage, Mary Magdalene’s Presence is re-emerging strongly on the planet during this time of pivotal shift through our consciousness and guiding us in remembering our Feminine Womb Power, Erotic Innocence, Sacred Relationship, Service, Rapture, and Devotion.

Women of Wisdom in conjunction with Movement For Peace will be part of the 3rd Annual Global Event called Awakening the Magdalene in a Powerful Global Prayer For Peace. This event is being coordinated with events being held in Spain, France and Scotland, where people will be engaged in the prayer for peace. Event is free and will include walking the labyrinth to experience the peace and spirit of Mary Magdalene, exposure to Yoga Nidra, Cranial Sacral Therapy, Art as Meditation, and more. 

And these gnostic writings are still widely misread, so it’s worth reviewing what they are – and aren’t.

Over the past twenty years, interest in Mary Magdalene has exploded. Books, websites, seminars, and celebrations of her feast day on July 22 have multiplied, as many in the West, particularly women, look to her for inspiration.

Ironically, though, much of this interest in this great Christian saint is being fueled by texts other than the Christian Scriptures. The popular websites devoted to Mary Magdalene refer to her as “The Woman Who Knew All” (www.magdalene.org). One of the more popular treatments of Mary Magdalene, The Woman with theAlabaster Jar: Mary Magdalene and the Holy Grail, by Margaret Starbird, emphasizes Mary as “Bride 9781879181038_p0_v2_s118x184and Beloved” of Jesus. And, of course, there’s The Da Vinci Code, the mega-selling novel that has brought these depictions of Mary Magdalene to a mass audience. Brown’s novel brings it all together in one convenient package: Mary Magdalene was the spouse of Jesus, bore his child, and was the person he really wanted to lead his movement. This movement, of course, was about nothing the New Testament suggests it is, but was rather a wisdom movement dedicated to help humanity reunite the masculine and feminine principles of reality.

So in this context, Mary Magdalene was the “real” Holy Grail, since she was the vessel that carried Jesus’ child and his teaching. But she’s more: she’s a “goddess” — a mythical figure through whom the divine can be encountered.

It’s all very confusing. It’s also ironic, given the constant modern criticism that the claims of traditional Christianity are suspect because they can’t be “proven,” or because the texts upon which its claims are based are too ancient to be trusted. The modern devotion that so many seem to have to this figure of Mary is actually based, in part, on far less trustworthy sources and has no relation to the Mary we meet in Scripture.

So where does it start? Of course, much of this revisioning is rooted completely in the present, in a mishmash of conspiracy theories, false history, and wishful thinking that we will address in the last chapter. But the truth is that Mary Magdalene wouldn’t be the subject of interest from many of her contemporary fans outside traditional Christianity if it weren’t for some other ancient texts: the writings produced by Gnostic Christian heresies.

Secret Knowledge

Here’s the short version. From about the second through the fifth centuries, a movement that we now call “Gnosticism” was popular in many areas around the Mediterranean basin. “Gnosticism” is a word derived from the Greek word gnosis, which means“knowledge.” Although there were various Gnostic teachers and movements over the centuries, most of them shared a few common characteristics, succinctly described by Father Richard Hogan in his book Dissent from the Creed: Heresies Past and Present (Our Sunday Visitor, 2001):

“Gnostics claimed a special knowledge,a gnosis. Included in this special gnosis was an understanding that there was God Who created the spiritual world and a lesser anti-god who was responsible for the material (evil) world. Gnosticism represents a belief in dualism.There is a good and an evil. Evil is material and physical. Good is spiritual and divine.

“According to the Gnostics, a disaster at the beginning of the world had imprisoned a divine ‘spark’ in human beings, i.e., in the evil world of material Creation.This divine element had lost the memory of heaven, its true home. Salvation consisted in knowing that this ‘spark’ existed and liberating it from the human body.” (Hogan, p. 43)

The creation myths of Gnosticism that describe this imprisonment are quite complex and intricate. Just as intricate were the Gnostic visions of what salvation was about. The emphasis, naturally, was on knowledge, rather than faith, life, or love. The way to salvation involved knowing the truth about human origins and then knowing the way to progress, both in this life and the next, through the various layers of reality that were imprisoning that sacred spark.

Early Gnosticism, which predates Christianity, drew from many sources, including Platonic philosophy and Egyptian mythology. Christian Gnosticism used the Gospels 516ywedgjtl-_sx321_bo1204203200_and other Christian traditions, eliminating elements that were not consistent with Gnostic thinking. So, for example, Gnostic Christian teachers taught that Jesus was not really human — since the material world is evil. Valentinus, who lived around the year 150 in Rome, taught an extraordinarily complex story of Jesus being the product of the yearnings of Sophia — the personification of wisdom. Historian David Christie-Murray describes it in the following way:

“Christ,who brings the revelation of gnosis (self-consciousness), clothed himself with Jesus at baptism and saves all spiritual mankind through his resurrection,but had only a spiritual body. Men can now become aware of their spiritual selves through him and return to their heavenly origin. When every spiritual being has received gnosis and becomes aware of the divinity within himself, the world-process will end. Christ and Sophia, after waiting at the entrance of the Pleroma [the center of spir-itual, divine life] for spiritual Man, will enter the bridal chamber to achieve their union,followed by the Gnostics and their higher selves, their guardian angels.” (A History of Heresy[Oxford UniversityPress, 1989], p. 29)

This is just one example, but Gnostic Christianity is really simply a variation on this theme: Creation is evil. Jesus was not fully human. He did not suffer or die. Redemption cannot, of course, be achieved through such a means, for it involves the material body, which is sinful anyway. Salvation is not available to all, but only those with special knowledge. This way of thinking infiltrated many other systems of the time, including Christianity.

Those who tried to merge Gnostic thinking with Christianity produced writings, some of which survive, mostly in the context of quotations in the works of Christian writers arguing against them. In the late nineteenth century, some Gnostic Christian texts, not seen before, were discovered, and even more in the mid-twentieth century. The discovery of these texts caused a stir among some who believed that, more than giving an insight into a Christian heresy, these texts opened a world to what they believed could be the real story of Christianity that was concealed by orthodox Christian leaders.

Consequently, over the past century or so, these Gnostic texts have been rediscovered and reinterpreted. Some have taken their existence as proof that there was a whole other, and long-hidden, response to Jesus’ ministry, one with roots as ancient as those we see in the Gospels, and just as legitimate. The modern re-visioning of Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ bride, as the special recipient of his wisdom, and as the foundress of an alternative mode of Christianity owes much to the fascination with these Gnostic writings.

Unfortunately — or fortunately, depending on your point of view — what we actually know of the history of early Christianity just can’t back up these exalted claims for Mary Magdalene or even of any substantive link between Jesus’ ministry and Gnostic Christianity and Gnostic writings.

The simplest way to put it is this: Gnostic Christian texts tell us a lot about Gnostic Christian heresies in the second through the fifth centuries. They tell us nothing about the historical figures of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Peter, or the origins of Christianity in the first century.

So what follows is that these Gnostic texts tell us nothing substantive about the real Mary Magdalene, either, and that all those who use them in that way are engaging in, at best, misguided efforts, and, at worst, deceitful misuses of historical materials.

But it continues, nonetheless, and for a reason: this technique of suggesting that the Gnostic Christian texts reveal secret truths about early Christianity and who Jesus “really” was and what he “really” taught serves to undercut not only the New Testament but also the Church that produced it and is formed by it.

As I’ve done talk radio shows discussing this matter, I’ve heard it again and again: “All of these works were written so long after the events they describe — they’re all equally dependable and undependable. What version of Jesus you choose doesn’t matter, for there’s no way to know the truth, anyway.”

That’s just not true. Early Christianity was an enormously complex movement, about which we cannot claim to know everything.

But we do know — and any serious scholar will affirm — that Jesus did not teach Gnostic platitudes and did not marry Mary Magdalene, who then embarked on a life of teaching Gnostic platitudes of her own and emanating divine energy.

It just didn’t happen.

But because these Gnostic texts are so important in so many contemporary treatments of Mary Magdalene, we definitely need to look at them and understand what they’re really about.

Know Nothing

It’s somewhat challenging to describe Gnosticism because it wasn’t an organized movement, a religion, or even a homogeneous philosophical school. Perhaps the best way to describe it would be to compare it to the self-help movement of our day. For some reason, in the last part of the twentieth century, this notion of the importance of self-esteem took hold in our culture and infiltrated almost every aspect of life, including religion.Two hundred years ago, Christian thinkers and preachers of any denomination would have been appalled at the suggestion that a goal of Christian faith is to help the believer feel better about herself or help her overcome insecurities and self-doubts. On the contrary, despite their differences, Christians and Protestants alike would have described the goal of the Christian life as believing rightly and shaping your life in a way that meet’s God’s standards and spares one an eternity in hell.

Gnosticism was, of course, more complex and cosmic than this. But it’s a decent example to start with, for, like the self-esteem movement, Gnosticism wasn’t confined to groups that identified themselves explicitly as “Gnostic” and separate from other religions. It infiltrated and impacted almost everything it rubbed against, including Judaism and Christianity.

You can see the problems. Gnosticism wasn’t a minor movement. In most major cities of the Roman Empire during these centuries, Gnosticism and even Gnostic Christianity thrived. Most of our knowledge of Gnostic Christianity comes from its Christian opponents, great theologians like St. Irenaeus, Tertullian, and St. Clement of Alexandria, who all wrote against Valentinus, for exam-ple, and quoted copiously from his writings in doing so.

But independent copies of some Gnostic Christian texts do exist, and it’s these texts that form the basis of the modern, non-Christian devotion to Mary Magdalene.

Ancient Words

In the nineteenth century, several discoveries broadened scholarly comprehension, and eventually popular understanding, of Gnosticism. An ancient work of the Christian Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, lost for centuries, was discovered in 1842 in a Greek monastery. This work, of course, quoted many heretics, including Gnostics. More important to many was the rediscovery (in the British Museum) and then translation of Pistis Sophia (into English in 1896), a probably third-century work in which Mary Magdalene — and Mary, the mother of Jesus, by the way — figure prominently in dialogue with Christ. Snippets of other Gnostic texts existed, but the real revolution in this area came in 1945 with the discovery in Egypt of the Nag Hammadi library, a collection of Coptic texts, bound in leather, and dating from the late fourth and early fifth centuries, that included many Gnostic works (as well as a partial copy of Plato’s Republic). Hidden in jars and stored in caves, it is thought that the library belonged to a Gnostic Christian monastery.

The Nag Hammadi collection contains fifty texts in thirteen codices (a form of book), three of which — the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Dialogue of the Savior — are of interest to those intrigued with Mary Magdalene. Other Gnostic texts believed to mention Mary Magdalene, and found outside the Nag Hammadi library, are the Gospel of Mary and the Pistis Sophia. These texts emerged from different periods and reflect different strands of Gnosticism. All are discussions between Jesus and various other figures, mostly about the nature of the soul, the after-life, and the end of time. Let’s take a brief look at how each of them treats the figure called “Mary.”

Pistis Sophia (third century)

This work consists of extensive dialogues between Jesus, who has been on earth teaching for eleven years since the Crucifixion, and others, including women. Mary, his mother, takes an enormous role, and several times a “Mary,” not explicitly identified as either his mother or anyone else, including Mary of Magdala, is mentioned and praised for her understanding, and is even the subject of envy by other disciples.

The Gospel of Philip (third century)

This work is made up of dialogues and sayings of Jesus in conversation with his disciples. It mentions the Magdalene, “who was called his companion,” along with “Mary his mother and her sister,” as three who “always walked with the Lord.” The passage, quite provocative to some, ends with the sentence, “His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary.”

This work also contains the passage describing Jesus as kissing Mary Magdalene often and the rest of the disciples disapproving,asking, “Why do you love her more than all of us?” Jesus’ answer is obscure, but implies that she is more enlightened than they are. Those who see this kiss bestowed by Jesus as an expression of a unique companionate relationship are missing the point in a big way. In Gnosticism, the kiss is symbolic. As one scholar points out: “The Logos lives in those whom he has kissed, hence the disciples’ jealousy, for they are not yet worthy of the kiss” (Jorunn Jacob-sen Buckley, quoted in The Making of the Magdalen: Preaching and Popular Devotion in the Later Middle Ages, by Katherine Ludwig Jansen [Princeton University Press, 2000], p. 27).

The Gospel of Thomas (third century)

This, the most well-known of all the Gnostic writings, is a collection of sayings, many of which are also found in the canonical Gospels, but with a heavy dose of the androgynous themes that contemporary readers find so appealing. A “Mary” is mentioned once (the other female character is a “Salome”), as Peter asks Jesus to make her leave. Jesus, in a passage that is not often quoted by modern fans of this gospel, says, “I myself will lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The Gospel of Mary (third century)

This is another dialogue, this time beginning with Jesus but ending with a “Mary,” who is identified as the one Jesus loved “more than the rest of the women” and as the primary teacher, in a rather subtle competition, it seems, with Peter.

A ‘Few’ Problems

These, then, are the basic texts that modern devotees of Mary Magdalene use to support their case that she was an important leader of early Christianity, and probably in an intimate relation-ship with Jesus — but even if not, that her wisdom was esteemed by him above the other male disciples, and that there was friction between Mary Magdalene and the male disciples. This friction, in the eyes of some, reflects a real, historical division in early Christianity between those who followed Mary as a teacher and those who followed Peter.

There are numerous problems with using these documents to support this view of Mary Magdalene. Let’s look at a few of them.

To begin with, this position assumes that the Gnostic texts reflect first-century events. The simple truth is, they do not. No scholars date any of the texts earlier than the second or third centuries. The view they present of Jesus, his teachings, and his ministry are radically different from what we read in the Gospels, which were all composed before the end of the first century. Scholars of all types consistently consider the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament to be the starting point for studying the history of early Christianity. They may disagree on what the texts mean, but none would suggest, for example, that the Gospel of Mary is of equal value with the canonical Gospels in determining what the early Jesus movement was all about.

518hvfnbhsl-_ac_ul320_sr210320_No, the Gnostic texts “tell” us exactly what they should: namely, the ways that Gnostic Christian heretics took the basics of the Christian story and molded them to fit Gnostic thinking. Since some elements of Gnosticism were interested in questions of gender and androgyny, that concern is reflected in some texts, and in the roles played by female figures. They might reflect a greater role for women in some Gnostic sects, or they might even reflect a desire to demean the role of Peter, recognized as the chosen leader of orthodox Christianity.

But if you take the time to read these works yourself, you’ll see that they are radically different from the canonical Gospels in tone and content. (The Gnostic texts are not long, and all are available on the Internet. The Gospel of Mary, at least the fragment that we have today, is reproduced in full in Appendix B of this book.) The canonical Gospels, with all of their very human, flawed figures, are reflective of an attempt to present events accurately, through the prism of faith, certainly, but accurately nonetheless. The Gnostic writings are preachy, tendentious, obtuse, and . . . well . . . Gnostic in their concerns.

So the contemporary thinkers who suggest that a strand of “Magdalene Christianity” was born from Mary’s early leadership that was eventually suppressed by those loyal to Peter are basing their conclusions on the most tenuous of threads: that these Gnostic writings, written some two hundred years after the fact by Gnostics, reflect an ancient, hidden relationship between Mary and Jesus.

Let’s take this one step further. Who’s to say that the “Mary” mentioned in all of these writings is, each and every time, Mary Magdalene?

After all, there are only a couple of incidents — in the Gospelof Philip and Pistis Sophia — in which the Magdalene is specifically mentioned. The much-vaunted Gospel of Mary speaks only of a “Mary,” does not specify the Magdalene, and gives no identifying clues to tie her into the historical figure of Mary Magdalene, despite modern editions tacking “Magdalene” on to the title. Even the Gospel of Philip, which has been held up by many as evidence of a “companion” relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, is not as clear as it seems on who that Mary is. A close reading of the text indicates, a growing number of modern scholars suggest, that the female figure is a composite, mythical “Mary,” representing the feminine aspect of reality.

One of the features of some contemporary celebrations of Mary Magdalene is that the Gnostic writings indicate a tension between her and Peter and the other disciples, thereby implying a separate strand of “Magdalene Christianity.” Entire books have been written on this. That view, of course, is dependent on reading these Gnostic texts as if the Mary in conflict with the disciples is, in fact, Mary Magdalene. That’s by no means certain.

In the Pistis Sophia, Mary, the mother of Jesus, is described as being in conflict with the disciples. On a couple of other occasions, another Mary is described in the same way, and many assume this Mary is Mary Magdalene, although she is not explicitly identified in this way. However, some scholars — looking at the way this Mary is described, as “blessed among women” and “called blessed by all generations” — believe that a case could be made for identifying this Mary as Jesus’ mother. At the very least, it is not certain at all that she is Mary Magdalene, who does, in turn, play a prominent role in the dialogues in Book Two of the work.

Scholar Stephen J. Shoemaker summarizes this perspective:

In summary then, the Gnostic Mary’s identity is by no means a simple matter, nor is her identification with Mary of Magdala as certain as it is frequently asserted in modern scholarship. The particular spelling of the name Mary is in no way a reliable criterion distinguishing the two women, even though this is the most frequently advanced argument in favor of the Gnostic Mary’s identity with Mary of Magdala. If anything, the spellings Mariam and Mariamme appear to favor an identification with Mary of Nazareth, as I have demonstrated elsewhere. Likewise, the writings of the New Testament fail to resolve this problem, since they show both Marys to have equally been important figures in early Christian memory. Even the Magdalene’s role as apostola apostolorum in the fourth gospel does not tip the balance in her favor, since in early Christian Syria, where it seems most likely that the Gnostic Mary traditions first developed, it was believed that Christ first appeared to his mother, Mary of Nazareth, commissioning her with a revelation to deliver to his followers.

Moreover, despite frequent assertions to the contrary, there is significant evidence that early Christians occasionally imagined Mary of Nazareth in situations similar to those in which the Gnostic Mary is found: she converses with her risen son, expounds on the cosmic mysteries, and reveals her son’s secret teachings to the apostles, with whom she is occasionally seen to be in strife. Such is especially evident in the Pistis Sophia, a text whose interpretation has been tightly controlled by the last century’s interpretive dogmas. Both this text and the Gospel according to Philip make clear that the Gnostic Mary traditions do not have only a single Mary in view. Although many will no doubt continue to take refuge in the Gospel according to Philip’s description of Mary Magdalene as the Savior’s favorite, we should not forget that the New Testament identifies Mary of Nazareth as the ‘favored one,’ who has ‘found favor with God.’ (“Rethinking the ‘Gnostic Mary’: Mary of Nazareth and Mary of Magdala in Early Christian Tradition,” Journal of Early Christian Stud-ies, 9:4, pp. 588-589)

Why take so much time to unpack this? Because it’s terrifically important in getting Mary Magdalene right. Many contemporary activists have adopted Mary Magdalene as a representative of an alternative vision of Christianity, based partly on wishful thinking, partly on her role in the canonical Gospels, but confirmed, in their minds, by the evidence of these Gnostic writings. In them, they see traces of an ancient tension, an ancient movement within the followers of Jesus that held up Mary Magdalene as a wisdom teacher, as the one Jesus designated as his successor.

Their vision sounds plausible to those unfamiliar with the original texts, or even to those who only read them in translation, interpreting them according to the assumptions of the promoters of “Magdalene Christianity.” But ancient texts are usually not as simple to interpret as we think or would like to think.

A careful, objective reading shows, quite simply, first, that the figure of Mary of Nazareth played an unquestionably important role in some Gnostic texts. Why hasn’t she been chosen and celebrated by modern interpreters as the special chosen one of Jesus? Second, while Mary Magdalene does appear in these texts, most of the evidence for “Magdalene Christianity” is derived from the presence of a “Mary” who is, in fact, not clearly identified as Mary Magdalene, and is probably either a mythical composite female figure or Mary of Nazareth. Most importantly, though, all of the figures in these Gnostic writings really function on a level of symbol more than historical reality. Scripture scholar John P. Meir sums up the case quite well:

“I do not think that the . . . Nag Hammadi codices (in particular the Gospel of Thomas) offer us reliable new information or authentic sayings that are independent of the NT [New Testa-ment].What we see in these later documents is rather the reac-tion to or reworking of NT writings by . . . gnostic Christians developing a mystic speculative system.” (A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus,Vol. 1 [Doubleday, 1991], p. 140)

As we will see throughout the rest of this book, Mary Magdalene is a great saint, and a woman worthy of our interest and honor. But there is simply no evidence that she was who her modern interpreters would like her to be. The Gnostic texts that they use to make the case tell us nothing about early Christianity in the first century, and the “hints” that some read in them, suggesting an ancient tradition being preserved about a leadership role for Mary Magdalene in competition with Peter, are by no means certainly about Mary Magdalene, and in some cases might even refer to Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Further, if you read the documents yourself, you will see how ambiguous they really are, how easily they lend themselves to selective reading, and even how, in parts, the Gnostic writings contradict what their modern proponents would have them say.

In short, when dealing with Mary Magdalene, Jesus, and the Gnostics, don’t trust the interpreters. Go right to the source.

Questions for Reflection

  1. What was Gnosticism? Do you see traces of Gnostic thinking in the world today?
  2. How do some try to use Gnostic writings in regard to Mary Magdalene? What are the flaws to their approach?
  3. What do the Gnostic writings tell us about the Mary Magdalene of history?

Below: The pages on Mary Magdalene from the Loyola Kids Book of Catholic Signs and Symbols. As a new school year approaches, please consider purchasing copies of this and other Loyola Kids titles for your local Catholic parish and school!

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We’re back!

I’m going to do a recap of our trip, partly for you, but mostly for me. If you’ve ever taken an intense trip like this, you know how weird it is, how time compresses, how the moments you are convinced you won’t forget immediately fade into the fog of memory.

As I usually do, I’ll start with the basics. I’ll outline our itinerary in this post, including how we got around, then follow up with a post on where we stayed, then follow that up with several more detailed posts on what we experienced.

So..why Spain?

I have no Spanish blood in me (WASP on one side, French-Canadian on the other). Son #5 has a strong interest in Hispanic-related things, but from this side of the world: Mexico and Central America.

But.  I do find Spain an interesting place – well, everywhere in the world is interesting to me, so that’s not helpful. I wanted a fresh destination for us and one that was easy to get to, closer to the US than say, Poland, and that would be a good spot for not only us, but for one of my older sons and his family (wife and son), who would be joining us for the first part of the trip.

So what evolved was a Seville-centered trip for the first two weeks, and then the three of us exploring for the rest of it. I had a general sense of what we’d do – ending up in Bilbao for a flight out, but I left it basically open until we were actually in Spain. I made some refundable hotel/hostel reservations, but I didn’t make the final decisions until we were actually there, and that included renting a car.

It turned out, I think, to be an excellent choice. For me at least! The one negative was the weather – as you know, Europe was in the midst of an intense heat wave during the last part of June and although almost everywhere we went had air conditioning, it made walking about outdoors not the most pleasant of experiences – in Bilbao, the temperatures were in the 70’s, and it was…lovely!

Anyway, here’s a map of our travels, followed by a day-by-day breakdown.

Spainsh-road-map2

June 10:  Fly out of the US

June 11: Arrive, eventually, in Seville, late afternoon.

June 12: Son #2 & family arrive

June 11-June 22 Seville.  One day trip for us &grandson to Cordoba. One two-day trip for Son & Daughter-in-law to Grenada

June 22: Son #2 & family back to US.

June 22: Pick up rental car at Seville train station. Drive to Mérida for the afternoon and then to Cáceres‎

June 22-24 (morning): Cáceres‎ with Sunday afternoon trip to Trujillo.

June 24 (Monday): Drive to Guadalupe. Spend night in Guadalupe.

June 25 (Tuesday): Drive to Toledo, with stop in Talavera de la Reina.

June 25-27: Toledo

June 27: Drive to Madrid – stops in Chinchon and Mejorada del Campo , stay in airport hotel.

June 28-30: Fly RyanAir to Lucca, Italy (via Pisa)

June 30: Fly back to Madrid, get car, drive to Sad Hill Cemetery outside of Santo Domingo de los Silos, late afternoon in Burgos, see the Burgos Cathedral, drive on to Bilbao

July 1: Day in Bilbao, evening, return car.

July 2: Back to US – fly into NYC, spend night, visit with Ann Engelhart  (follow her on Instagram, too!) who picked us up at JFK and took us to the hotel in Astoria, and then with Son #1, who lives in NYC.

July 3: Back to Birmingham!

And how did we get around? In Seville, we walked, with a couple of cab and bus rides here and there. We took the train to Cordoba. Son and DIL took the bus to Grenada.

After Seville, we drove. I’ll probably do a post on driving in Spain later, but just know that it was absolutely fine. Even navigating in towns and cities, while a little fraught, was problem-free. I have driven in Europe before – in Sicily in 2009,throughout France in 2012, then in Italy in 2016 – so, for example, the whole concept of the roundabout is familiar to me, and I really am a fan.

The car was a Citroen Cactus,rented from Hertz for about $200 for the 11 days – very cheap, it seems, especially with pickup and dropoff in two different cities.  I usually go super small (last time in Italy, I drove a small Fiat and it was great fun), but I knew this time we’d be driving on some questionable roads (to get to Sad Hill Cemetery) and a small car was…not advisable for that. It drove very well, and came with GPS, which I’ve never had in a car before, but was invaluable this time.

Well, I started this about 5:30 AM – I’ve been awake since 4, with my body still on Europe clock – and I expect others to start awakening soon, so…more later on exactly where we stayed and what all that was like.

 

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