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St. Gertrude the Great

(Also Margaret of Scotland. And tomorrow, Elizabeth of Hungary.)

Learn about her from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI 

St Gertrude the Great, of whom I would like to talk to you today, brings us once again this week to the Monastery of Helfta, where several of the Latin-German masterpieces of religious literature were written by women. Gertrude belonged to this world. She is one of the most famous mystics, the only German woman to be called “Great”, because of her cultural and evangelical stature: her life and her thought had a unique impact on Christian spirituality. She was an exceptional woman, endowed with special natural talents and extraordinary gifts of grace, the most profound humility and ardent zeal for her neighbour’s salvation. She was in close communion with God both in contemplation and in her readiness to go to the help of those in need.

At Helfta, she measured herself systematically, so to speak, with her teacher, Matilda of Hackeborn, of whom I spoke at last Wednesday’s Audience. Gertrude came into contact with Matilda of Magdeburg, another medieval mystic and grew up under the wing of Abbess Gertrude, motherly, gentle and demanding. From these three sisters she drew precious experience and wisdom; she worked them into a synthesis of her own, continuing on her religious journey with boundless trust in the Lord."amy welborn" Gertrude expressed the riches of her spirituality not only in her monastic world, but also and above all in the biblical, liturgical, Patristic and Benedictine contexts, with a highly personal hallmark and great skill in communicating.

Gertrude was born on 6 January 1256, on the Feast of the Epiphany, but nothing is known of her parents nor of the place of her birth. Gertrude wrote that the Lord himself revealed to her the meaning of this first uprooting: “I have chosen you for my abode because I am pleased that all that is lovable in you is my work…. For this very reason I have distanced you from all your relatives, so that no one may love you for reasons of kinship and that I may be the sole cause of the affection you receive” (The Revelations, I, 16, Siena 1994, pp. 76-77).

When she was five years old, in 1261, she entered the monastery for formation and education, a common practice in that period. Here she spent her whole life, the most important stages of which she herself points out. In her memoirs she recalls that the Lord equipped her in advance with forbearing patience and infinite mercy, forgetting the years of her childhood, adolescence and youth, which she spent, she wrote, “in such mental blindness that I would have been capable… of thinking, saying or doing without remorse everything I liked and wherever I could, had you not armed me in advance, with an inherent horror of evil and a natural inclination for good and with the external vigilance of others. “I would have behaved like a pagan… in spite of desiring you since childhood, that is since my fifth year of age, when I went to live in the Benedictine shrine of religion to be educated among your most devout friends” (ibid., II, 23, p. 140f.).

Gertrude was an extraordinary student, she learned everything that can be learned of the sciences of the trivium and quadrivium, the education of that time; she was fascinated by knowledge and threw herself into profane studies with zeal and tenacity, achieving scholastic successes beyond every expectation. If we know nothing of her origins, she herself tells us about her youthful passions: literature, music and song and the art of miniature painting captivated her. She had a strong, determined, ready and impulsive temperament. She often says that she was negligent; she recognizes her shortcomings and humbly asks forgiveness for them. She also humbly asks for advice and prayers for her conversion. Some features of her temperament and faults were to accompany her to the end of her life, so as to amaze certain people who wondered why the Lord had favoured her with such a special love.

From being a student she moved on to dedicate herself totally to God in monastic life, and for 20 years nothing exceptional occurred: study and prayer were her main activities. Because of her gifts she shone out among the sisters; she was tenacious in consolidating her culture in various fields.
Nevertheless during Advent of 1280 she began to feel disgusted with all this and realized the vanity of it all. On 27 January 1281, a few days before the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, towards the hour of Compline in the evening, the Lord with his illumination dispelled her deep anxiety. With gentle sweetness he calmed the distress that anguished her, a torment that Gertrude saw even as a gift of God, “to pull down that tower of vanity and curiosity which, although I had both the name and habit of a nun alas I had continued to build with my pride, so that at least in this manner I might find the way for you to show me your salvation” (ibid., II, p. 87). She had a vision of a young man who, in order to guide her through the tangle of thorns that surrounded her soul, took her by the hand. In that hand Gertrude recognized “the precious traces of the wounds that abrogated all the acts of accusation of our enemies” (ibid., II, 1, p. 89), and thus recognized the One who saved us with his Blood on the Cross: Jesus.

From that moment her life of intimate communion with the Lord was intensified, especially in the most important liturgical seasons Advent-Christmas, Lent-Easter, the feasts of Our Lady even when illness prevented her from going to the choir. This was the same liturgical humus as that of Matilda, her teacher; but Gertrude describes it with simpler, more linear images, symbols and terms that are more realistic and her references to the Bible, to the Fathers and to the Benedictine world are more direct.

Her biographer points out two directions of what we might describe as her own particular “conversion”: in study, with the "amy welborn"radical passage from profane, humanistic studies to the study of theology, and in monastic observance, with the passage from a life that she describes as negligent, to the life of intense, mystical prayer, with exceptional missionary zeal. The Lord who had chosen her from her mother’s womb and who since her childhood had made her partake of the banquet of monastic life, called her again with his grace “from external things to inner life and from earthly occupations to love for spiritual things”. Gertrude understood that she was remote from him, in the region of unlikeness, as she said with Augustine; that she had dedicated herself with excessive greed to liberal studies, to human wisdom, overlooking spiritual knowledge, depriving herself of the taste for true wisdom; she was then led to the mountain of contemplation where she cast off her former self to be reclothed in the new. “From a grammarian she became a theologian, with the unflagging and attentive reading of all the sacred books that she could lay her hands on or contrive to obtain. She filled her heart with the most useful and sweet sayings of Sacred Scripture. Thus she was always ready with some inspired and edifying word to satisfy those who came to consult her while having at her fingertips the most suitable scriptural texts to refute any erroneous opinion and silence her opponents” (ibid., I, 1, p. 25).

Gertrude transformed all this into an apostolate: she devoted herself to writing and popularizing the truth of faith with clarity and simplicity, with grace and persuasion, serving the Church faithfully and lovingly so as to be helpful to and appreciated by theologians and devout people.

Little of her intense activity has come down to us, partly because of the events that led to the destruction of the Monastery of Helfta. In addition to The Herald of Divine Love and The Revelations, we still have her Spiritual Exercises, a rare jewel of mystical spiritual literature.

In religious observance our Saint was “a firm pillar… a very powerful champion of justice and truth” (ibid., I, 1, p. 26), her biographer says. By her words and example she kindled great fervour in other people. She added to the prayers and penances of the monastic rule others with such devotion and such trusting abandonment in God that she inspired in those who met her an awareness of being in the Lord’s presence. In fact, God made her understand that he had called her to be an instrument of his grace. Gertrude herself felt unworthy of this immense divine treasure, and confesses that she had not safeguarded it or made enough of it. She exclaimed: “Alas! If you had given me to remember you, unworthy as I am, by even only a straw, I would have viewed it with greater respect and reverence that I have had for all your gifts!” (ibid., II, 5, p. 100). Yet, in recognizing her poverty and worthlessness she adhered to God’s will, “because”, she said, “I have so little profited from your graces that I cannot resolve to believe that they were lavished upon me solely for my own use, since no one can thwart your eternal wisdom. Therefore, O Giver of every good thing who has freely lavished upon me gifts so undeserved, in order that, in reading this, the heart of at least one of your friends may be moved at the thought that zeal for souls has induced you to leave such a priceless gem for so long in the abominable mud of my heart” (ibid., II, 5, p. 100f.).

Two favours in particular were dearer to her than any other, as Gertrude herself writes: “The stigmata of your salvation-bearing wounds which you impressed upon me, as it were, like a valuable necklaces, in my heart, and the profound and salutary wound of love with which you marked it.
“You flooded me with your gifts, of such beatitude that even were I to live for 1,000 years with no consolation neither interior nor exterior the memory of them would suffice to comfort me, to enlighten me, to fill me with gratitude. Further, you wished to introduce me into the inestimable intimacy of your friendship by opening to me in various ways that most noble sacrarium of your Divine Being which is your Divine Heart…. To this accumulation of benefits you added that of giving me as Advocate the Most Holy Virgin Mary, your Mother, and often recommended me to her affection, just as the most faithful of bridegrooms would recommend his beloved bride to his own mother” (ibid., II, 23, p. 145).

Looking forward to never-ending communion, she ended her earthly life on 17 November 1301 or 1302, at the age of about 46. "amy welborn"In the seventh Exercise, that of preparation for death, St Gertrude wrote: “O Jesus, you who are immensely dear to me, be with me always, so that my heart may stay with you and that your love may endure with me with no possibility of division; and bless my passing, so that my spirit, freed from the bonds of the flesh, may immediately find rest in you. Amen” (Spiritual Exercises, Milan 2006, p. 148).

It seems obvious to me that these are not only things of the past, of history; rather St Gertrude’s life lives on as a lesson of Christian life, of an upright path, and shows us that the heart of a happy life, of a true life, is friendship with the Lord Jesus. And this friendship is learned in love for Sacred Scripture, in love for the Liturgy, in profound faith, in love for Mary, so as to be ever more truly acquainted with God himself and hence with true happiness, which is the goal of our life. Many thanks.

St. Albert the Great

Faith…science….all here.

His memorial is today, November 15. 

The Nashville Dominicans – who run the school one of my sons attends – have a  nice page on him. 

From B16, a 2010 General Audience:

He still has a lot to teach us. Above all, St Albert shows that there is no opposition between faith and science, despite certain episodes of misunderstanding that have been recorded in history. A man of faith and prayer, as was St Albert the Great, can serenely foster the study of the natural sciences and progress in knowledge of the micro- and macrocosm, discovering the laws proper to the subject, since all this contributes to fostering thirst for and love of God. The Bible speaks to us of creation as of the first language through which Albert the Great StampGod who is supreme intelligence, who is the Logos reveals to us something of himself. The Book of Wisdom, for example, says that the phenomena of nature, endowed with greatness and beauty, is like the works of an artist through which, by analogy, we may know the Author of creation (cf. Wis 13: 5). With a classical similitude in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance one can compare the natural world to a book written by God that we read according to the different approaches of the sciences (cf. Address to the participants in the Plenary Meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 31 October 2008; L’Osservatore Romano English edition, 5 November 2008, p. 6). How many scientists, in fact, in the wake of St Albert the Great, have carried on their research inspired by wonder at and gratitude for a world which, to their eyes as scholars and believers, appeared and appears as the good work of a wise and loving Creator! Scientific study is then transformed into a hymn of praise. Enrico Medi, a great astrophysicist of our time, whose cause of beatification has been introduced, wrote: “O you mysterious galaxies… I see you, I calculate you, I understand you, I study you and I discover you, I penetrate you and I gather you. From you I take light and make it knowledge, I take movement and make it wisdom, I take sparkling colours and make them poetry; I take you stars in my hands and, trembling in the oneness of my being, I raise you above yourselves and offer you in prayer to the Creator, that through me alone you stars can worship” (Le Opere. Inno alla creazione).

St Albert the Great reminds us that there is friendship between science and faith and that through their vocation to the study of nature, scientists can take an authentic and fascinating path of holiness.

His extraordinary openmindedness is also revealed in a cultural feat which he carried out successfully, that is, the acceptance and appreciation of Aristotle’s thought. In St Albert’s time, in fact, knowledge was spreading of numerous works by this great Greek philosopher, who lived a quarter of a century before Christ, especially in the sphere of "amy welborn"ethics and metaphysics. They showed the power of reason, explained lucidly and clearly the meaning and structure of reality, its intelligibility and the value and purpose of human actions. St Albert the Great opened the door to the complete acceptance in medieval philosophy and theology of Aristotle’s philosophy, which was subsequently given a definitive form by St Thomas. This reception of a pagan pre-Christian philosophy, let us say, was an authentic cultural revolution in that epoch. Yet many Christian thinkers feared Aristotle’s philosophy, a non-Christian philosophy, especially because, presented by his Arab commentators, it had been interpreted in such a way, at least in certain points, as to appear completely irreconcilable with the Christian faith. Hence a dilemma arose: are faith and reason in conflict with each other or not?

This is one of the great merits of St Albert: with scientific rigour he studied Aristotle’s works, convinced that all that is truly rational is compatible with the faith revealed in the Sacred Scriptures. In other words, St Albert the Great thus contributed to the formation of an autonomous philosophy, distinct from theology and united with it only by the unity of the truth. So it was that in the 13th century a clear distinction came into being between these two branches of knowledge, philosophy and theology, which, in conversing with each other, cooperate harmoniously in the discovery of the authentic vocation of man, thirsting for truth and happiness: and it is above all theology, that St Albert defined as “emotional knowledge”, which points out to human beings their vocation to eternal joy, a joy that flows from full adherence to the truth.

St Albert the Great was capable of communicating these concepts in a simple and understandable way. An authentic son of St Dominic, he willingly preached to the People of God, who were won over by his words and by the example of his life.

Dear brothers and sisters, let us pray the Lord that learned theologians will never be lacking in holy Church, wise and devout like St Albert the Great, and that he may help each one of us to make our own the “formula of holiness” that he followed in his life: “to desire all that I desire for the glory of God, as God desires for his glory all that he desires”, in other words always to be conformed to God’s will, in order to desire and to do everything only and always for his glory.

He’s in the Loyola Kids’ Book of Heroes, under “Faith.”


I. Faith

  1. Introduction: Jesus is Born
  2. John the Baptist: A Hero Prepares the Way
  3. Early Christian Martyrs: Heroes are Faithful Friends
  4. Medieval Mystery Plays: Heroes Make the Bible Come to Life
  5. St. Albert the Great: Heroes Study God’s Creation
  6. Sister Blandina Segale: Heroes Work in Faith

Advent is coming…

Advent begins in a little more than two weeks.  The first Sunday of Advent is November 27.

Still time to order resources for your parish or school!
Here is the devotional I wrote for Liguori this year.

Link to English version.

daybreaks

Link to Spanish version.

2016 Advent Devotional

Link to excerpts from Spanish version.

And an endorsement from Deacon Greg Kandra!

“This ravishing collection brings Advent and Christmas, literally, home. In brief essays that are by turns inspiring, surprising, and unexpectedly moving, Amy Welborn helps us see the coming of the Christ child in things we take for granted. This captivating little book is one to read, treasure, share, give—and read again.

Don’t forget that Bambinelli Sunday will be the third Sunday of Advent. Perhaps your parish would like to do this? Invite children (and everyone!) to bring the baby Jesus from their home nativity for a blessing.

Bambinelli Sunday” or Benedizione dei Bambinelli is a real thing.  It’s an Italian tradition, taking place most of the time on the Third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday), although I have seen it mentioned as being celebrated on the last Sunday of Advent.

It’s done in parishes, but the big celebration is in Rome…and we wrote a book about it!  (To order signed copies – even multiple copies – of the book, go here)

Here’s an interview Ann Engelhart did with Vatican Radio last year about it. 

Anyway, I’ll be talking more about this celebration this week, but I’ll start by giving some suggestions on how to celebrate:

You might be interested in this – The University of Santa Clara made Bambinelli Sunday the basis of a lesson plan.  It’s for Mary, the Mother of God, but you could easily adapt it for Advent. 

Here’s a link to my Bambinelli Sunday Pinterest board – all kinds of links there. 

//assets.pinterest.com/js/pinit.js

— 1 —

It’s the feast of St. Martin of Tours! Let’s begin, as we often do, with the pastoral and clear catechesis of B16, from a 2007 Angelus talk:

Today, 11 November, the Church remembers St Martin, Bishop of Tours, one of the most celebrated and venerated Saints of Europe. Born of pagan parents in Pannonia, in what is today Hungary, he was directed by his father to a military career around the year 316. Still an adolescent, Martin came into contact with Christianity and, overcoming many difficulties, he enrolled as a catechumen in order to prepare for Baptism. He would receive the Sacrament in

"Amy welborn"

Unknown Artist, St. Martin of Tours, 16th cent.

his 20s, but he would still stay for a long time in the army, where he would give testimony of his new lifestyle: respectful and inclusive of all, he treated his attendant as a brother and avoided vulgar entertainment. Leaving military service, he went to Poitiers in France near the holy Bishop Hilary. He was ordained a deacon and priest by him, chose the monastic life and with some disciples established the oldest monastery known in Europe at Ligugé. About 10 years later, the Christians of Tours, who were without a Pastor, acclaimed him their Bishop. From that time, Martin dedicated himself with ardent zeal to the evangelization of the countryside and the formation of the clergy. While many miracles are attributed to him, St Martin is known most of all for an act of fraternal charity. While still a young soldier, he met a poor man on the street numb and trembling from the cold. He then took his own cloak and, cutting it in two with his sword, gave half to that man. Jesus appeared to him that night in a dream smiling, dressed in the same cloak.

Dear brothers and sisters, St Martin’s charitable gesture flows from the same logic that drove Jesus to multiply the loaves for the hungry crowd, but most of all to leave himself to humanity as food in the Eucharist, supreme Sign of God’s love, Sacramentum caritatis. It is the logic of sharing which he used to authentically explain love of neighbour. May St Martin help us to understand that only by means of a common commitment to sharing is it possible to respond to the great challenge of our times: to build a world of peace and justice where each person can live with dignity. This can be achieved if a world model of authentic solidarity prevails which assures to all inhabitants of the planet food, water, necessary medical treatment, and also work and energy resources as well as cultural benefits, scientific and technological knowledge.

Let us turn now to the Virgin Mary so that all Christians may be like St Martin, generous witnesses of the Gospel of love and tireless builders of jointly responsible sharing.

— 2 —

Appropriate for theY St. Martin is also mentioned in the 2005 encyclical, Deus Caritas Est:

Finally, let us consider the saints, who exercised charity in an exemplary way. Our thoughts turn especially to Martin of Tours († 397), the soldier who became a monk and a bishop: he is almost like an icon, illustrating the irreplaceable value of the individual testimony to charity. At the gates of Amiens, Martin gave half of his cloak to a poor man: Jesus himself, that night, appeared to him in a dream wearing that cloak, confirming the permanent validity of the Gospel saying: “I was naked and you clothed me … as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:36, 40).[36] Yet in the history of the Church, how many other testimonies to charity could be quoted! In particular, the entire monastic movement, from its origins with Saint Anthony the Abbot († 356), expresses an immense service of charity towards neighbour. In his encounter “face to face” with the God who is Love, the monk senses the impelling need to transform his whole life into service of neighbour, in addition to service of God. This explains the great emphasis on hospitality, refuge and care of the infirm in the vicinity of the monasteries. It also explains the immense initiatives of human welfare and Christian formation, aimed above all at the very poor, who became the object of care firstly for the monastic and mendicant orders, and later for the various male and female religious institutes all through the history of the Church. The figures of saints such as Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola, John of God, Camillus of Lellis, Vincent de Paul, Louise de Marillac, Giuseppe B. Cottolengo, John Bosco, Luigi Orione, Teresa of Calcutta to name but a few—stand out as lasting models of social charity for all people of good will. The saints are the true bearers of light within history, for they are men and women of faith, hope and love.

 

— 3—

The Life of St. Martin written by a contemporary and defender, Sulpitius Severus:

ACCORDINGLY, at a certain period, when he had nothing except his arms and his simple military dress, in the middle of winter, a winter which had shown itself more severe than ordinary, so that the extreme cold was proving fatal to many, he happened to meet at the gate of the city of Amiens a poor man destitute of clothing. He was entreating those that passed by to have compassion upon him, but all passed the wretched man without notice, when Martin, that man full of God, recognized that a being to whom others showed no pity, was, in that respect, left to him. Yet, what should he do? He had nothing except the cloak in which he was clad, for he had already parted with the rest of his garments for similar purposes. Taking, therefore, his sword with which he was girt, he divided his cloak into two equal parts, and gave one part to the poor man, while he again clothed himself with the remainder. Upon this, some of the by-standers laughed, because he was now an unsightly object, and stood out as but partly dressed. Many, however, who were of sounder understanding, groaned deeply because they themselves had done nothing similar. They especially felt this, because, being possessed of more than Martin, they could have clothed the poor man without reducing themselves to nakedness. In the following night, when Martin had resigned himself to sleep, he had a vision of Christ arrayed in that part of his cloak with which he had clothed the poor man. He contemplated the Lord with the greatest attention, and was told to own as his the robe which he had given. Ere long, he heard Jesus saying with a clear voice to the multitude of angels standing round — “Martin, who is still but a catechumen, clothed me with this robe.” The Lord, truly mindful of his own words (who had said when on earth — “Inasmuch as ye have done these things to one of the least of these, ye have done them unto me”), declared that he himself had been clothed in that poor man; and to confirm the testimony he bore to so good a deed, he condescended to show him himself in that very dress which the poor man had received. After this vision the sainted man was not puffed up with human glory, but, acknowledging the goodness of God in what had been done, and being now of the age of twenty years, he hastened to receive baptism. He did not, however, all at once, retire from military service, yielding to the entreaties of his tribune, whom he admitted to be his familiar tent-companion.[11] For the tribune promised that, after the period of his office had expired, he too would retire from the world. Martin, kept back by the expectation of this event, continued, although but in name, to act the part of a soldier, for nearly two years after he had received baptism.

The whole thing is fairly short and quite interesting to read – as I read this ancient documents, what I am always looking for is commonalities – of human nature, of belief, of human choices and reactions. Consider the reactions of the bystanders described in the passage above.

Has anything really changed?

Underneath all that is “new” for us…has anything fundamental about who we are and the redemption for which we yearn really changed?

— 4 —

Martin of Tours
By Charles L. O’Donnell

“AS I today was wayfaring”—
Holy, Holy, Holy!—low—
Said Christ in heaven’s evening—
The Holies yet more hushed and slow—
“I met a knight upon the road;
A plumed charger he bestrode.

“He saw the beggar that was I—
Holy, Holy, Holy!—long—
Head and foot one beggary—
Holy, Holy, Holy!—song— 
One that shivered in the cold
While his horse trailed cloth of gold.

“Down he leaped, his sword outdrawn—
Holy, Holy, Holy!—swells—
Cleaved his cloak, laid half upon—
Holy! now a peal of bells—
Shoulders that the cross had spanned;
And I think he kissed my hand.

“Then he passed the road along,
Holy, Holy, Holy!—laud— 
Caroling a knightly song—
Holy! in the face of God.
Yea, Father, by Thy sovereign name,
Begging is a goodly game.”

 

— 5 —.

The author of the poemwas a priest, and not only a priest and a poet but a scholar and president of Notre Dame. Well.

Restoration

From these dead leaves the winds have caught
And on the brown earth fling,
Yea, from their dust, new hosts shall rise
At the trumpet call of Spring.

Thus may the winds our ashes take,
But in that far dusk dim,
When God’s eye hath burnt up the worlds,
This flesh shall stand with Him.

— 6 —

Restoration

From these dead leaves the winds have caught
And on the brown earth fling,
Yea, from their dust, new hosts shall rise
At the trumpet call of Spring.

Thus may the winds our ashes take,
But in that far dusk dim,
When God’s eye hath burnt up the worlds,
This flesh shall stand with Him.

— 7 —

Advent begins in about two weeks. The first Sunday of Advent is November 27.

Still time to order resources for your parish or school! Just.
Here is the devotional I wrote for Liguori this year.

Link to English version.

daybreaks

Link to Spanish version.

2016 Advent Devotional

Link to excerpts from Spanish version.

And an endorsement from Deacon Greg Kandra!

“This ravishing collection brings Advent and Christmas, literally, home. In brief essays that are by turns inspiring, surprising, and unexpectedly moving, Amy Welborn helps us see the coming of the Christ child in things we take for granted. This captivating little book is one to read, treasure, share, give—and read again.

 

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

#NotMyCityCommissioner

 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us.”

-1 Samuel 8:19

Some post-election thoughts. These are very specific. I have a lot more, but who knows what will become of them.

As I watched the course of the presidential campaign over the past couple of years, my long-held convictions about a fundamental problem with the shape of the process were confirmed. The reactions of the supporters of Clinton since the election have only deepened those convictions.

It all comes down to this: the office of the presidency has become too important. 

There are both spiritual and political dimensions to this.  I’ll take the political first.

So most of you, I trust, are familiar with the United States Constitution and the general shape of our government. There are three branches: executive, legislative and judicial. The intention of the founders was to create a system in which power would be balanced and checked. Hence the term “checks and balances.”

The President is the head of one of those branches – the executive.

He is the head of the executive branch which “executes” the laws that the legislature enacts and the judicial branch evaluate in terms of their constitutionality.

Here is Article II of the Constitution, which delineates the powers and responsibilities of the president. 

He is not the king. He is not a “ruler.” Moreover, he is not the representative of anyone’s soul, identity or deepest yearnings.

But of course, that limited sense of the president has not held.

I sometimes think, although it was probably inevitable, that it was unfortunate that a hero was chosen as our first president. It sets the bar high and imbues the office with an aura prone to idealization and idolatry – hence the 1865 fresco in the rotunda of the dome of the US Capitol, The Apotheosis of George Washington– which depicts Washington rising to the heavens in glory. “Apotheosis” means deification. 

washington

How much better it would have been, I think, if John Adams had been our first president!

The temptation of make too much of the presidency is also an extension of this country’s deeply-rooted sense of its own role in Divine Providence, beginning with the Puritans, continuing through the Revolution and formation of the nation and reaching a peak of sorts in the 19th century.

The expansion of the federal government, especially the executive branch, has not helped.  Beginning with the Progressive Era then escalating, of course with the Great Depression and World War II – big, global problems that seemed to call for big solutions that, once in place, are all but impossible to roll back. And yes, books have been written on the “Imperial Presidency.”

But now we are at a point at which people spend years of their lives, sacrifice their family and personal lives and spend hundreds of millions of dollars to attain this office, an office which has far more power than the founders intended, partly because the branch of government which it heads has far more power than it should.

Yes, there are and always have been profound differences in views about the shape and direction that the United States government should take. People with varying views group themselves in political parties to put forward their view and bring it into power. So in a way, yes, the President does “embody” something and that something can involve not only administrative responsibilities but the ideals that shape this direction. Fine.

But it’s too much. 

There is something wrong when the country is more or less constantly thinking about the president: who it is now, and who it will be in a few years. Don’t you resent the obsession and the attention to the office of the presidency? I do.

It seems to be a sign of a fundamental instability and lack of a core, as well as celebrity culture.

And of course politicians play on this. “Make America Great Again.” “Build a better world for our children.”  It’s all part of the same thing.

Which brings us to the spiritual, as it always does.

Over the past few days, protests have broken out over the country, centered on the meme #NotMyPresident. The anger, shock, dismay and yes, grief, is on full display.

When I look at this on the news or on my social media feeds, I see, above anything else, a spiritual vacuum.

There is room, of course, and if your conscience demands it, an obligation to express hesitation and opposition to a stated program of action with which you disagree or feel some aspect of your life to be threatened by. But even so, most people would, you know, wait for the person to actually take office and make decisions to make a judgment on how to react to that. To engage in this kind of protest at this stage is nothing more than attempts at intimidation.

No, what I sense goes deeper, and it’s not just the events of the last couple of days that lead me to that, but also the spiritual dimension of what I wrote above.

It’s too much. It shouldn’t be that important. 

But for some reason, it is. Why?

Well, when God has been chased out of your life, when the transcendent is simply what you make it to be, it is almost inevitable that the inborn yearning that we have for certainty in identity, belonging and meaning will be transferred.

Basically, this: If the election of the head of the executive branch sends you spinning and feeling distraught because the president doesn’t represent your values and moves you to disrupt your life to cry out  #NotMyPresident! …the presidency is too important to you. It’s become an idol.

It is possible to have high expectations of our leaders’ competence and abilities without deifying them or expecting them to embody your personal values and be crushed and outraged  and moved to violence and hatred when they don’t.

Perhaps a good way to get my point is to take it down a level. Think about the governor of your state. The mayor of your city or town.

When you consider who to vote for those offices, what enters into your decision-making? I’m going to guess it’s pretty practical.  I would think it would seem pretty strange to deal with the identity of your governor or mayor in the deeply personal way that some seem to be dealing with the presidency.

I don’t vote for mayor, governor, Senator or President, looking to have my ultimate personal values reflected or my sense of the ideal human being or social construction represented. After all, then I would never vote, would I? And if a candidate I vote for happens to win and hold office, I don’t look to he or she to do anything but move the workings of government in the general direction which he or she promised, and do as little harm as possible.

I can understand being upset. I really can. I can even sympathize with the identity politics aspect of this and the disgust with Trump’s personal character. Absolutely! Perhaps you are saying that you will be “embarrassed” to have Trump as president. Well, there are some of us who have been mostly  “embarrassed” by the president of the United States since the Gerald Ford days, more or less continually, for various reasons, so it gets to a point at which you realize…he’s just the president and there’s no need for me to tie who I am, even as an American, to the identity of who the president is today. 

So yes, the angst seems totally out of proportion to what this office *should* be about. I mean…who among us who was alive and sentient in, say 1977, looks back and says, “Gerald Ford! His presidency was satisfying because it represented me and satisfied my soul!” ?  Or..”That Ford presidency really did a number on me. Never been the same since, and what is life, my friends, anyway?”

So yes, resist.

Resist the temptation to put your trust in kings.

Resist their attempts to exploit your yearning for meaning and the transcendent.

Resist…and be free. 

 

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Leo the Great

Today is the feast day of St. Leo the Great.  In a General Audience in 2008, Pope Emeritus Benedict spoke of Leo, as part of the series he was doing on great figures in the Church.

The times in which Pope Leo lived were very difficult:  constant barbarian invasions, the gradual weakening of imperial authority in the West and the long, drawn-out social crisis forced the Bishop of Rome – as was to happen even more obviously a century and a half later during the Pontificate of Gregory the Great – to play an important role in civil and political events. This, naturally, could only add to the importance and prestige of the Roman See. The fame of one particular episode in Leo’s life has endured. It dates back to 452 when the Pope, together with a Roman delegation, met Attila, chief of the Huns, in Mantua and dissuaded him from continuing the war of invasion by which he had already devastated the northeastern regions of Italy. Thus, he saved the rest of the Peninsula. This important event soon became memorable and lives on as an emblematic sign of the Pontiff’s action for peace. Unfortunately, the outcome of another Papal initiative three years later was not as successful, yet it was a sign of courage that still amazes us:  in the spring of 455 Leo did not manage to prevent Genseric’s Vandals, who had reached the gates of Rome, from invading the undefended city that they plundered for two weeks. This gesture of the Pope – who, defenceless and surrounded by his clergy, went forth to meet the invader to implore him to desist – nevertheless prevented Rome from being burned and assured that the Basilicas of St Peter, St Paul and St John, in which part of the terrified population sought refuge, were spared.

"amy welborn"We are familiar with Pope Leo’s action thanks to his most beautiful sermons – almost 100 in a splendid and clear Latin have been preserved – and thanks to his approximately 150 letters. In these texts the Pontiff appears in all his greatness, devoted to the service of truth in charity through an assiduous exercise of the Word which shows him to us as both Theologian and Pastor. Leo the Great, constantly thoughtful of his faithful and of the people of Rome but also of communion between the different Churches and of their needs, was a tireless champion and upholder of the Roman Primacy, presenting himself as the Apostle Peter’s authentic heir:  the many Bishops who gathered at the Council of Chalcedon, the majority of whom came from the East, were well aware of this.

……

Aware of the historical period in which he lived and of the change that was taking place – from pagan Rome to Christian Rome – in a period of profound crisis, Leo the Great knew how to make himself close to the people and the faithful with his pastoral action and his preaching. He enlivened charity in a Rome tried by famines, an influx of refugees, injustice and poverty. He opposed pagan superstitions and the actions of Manichaean groups. He associated the liturgy with the daily life of Christians:  for example, by combining the practice of fasting with charity and almsgiving above all on the occasion of the Quattro tempora, which in the course of the year marked the change of seasons. In particular, Leo the Great taught his faithful – and his words still apply for us today – that the Christian liturgy is not the memory of past events, but the actualization of invisible realities which act in the lives of each one of us. This is what he stressed in a sermon (cf. 64, 1-2) on Easter, to be celebrated in every season of the year “not so much as something of the past as rather an event of the present”. All this fits into a precise project, the Holy Pontiff insisted:  just as, in fact, the Creator enlivened with the breath of rational life man formed from the dust of the ground, after the original sin he sent his Son into the world to restore to man his lost dignity and to destroy the dominion of the devil through the new life of grace.

This is the Christological mystery to which St Leo the Great, with his Letter to the Council of Ephesus, made an effective and essential contribution, confirming for all time – through this Council – what St Peter said at Caesarea Philippi. With Peter and as Peter, he professed: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”. And so it is that God and man together “are not foreign to the human race but alien to sin” (cf. Serm. 64). Through the force of this Christological faith he was a great messenger of peace and love. He thus shows us the way:  in faith we learn charity. Let us therefore learn with St Leo the Great to believe in Christ, true God and true Man, and to implement this faith every day in action for peace and love of neighbour.

You can access the writings of Leo the Great here….

He’s in The Loyola Catholic Book of Saintsunder “Saints are People who are Strong Leaders.”

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"amy welborn"

St. John Lateran

"amy welborn"

I have a few memories of this Basilica:

  • Our first visit, back in 2006, the stop at St. John Lateran was part of a day led for us by then-seminarian and anonymous blogger Zadok. Remember at the time, my now-10-year old was a bit over a year and was being transported everywhere one someone’s back. We traded him off.  It was a great day, but exhausting as we walked and walked – and if you have been to Rome, you know that the walk between St. John Lateran and St. Mary Major is uphill…way…uphill.
  • I have often referred to the enormous statuary inside St. John Lateran, in which each of the apostles are represented, as is traditional, with the instruments of their martyrdom, St. Bartholomew depicted holding his own skin, as he is traditionaly remembered as having been flayed.
  • As interesting as the church itself is the baptistry, which is enormous.
  • We were in Rome right around Ash Wednesday, and the day we were at St. John Lateran was a Sunday, so the plaza around the church – the area around the obelisk (the oldest  Egyptian obelisk in Rome) – was filled with children dressed in costumes playing games at booths and so on – the Bishop of Rome’s church just like any other parish church during this carnevale
  • We ended up at St. Mary Major during Vespers, and there in a side chapel was Cardinal Law.
  • Back in 2012, the boys and I returned to Rome – in late November as a matter of fact.  My main memory from that trip’s visit to St. John Lateran was a rather aggressive beggar inside the church who was approaching visitors and berating them when they didn’t give – he ended up being driven out rather forcefully by security.
  • Jumping back to the 2006 visit, we had a bit of trouble finding Zadok when we first arrived, so we killed a bit of time near the ancient city walls, doing what we do best on trips.
"amy welborn"

In a few months he’ll be behind the wheel of the real thing.

First, the history of the Basilica

The Scripture readings for Mass

Fr. Steve Grunow’s homily notes

It is not Christ’s will that the Church be reduced to a private club, and a Church that acts contrary to Christ’s will is not the Church, but the anti-church and an anti-church is not the servant of Christ, but of the anti-christ.

The scriptures assigned for today are all in their own unique way about the temple. Remember, our religion is not a religion that worships in assembly halls or entertainment venues, our religion is a temple religion and at the center of the Church’s way of life is the temple.

Today’s scriptures describe what sort of temple in which we worship.

The first scripture is an excerpt from the New Testament Book of Revelation.

This scripture presented a vision of the temple of heaven and the earthly temple of the Church on earth is meant to be a representation of the temple of heaven.

This temple is the Mass. The Mass is not just an expression of the community, but it is the community of the Church worshipping God as he wants to be worshipped. The ritual of the Mass is meant as an expression on earth of the worship of heaven, not as simply an act of communal self-expression. This is the difference between true worship and false worship or what can be called faith-based entertainment. True worship honors God in Christ as he wants to be worshipped. False worship seeks to honor ourselves and uses the worship of God to give sanction to this self-reference.

The worship of the Church in the temple of the Mass makes heavenly realities present and available to us, we receive these heavenly realities in all the signs and symbols of the rituals of our worship, but most importantly, we receive the divine presence of God himself in the gift of the Blessed Sacrament.

And this is St. Paul’s point in his first letter to the Corinthians.

A temple is a dwelling place, a house for God. When St. Paul makes reference to the Christian as being a dwelling place for God or a kind of portable temple, his meaning is that we Christians receive the divine presence of God through our participation in the Eucharist. Having received the Eucharist we become, literally, bearers of the divine presence of Jesus Christ, living sanctuaries for God.

From 2008, Pope Benedict XVI:

The beauty and the harmony of churches, destined to render praise to God, invites us human beings too, though limited and sinful, to convert ourselves to form a “cosmos”, a well-ordered construction, in close communion with Jesus, who is the true Holy of Holies. This reaches its culmination in the Eucharistic liturgy, in which the “ecclesia” that is, the community of baptized finds itself again united to listen to the Word of God and nourish itself on the Body and Blood of Christ. Gathered around this twofold table, the Church of living stones builds herself up in truth and in love and is moulded interiorly by the Holy Spirit, transforming herself into what she receives, conforming herself ever more to her Lord Jesus Christ. She herself, if she lives in sincere and fraternal unity, thus becomes a spiritual sacrifice pleasing to God.

Dear friends, today’s feast celebrates an ever current mystery: that God desires to build himself a spiritual temple in the world, a community that adores him in spirit and truth (cf. Jn 4: 23-24). But this occasion reminds us also of the importance of the concrete buildings in which the community gathers together to celebrate God’s praises. Every community therefore has the duty to carefully guard their holy structures, which constitute a precious religious and historical patrimony. For this we invoke the intercession of Mary Most Holy, so that she might help us to become, like her, a “house of God”, living temple of his love.

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