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When the officials had brought the apostles in to face the Sanhedrin, the high priest demanded an explanation. ‘We gave you a formal warning’ he said ‘not to preach in this name, and what have you done?

today’s first reading from Mass. 

Not, we hope, one of the boring parts. 

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Both this first reading from Mass today and the feast of St. George jostle our consciences with reminders of the role of courage in the Christian life – its source and why it is always needed. In other words, there’s always resistance to the Good News, from within and without.

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Today is the commemoration of St. George.

St. George is in the Loyola Kids Book of Saints.  In the first part of the chapter I try to strike the balance between what we think we know about George and the legendary material. But I also always try to respect the legendary material as an expression of a truth – here, the courage required to follow Christ. He’s in the section, “Saints are people who are brave.”

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Here’s a bit more on context of this feast from The New Liturgical Movement:

The Byzantine Rite has no such reservations about St George, as is often the case with some of the best loved legends and traditions about the Saints. He is honored with the titles “Great Martyr”, meaning one who suffered many and various torments during his martyrdom, and “Bearer of the Standard of Victory”; in the preparation rite of the Divine Liturgy, he is named in the company of martyrs second only to St Stephen. His feast always occurs in Eastertide, unless it be impeded by Holy Week or Easter week; one of the texts for Vespers of his feast refers to this in a very clever way.

Thou didst suffer along with the Savior, and having willingly imitated His death by death (thanato ton thanaton … mimesamenos), o glorious one, thou reignest with Him, clothed in bright splendor, adorned with thy blood, decorated with the scepter of thy prizes, outstanding with the crown of victory, for endless ages, o Great-Martyr George.

The phrase “having willingly imitated His death by death” makes an obvious reference to words of the well-known Paschal troparion, “Christ is risen from the dead, by death he conquered death (thanato ton thanaton … patesas), and gave life to those in the tomb.”

 

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From yesterday’s NYTimes: 

A few years ago, I set out to research my grandmother’s early childhood in Philadelphia, looking for clues about what the world was like in the first precarious years of her life. I knew that she was born in October 1917, that she had lived through the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 as a baby, but I was unprepared for the harrowing details I uncovered in my search.

Reading about the fall of 1918 left me grappling with a series of images of the outbreak as it was experienced locally: hushed streets, shut doors, bodies piled up in basements and on porches because the morgues had run out of coffins. Businesses and public Image result for Work of the Sisters during the epidemic of influenza, October, 1918spaces citywide were shuttered, including churches, schools and theaters. In a single day, on Oct. 16, more than 700 people in Philadelphia died from influenza.

But as I read the first alarming headlines about the coronavirus in January, what came to mind from my family research was one particular document, an oral history published in 1919 by the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia to preserve living memories of the Spanish flu. “Facts unrecorded are quickly lost in the new interests of changing time,” its author began; here, he meant to “gather information for the future.” Within these unassuming pages, I found the story of an extraordinary act of generosity and compassion, carried out at the height of a pandemic. Titled “Work of the Sisters During the Epidemic of Influenza, October 1918,” within this document was evidence of the enormous human capacity for personal sacrifice in the name of public good.

In early October, the Red Cross warned that Philadelphia did not have enough nurses to treat and minister to the sick, whose numbers were growing rapidly. “The nursing forces of the city have been depleted by the war. There was a serious shortage in many of the hospitals before the epidemic broke upon us,” an official cautioned. “Now it is a matter of life and death.” It was in this tense atmosphere that the archbishop of Philadelphia called on nuns in his diocese to leave their convents and take up posts caring for the sick and dying across the city.

You can read the entire document here.

 

Really – go read. 

 

There is a summary in the journal of the ACHS from 1919, which includes this note about church closings and the use of church property to treat the sick:

Letter of the Archbishop Authorizing the Opening of Parish Buildings, Halls and Schools for the Use of the Sick, also the Nursing and Relief Work of Uncloistered Sisters. Archbishop’s Residence 1723 Race St. Phila. October 10, 1918.

During the Influenza Epidemic, permission is given to utilize church edifices, particularly halls and parochial schools, as hospitals. Permission is also granted for un- cloistered Sisters to serve as nurses. If need be, the aid of the St. Vincent de Paul Societies should be utilized in each parish. The members of these Societies can help to nurse the patients and also open kit-chens to provide soup and other foods for the sick. These foods could be brought to the doors of the suffering by messengers, particularly by the school-boys. It is left to each pastor to devise the best means to combat the epidemic in his own parish. Priests and nuns are advised to obtain and use masks whilst attendng those attacked by influenza. Very affectionately yours, D. J. Dougherty, Abp. of Phila.

 

In connection with the closing of churches during the epidemic the following points seem to deserve notice and record :

First – The action of Pastors and Rectors of churches was in accordance with the orders of civil authorities – the State Board of Health, city and local departments of health and public safety – as directed by the letter of his Grace, the Most Revē Archbishop, which follows :

Archbishop’s House 1723 Race St. Philadelphia October 4th, 1918.

Rev. Dear Sir: We hereby direct your attention to the order of the Board of Health, issued on Thursday, October 3d, which prohibits the assemblage of all persons in the churches and schools of Philadelphia until further notice. Yours faithfully in Xto., D. J. Dougherty, Archbishop of Philadelphia .

Second – In many, probably all, the city churches this order was given during the afternoon and evening of Thursday, October 3, when usually there are many Confessions in our churches in view of Communions for the ” First Friday “. The notice to close was generally brought to the church or the rectory by the police then and there on duty. Some of the churches were closed, as reported to the compiler, at 6 o’clock p. m., others at 8 o’clock. Permission was granted in some at least of the churches to allow the people to come to the church on Friday morning, October 4, for Holy Communion. This permission was granted when requested by ‘phone from departments of health or public safety.

Third – While formally and legally closed, the doors of churches were not locked, and attendance at private Masses during the week and on Sundays was not forbidden. Devout and prayerful visits in acknowledgment of the Real Presence, in the churches of the business section of the city were apparently quite as regular and frequent as in normal times.

Fourth – Some of the city churches tried to meet the difficulty by Mass in the open air on Sunday, October 6 and 13. There was no prohibition or public protest against this, so far as the compiler has been able to find; but the practice did not meet with general approval, and, after the second Sunday was discontinued.

Fifth – City churches were closed October 6, 13, 20. The permission to open churches for Sunday, October 27, was followed by unusually large crowds for Confessions on Saturday evening, October 26. The list of the dead in the announcements at Masses on October 27 seemed almost interminable; in some churches more than one hundred names. Outside the city the date for ” reopening ” the churches varied according to different views taken by local boards, and different interpretations given to the action of the State Board of Health in ” lifting the ban “. Some country churches followed the order of city churches and assumed the right to open October 27; others in the same townships, and under the same local boards, did not reopen until November third.

 

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St. Patrick's Well, Orvieto

What is this and what does it have to do with St. Patrick? See the end of the blog post…

From The Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints:

How do you teach a classroom that’s as big as a whole country? How do you teach a whole country about God?

St. Patrick’s classroom was the whole country of Ireland and his lesson was the good news of Jesus Christ. How in the world did he do it? Well, it was only possible because he depended totally on God.

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God gave Patrick the courage to speak, even when Patrick was in danger of being hurt by pagan priests who didn’t want to lose their power over the people.

Patrick’s most famous prayer shows us how close he was to God. It’s called “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.” A breastplate is the piece of armor that protects a soldier’s heart from harm.

Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ within me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ at my right, Christ at my left.

I also have a chapter on the beautiful Lorica prayer – or St. Patrick’s Breastplate in The Words We Pray. You can dip into it here and buy the book here. It’s one of my favorites of those I’ve written.

Here’s the last page of the chapter:

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The point of St Patrick to me has always been he went back. He (like Isaac Jogues and many others) returned to the people who had caused him much suffering. Why did he return? Because he knew, first hand, that they needed to hear the Gospel. The Gospel is about forgiveness and reconciliation. Who better to bring it to them?

St. Patrick's Breastplate

St. Patrick’s Breastplate in a Wordcloud. Wordcloud made via this. Feel free to share.

The photograph at the top of the blog post is of St. Patrick’s Well in Orvieto, Italy, taken during our 2016 trip. No, St. Patrick never traveled to Italy, and no one thinks he does, either. The assumption is that the name of this very deep, intriguingly constructed well is derived from the awareness of “St. Patrick’s Purgatory” in Ireland, a cave so deep it led to Purgatory.

This incredible 16th century feat of engineering is 72 meters (174.4 feet) deep and 13 meters (43 feet) wide. Two staircases circle the central opening in a double-helix design, meaning that one person (or donkey carrying empty buckets) can travel down the staircase in one direction and never run into another person (or donkey carrying full buckets) coming up in the other direction. Seventy-two arched windows in the interior wall of the staircase filter light through the well and illuminate the brick and mortar used to seal it.

Why does a tiny town on top of a plateau of volcanic rock (or “tufa”) have such a thing? For the same reason it has such a stunning duomo! After the troops of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sacked Rome in 1527, Pope Clement VII was held hostage in Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome’s holy fortress, for six months. He finally escaped dressed as a servant and took refuge in Orvieto. It was the perfect spot with its vantage point over the valley.

It didn’t, however, have a reliable source of water without descending from the plateau, something the Pope feared could be a issue if it were sieged. To solve the problem before it existed, Pope Clement VII commissioned Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, a visionary young Italian architect, to create a well that was at that time called “Pozzo della Rocca”, “Well of the Fortress”. Research had already been done to find the most suitable spot for a well and so the design and construction of Pozzo della Roca was begun immediately. It was finished 10 years later in 1537, under the reign of Pope Paul III.

It wasn’t until the 1800′s that the well got its new name, as it reminded some of the “well” or “cave” in Ireland called “St. Patrick’s Purgatory”.

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(I always like these vintage books more for the art than the text….)

Finally, you might be interested in this, dug up from the Internet Archive: A Rhymed Life of St. Patrick by Irish writer Katharine Tynan:

Irish nationalist writer Katharine Tynan was born in Clondalkin, a suburb of Dublin, in 1859. She was educated at the Dominican Convent of St. Catherine and started writing at a young age. Though Catholic, she married a Protestant barrister; she and her husband lived in England before moving to Claremorris, in County Mayo. Tynan was friends with W.B. Yeats and Charles Parnell.

Involved in the Irish Literary Revival, Tynan expressed concern for feminist causes, the poor, and the effects of World War I—two sons fought in the war—in her work. She also meditated on her Catholic faith. A prolific writer, she wrote more than 100 novels, 12 collections of short stories, reminiscences, plays, and more than a dozen books of poetry, among them Louise de la Vallière and Other Poems (1885), Shamrocks (1887), Ballads and Lyrics (1891), Irish Poems (1913), The Flower of Peace: A Collection of the Devotional Poetry of Katharine Tynan (1914), Flower of Youth: Poems in Wartime (1915), and Late Songs (1917). She died in 1931.

 

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…for kids. 

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From the Loyola Kids Book of Saints. 

 

 

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First off: If you haven’t already, today is the perfect day to check out the wonderful Aquinas 101 series:

 

 

Over the past couple of years, this date has ended up being one of my Living Faith days. Here’s last year’s. 

 2017: 

Who is he? Who is this man–this Lord, friend, teacher–full of power but hanging powerless on a cross?

Our faith is marked by questions. We seek, trusting that there must be a source to satisfy the hungers we have been born with. St. Thomas Aquinas was a man of questions and answers, all born of deep hunger and love for God. Balanced, he prayed the Mass with intense devotion, wrote beautiful hymns, sacrificed much to give himself wholly to God and share with the world the fruit of his search.

Also, if you have seen Bishop Robert Barron’s Pivotal Players series, you know that Aquinas is featured in the first set. Here’s a teaser:

I wrote the prayer book that accompanies the first series, and so did several chapters on Thomas.  There are no excerpts available online, as far as I can tell, but here’s a couple of paragraphs from the first chapter:

Catholicism is not all theology. It is caritas . It is sacrament, communion, art, family life, religious life, the saints. It is all of this and more, but what we can’t help but notice is that even these seemingly uncomplicated aspects of the disciples’ lives lead to questions. What is “love” and what is it proper for me to love and in what way? How does Jesus come to meet me through the sacraments of his Body, the Church? How do I know the Scriptures that I’m supposed to be living by are God’s Word? God is all-good, why does evil and seemingly unjust suffering exist? How can I sense God’s movement and will in the world, in my own life? And what is the difference?  Theological questions, every one of them.

So our own spiritual lives, like Thomas’ call for balance. Emphasizing the intellect too much, I find a cave in which to hide, avoid relationship and communion with God and others.  But in disparaging theology, I reject the life of the mind, a mind created by God to seek and know him, just as much as my heart is. I may even avoid tough questions, not just because they are challenging, but because I’m just a little bit afraid of the answers.  Theological reflection from people with deep understanding helps me. It opens me to the truth that God is more than what I feel or personally experience, and this “more” matters a great deal.

He’s in the Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints not surprisingly,  under “Saints are People Who Help Us Understand God.”  Here’s a page:

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I don’t usually do a random Sunday post, but we’ll be traveling soon,  so that will occupy blog space here (and Instagram), so might as well get some recent events and thoughts out of the way.

So…maybe, instead of just showing recent animated features and dumb modern comedies, movie houses might try digging up some of these silent classics? That it might actually appeal to families? Just a thought.

I’d never seen the film – it was made in the beginning of the sound era, but Chaplin was not a fan of the new technology  – his art had, of course, been formed in the silent era. Art which is full flower in this film – the good thing about it having been produced after the advent of sound is that there’s a music soundtrack – partly composed by Chaplin himself.

It’s a lovely film, with an ending that will undoubtedly leave you misty. A beautiful, gentle and deeply satisfying moment.

And a moment that’s only made possible because The Tramp had made a sacrifice. That’s where the power is – in the sacrifice. Always.

  • As the temperature cools, I cook. With only the two of us here now, it’s quite important for me to have stew-soup kind of food already prepared and on hand. I don’t want to bother with meat n’ three type meals for just us (not that I’m a fan of them anyway – stews/soups/salads are my favorites), so if don’t want to eat out a lot (at least *I *don’t, since I’m paying), it pays to, as I said – be prepared. So over the past week, I’ve made beef stew (basic, from the Fannie Farmer cookbook, with a bit of wine added); this pork-poblano soup which is just about my favorite; this French lentil soup which is so basic and simple, but absolutely delicious(I think it’s the bacon); and then this chicken tomatillo stew, which is also great.And to go with, a batch of no-knead bread, and another day,these cornmeal biscuits, and now that I, at the age of almost 60, have figured out that you can, you know, freeze biscuit dough, I no longer have the excuse of “I’m not going to bake for just two of us.”
  • Son #5 had a performance today at his grammar school alma mater’s Fine Arts Festival. He played this Brahms Scherzo, and did well. No recording because I was employed as page-turner (he doesn’t have it memorized yet).
  • Off to Miami soon – a place I’ve never really been. At least it will be warmer….
  • And that’s it. I’m sitting at the airport, absorbing the sad news of the death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and other helicopter passengers. Praying for those left behind, especially Vanessa and the three other children. What a difficult, painful road. In Christ, may they someday find peace.

 

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It’s the feast of the Holy Family, of course, but it’s also the memorial of St. Thomas Becket. 

He’s in the Loyola Kids Book of Saints in the section “Saints are people who tell the truth.”

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Here’s the last page of the entry, so you have a sense of the content.

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First, from my 2020: A Book of Grace-filled Days from Loyola Press.

Tried to embed, but WordPress won’t let me. So just go here to access he link to the entry from today. (Just click on the middle entry that pops up)

Of course you can still buy the book – and the devotionals go all the way to 12/31/20 – you could still get plenty of use from it! (And note – I don’t make royalties from sales of this book. It was a for-hire project, meaning I’m paid for doing the work, and then that’s it – which makes sense for a book that’s only going to sell for a few months.)

Next:

A piece I wrote for the National Review years ago on these feasts that fall after Christmas, including St. Stephen.

We might forget, we might wrap up Christmas in good cheer, but Christian tradition doesn’t. It’s striking that the next day–the very next day–after Christmas, the Church remembers not glad tidings, angels, and shepherd boys, but a bloody death by stoning. St. Stephen it is, the first Christian martyr. St. Stephen is followed by St. John on December 27th, who may not have met a violent death, but who, the tradition tells us, died in a prison of sorts, in exile for his faith, far away from the “civilized” powers that had sent him there. December 28th brings us back to babies, but with no relief–it is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, remembering the children Herod ordered slaughtered, according to Matthew’s gospel, in his rabid fear of the rival king.

The message is clear and hard: Following this baby, as he reaches to us from the resin manger, looking out at us with the soft-eyed cattle and docile sheep, comes at a price.

From past Angelus addresses by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI:

2005:

Yesterday, after solemnly celebrating Christ’s Birth, today we are commemorating the birth in Heaven of St Stephen, the first martyr. A special bond links these two feasts and it is summed up well in the Ambrosian liturgy by this affirmation: “Yesterday, the Lord was born on earth, that Stephen might be born in Heaven” (At the breaking of the bread).

Just as Jesus on the Cross entrusted himself to the Father without reserve and pardoned those who killed him, at the moment of his death St Stephen prayed: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit”; and further: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (cf. Acts 7: 59-60). Stephen was a genuine disciple of Jesus and imitated him perfectly. With Stephen began that long series of martyrs who sealed their faith by offering their lives, proclaiming with their heroic witness that God became man to open the Kingdom of Heaven to humankind.

In the atmosphere of Christmas joy, the reference to the Martyr St Stephen does not seem out of place. Indeed, the shadow of the Cross was already extending over the manger in Bethlehem.
It was foretold by the poverty of the stable in which the infant wailed, the prophecy of Simeon concerning the sign that would be opposed and the sword destined to pierce the heart of the Virgin, and Herod’s persecution that would make necessary the flight to Egypt.

It should not come as a surprise that this Child, having grown to adulthood, would one day ask his disciples to follow him with total trust and faithfulness on the Way of the Cross.

2006

It is not by chance that Christmas iconography sometimes depicts the Divine Newborn carefully lain in a little sarcophagus in order to indicate that the Redeemer is born to die, is born to give his life in ransom for all.

St Stephen was the first to follow in the footsteps of Christ with his martyrdom. He died, like the divine Master, pardoning and praying for his killers (cf. Acts 7: 60).

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Carlo Crivelli, 1476

In the first four centuries of Christianity, all the saints venerated by the Church were martyrs. They were a countless body that the liturgy calls “the white-robed army of martyrs”,martyrum candidatus exercitus. Their death did not rouse fear and sadness, but spiritual enthusiasm that gave rise to ever new Christians.

For believers the day of death, and even more the day of martyrdom, is not the end of all; rather, it is the “transit” towards immortal life. It is the day of definitive birth, in Latin, dies natalis. The link that exists then between the “dies natalis” of Christ and the dies natalis of St Stephen is understood.

2008

Dear brothers and sisters, in St Stephen we see materializing the first fruits of salvation that the Nativity of Christ brought to humanity: the victory of life over death, of love over hate, of the light of truth over the darkness of falsehood. Let us praise God, for this victory still enables many Christians today to respond to evil not with evil but with the power of truth and love.

2009

Stephen is also the Church’s first deacon. In becoming a servant of the poor for love of Christ, he gradually enters into full harmony with him and follows Christ to the point of making the supreme gift of himself. The witness borne by Stephen, like that of the Christian martyrs, shows our contemporaries, who are often distracted and uncertain, in whom they should place their trust in order to give meaning to their lives. The martyr, in fact, is one who dies knowing with certainty that he is loved by God, who puts nothing before love of Christ, knowing that he has chosen the better part. The martyr is configured fully to the death of Christ, aware of being a fertile seed of life and of opening up paths of peace and hope in the world. Today, in presenting the Deacon St Stephen to us as our model the Church likewise points out to us that welcoming and loving the poor is one of the privileged ways to live the Gospel and to witness credibly to human beings to the Kingdom of God that comes.

2011

This is why the Eastern Church sings in her hymns: “The stones became steps for you and ladders for the ascent to heaven… and you joyfully drew close to the festive gathering of the angels” (MHNAIA t. II, Rome 1889, 694, 695).

After the generation of the Apostles, martyrs acquired an important place in the esteem of the Christian community. At the height of their persecution, their hymns of praise fortified the faithful on their difficult journey and encouraged those in search of the truth to convert to the Lord. Therefore, by divine disposition, the Church venerates the relics of martyrs and honours them with epithets such as: “teachers of life”, “living witnesses”, “breathing trophies” and “silent exhortations” (Gregory of Nazianzus, Oratio 43, 5: PG 36, 500 C).

Dear friends, the true imitation of Christ is love, which some Christian writers have called the “secret martyrdom”. Concerning this St Clement of Alexandria wrote: “those who perform the commandments of the Lord, in every action ‘testify’, by doing what he wishes, and consistently naming the Lord’s name; (Stromatum IV, 7,43,4: SC 463, Paris 2001, 130). Today too, as in antiquity, sincere adherence to the Gospel can require the sacrifice of life and many Christians in various parts of the world are exposed to persecution and sometimes martyrdom. However, the Lord reminds us: “he who endures to the end will be saved” (Mt 10:22).

2012

On St Stephen’s Day we too are called to fix our eyes on the Son of God whom in the joyful atmosphere of Christmas we contemplate in the mystery of his Incarnation. Through Baptism and Confirmation, through the precious gift of faith nourished by the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, Jesus Christ has bound us to him and with the action of the Holy Spirit, wants to continue in us his work of salvation by which all things are redeemed, given value, uplifted and brought to completion. Letting ourselves be drawn by Christ, as St Stephen did, means opening our own life to the light that calls it, guides it and enables it to take the path of goodness, the path of a humanity according to God’s plan of love. Lastly, St Stephen is a model for all who wish to put themselves at the service of the new evangelization. He shows that the newness of the proclamation does not consist primarily in the use of original methods or techniques — which of course, have their usefulness — but rather in being filled with the Holy Spirit and letting ourselves be guided by him.

The newness of the proclamation lies in the depth of the believer’s immersion in the mystery of Christ and in assimilation of his word and of his presence in the Eucharist so that he himself, the living Jesus, may speak and act in his messengers. Essentially, evangelizers can bring Christ to others effectively when they themselves live in Christ, when the newness of the Gospel is reflected in their own life.

And then, two more, from other occasions.  The first from the General Audience of 1/10/2007, in which Benedict discusses Stephen as a part of the series he did on great figures in Christianity (collected in several books):

Stephen’s story tells us many things: for example, that charitable social commitment must never be separated from the courageous proclamation of the faith. He was one of the seven made responsible above all for charity. But it was impossible to separate charity and faith. Thus, with charity, he proclaimed the crucified Christ, to the point of accepting even martyrdom. This is the first lesson we can learn from the figure of St Stephen: charity and the proclamation of faith always go hand in hand.

Above all, St Stephen speaks to us of Christ, of the Crucified and Risen Christ as the centre of history and our life. We can understand that the Cross remains forever the centre of the Church’s life and also of our life. In the history of the Church, there will always be passion and persecution. And it is persecution itself which, according to Tertullian’s famous words, becomes “the seed of Christians”, the source of mission for Christians to come.

I cite his words: “We multiply wherever we are mown down by you; the blood of Christians is seed…” (Apology 50, 13): Plures efficimur quoties metimur a vobis: semen est sanguis christianorum. But in our life too, the Cross that will never be absent, becomes a blessing.

And by accepting our cross, knowing that it becomes and is a blessing, we learn Christian joy even in moments of difficulty. The value of witness is irreplaceable, because the Gospel leads to it and the Church is nourished by it. St Stephen teaches us to treasure these lessons, he teaches us to love the Cross, because it is the path on which Christ comes among us ever anew.

And then from 2012, as he was discussing prayer in the General Audiences, and in particular the relationship between Scripture and prayer:

Dear brothers and sisters, St Stephen’s witness gives us several instructions for our prayers and for our lives. Let us ask ourselves: where did this first Christian martyr find the strength to face his persecutors and to go so far as to give himself? The answer is simple: from his relationship with God, from his communion with Christ, from meditation on the history of salvation, from perceiving God’s action which reached its crowning point in Jesus Christ. Our prayers, too, must be nourished by listening to the word of God, in communion with Jesus and his Church.

A second element: St Stephen sees the figure and mission of Jesus foretold in the history of the loving relationship between God and man. He — the Son of God — is the temple that is not “made with hands” in which the presence of God the Father became so close as to enter our human flesh to bring us to God, to open the gates of heaven. Our prayer, therefore, must be the contemplation of Jesus at the right hand of God, of Jesus as the Lord of our, or my, daily life. In him, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we too can address God and be truly in touch with God, with the faith and abandonment of children who turn to a Father who loves them infinitely.

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Another great saint.

 B16 spoke about him at a General Audience in 2009.

It’s very appropriate that John’s feast falls during Advent, during our preparation for the Feast of the Incarnation.

(I have re-paragraphed it for ease of reading. Also bolded some key points.)

John, born into a wealthy Christian family, at an early age assumed the role, perhaps already held by his father, of Treasurer of the Caliphate. Very soon, however, dissatisfied with life at court, he decided on a monastic life, and entered the monastery of Mar Saba, near Jerusalem. This was around the year 700.

He never again left the monastery, but dedicated all his energy to ascesis and literary work, not disdaining a certain amount of pastoral activity, as is shown by his numerous homilies. His liturgical commemoration is on the 4 December. Pope Leo XIII proclaimed him Doctor of the Universal Church in 1890.

In the East, his best remembered works are the three Discourses against those who calumniate the Holy Images, which were condemned after his death by the iconoclastic Council of Hieria (754). These discourses, however, were also the fundamental grounds for his rehabilitation and canonization on the part of the Orthodox Fathers summoned to the Council of Nicaea (787), the Seventh Ecumenical Council. In these texts it is possible to trace the first important theological attempts to legitimise the veneration of sacred images, relating them to the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God in the womb of the Virgin Mary.

John Damascene was also among the first to distinguish, in the cult, both public and private, of the Christians, between worship (latreia), and veneration (proskynesis): the first can only be offered to God, spiritual above all else, the second, on the other hand, can make use of an image to address the one whom the image represents. Obviously the Saint can in no way be identified with the material of which the icon is composed. This distinction was immediately seen to be very important in finding an answer in Christian terms to those who considered universal and eternal the strict Old Testament prohibition against the use of cult images. This was also a matter of great debate in the Islamic world, which accepts the Jewish tradition of the total exclusion of cult images. Christians, on the other hand, in this context, have discussed the problem and found a justification for the veneration of images. John Damascene writes, “In other ages God had not been represented in images, being incorporate and faceless. But since God has now been seen in the flesh, and lived among men, I represent that part of God which is visible. I do not venerate matter, but the Creator of matter, who became matter for my sake and deigned to live in matter and bring about my salvation through matter. I will not cease therefore to venerate that matter through which my salvation was achieved. But I do not venerate it in absolute terms as God! How could that which, from non-existence, has been given existence, be God?… But I also venerate and respect all the rest of matter which has brought me salvation, since it is full of energy and Holy graces. Is not the wood of the Cross, three times blessed, matter?… And the ink, and the most Holy Book of the Gospels, are they not matter? The redeeming altar which dispenses the Bread of life, is it not matter?… And, before all else, are not the flesh and blood of Our Lord matter? Either we must suppress the sacred nature of all these things, or we must concede to the tradition of the Church the veneration of the images of God and that of the friends of God who are sanctified by the name they bear, and for this reason are possessed by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Do not, therefore, offend matter: it is not contemptible, because nothing that God has made is contemptible” (cf. Contra imaginum calumniatores, I, 16, ed. Kotter, pp. 89-90).

We see that as a result of the Incarnation, matter is seen to have become divine, is seen as the habitation of God. It is a new vision of the world and of material reality. God became flesh and flesh became truly the habitation of God, whose glory shines in the human Face of Christ. Thus the arguments of the Doctor of the East are still extremely relevant today, considering the very great dignity that matter has acquired through the Incarnation, capable of becoming, through faith, a sign and a sacrament, efficacious in the meeting of man with God. John Damascene remains, therefore, a privileged witness of the cult of icons, which would come to be one of the most distinctive aspects of Eastern spirituality up to the present day. It is, however, a form of cult which belongs simply to the Christian faith, to the faith in that God who became flesh and was made visible. The teaching of Saint John Damascene thus finds its place in the tradition of the universal Church, whose sacramental doctrine foresees that material elements taken from nature can become vehicles of grace by virtue of the invocation (epiclesis) of the Holy Spirit, accompanied by the confession of the true faith.

John Damascene extends these fundamental ideas to the veneration of the relics of Saints, on the basis of the conviction that the Christian Saints, having become partakers of the Resurrection of Christ, cannot be considered simply “dead”. Numbering, for example, those "amy welborn"whose relics or images are worthy of veneration, John states in his third discourse in defence of images: “First of all (let us venerate) those among whom God reposed, he alone Holy, who reposes among the Saints (cf. Is 57: 15), such as the Mother of God and all the Saints. These are those who, as far as possible, have made themselves similar to God by their own will; and by God’s presence in them, and his help, they are really called gods (cf. Ps 82[81]: 6), not by their nature, but by contingency, just as the red-hot iron is called fire, not by its nature, but by contingency and its participation in the fire. He says in fact : you shall be holy, because I am Holy (cf. Lv 19: 2)” (III, 33, col. 1352 a).

After a series of references of this kind, John Damascene was able serenely to deduce: “God, who is good, and greater than any goodness, was not content with the contemplation of himself, but desired that there should be beings benefited by him, who might share in his goodness: therefore he created from nothing all things, visible and invisible, including man, a reality visible and invisible. And he created him envisaging him and creating him as a being capable of thought (ennoema ergon), enriched with the word (logo[i] sympleroumenon), and orientated towards the spirit (pneumati teleioumenon)” (II, 2, pg 94, col. 865a). And to clarify this thought further, he adds: “We must allow ourselves to be filled with wonder (thaumazein) at all the works of Providence (tes pronoias erga), to accept and praise them all, overcoming any temptation to identify in them aspects which to many may seem unjust or iniquitous, (adika), and admitting instead that the project of God (pronoia) goes beyond man’s capacity to know or to understand (agnoston kai akatalepton), while on the contrary only he may know our thoughts, our actions, and even our future” (ii, 29, pg 94, col. 964c).

Plato had in fact already said that all philosophy begins with wonder. Our faith, too, begins with wonder at the very fact of the Creation, and at the beauty of God who makes himself visible.

The optimism of the contemplation of nature (physike theoria), of seeing in the visible creation the good, the beautiful, the true, this Christian optimism, is not ingenuous: it takes account of the wound inflicted on human nature by the freedom of choice desired by God and misused by man, with all the consequences of widespread discord which have derived from it. From this derives the need, clearly perceived by John Damascene, that nature, in which the goodness and beauty of God are reflected, wounded by our fault, “should be strengthened and renewed” by the descent of the Son of God in the flesh, after God had tried in many ways and on many occasions, to show that he had created man so that he might exist not only in “being”, but also in “well-being” (cf. The Orthodox Faith, II, 1, pg 94, col. 981).

With passionate eagerness John explains: “It was necessary for nature to be strengthened and renewed, and for the path of virtue to be indicated and effectively taught (didachthenai aretes hodòn), the path that leads away from corruption and towards eternal life…. So there appeared on the horizon of history the great sea of love that God bears towards man (philanthropias pelagos)”…. It is a fine expression. We see on one side the beauty of Creation, and on the other the destruction wrought by the fault of man. But we see in the Son of God, who descends to renew nature, the sea of love that God has for man. John Damascene continues: “he himself, the Creator and the Lord, fought for his Creation, transmitting to it his teaching by example…. And so the Son of God, while still remaining in the form of God, lowered the skies and descended… to his servants… achieving the newest thing of all, the only thing really new under the sun, through which he manifested the infinite power of God” (III, 1, pg 94, col. 981c-984b).

We may imagine the comfort and joy which these words, so rich in fascinating images, poured into the hearts of the faithful. We listen to them today, sharing the same feelings with the Christians of those far-off days: God desires to repose in us, he wishes to renew nature through our conversion, he wants to allow us to share in his divinity. May the Lord help us to make these words the substance of our lives.

More from Ellyn von Huben at Word on Fire

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Blessed Miguel Pro is in the  Loyola Kids Book of Saints under, “Saints are people who create.”

(Click on images for readable versions)

From our 2018 visit to Mexico City and Puebla – the church where Miguel Pro’s relics can be found – except it was Holy Thursday morning that we stopped by, so while the church was open, the museum was not:

 

 

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