Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Shrove Tuesday

Christ the King, Ghent Altarpiece, Van Eyck
Lately, I have been going out to walk shortly before morning twilight. Where I live, it's possible for me to walk down the middle of our street. There are a few lights here and there so that I can see well enough, but for the most part, it is dark. I walk for while and turn around and go back to my driveway and then out again. Pretty soon, the sky begins to lighten a bit, and every time I turn around in the driveway, I see a different scene. It's a very nice way to begin the day.

While I walk, I sometimes listen to the Liturgy of the Hours, and this morning as I was coming back to the house for the last time, pretty tired and achy, I was listening to Psalm 24.
O gates, lift high your heads;
grow higher, ancient doors.
Let him enter, the king of glory!  
 Who is the king of glory?
The Lord, the mighty, the valiant,
the Lord, the valiant in war.  
 O gates, lift high your heads;
grow higher, ancient doors.
Let him enter, the king of glory!  
Who is he, the king of glory?
He, the Lord of armies,
he is the king of glory.
And I was thinking of soldiers, coming home weary from a battle where they have fought side by side with their king. They've seen him tired and hunger and dirty, just like themselves. Now though, they are home, and the battle is won, and they see their king lifted up before them in his royal robes and crown.

But we aren't there yet. Tonight is the eve of our battle. I'm a little wary because last year, it was a really difficult battle, and I was worn out by Holy Week. Of course, this year might be entirely different, in fact, just as we can never seem to return to the same joyful moments, but frequently find new ones, our fasts are never quite the same. Hopefully, we won't be the same as we are now when we celebrate the Resurrection.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
A few years ago, I wrote in a post that although I look like a dumpy housewife, inside I look like this.

However, while I was writing the series about Giotto's Virtues and Vices, I realized that about the best I can hope for is this.

Now I just need her virtue--and her lion pelt.


Sunday, February 7, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week 6 ~ St. Joachim

In October of 2014, I used this picture in a post I wrote about Christian marriage, and later that year, I wrote a post about St. Anne, but today I am writing about one of the most overlooked characters in Salvation History, that Golden Thread, as Sophia Calvaletti calls it, through which the promise given to man in Eden has come down to us.

It is hardly surprising that St. Joachim is overlooked because we know almost nothing about him. In fact, we can't even be 100% sure that his name was Joachim (Yahweh saves). The only thing we certainly know about him is that he did indeed exist and was the father of Mary and the grandfather of Jesus. This means, of course, that there was a good bit of Joachim in our Saviour.

The reason that I decided to write about Joachim this week is that because of the role that my husband and I play in the lives of our grandchildren, I have been thinking about him and wondering about his life. I wonder how much he was involved in the life of Mary and Jesus. How long did he live after Mary was born? Although it is unlikely, it is not impossible that he may have still been alive at the time of the crucifixion. So, I have been thinking about a lot of possible scenarios.

For instance, what must Joachim thought about this daughter of his who never sinned. The legends tell us that Mary was raised in the temple after the age of three, but even before then there must have been a difference. Unlike Elizabeth of the Trinity, she wouldn't have been "a real little devil" determined to have her own way. And if she did go to live in the temple at the age of three, what sorrow he must have felt in her absence.

Did he arrange her marriage to Joseph? The legends say otherwise, but perhaps he did. Many fathers do not think that any man is good enough for their daughters, but Joachim would have been right in thinking this. What man could be trusted to value his innocent (innocent in a way that we can not even imagine) daughter in the way he ought. I think that most of us have seen how sweet, vulnerable girls can be hardened and embittered by men who don't understand their responsibility to care for and protect their wives. Joachim must also have seen this and wondered how he could ever be sure to have found the right man.

What, I wonder, would he have thought when Mary suddenly announced that she was going to go visit her cousin Elizabeth? Surely this must have been very unusual for young women in that time. Did he try to stop her? Was there an argument about her going? What did he do to provide for her on the journey?

When everyone had to go to register for the census, did Joachim and Anne go too? Could they have possibly been in Bethlehem when Jesus was born? And what would that have been like--to hold your little newborn grandson is always a great wonder, but to know that he was also holding his Creator?

And then the new little family left for Egypt. Did they even have time to tell their parents, or did they just disappear? In any case, it must have been a very sad and troubling time for those left behind. If Joachim was still alive, their absence must have been a constant weight in his heart. When, if ever, could he have heard how they were doing? Any news he got would have taken so long to get to him that couldn't be sure that the situation hadn't changed in the meantime.

When the family returned from Egypt, was there a period when Joachim got to spend time with his grandson. I hope there was. There would have been worry, as there always is, but for the most part, it is such a great joy.

And if Joachim did live to be quite old, what must he have felt when he heard of the terrible death of his grandson? I imagine he would have been wishing that he had not lived to see that day. And did he then live long enough to hear the incredible news?

Well, all this is speculation and imagination, but that is all we really have concerning the life of the grandfather of Jesus. The Catholic Encyclopedia says this in its entry about Joachim.
Tradition nevertheless, grounded on very old testimonies, very early hailed Saints Joachim and Anne as the father and mother of the Mother of God. True, this tradition seems to rest ultimately on the so-called "Gospel of James", the "Gospel of the Nativity of the Blessed Mary", and the Pseudo-Matthew, or "Book of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of the Childhood of the Saviour"; and this origin is likely to rouse well-founded suspicions. It should be borne in mind, however, that the apocryphal character of these writings, that is to say, their rejection from the canon, and their ungenuineness do not imply that no heed whatever should be taken of some of their assertions; side by side, indeed, with unwarranted and legendary facts, they contain some historical data borrowed from reliable traditions or documents; and difficult though it is to distinguish in them the wheat from the tares, it would be unwise and uncritical indiscriminately to reject the whole.
When I was a girl, the legends about Mary's conception and birth were taught more or less as truth. I was probably in my 30s before I learned that they were legends. And in the Middle Ages, Joachim was not quite as overlooked as he is now. Perhaps the best and most thorough portrayal of Joachim's story is found in Giotto's Scrovegni Chapel. The frescoes here follow the narrative of The Gospel of the Nativity of the Blessed Mary pretty closely.

After having been married to Anne for twenty years during which they lived a holy and righteous life, Joachim is turned away from the temple. His sacrifice has been rejected by the high priest because Joachim has not been able to produce an heir. I think it is notable that Joachim is carrying a lamb. Perhaps Giotto is indicating what we now know which is that his offspring will be the Lamb of God. It also reminds me of the stone rejected by the builders.

After this rejection, Joachim is ashamed to return home, and goes to live among the shepherds.

After Joachim has been with the shepherds for a while, an angel appears to him and tells him:
Fear not, Joachim, nor be disturbed by my appearance; for I am the angel of the Lord, sent by Him to you to tell you that your prayers have been heard, and that your charitable deeds have gone up into His presence. For He has seen your shame, and has heard the reproach of unfruitfulness which has been unjustly brought against you. For God is the avenger of sin, not of nature: and, therefore, when He shuts up the womb of any one, He does so that He may miraculously open it again; so that that which is born may be acknowledged to be not of lust, but of the gift of God.
The angel then speaks of all the women who had given birth after being barren: Sarah, Rachel, Hannah, and the mother of Samson, and then goes on to give a prophecy of the birth of Mary that echoes everything that angels have said to these women and to Elizabeth. He then tells Joachim to go to the Golden Gate in Jerusalem where Anne will be awaiting him.

This sacrifice of Joachim is not mentioned in The Gospel of the Nativity of the Blessed Mary, but I imagine it comes from another source. Note that Joachim is now sacrificing the lamb that was rejected and that the Hand of God at the top of the fresco, and the angel hovering above the lamb (You can see this angel better if you click on the picture once.), indicate that the offering is accepted.

At the same time, the angel visits Anne and continues the prophecy about Mary. He tells her to go out and meet Joachim at the Golden Gate.

This, of course, is their meeting at the Golden Gate, sometimes referred to as the Beautiful Gate.

At the age of three, Mary is taken to the temple to be brought up until she reaches "the age of discretion" when she will leave to be married. The narrative mentions fifteen steps, although there are not so many here, and describes how, "...the virgin of the Lord went up all the steps, one after the other, without the help of any one leading her or lifting her, in such a manner that, in this respect at least, you would think that she had already attained full age."

When it is time for Mary to leave the temple to be married, she tells the priests that she will not marry because her parents have devoted her to the service of the Lord, and she has taken a vow of virginity. The priests take this seriously and the elders pray to the Lord to chose a man to marry her who will live with her in her virginal state. In this scene, they elders are voting for this man. Their rods indicate their choice, and, of course, Joseph who is described as a man of great age is chosen. This part of the legend seems especially unlikely to me as it just does not square with the story we read in the scripture.

We will, of course, never know the real story of St. Joachim in this life. However much we don't know, though, we do know that we are in his debt and that he played an integral part in the life of Our Lord. Although his life is a mystery, I find it helpful sometimes to meditate on the men and women whose shadowy presence inhabits the scripture, and think about how these very ordinary people would have dealt with the mystery that surrounded them.


This post was written by Janet Cupo the proprietor of this blog.

If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week 5 ~ St. Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1275) took the contemplation of God and of God's creation very seriously. He is famous for the way in which he intellectualized the Catholic tradition. The purpose of his great intellectual syntheses is to contemplate God and God's creation in their objectivity. That means to explore God and God's creature in minute detail as things which exist and have their value in their own right, outside of our human interest in them or our feelings about them. The purpose of his contemplation of God and God's creation is to explore God, the Trinity, and the beings which God has made as they are in themselves. In the earliest twentieth century the German philosopher Edmund Husserl and his students coined the expression 'back to the things themselves.' This is the heart of Thomas Aquinas' enterprise as a theologian. To meditate on God himself, and on creation itself, without bias and without constantly returning to what God and creation mean to me and to my human projects.

This is the point where many authors will feel obliged to say, 'but don't worry, there's nothing cold about this. Its all about spiritual ardour and its all very enthusiastic in its own quiet way.' I'm not at all sure that Thomas Aquinas' apparent lack of emotion conceals depths of swelling affectivity. I tend to think that he writes a direct, objective, analysis of God because that is what he finds most spiritually satisfying and most spiritually meaningful, and that its pointless to pretend otherwise. There's dozens of other saints who are drowning in affectivity if that is what you are looking for.

A little over a decade ago, I translated a book by Gilles Emery called The Trinitarian Theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas (OUP). The author has one fiercely Dominican footnote in which he writes that Thomas Aquinas did not need to do extra spiritual exercises because his examination of the Trinity is a spiritual exercise, in and of itself. Emery's book is nothing more than a commentary on Thomas' work, with hundreds of long quotations from Aquinas' treatises on the Trinity. I can say without doubt that the two years I spent translating for an hour or so a day it were two years in which I contemplated the Trinity, day after day, in the most rigorous and thoughtful way. Thomas Aquinas' contemplation is a minute investigation of every angle he can think of to look at his subject.

My 'chair' at that time, the great Protestant theologian John Webster said that Thomas deals with the Trinity as if he was cutting up a pie. He meant no disrespect to Thomas in saying that. He meant that for Thomas, the Triune God is an immensely mystery but still to some extent known entity. Thomas Aquinas contemplated the Triune God, and God's creation, and he wrote his great works of theologian synthesis, in order to render God and creation known rather than unknown to human beings. Thomas knew that the only reason why we know anything about the Tri-Une God is that God has revealed himself to us in history, and through his Son. So Thomas did not intend his reflection on the Trinity to render what was previously sheerly 'unknown' known. He meant to articulate with the greatest clarity what we know about God through revelation so that we can say what it is that we know about God. We do not fully possess our knowledge until we can actively articulate it for ourselves. Saint Thomas' great labour was putting into our own human words the Word that is revealed to us.

So now someone is dying to tell me that just before he died Thomas Aquinas had a vision of God, and confessed that, by comparison with what he had seen 'everything I have written is of straw'. And he wrote no more. It seems fair to say that the only person who could have had precisely the vision which Thomas Aquinas had a fortnight before his death, was Aquinas. He made that vision of the immense, unknown mystery of God possible by articulating with infinite care everything that he could himself make known and sayable about the Triune God and about God's creation.

If you are going to read a book about this great Dominican saint, let me recommend two. First, a two volume biography by Gilles Emery's teacher, Father Torrell: Volume I, Thomas Aquinas: The Person and his Work, and Volume II, Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master (CUA Press, translated by Robert Royal). If you are a good bit more advanced, and you do need to be a bit more advanced, you should read Gilles Emery's book on Thomas' Trinitarian theology.

If I were you, I would not try reading the Biblical commentaries. They are deadly boring. Sometimes people try to rescue Thomas from his reputation as an intellectual saint by talking up the Biblical commentaries. Take a look at one of them before you start, is all I can say. You will see that Thomas first talks about how he could cut the cake in three, then he talks about how the 1/3 of a slice could be cut in three, and so on, and on. There are beautiful paragraphs here and there, lovely sayings. But most of it is really hard work.

Nobody ever did themselves any harm by reading Chesterton's biography of Saint Thomas. I love the scene of Saint Thomas at the court of King Louis. It is great literature. How much of it has anything to do with Saint Thomas is a moot point. Yes, I know that Gilson and others said when Chesterton published his book that it was the world's best book on the Angelic Doctor. I do know something about how these tributes for publishers are elicited.

But who can forget the great paraphraph where Thomas sits in the banquet hall of Saint Louis, thinking about how to refute the Manichees: " Somehow they steered that reluctant bulk of reflection to a seat in the royal banquet hall; and all that we know of Thomas tells us that he was perfectly courteous to those who spoke to him, but spoke little, and was soon forgotten in the most brilliant and noisy clatter in the world: the noise of French talking. What the Frenchmen were talking about we do not know; but they forgot all about the large fat Italian in their midst, and it seems only too possible that he forgot all about them. Sudden silences will occur even in French conversation; and in one of these the interruption came. There had long been no word or motion in that huge heap of black and white weeds, like motley in mourning, which marked him as a mendicant friar out of the streets, and contrasted with all the colours and patterns and quarterings of that first and freshest dawn of chivalry and heraldry. The triangular shields and pennons and pointed spears, the triangular swords of the Crusade, the pointed windows and the conical hoods, repeated everywhere that fresh French medieval spirit that did, in every sense, come to the point. But the colours of the coats were gay and varied, with little to rebuke their richness ... And then suddenly the goblets leapt and rattled on the board and the great table shook, for the friar had brought down his huge fist like a club of stone, with a crash that startled every one like an explosion; and had cried out in a strong voice, but like a man in the grip of a dream, "And that will settle the Manichees!"" (Chesterton, Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox, chapter 4)

The first book of Saint Thomas that I read were the first two volumes of the Summa Contra Gentiles and a little book of Thomas' Selected Writings, translated by a Dominican sister. I think its wonderful to try reading through one of the 'questions' in the Summa Theologiae, just to contemplate one single aspect of reality together with Saint Tom. What I learned from reading those books, in my early twenties, was that being is convertible with goodness. That means that everything that is, is good, because God's very gift of creation, of created being, is by that same token, a gift of something good. This is one of Thomas' basic insights, and it is the means by which he 'settled the Manichees.'

Grumpy is a professor of theology in the Midwest. We met on Light on Dark Water  and then in person this summer, which was quite a treat.

If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.

Monday, January 25, 2016

52 Saints ~ February Posts?

Any takers? We've gotten off to a good start, but pretty soon I'll be looking at a schedule with only my name on it until July.


Sunday, January 24, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week 4 ~ St. Mary of the Cross

Somewhere around 2001, we made a quick visit to the tomb of St. Mary of the Cross, Australia's first canonized saint, at her chapel in North Sydney. I think we were all inside for a while, but Nick took our two young children back to the car for a short time, so that I could pray without distractions.

I was there to visit St. Mary of the Cross, and of course, the Blessed Sacrament. I sat by myself in one of the front pews. Although it was an ordinary day in the week and an ordinary time of day, there was a fairly steady stream of people filing in and out, paying their respects to the Lord and to St. Mary. Australians are not very religious, so this was something of a surprise to me.

I began to pray for her intercession and I had a rather long list of people to pray for: family and friends, health problems, one woman who had a brain tumour, the marriages of various people and so on. Soon I began to cry, because of all the needs of these dear people, some of whom were close friends and others only acquaintances or even just friends of friends. After pouring my heart out to God and St. Mary, I went closer to her tomb to pray. A deep peace settled into my heart quickly and I had a sensation that, in the words of Julian of Norwich that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

This peace remained while I sat by the tomb. Then I went back to my pew, shed a few more tears, prayed, genuflected, and went back to the car.

Maria Ellen MacKillop was born on Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, Melbourne on the 15th of January, 1842 to Alexander and Flora MacKillop, who had migrated from the Scottish Highlands. This was their first child and she was always called Mary. I have walked along Brunswick Street, trying to calculate more or less where her family home had been.

When we lived in Adelaide, I often had cause to drive down Portrush Road, where the convent is that she lived in for a time with the Sisters of St. Joseph, which she had co-founded. There are a number of locations in South Australia in particular, associated with her life's work, which I have seen or visited. My appreciation for her was first kindled by reading the beautiful, sympathetic, story of her life by journalist, Lesley O'Brien, called Mary MacKillop Unveiled. This is the kind of hagiography I really like: well researched, sympathetic without undue bias towards the saint or unnecessarily harsh towards her opponents. It covers the important facts and is well written and forthright. St. Mary herself is permitted to shine through as one of God's special friends, as we are all called to be. She was clearly a good-natured woman of intelligence, great warmth, deep faith, commonsense and true, Aussie practicality (except perhaps in her choice of material for their habit!) I can't write this without weeping, she touches my heart so deeply. Now that I think about it, she reminds me of my female elders - all of them, in one way or another, especially the warmth.

The Sisters of St. Joseph were established primarily to teach the children of the poor throughout the colony, giving them a very basic education. There was usually nothing else on offer for such children and the Sisters had schools in a number of cities flung far apart. However, there was other work to be done too:
Mary worked tirelessly establishing refuges for woman, orphanages for abandoned babies and the first permanent Mother House of the sisters of Saint Joseph in the Adelaide suburb of Kensington. the Josephite Order, under Mary's determined and skilful leadership, went from strength to strength, opening new orphanages and schools in areas that needed them and closing old ones as the population changed. They also housed prostitutes who wished to leave sex work and rehabilitated them. *

St. Mary was also a good horsewoman, which was a help to her on at least one occasion:
Mary traveled by stagecoach, ship and rail over long distances to visit her sisters, often under very uncomfortable conditions. In 1876 her friend Sister Laurentia and another sister were badly burned when a lamp exploded where the sisters lodged at Port Augusta. Mary took the train as far as she could and then tried to get a coach and horses to take her to Port Augusta but the coachman refused to go there at night. Fearing Sister Laurentia might die, Mary asked the man to saddle her a horse to ride there over a lonely and dangerous pot-holed track. Her courage in volunteering to ride all alone in foul weather shamed the coachman into driving her there. Inspired by Mary, and through perseverance and hard work, by the late 1880s the sisters of St. Joseph had schools, orphanages and refuges of various kinds in many areas of Australia and in parts of New Zealand.

Her years as a religious sister, the co-founder with Fr. Julian Tenison Woods of the Sisters of St. Joseph, were from the age of 26 until her death at age 67. During that time, she had to endure being excommunicated by a bishop, who 5 months later reversed the decision, a long sea voyage to Rome to receive the Pope's official endorsement, decades of suffering with dysmenorrhea, many long coach journeys between Australian cities (often in terrible heat), crazy and deluded people, ghosts(!), false accusations of alcoholism and more!

She was known in religion as Sister Mary of the Cross, then as Mother Mary of the Cross. Now she is known officially as St. Mary of the Cross, but because Australians are allergic to religion, she is generally just known as Mary MacKillop, as if she were no-one special.

But she is far more special than generally reckoned and not just for respectfully standing up to high-handed bishops, which is what she is mostly admired for. Her faith was very deep and her love for God and determination to do His will in service of the most vulnerable people in Australia shines through in O'Brien's book:
The love that Mary showed those around her stemmed from the love of God she felt inside her. A priest and friend to Mary, Father Francis Clune, said his impression of Mary was that she was "completely wrapped up in God. As far as any human being could be, she was in union with God." In her dying years, Mary wrote with great insight on what she had learnt about the 'strange' ways in which God worked in answering prayers for help. "If anything should grieve me, it would be the fear that any might feel disappointed at so much devotion being apparently unanswered. Let me beg that no one will think so. The prayers will all be heard – if not as we wish – as God sees best."

She had a deep trust in the love of Our Heavenly Father and what better reason could we have to love her?

St. Mary of the Cross, pray for us.

Louise LaMotte is a friend from Light on Dark Water. Since she lived in Australia at the time we met online, I never thought we would meet in person. I was wrong.

If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.