Sunday, January 31, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week Five ~ 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 Four ~ 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.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Septuagesima 2016

The gospel for Septuagesima Sunday was Matthew 20:1-16.
I haven't quite figured out how this fits in with the day,
but I like this picture.
On the pre-Vatican II liturgical calendar, this Sunday is Septuagesima Sunday. Septuagesima means 70 days, and signifies (roughly) the 70 days before Easter (It's really 66.) It falls on the third Sunday before Lent, and if you can't believe that we are already within a month of Ash Wednesday, well, join the crowd. I haven't even put my crêche away yet.

Septuagesima Sunday marks the beginning of a period during which we examine our lives, repent, and discern what we will be doing penance for during Lent. I wrote a longer post about this two years ago. This year, however, marks the first time in my life that I have ever remembered Septuagesima Sunday before the day.

Lately I have been thinking about the words contrition and compunction. Contrition comes from a Latin word which means worn out, ground to pieces. Compunction comes from a word that means to severely prick; sting, or to pierce. It seems to have a connotation of being pierced to the heart. I have at times felt pierced to the heart by the realization of the weight of my sins, and I have more frequently felt worn out and ground to pieces by that weight, but for the most part, I don't. I'm sorry that I sin, and I want to quit sinning, and I go to Confession fairly frequently, but really, my sorrow is pretty much of an intellectual sort. And I suspect that I am not alone. Now this is not really bad. The sort of contrition that is an act of the will, and a determination to turn away from sin (hopeless as this may seem) is all that is necessary for forgiveness, but occasionally it's a good idea to attempt something more.

All of this points to the benefit of taking advantage of this period before Lent when we can prepare ourselves to observe Lent more fruitfully. It is a time when we can spend time looking at the fruit of our sin, how it weakens us, and how it negatively effects others, especially those in our family. It is a time when we can remember all the graces we have been given, and how ungrateful we have been. I think that this kind of reflection will provide the impetus to enter into the penance of Lent in a new way.


Sunday, January 17, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week Three ~ St. Francis of Assisi

Back when I was in junior high school in a small town in Arkansas, our chorus director, Mr. Jones, recorded a piece with the high school chorus: “Lord, Make Me an Instrument,” with the subtitle "The Prayer of St. Francis." I don’t remember if someone gave me a copy of the album or if I scraped together the money to buy one, but I listened to it over and over. I had no idea who this St. Francis was, and given my particular Christian upbringing I had qualms about calling him capital-S “Saint,” but I loved the song dearly and was always disappointed that we never sang it during my own three years in the high school chorus.

 In college, thanks to a scholarship and a tuition break due to my dad teaching for the college, I did something that as a young girl from Arkansas whose mom stayed home and dad worked for this small Christian college I had not really even dreamed of – I spent a semester in Florence, Italy, a program our college had only initiated a couple of years earlier. Though I didn't make it to Assisi that spring, I began to realize that the song I'd loved so much in high school had a connection to a man who had lived not far from Florence and whose name and image appeared here and there around town and in other parts of Italy, too. And I began to get used to referring to people and places with the capital-S “Saint” as part of the name.

 After college, another dream I’d never dreamed came true: I returned to Florence to live and work for two years. This led to all kinds of experiences, of course. At one point a Florentine friend couldn't believe some of us had not seen the 1972 Zeffirelli film Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and insisted that we watch it together. That was the first time I began to have at least some idea who this St. Francis of Assisi was, and why his name and influence had spread so far. The hippie style of the movie didn’t exactly appeal to me, but then one Saturday a group of us made a day trip to Assisi, and my casual curiosity turned into something more like awe as I soaked in more of the story of St. Francis, both the history and the legends, and just the beauty of a life that had touched so many lives and continued to hundreds of years later.

 A seemingly unrelated experience from my time there was that at one point I had a medical problem that meant I really needed to see a doctor. I wound up meeting and talking with a young doctor who was friend of my friends, so I called her by her first name, Chiara. I knew that as a word meaning “clear” and also “light,” and I decided then and there that if I were Italian, I would want my name to be Chiara, and that if I ever had reason to use a pseudonym, that would be it! (This was back when I had dreams of further literature study, an MFA, and who knows what else.)

 At some point, my church back home in Arkansas had added a new song to the hymnal, "All Creatures of Our God and King." Being a true Arkansan lover of nature, I loved the song from the first time we sang it, and I realized with joy that this was a translation of the poem I had learned about in language school in Florence.

 And so, when this Georgia-born girl who grew up in Arkansas, married a Croatian man she’d met during her years in Italy, we had both "The Prayer of St. Francis" and "All Creatures of Our God and King" sung in the ceremony. I knew by then that the first had no historical connection to Francis, but the words of the song certainly seemed appropriate to his way of life and expressed what we hoped for in our married life. I was determined to return to Assisi and to learn more about St. Francis. In the 25 years since then, I’ve been able to visit Assisi two or three more times, and while I have certainly not learned all I would like to, both St. Francis and St. Claire have become significant influences in my life. And of course I realized at some point that our English name Claire is actually Chiara, and the name I had fallen in love with belonged to this friend and follower of St Francis.

 We lived the first few years of our marriage in Croatia, and it so happened that those were the years of the war with Serbia, who then also attacked Bosnia. It was my first experience with war “up close and personal,” and also my first time to meet people who had lost literally everything they had. Our church quickly became an outpost for a humanitarian aid organization “Mir na Zemlji” (Peace on Earth.) It was also my first time to meet Muslim people, and despite the horrible war that drug religion into its mess motivated by power-money-and-land, I saw Christians and Muslims live as friends and neighbors, and one dear Muslim woman refugee even became a Christian and joined our ministry of helping the refugees pouring into the city.

 Some years later, when we moved to the States, that experience led both to my own therapy for PTSD and also led to my decision to get a counseling degree, even though my original degree was in English, and I had for years imagined that I might become a college English professor. Instead, a desire grew to use my skills as a therapist to work with the poorest of the poor in our city, leading me to work with an organization which served people on minimal insurance, those who had no insurance, homeless people, and resettled refugees. It was for me a beautiful and challenging time of life, and I was encouraged by various reading I did of St. Francis’ writings.

 It was during that time that I read Daniel Spoto’s Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi, and also during that time that I was able to spend three days in Assisi by myself, staying in a convent
guesthouse, visiting churches, walking up Mt. Subasio, learning from a friar/tour guide and from people who lived in the city. And spending a lot of time alone with the sun, the wind, the ancient olive trees, walking the stony streets that wound around up and down the hilly city, watching the sunrise and the stars from the window in my tiny convent room, and imagining Francis walking these same streets, seeing these trees, and of course praying in the same places. I especially loved the trees up on Mt. Subiaso; they seemed to dance for joy up in that clear air, and I could easily see how this became a place where St. Francis and his brothers loved to be.

Backing up a bit, all of this combined with the fact that three years before this trip, a friend had invited me to a retreat with John Michael Talbot in Eureka Springs, where I learned that he and his community had a strong connection to the Franciscan order. The week I spent on that Arkansas mountain changed my life in ways I’m still realizing, and so the sense of connection to St. Francis, and St. Claire, deepened from literal mountaintop experiences on both sides of the ocean. This Georgia girl who grew up in Arkansas never could have imagined it. And I probably wouldn’t have believed it if anyone had told me that the first album by John Michael that I bought, purely because I loved the image on the cover and the title, would begin with a song whose lyrics came from St. Claire and end with what are believed to be the last words of St. Francis written to St. Claire and her sisters.

 I grew up hearing people express amazement with an incredulous, “Will wonders never cease?!” The
longer I live, the more I am convinced they will not. A few years after my stay in Assisi, who could have predicted that my dad would gift me with a book that would tie all this together. That my dad, a retired English professor, gave me a book was no surprise. That he knew very little of what I’ve just shared (and much that I have not shared) made this book more of a surprise.

 The book was called Sweet River Fool, written by Larry Hunt, the English professor who had inherited my dad’s position when he retired. And the surprise was that this man with a background in Georgia, living in Arkansas, raised in the same church background that didn’t call anyone “Saint” with a capital S, had written a book about how the life of St. Francis connects with and changes the life of a homeless man.

 The entry for “Francis of Assisi” in Medieval Italy: An Encyclopedia says that by some estimates more books have been written about Francis of Assisi than about any other man. I haven’t tried to verify that, and I certainly haven’t read very many of them. My friendship with St. Francis has come through just a few writings, a lot of travel and seeing his influence all over Europe and in the U.S., through music, and through a shared love of nature.

 But if I were going to recommend only one book for someone to read about this man—not for scholarly reasons but to understand why his life made such a difference— if it were to be the only book they would ever read, it just might be Hunt’s Sweet River Fool. Because in the course of the story, by means of the main character Snody reading a children’s book about St. Francis, we are given the main stories that form the canon of what most people think of when they think of St. Francis. We learn about his chosen poverty, his love for God, his call, his love of creation, his caring for the needy, his joyful spirit, his life of prayer.

 Early in the book, homeless Snody is passed out “drunk as a skunk” and kindly Officer Lucas comes to him and says, “Wake up, Snody. Wake up.” The story that follows shows how the love of God through the life of St. Francis (even in a children’s book left in a dumpster) can wake up the heart, mind, and spirit of a man who in the eyes of the world has no reason to wake up and in fact would in some ways prefer to just stay asleep and let life pass him by.

 Hunt shares Snody’s adventures, interspersed with short readings from the life of St. Francis that inform and guide Snody along the way. His creativity brings centuries-old stories into everyday life, making the building of a church, the calming of a wolf, the crossing into enemy territory to do good seem not like far-away legendary tales, but here-and-now possibilities. Anyone who grew up in Georgia, Arkansas, or anywhere in the South will feel right at home with these stories and the dialogue--even as they recognize Assisi, Subiaso, Gubio, and other places and other conversations if they are familiar with the stories from St. Francis’ life. It’s impossible for me to know for sure how this book would affect someone unfamiliar with the life of St. Francis, but from the reviews on Amazon, it is clear that I am not the only one who has been brought to tears by its simple, beautiful, and humorous story of the power of love.

Earlier this year, taking a break from graduate studies reading, I read Sweet River Fool through a second time. (Oh, there’s another one of those things this small-town Southern girl could not have imagined, that she’s now in the third year of a DMin degree in spiritual formation.) I had the book with me on a visit to my parents’ house. They don’t live anymore in the country where I mostly grew up, but their house in town has a fairly big yard, and I was sitting on the back porch with Hunt’s book and a glass of cold water, as it was July and already hot by seven in the morning.  Just before my dad left on an errand, twenty-five to thirty birds flew in and began a little routine of taking turns perching on the edge of the roof near the porch, never all settled at once, but always forming a cute little lineup with several in the air, coming and going so that you could never quite count them all.

 I went in the house and pointed them out to my dad, he said they were martins and came from a neighbor's house, where she has several martin houses. He then left, and I stayed at the large dining room window, watching the birds. I'm so glad I did, because in a moment, the back porch area turned into an aerial dance performance.

 The taking turns routine along the gutter of the house was only a warm-up. At some apparent signal they all understood, these amazing creatures began swooping and swaying, circling all over the area in front of the porch, sometimes coming up under the porch's edge, but mostly staying out over the patio where the yellow lantana lines one end and multicolored moss rose stretches toward the sun from its faded black cast iron kettle.  From where I stood at the window, looking outside, it was just amazing. What had been a piece of empty sky had been transformed into a beautiful ballet of harmony and life.

 Children were playing in the neighbor's yard nearby, laughing and talking as they ran around in their own little dance of joy. The martins flew just a few feet in front of and above me, gracefully criss-crossing and managing to soar in a space no larger than an average dining room. If, like spiders, they spun web while doing this dance, I wonder if we would then see an intricate pattern left behind? It seemed so beautifully choreographed, spontaneously exuberant and purposeful at the same time.

 Because I knew the stories of St. Francis and of Snody, and because this was so joyfully beautiful, tears came to my eyes as I felt heaven and earth mingling unexpectedly, mingling even with my own little life.  And then, after a few minutes, they flew away. From what I gather, martins, swallows, and larks are all related and have similar flying patterns. If what I witnessed was anything like watching larks, I can see why someone at some time decided the best way to describe a group of them in flight was with the word "exaltation."

 That moment will remain with me whenever I think of St. Francis, just like the moment years
before when I stood in the centuries-old olive grove in Assisi in my brown sweater with its hood, and the wind blew so strong for so long, I could not shake the sense that the Spirit was in that place and I had better pay attention and listen and learn.

 Larry Hunt’s book brings heaven and earth together. He shows us what it means for a life to be exalted and touched by God’s love, and how that love brings people and other of God’s creatures together as instruments of peace. My own life has been blessed by repeated connections to the life of St. Francis and St. Claire. I love these words from Daniel Spoto’s book, which make sense of that capital-S “Saint” word, and which Hunt’s fictional Snody illustrates well, offering hope for all the real people who would be saints:
How much more credible and moving are the truer accounts of those who endured daily struggles, to remain true to their beliefs--those who constantly had to battle temptations to discouragement and despair; those who suffered physically, emotionally and psychologically; those who felt betrayed and abandoned . . . .holiness is certainly (like conversion) a lifelong process, and genuine saints probably never think about it. Their energies are directed toward God, not toward a consideration of their own merits or excellence. Most of all, their lives proclaim to the world the existence of a reality that transcends it.
Sheila Vamplin is a local friend whom I met quite a while ago in ROFTers meetings, but whom I only got to know well fairly about a year ago through conversations on Facebook, which only goes to show what a strange world we live in. She has her own lovely blog here.

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

Sunday, January 10, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week Two ~ St. Anthony of Egypt

At the end of the street where I live stands a little chapel dedicated to St Anthony (it has a Facebook page). There’s a bus-stop next to it, and for a number of years I would get off the bus there at the end of almost every working day, and stop a moment to give thanks for the day, or to make a brief act of contrition, or just to say ‘St Anthony pray for us, Our Lady pray for us, Lord Jesus have mercy.’ (Since changing jobs I don’t pass that way so frequently, but I do go out of my way to visit the chapel from time to time.) There are usually candles burning behind the grille, and there is a slot in the brickwork that coins can be dropped into. Each of the coins offered there I take to be a token of some joy, sorrow or concern that someone has brought to the saint. The money goes to buy the candles.

 Roadside chapels are a common sight in Belgium, and when we moved to this neighbourhood I was pleased but not surprised to find one close by. A map from the 1770s shows a St Anthony chapel on the same location, but it is not the same one. In the 1790s Belgium was overrun by the armies of the French Revolution and suffered the sort of anticlerical murders and vandalism that were so much a part of the birth of the Republic. When the chapel shown on the old map was destroyed, a quick-thinking woman asked to have the statue of St Anthony for her children to play with. She put it in the attic of her farmhouse, out of harm’s way, where it remained for decades. By the middle of the 19th century the chapel had been rebuilt. But this is not what stands there today. In the late 1970s, the chapel was carefully dismantled during the building of a road. The bricks and stones were numbered and sent away for storage, but afterwards nobody could find out what had become of them. Only in the later 1980s, after persistent lobbying, did the local council replace the chapel it had mislaid. So while there has been a chapel on this spot for at least 250 years (and possibly far longer), the current structure is not yet thirty. It could stand as a symbol of the nature of tradition: only maintained by the renewed effort of each generation. The simple, physical proximity of this chapel has made St Anthony part of my life for 16 years without me really having known much about him. What follows are some jottings from my reading about him. There is a lot more out there, so the selection perhaps says as much about me as about him.

Anthony is one of the first great monastic saints. He is traditionally a patron of hospitals and hospices, and of pigs (for complicated reasons that have nothing to do with his own life, but probably explain the local chapel). An account of his life was written by a friend and admirer, Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, while in exile for being too vocal in his opposition to those with powerful political patrons who refused to accept the Nicene Creed as definitive. By Athanasius’s account, Anthony was an orphaned young man from a wealthy background who was inspired by the Gospel he heard read in church to sell his property and move into the Egyptian desert to pray in solitude. As followers, helpers and those needing help sought him out and joined him there, he became the ‘father’ of the first Christian monastic community, the first ‘abbot’, and one who could guide others in fighting temptation.

 Since the Middle Ages Anthony has often been represented in Western art as a lonely figure beset by demons (as in the Sforza Hours, shown). Artists of every period since have gravitated to this image of the solitary battling with temptation. For Romantics, the theme often seems an excuse to depict provocatively posed nudes, but in the earlier tradition, Anthony’s temptations were depicted as monstrous nuisances. It was only when he was a young man new to a solitary life that the devil tried him with the appearance of a naked woman, and other direct temptations to sin. As he grew in spiritual experience, the assaults became stranger and more subtle, aimed to terrify, distract, or make complacent, or even, most subtly of all: to use shame at past failings as a spur to more fearful devotion, to more frequent prayer and to more strenuous fasting than their intended victim could endure, instilling a sense of spiritual insufficiency and despair when exhaustion and unavoidable failure set in.

But no heed must be paid them even if they arouse to prayer, even if they counsel us not to eat at all, even though they seem to accuse and cast shame upon us for those things which once they allowed. For they do this not for the sake of piety or truth, but that they may carry off the simple to despair; and that they may say the discipline is useless, and make men loathe the solitary life as a trouble and burden, and hinder those who in spite of them walk in it.
The first time I read this I thought one would have to be pretty far advanced in a life of prayer for it to apply. Now I’m not so sure. One of the first things Anthony told his monks was not to rely on experience; ‘Not to say, “We have lived in the discipline a long time,” but rather to make a new beginning daily.’ By the end of his life, his long single combat had made him a recognized expert on temptation. He is quoted liberally in Sayings of the Desert Fathers (quoted here from Benedicta Ward’s Penguin Books translation). For example, with advice on the basics of monastic life (perfectly applicable to life in the world, although rather counter-cultural now):
Do not trust in your own righteousness. Do not go on sorrowing over a deed that is past. Keep your tongue and your belly under control.
On quiet:
He who sits alone and is quiet has escaped from three wars: hearing, speaking, seeing; but there is one thing against which he must continually fight: his own heart.
Anthony was never a sociable type. Even as a boy he disliked school because it meant mixing with other boys. This makes it all the stranger that the second common image is one of friendship (exemplified here in a medieval church carving from Normandy, photographed by a friend of my own). Friendship, as it happens, with my patron saint. There is a story not found in Athanasius’s biography, but recorded a generation later by St Jerome, one of whose catechists had been a companion of Anthony.  According to Jerome, a young Egyptian called Paul, fearing he might break under torture, fled into the desert during the persecutions. Deep in the wilderness he found a cave, with a spring for water and a palm tree for shade and sustenance, and a number of ruined shacks. There he settled the remainder of his days, with the desert animals that visited the spring as his only companions. Anthony, after many years in the desert himself, was led to Paul’s hermitage by a dream (helped along the way by a centaur and a satyr, who are included in the story explicitly to make a point about the beastliness of men and the humanity of beasts, but also show what sort of folktales were being woven around the desert fathers within decades of their deaths). The meeting of the aged hermits was joyful, both of them of one mind shaped by years of prayer in the desert. They became firm friends the moment they met. There was one loaf for them to share, and much of the afternoon was spent in discussing who should break the bread, neither wanting to take precedence over the other.
At length it was arranged that each should seize the loaf on the side nearest to himself, pull towards him, and keep for his own the part left in his hands. Then on hands and knees they drank a little water from the spring, and offering to God the sacrifice of praise passed the night in vigil.
Paul told Anthony that he was close to death, and asked to be buried in a cloak that Anthony had been given by Bishop Athanasius, ‘not because he cared much whether his corpse when it decayed were clothed or naked (why should he indeed, when he had so long worn a garment of palm-leaves stitched together?); but that he might soften his friend's regrets at his decease.’ The sensitivity and psychological subtlety of the desert fathers is remarkable. When Anthony returned with the cloak, Paul was dead. Anthony wrapped his corpse and buried it in a hole dug by two desert lions. In exchange he took Paul’s palm-leaf cloak, wearing it to celebrate Easter and Pentecost. Anthony attached great importance to burial, telling his monks that ‘he who did not bury the bodies of the dead after death transgressed the law.’ While neither of the sources for his life mentions it, there is an assumption in art that when he was buried, Paul’s cloak was his shroud.

 Paul the Hermit’s feast is 15 January, Anthony the Great’s is 17 January.

Paul Arblaster is my second oldest internet acquaintance (The oldest is Mary who also comments on this blog.). 

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

Sunday, January 3, 2016

52 Saints~Week One ~ Blessed St. Elizabeth of the Trinity

FURTHER UPDATE: The official canonization date will be October 16, 2016.

UPDATE: I don't suppose that it will be the norm to have updates on the saints, but I read this morning that, "Pope Francis has authorized the canonisation of Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity...." The date of the canonization may be announced as early as March 15 of this year.

Now, I couldn't really say that the 52 Saints series was responsible for this good news, but who knows....

                 Peaceful was the night and deep the silence
When my boat set sail on the open sea,
Gliding over the boundless ocean on the loveliest of journeys.
All was hushed beneath the vault of heaven
As if listening to the voice of the Eternal,
Suddenly the waves arose,
engulfing my light barque--
It was the Trinity opening out to me:
In that divine abyss I found my deepest center.
No more will you find me at the water's edge;
I have plunged into infinity, where I belong.
With my Three I live at peace,
In the wide freedom of eternity.  Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity

I had no intention to write about Bl. Elizabeth of the Trinity. In fact, I did not know one thing about Bl. Elizabeth except what she looked like, and that I had had a book about her by Hans Urs von Balthazar sitting on a bookshelf since a friend had given it to me maybe 20 years ago. My intention from the day I agreed to host this series of posts was to begin with St. Junipero Serra.

St. Junipero, who was only a Blessed when we first planned this series, has always been one of my favorite saints. When I was young, it was simply because I was born on his birthday, but later I became interested in the California missions. So, I got a few books and began to read. This was on November 12. I was giving myself plenty of time. But I wasn't getting anywhere. I felt like I was slogging through molasses. And then the name of Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity popped into my head from nowhere.

After a couple of weeks, I decided maybe I should write about someone else this time, and Bl. Elizabeth came to mind again. I was getting ready to go to the Catholic bookstore in Memphis to buy Advent candles (just in the nick of time as usual), and I thought I might as well take the book about Bl. Elizabeth with me because I was probably going to eat in town and would want something to read--but it wasn't really the book I wanted--too large and serious. When I got to the bookstore I perused the shelf with saints' biographies and saw the spine of a book that said, He is My Heaven and Jennifer Moorcroft, the author's name. There was no way to tell whom the book was about. I pulled it out, and the subtitle was The Life of Elizabeth of the Trinity. So, I bought it.

As I was leaving the store, I ran into the proprietor who is a friend and who had that morning posted a picture on Facebook of a cameo that her grandmother had given her. I complimented her on the cameo and she asked, "Would you like to see it." I said yes, and she took me to the back of the store to show it to me and said, "And I am also the temporary guardian of a first class relic of a saint." So, which saint was it? Bl. Elizabeth, of course. Not only did I pull her biography off the shelf at random, I got to venerate her relic. This was one too many coincidences for me, so that is how I come to be writing about Bl. Elizabeth of the Trinity.

Elizabeth Catez was born at the Avord Military Base in the heart of France on July 18, 1880, less than 200 miles from Alençon where Thérèse Martin had been born seven years earlier, and their lives had many similarities. The first chapter of He is My Heaven is named A Real Little Devil, so it's fairly clear that Elizabeth's future sanctity was not immediately apparent. She had what the author calls a ferocious temper and was extremely strong-willed. These would certainly have been a challenge to her mother, but it was in large part that strong will which gave Elizabeth the determination to follow her call to the Carmel in Dijon.

Not immediately apparent
Elizabeth's father died when she was seven. It seems that it was at about this time when she first expressed a desire to enter the Carmel, and though her mother thought (wished) that she would get over it, her desire never waned but only grew stronger. She also began to consciously work on overcoming her faults. A friend wrote that when she (the friend) was about 10 she attended a party where she was, "...immediately struck by Elizabeth, who . . . was the heart and soul of the party. it didn't take long for me to get to know and appreciate her. I was very lively and hotheaded, and I was amazed at how even-tempered and gentle she was. I envied the way she was so calm and in control of herself . . ." The "little devil" seems to have come a long way in a short time. Ms. Moorcroft says that Elizabeth prepared herself for parties by praying beforehand, ". . . asking God to watch over her and keep her inwardly united with him."

Aside from the spiritual precocity, what strikes me about this last paragraph is the statement that Elizabeth was "the heart and soul of the party." Elizabeth's desire for the Carmel did not make her despise the world. She enjoyed parties and dancing, and she was an accomplished musician who won awards at school. She wore beautiful clothes. She had many friends of both sexes, and she could have married well, but, much to the chagrin of her mother, she had set her mind on another bridegroom.

Although Elizabeth would have liked to have entered the Carmel at a young age like St. Thérèse, this was not to be. Both her mother's health and her mother's wishes kept her from entering until December 8, 1901, when she was 21. She loved the difficult life of the Carmel and was very soon loved by the community. She swept and dusted the choir and arranged flowers for the altar. She helped make and repair the sisters' habits. Later after her clothing, she became the second turn sister. This sister is a sort of liaison between visitors, workmen, and the extern sisters who do the public business of the convent. The turn is an opening in the convent wall through which people give food and other gifts to the sisters. It works like a little wooden revolving door so that outsiders can send their gifts in without seeing the sisters.

Before very long, though, Elizabeth was having difficulty keeping up with the demands of her life. Never very healthy, within a few years she became very ill and was diagnosed with Addison's Disease, a disease of the adrenal gland which had only recently been discovered and which was at that time extremely painful, incurable and uncontrollable. She died at the age of 26.

Although she, like St. Thérèse, suffered a period of darkness before her death, hers was much shorter--about 5 days. She had thought on All Saints' Day of 1906 that she was going to die and was very joyful, but she did not die, and afterward experienced a sense of abandonment.
It would have been too easy to die in the state of soul I was in then. I'll go in pure faith and I like that much better; I'll be even more like my Master and it will be more real. . . .I feel as if my body is suspended and that my soul is in darkness, but I know it is Love's doing, and I'm glad.
She did not have to die in that state, however, and during the last few days of her life, she experienced beautiful visions. Her last words were , "I am going to Light, to Life, to Love."

Bl. Elizabeth's spirituality was very simple. Basically, it was to be as silent as possible, to go deep into the abyss of her soul, to find the Lord there, and to become one with Him there. When she heard the other sisters talking about the prayers and penances they would practice during Lent, she thought that maybe she should try some, but no, she was led back to the way the Lord had chosen for her. In Elizabeth's last letter to a young woman whom she had counselled for many years she says:
We must become aware that God dwells within us and do everything with Him, that we are never commonplace, even when performing the most ordinary tasks, for we do not live in these things, we go beyond them! A supernatural soul never deals with secondary causes but with God alone. Oh! How its life is simplified, how it resembles the life of the blessed, how it is freed from self and from all things! Everything for it is reduced to unity, to that "one thing necessary," of which the Master spoke to Magdalene. Then the soul is truly great, truly free, for it has "enclosed its will in God's."
And during her last retreat she wrote:
My Rule tells me: "In silence your strength will be." It seems to me, therefore, that to keep one's strength for the Lord is to unify one's whole being by means of interior silence, to collect all one's powers in order to"employ" them in "the work of love," to have this "single eye" which allows the light of God to enlighten us. A soul that debates with its self, that is taken up with its feelings, and pursues useless thoughts and desire, scatters its forces, for it is not wholly directed toward God. Its lyre does not vibrate in unison and when the Master plays it, He cannot draw from it divine harmonies, for it is still too human and discordant....
This rule of silence really resonates with me. The older I get, the more I thirst for silence and for this inner union, and so I hope that Elizabeth will be able to teach me something about how not to pursue useless thoughts and desires, or how never to deal with secondary causes. That would be a true gift.

Near the end of Elizabeth's life, she chose a new name for herself, Laudem Gloriae. She did not just want to praise God, she wanted to be the praise of His glory.
In the heaven of her soul, the praise of glory has already begun her work of eternity. Her song is uninterrupted, for she is under the action of the Holy Spirit who effects everything in her; and although she is not always aware of it, for the weakness of nature does not allow her to be established in God without distractions, she always sings, she always adores, for she has, so to speak, wholly passed into praise and love in her passion for the glory of God.
The book from which I learned everything I now know about Bl. Elizabeth is, as I said earlier, He is My Heaven: The Life of Elizabeth of the Trinity by Jennifer Moorcroft. It is fine as far as it goes, but I don't think I would necessarily recommend it. Although there is much about Elizabeth's life and spirituality, there seems to be something missing. Elizabeth does not really come alive for the reader. I'm hoping to find a better resource, and perhaps that will be the book I didn't want to read at first, Two Sisters in the Spirit: Thérèse of Lisieux and Elizabeth of the Trinity.

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