Sunday, February 28, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week Nine ~ St. Damien of Molokai

I won't write here about the movie Molokai, which I first saw in 1999, since I hope to write about it as a movie for Maclin's blog, but I had never heard before of Fr. Damien of Molokai and his mission to the lepers there. Before I left the theatre that day, this wonderful man had gained another heart.

Australian actor David Wenham (Faramir, The Lord of the Rings trilogy)
stars as Fr. Damien
One of the things I most deeply desire my children to read before they finish school is this wonderful and moving letter by Robert Louis Stevenson, written in 1890 in Sydney.  It is an open letter in defense of Fr. Damien against accusations in a nasty letter written to a religious journal by Rev. Dr. Hyde in the year after Fr. Damien's death. 

 R.L. Stevenson says to Rev. Dr. Hyde, 
You know enough, doubtless, of the process of canonisation to be aware that, a hundred years after the death of Damien, there will appear a man charged with the painful office of the “devil's advocate.” 
 Then, referring to Hyde as an unofficial “devil's advocate,” he continues, 
 After that noble brother of mine, and of all frail clay, shall have lain a century at rest, one shall accuse, one defend him. The circumstance is unusual that the devil's advocate should be a volunteer, should be a member of a sect immediately rival, and should make haste to take upon himself his ugly office ere the bones are cold; unusual, and of a taste which I shall leave my readers free to qualify; unusual, and to me inspiring. If I have at all learned the trade of using words to convey truth and to arouse emotion, you have at last furnished me with a subject. For it is in the interest of all mankind, and the cause of public decency in every quarter of the world, not only that Damien should be righted, but that you and your letter should be displayed at length, in their true colours, to the public eye.
He later points out that at least Hyde's letter offers the world the opportunity to discover what Fr. Damien was really like: 
Damien has been too much depicted with a conventional halo and conventional features; so drawn by men who perhaps had not the eye to remark or the pen to express the individual; or who perhaps were only blinded and silenced by generous admiration, such as I partly envy for myself--such as you, if your soul were enlightened, would envy on your bended knees. It is the least defect of such a method of portraiture that it makes the path easy for the devil's advocate, and leaves the misuse of the slanderer a considerable field of truth. For the truth that is suppressed by friends is the readiest weapon of the enemy. The world, in your despite, may perhaps owe you something, if your letter be the means of substituting once for all a credible likeness for a wax abstraction. For, if that world at all remember you, on the day when Damien of Molokai shall be named a Saint, it will be in virtue of one work: your letter to the Reverend H. B. Gage. 
 As prophesied, 120 years after his death, Fr. Damien of Molokai was indeed declared a Saint. Stevenson's letter is the best thing I have ever read on St. Damien. 

From wikipedia
In both the Latin Rite and the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church, Damien is venerated as a saint. In the Anglican communion, as well as other denominations of Christianity, Damien is considered the spiritual patron for leprosy and outcasts. As he is the patron saint of the Diocese of Honolulu and of Hawaii, Father Damien Day is celebrated statewide on April 15. 
Upon his beatification by Pope John Paul II in Rome on June 4, 1995, Blessed Damien was granted a memorial feast day, which is celebrated on May 10. Father Damien was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday, October 11, 2009. The Catholic Encyclopedia calls him "the Apostle of the Lepers."
St. Damien was born, Jozef De Veuster, on 3rd January 1840 in Tremelo, Belgium. When he entered the missionary Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in 1860, he took the name Damien. At the age of 33 he went to the leper colony. 

I dream of Hawai'i 

 Since moving to Texas, it has been a hope of mine to go to Hawai'i. My only reason is to visit the place where St. Damien worked with and for the lepers. He did so much to build and improve the small dwellings there for the lepers and was constantly building and repairing all that was needed. As a young man he had learned the skills he needed for this, showing us that nothing good we learn need ever be considered a waste of time. He complained about the lack of supplies pretty constantly and essentially nagged to death anyone and everyone he could to get what was needed for the settlements. He was a complete nuisance to them, rightly so, for the poor lepers had so little of what they needed and perhaps not even a source of clean drinking water on that hostile peninsula. 

In 1865, out of fear of [Hansen's disease/leprosy], the Hawaiian Legislature passed the "Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy". This law quarantined the lepers of Hawaii, requiring the most serious cases to be moved to a settlement colony ofKalawao on the eastern end of the Kalaupapa peninsula on the island of Molokaʻi. Later the settlement of Kalaupapa was developed. Kalawao County, where the two villages are located, is separated from the rest of Molokaʻi by a steep mountain ridge. Even in the 21st century, the only land access is by a mule trail. From 1866 through 1969, a total of about 8,000 Hawaiians were sent to the Kalaupapa peninsula for medical quarantine.

In late1884, Fr. Damien realised he had Hansen's disease and he worked harder than ever. He was finally blessed with some permanent helpers, which had been his need and desire for so many years:

 Louis Lambert Conrardy was a Belgian priest. Joseph Dutton was an American Civil War soldier who left behind a marriage broken by alcoholism. James Sinnett was a nurse from Chicago. Mother (now also Saint) Marianne Cope had been the head of the Franciscan-run St Joseph's Hospital in Syracuse, New York.

Conrardy took up pastoral duties; Cope organized a working hospital; Dutton attended to the construction and maintenance of the community's buildings; Sinnett nursed Damien in the last phases of illness. With an arm in a sling, a foot in bandages and his leg dragging, Damien knew death was near. He was bedridden on March 23, 1889, and on March 30 he made a general confession. Damien died of leprosy at 8:00 a.m. on April 15, 1889, at the age of 49.The next day, after Mass by Father Moellers at St. Philomena's, the whole settlement followed the funeral cortège to the cemetery. Damien was laid to rest under the same pandanus tree where he first slept upon his arrival on Molokaʻi.

St. Damien's remains were eventually taken back to Belgium and his major shrine is at Leuven. St. Damien of Molokai, 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.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

St. Paul in Prison ~ Rembrandt

I have no reason for posting this picture except that I've never seen it before today, and I love it. Look at that face, and that beautiful hand and foot.


Monday, February 22, 2016

Feast of the Chair of Peter

This is today's reading from the Office of Readings. It is from a sermon by Pope St. Leo the Great, and is a short, but helpful exegesis on the Chair of Peter which we celebrate today. I want to say more about this, but don't have time right now, so I thought I would go ahead and post this since it is the day, and get back to it soon.
Out of the whole world one man, Peter, is chosen to preside at the calling of all nations, and to be set over all the apostles and all the fathers of the Church. Though there are in God’s people many shepherds, Peter is thus appointed to rule in his own person those whom Christ also rules as the original ruler. Beloved, how great and wonderful is this sharing of his power that God in his goodness has given to this man. Whatever Christ has willed to be shared in common by Peter and the other leaders of the Church, it is only through Peter that he has given to others what he has not refused to bestow on them.

 The Lord now asks the apostles as a whole what men think of him. As long as they are recounting the uncertainty born of human ignorance, their reply is always the same.

 But when he presses the disciples to say what they think themselves, the first to confess his faith in the Lord is the one who is first in rank among the apostles.

 Peter says: You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus replies: Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona, for flesh and blood has not revealed it to you, but my Father who is in heaven. You are blessed, he means, because my Father has taught you. You have not been deceived by earthly opinion, but have been enlightened by inspiration from heaven. It was not flesh and blood that pointed me out to you, but the one whose only-begotten Son I am.

 He continues: And I say to you. In other words, as my Father has revealed to you my godhead, so I in my turn make known to you your pre-eminence. You are Peter: though I am the inviolable rock, the cornerstone that makes both one, the foundation apart from which no one can lay any other, yet you also are a rock, for you are given solidity by my strength, so that which is my very own because of my power is common between us through your participation.

 And upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. On this strong foundation, he says, I will build an everlasting temple. The great height of my Church, which is to penetrate the heavens, shall rise on the firm foundation of this faith.

 The gates of hell shall not silence this confession of faith; the chains of death shall not bind it. Its words are the words of life. As they lift up to heaven those who profess them, so they send down to hell those who contradict them.

 Blessed Peter is therefore told: To you I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth is also bound in heaven. Whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed also in heaven.

The authority vested in this power passed also to the other apostles, and the institution established by this decree has been continued in all the leaders of the Church. But it is not without good reason that what is bestowed on all is entrusted to one. For Peter received it separately in trust because he is the prototype set before all the rulers of the Church.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week Eight ~ Santo Niño de Atocha

I grew up in the Presbyterian Church and all I knew about Catholics was that they did not eat meat on Fridays. One of my best friends is Catholic; he would occasionally come to my church with me and my family (and hear a good sermon), and I would occasionally attend mass with him. Of course I remember wondering about all of the statuary and images of Jesus and the saints, but when I was a teen-ager interest in religion was just not a priority for me. I did not ask any questions, and simply took it all in stride.

Many years later I ended up working at an Augustinian university as my first real employment out of college. I was there for about seven years and was so impressed with the religious and lay faculty that I briefly entertained the thought of converting. I had fallen pretty far away from the Presbyterian Church by then, but I probably still attended with my parents now and again. In my 20s I still did not give religion too much thought.

I went out and worked in the secular world for several years and lived in various places around the United States and at age 36 found myself at a Jesuit Catholic college. By this time in my life I was truly seeking. When I look back, even before coming to Spring Hill I was seeking; some of my best friends in these other cities I lived in have ended up being people of faith. Not always Catholic, but always the kinds of people who express their faith through the ways they live and interact with others. I have always wanted to be that kind of religious person.

About ten years ago I was received into the Catholic Church, and I see this as one of the great events of my life. My wife and I were able to be married in the Church too, and that is where this preamble starts to make sense because we were married in the Santo Niño de Atocha chapel on the grounds of El Santuario de Chimayo in Chimayo, New Mexico. My wife grew up not far from there in Los Alamos, and I had lived in Silver City, New Mexico prior to coming to Mobile.

Even though I wanted to write about the Infant of Atocha, I can’t say that I completely understand the concept. Saints who were historical people: St. Augustine, St. Francis, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, and many more, I understand completely. These people are venerated for their lives, for what they did in the name of God, for what they did for the Church and its people. The Infant of Atocha, the Infant of Prague, the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Virgin of Socorro, are all a little confusing to me. I do understand that these are seen as invocations of Our Lord and Our Lady and that there are stories behind each, but maybe I’m still missing something?

You may or may not be familiar with the Infant of Atocha’s story, which is of course available online in several places. It goes something like this: In the seventh century in central Spain a statue of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus appears out of nowhere, and a chapel is built for it. People would come and take the infant part of the statue when needed for prayer, and especially during the births of children. In the thirteenth century the Moors have invaded Spain (as they were wont to do) and imprisoned many Spanish men. Their children were allowed to bring them food and water, but some of the men did not have children. An unknown boy was seen dressed in the way the Infant is portrayed (see attached picture) who would either sneak past guards, or simply smile and be allowed to pass. People would notice upon returning to the chapel that the shoes of the infant Jesus statue were worn from walking.

The reverence for the Infant of Atocha went with the Spaniards to the new world, and a statue of he and his mother was placed in a church in the state of Zacatecas at some time during the fifteenth century. There was a mining disaster, people noticed that the infant was missing, and later rescued miners told the story of a young boy bringing them food and leading them to safety. The infant ended up in northern New Mexico hundreds of years later when a dying man prayed to him and was cured. He was unable to complete a pilgrimage to Zacatecas, so made his own Infant statue which led to the chapel being built on the grounds of El Santuario de Chimayo. This is where Margo and I were married.

I quickly re-read the story from the El Santuario de Chimayo website, and this is a very abridged version. Please go find it on the internet for there is lots more therein for visitors to their page. Pilgrims walk from Santa Fe to Chimayo during Holy Week (Good Friday) each year. The compound is small but beautiful. The larger chapel of El Santuario is the main draw, with blessed dirt that pilgrims dig themselves from a small room adjoining the church.

The first time I went there with Margo we didn’t even realize the Santo Niño de Atocha chapel was on the grounds. It is lovely. Full of so much Latin American Catholic imagery that it is almost overwhelming. There are several Santo Niños in the main part of the chapel, along with the Infant of Prague, and many more images of Christ as a child, birds, trees and shoes. There is a small room with a very large Infant of Atocha where people evidently come to pray and bring hundreds of pairs of children’s shoes, so the Infant will always have a new pair, wearing his out as he does each evening.

In writing all of this I suppose that I have answered my own question about how these images (invocations) of Jesus and Mary end up in the same category as other saints. It is because they are truly living! Although especially for those of us praying to them, but maybe even more for those who are not; for the forgotten, the dispossessed, the imprisoned, the poor and hungry. It is with these people the most that Our Lord and Our Lady stand for and expect us to love.

Stuart Moore is a friend from Light on Dark Water, where he participated in the 52 Authors series and wrote about Salman Rushdie, and Dickens, among others.

That top picture, by the way, is a phone card--29 minutes for $5.

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

Sunday, February 14, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week Seven ~ St. André Bessette

About 15 years ago I was in Montreal visiting a friend in the Côte-des-Neiges neighbourhood. One morning we went out for a walk, up and around the top of Mount Royal, and we emerged from a wood behind the great Oratory of Saint Joseph which dominates the hill top. I, being a newcomer to the area, and innocent of the significance of the place, was initially merely astounded at its size. We wandered down a bit to find an entrance, and it so happened that we chose a doorway that opened directly to a darkened room, lit only by tier on tier of flickering candles. There were crutches hung around on the walls. I remember it was hot inside, and close. I gaped for a few minutes, in my usual dull way, until it was time to move on.

We climbed to the upper church, with its soaring ceiling and statues of the Apostles arrayed around the perimeter in the style of totem poles. I remember I didn't particularly like those, but I was duly impressed by the sheer scale of the place. We then trotted back down the hill, and down the long flight of steps, the better to admire the facade. Our explorations ended, we went on our way, but I recall feeling a certain admiration for the devotion of a people that could cause such a structure to arise. It never occurred to me that there might have been a particular person, a man with a particular face, behind it all.

In fact, it was not until years later that I first heard the name of André Bessette, or Brother André, as he was usually called, or St André of Montreal, as he is now called. It gradually became clear to me, from remarks I heard here and there, that this Brother André had something or other to do with the Oratory in Montreal. I now know that it was his simplicity, goodness, and devotion to St Joseph that inspired the people of Montreal to build it. The Oratory, and the devotion it expresses and inspires, was his gift to us.

He was actually born Alfred Bessette, the eighth child of a poor family in a small town some distance from Montreal. His young life must have been a hard one. Four of his siblings died early in life, and by the time Alfred was 12 both of his parents had died. At that point he was forced to leave school, wandering from job to job, both in Quebec and in the United States, rather aimlessly it seems. In 1867, when in his early 20s, Canada became a nation and Alfred returned to his homeland in search of opportunity.

A few years later, at the age of 28, he presented himself as a candidate to the Congregation of the Holy Cross, a religious community that had been founded in France a few decades earlier, and which had an active community in Montreal. He was accepted, took the name André, and became the porter at the nearby Collège Notre-Dame, a school for boys situated then, as now, at the foot of a great hill.

At this point the external events of Brother André's life become rather sparse. He served faithfully as porter to the school, but he must have been a man whom people remembered. He became known for his devotion to St Joseph, and a few reports of healing miracles began to circulate.

In 1904, after several decades as porter, and when he was nearly 60 years old, he began to promote the idea of building a chapel dedicated to St Joseph at the top of the great hill overlooking the Collège. If you stand at the base of the hill today you can understand the temptation to put something there. The bishop granted permission, so long as he raised the funds in advance. He built a simple wooden structure, initially without a roof, but after a few years and a few more donations it was capped off.

There were more healings. It is said that he would always deflect responsibility: it was St Joseph's doing. He would visit the sick. People remember him for having a good sense of humour. Meanwhile his fame spread, and the stream of people seeking his counsel and the shelter of his chapel grew steadily. The chapel was expanded, then expanded again. Eventually Brother André conceived the notion of replacing it with the world's largest shrine honouring St Joseph. And although he did not live to see it, the Oratory that stands atop the hill today, begun in 1924 and completed in 1967, is the realization of his dream.

When he died in 1937 it is said that a million pilgrims came to pay their respects. And they have continued to come, with over 500,000 visitors to the Oratory each year. Of which, one year, I was one.

So much for the events of his life. What kind of man was Brother André? What kind of saint was he? He was evidently a simple man, kindly and patient. He seems to have disliked the attention he received. He denied having healing powers. "I have no gift and I cannot give any," he said. He wondered aloud why so many people asked him for cures but so few asked for humility and faith. He liked to speak to people about the love of God, not in the abstract, but in a comforting, reassuring way. And people loved him for it. In his homily at St André's canonization, Pope Benedict XVI highlighted his simplicity:
 It is thanks to this simplicity, he showed many God... May we, following his example, search for God with simplicity to discover Him always present in the core of our lives! 
I think of St André as a "pointer saint", almost a kind of "second order saint". It is a commonplace (and a truth) that all saints are "pointer saints" in that they point us to Christ. But there are a few saints who point us to Christ by first pointing us at another saint. I think of St Louis de Montfort in this way; he is known principally for promoting devotion to the greatest of all saints. I am not sure I can think of any other examples, apart from St André, whose love of St Joseph was central to his piety and his legacy.

It was Pope St John Paul II who beatified him in 1982, and Pope Benedict XVI who canonized him in 2010. A school near my house which is named for Brother André recently updated their sign to read "St Brother André". It was nice to see.

 Last Sunday I came out of Mass to find a pamphlet tucked under my wiper blades. At the bottom of the last page was this:

  For the Canonization of Brother André 

O Jesus, / you wanted the devotion to your foster-father Saint Joseph / to be made known through the efforts of Brother André, / grant that the Church may glorify, / at the earliest opportunity, / this faithful friend of the poor, / the sick and the afflicted. Saint Joseph of Mount Royal, pray for us.

 A bit out of date, I suppose, but Amen.

A bit late, but here are some pictures of the original oratory and the current one as it was being built.
Thanks to Marianne for the link.

Craig Burrell, another friend from Light on Dark Water, has his own wonderful blog, All Manner of Thing, which is one of the three blogs I read at this point, and where you can find out about everything from gravitational waves to opera to Antarctica (which was an especially fascinating series of posts).

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

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 Six ~ 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.

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