Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Feast For The Eyes

Despite centuries of philosophical quarrels, human beings continue to depict religious events. Some may argue that the current state of religious art is less impressive than past centuries, but the human tendency to express religious sentiments through the medium of art is by no means dead.

We read an interesting book about the history of iconoclasm during graduate school called "The Forbidden Image," by Alain Besancon. I have to say that despite the hours of informative lectures and fascinating anectodal stories, I was always a bit frustrated with all the debates and arguments both for and against the religious image. To me, it seems quite simple: human beings depict divinity because they are moved to express the things they love and fear...the things that make them tremble, whether in joy or terror. This is as evident in the history of art as it is in the three-year-old drawing castles and rattlesnakes.

Human beings create artworks when they are inspired by what draws them out of themselves. This may be something as simple as the way the light strikes a building, or the symmetry of a geometrical figure. It may be as majestic and terrible as the Crucifixion or a storm at sea. The object of art must somehow cut into the soul of the artist, must interfere and interrupt his thought in order to set the work in motion. In many cases, the object of art is in fact not an object at all, but an event in human history that strikes us as somehow important or monumental, penetrating through the currents of history and saturating the present.

Of course, I know the matter isn't as simple as all this, but just for a moment let's pretend that it is. Today we complete the month of May by remembering two monumental events in the life of the Blessed Mother: the Visitation (on the new calendar) and the Queenship of Mary (old calendar). Both these feasts beg for visualization and artistic expression, as is demonstrated by the endless art gallery that is history:

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Spirit in Unlikely Places

Ironically, I learned a lot about the liturgical year during our two-year stay in Belgium, which is considered by many to be a secular country. Although it is certainly true that the politics and general cultural atmosphere are trying to break away from their Catholic ties (our alma mater just removed the "Katholieke" from its title this year), there are remnants of the country's Catholic heritage almost everywhere you look. From the tolling church bells, to the hidden statues of our Blessed Mother in dark doorways, to the streets named after great popes and saints, the Catholic faith is built into the fabric of the architecture; the calendar and language are a saturating blend of Catholic motifs and symbols, as the pictures in this post, which are all our own, demonstrate.  These secular societies are constantly bombarded from within by the sacramental character of their religious topography, no matter how hard they may try to forget.

Perhaps the most obvious remnant during our stay were the public holidays. I remember on this very day several years ago I walked a mile or so to the nearest grocery store, only to find that the doors were closed. Puzzled as to why Belgians would celebrate an American holiday, I walked back home, only to discover after an online search that today was actually "Whit Monday," also known as "Monday of the Holy Spirit," or "Pentecost Monday." Like Christmas and Easter, the Feast of Pentecost is actually only the beginning of an eight-day octave, and traditionally the Monday after Pentecost was also celebrated as an important feast. Even in this secularized country, the day was still remembered.

While some may lament the shreds of merely "cultural" Catholicism in countries, institutions, and even persons, they can also be viewed as a sign of hope, an indicator of the Spirit's ability to move in unexpected places. If a secular nation can contain these glimmers of hope, how much more should our dwelling, our way of living, the words we use be organically Catholic?

We pray today that the Spirit will enlighten our hearts and guide our homes, so that, as Christ promised, "When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth."

Prayer for the Gifts of the Holy Spirit

Holy Spirit, Divine Consoler, I adore You as my true God, with God the Father and God the Son. I adore You and unite myself to the adoration You receive from the angels and saints.

I give You my heart and I offer my ardent thanksgiving for all the grace which You never cease to bestow on me.

O Giver of all supernatural gifts, who filled the soul of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, with such immense favors, I beg You to visit me with Your grace and Your love and to grant me the gift of holy fear, so that it may act on me as a check to prevent me from falling back into my past sins, for which I beg pardon.

Grant me the gift of piety, so that I may serve You for the future with increased fervor, follow with more promptness Your holy inspirations, and observe your divine precepts with greater fidelity.

Grant me the gift of knowledge, so that I may know the things of God and, enlightened by Your holy teaching, may walk, without deviation, in the path of eternal salvation.

Grant me the gift of fortitude, so that I may overcome courageously all the assaults of the devil, and all the dangers of this world which threaten the salvation of my soul.

Grant me the gift of counsel, so that I may choose what is more conducive to my spiritual advancement and may discover the wiles and snares of the tempter.

Grant me the gift of understanding, so that I may apprehend the divine mysteries and by contemplation of heavenly things detach my thoughts and affections from the vain things of this miserable world.

Grant me the gift of wisdom, so that I may rightly direct all my actions, referring them to God as my last end; so that, having loved Him and served Him in this life, I may have the happiness of possessing Him eternally in the next. Amen.


Sunday, May 20, 2012

"Nature is My Church"

As we've mentioned before, the liturgical year was much more bound to the seasons and rhythm of nature in previous times than it is now. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that it is so difficult to truly immerse ourselves in the liturgical year. It is not just that we are  separated from the traditions and customs of our ancestors. We are also detached from the soil, the dirt, the cycles and changes that used to bring the liturgy to life on a daily basis.

What do we lose in all this? First, the liturgical year becomes less fluid. Instead of a continuous flow of meaningful feasts, which are tied to things that are happening in our homes and fields, we are left with an intermittent series of detached feasts, with a few saint days thrown in here and there. Instead of a liturgical year that is embedded in our day-to-day life, we are left with an abstract calendar of important feasts, mandatory fasting days, and holy days of obligation, which are now tailored to fit into our busy modern schedules. The liturgical year does not shape our life (at least, not outwardly), and it begins to seem more and more that liturgy, like religion itself, is nothing more than a human invention, something man has instituted to make himself feel that he is a part of something beyond himself, but which, in actuality, is nothing more than a list of rules and empty rituals.

Not only does this detachment from the earth make it increasingly difficult to enter into the liturgical year, but also, and perhaps more importantly, there is a sense of gratitude and wonder that is lost. The cycles of seasons, the abundance of the harvest, inspire gratitude and even worship. This can even be seen in the primitive nature religions. When all we have are our own inventions, that spontaneous "Thank You" to God fades into the background. And yet that gratitude is one of the strongholds of liturgical piety. In this sense, people who say things like "Nature is my church" are onto something. They recognize nature's ability to speak of the transcendent, of God's majesty and grandeur.

This is not say that land on its own is enough. The land itself is caught up in the act of worship. As Cardinal Ratzinger says in The Spirit of the Liturgy, "To oppose land and worship makes no sense. The land is given to the people to be a place for the worship of the true God...It only becomes a true good, a real gift, a promise fulfilled, when it is the place where God reigns." Like the home, and in the highest sense the church and tabernacle, the land is God's dwelling place. The liturgical year has always acknowledged this relationship, despite the fact that so many customs that have their origins in the land have faded into the background.

The feast of the Ascension is one of these feasts. Technically, the feast of the Ascension is celebrated 40 days after the Resurrection, although it is now celebrated on the seventh Sunday after Easter. Traditionally, the entire week of the feast of the Ascension was filled with special customs. The Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before the feast were designated as Rogation Days, which were marked by processions to ask God for a fruitful harvest and to mark the boundaries of the parish with crosses. This particular custom, known as  "beating the bounds," was particularly interesting, as noted at Full Homely Divinity, an Anglican site that nevertheless has some great information about the history of traditional feasts:

The route of the walk was around the boundaries of the parish, which was a civil as well as a religious unit. Thus, the processions were useful in teaching people, particularly the young, their parish boundaries. Known as "beating the bounds," the processions customarily stopped at boundary marks and other significant landmarks of the parish, such as a venerable tree, or a great rock, or perhaps a pond. The priest would read the Gospel and perhaps affix a cross to the landmark. Then the boys of the parish would suffer some indignity intended to help them remember the spot. Boys were bumped about against rocks and trees, thrown into the water, held upside-down over fences, thrown into bramble patches, or beaten with willow wands--and then given a treat in compensation. In later times, the marchers beat the boundary marker with the willow wands, beating the bounds, rather than the boys...The annual beating of the bounds provided an opportunity to resolve boundary issues. It also led to the tradition of seeking reconciliation in personal relationships during Rogationtide. The sharing of a specially brewed ale, called Ganging Beer, and a mysterious pastry, called Rammalation Biscuits, at the end of the walk was a good way of sealing the reconciliation.

Traditionally it was believed that Christ ascended into Heaven from the Mount of Olives, and the comparison between Christ and a bird on the wing gave rise to the tradition of eating some kind of bird to commemorate the feast. We plan to have roast herbed chicken with dolmas, or stuffed grape leaves. Grapes were one of the traditional first fruits of the spring that were commonly eaten to celebrate the Ascension. There's a great recipe for them at this site. And don't forget about the Novena to the Holy Spirit, which traditionally starts on Ascension Thursday and finishes on Pentecost Sunday. As noted at Catholic Culture, "The Novena in honor of the Holy Spirit is the original novena, of which all other novenas are only imitations. Our Lord Himself instituted this novena when, on the day of His ascension, He sent His Apostles back to Jerusalem to pray for nine days that they might be ready on the tenth day, which was Pentecost, to receive the Holy Spirit." It's a very simple and beautiful novena, so if you missed the beginning it's easy to catch up.

From the Gospel of Luke:

"The former treatise I made, O Theophilus, of all things which Jesus began to do and to teach, Until the day on which, giving commandments by the Holy Ghost to the apostles whom he had chosen, he was taken up. To whom also he shewed himself alive after his passion, by many proofs, for forty days appearing to them, and speaking of the kingdom of God. And eating together with them, he commanded them, that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but should wait for the promise of the Father, which you have heard (saith he) by my mouth. For John indeed baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost, not many days hence.

They therefore who were come together, asked him, saying: Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel? But he said to them: It is not for you to know the times or moments, which the Father hath put in his own power: But you shall receive the power of the Holy Ghost coming upon you, and you shall be witnesses unto me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and even to the uttermost part of the earth. And when he had said these things, while they looked on, he was raised up: and a cloud received him out of their sight. And while they were beholding him going up to heaven, behold two men stood by them in white garments. Who also said: Ye men of Galilee, why stand you looking up to heaven? This Jesus who is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come, as you have seen him going into heaven. Then they returned to Jerusalem..."

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Fighting Man

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Matthias, the first of the twelve not to be chosen by Christ Himself. Saint Hildegard of Bingen wrote the "Hymn to Saint Matthias," which is a beautiful tribute to this great Saint:

Hymn to Saint Matthias 
From Symphonia: A Critical Edition of the Symphonia Armonie Celestum, by Barbara Newman

Matthias the fighting man
won this victory; he became a saint
by lot.
Before the Lamb died
he had no call; he came late
to his knowledge
like one half-sleeping.

God's gift aroused him!
He leapt for joy like a giant
in his prime-
for Providence knew him well-
waking just like Adam
from the slime
when the angel of denial fell.

The one God elected then-
alas! he had oxen
and rams for sacrifice
yet he turned his face
from the altar and fell.

Instead of God he embraced
his desires, made
his wishes his idols. There
in a coalpit, he raised
his Olympus.

It was then that Matthias,
God's choice, rose like a giant.
God gave him the place
the lost one voided - and there
(O amazement!) his grace
dazzled our eyes.

For the God of wonders
saw his worth before he earned it.
In him the Mysterious One
took joy, not in Judas.

Oh joy of all joys that our God
gives grace to the ignorant!
The babe has no notion
where the mighty man flies -
yet God grants him wings.

That man pleases God
who forgets himself.
who cries like Matthias:
Oh God, my God, you who made me -
all my works are yours.

Let Matthias, God's choice,
be a joy to his Church, be a dove
in the clefts of His holy mountain.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Hidden Abundance: A Tribute to the Desert

“'The desert is beautiful,' the little prince added.

And that was true. I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams...” 

'What makes the desert beautiful,' said the little prince, 'is that somewhere it hides a well...'"
 -Antoine de Saint-Exupery

This is the third spring we've spent in Phoenix. Every year the desert becomes more and more beautiful to me, and this is my favorite time of year. What I love about the desert is that it forces you to look carefully, to really examine the topography. The beauty of the desert is subtle; it doesn't jump out at you like the beauty of a stunning mountain range or white sand beach. To really appreciate the desert's beauty you have to step back, narrow your scope, and examine your surroundings.

Because of this, it's easy to take the desert for granted. The first year I lived here, I didn't even notice the subtle changes that take place throughout the year. It's easy to overlook the transformations that are constantly unfolding in the desert, which are actually quite dramatic. During our second year here in the Valley, I became more interested in our strange desert surroundings. I started to notice things that I hadn't seen before---the way that a desert mountain changes from a darker shade of brown in the winter to a mellow green in the spring, or the wildflowers that emerge along the highway in the spring and fall. The delicate yellow flowers of a palo verde, the green pods of a mesquite.

Of course, the cacti are what really characterize the desert landscape. Over the last few months, we've been learning all about the traditional uses for the cacti that you find here in Phoenix, and it is fascinating. For example, the short and stout barrel cactus was used as a thirst quencher for desert travelers. Desert natives used the cactus juices for making bread. And then there's the cryptic queen of the night, or night-blooming cereus, a strange desert plant that resembles an inconspicuous heap of spiky sticks for most of the year, only to burst into beautiful white blossoms when the time is just right. As with many things in the desert, this one is very easy to miss. Desert Indian tribes like the Tohono O'odham used the cactus roots as a preventive treatment against Type II diabetes, indigestion, headaches, respiratory ailments, and high cholesterol.

But the true king of the desert has to be the saguaro. I know it is perhaps an overused symbol of the desert, but I think that is for good reason. Saguaros are powerful. I remember driving into a saguaro forest for the first time and feeling like I was in another world. Recently we've been reading about the traditional customs of the Tohono O'odham and the special place of the saguaro in their tribal traditions. According to Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert, an excellent book for anyone who is interested in these things, the Tohono O'odham used the saguaro fruit for jam, syrup, dehydrated pulp, seed flour, chicken feed, oil, snack foods, wine, vinegar and snack foods. "Each month of the Tohono O'odham calendar is based on the phenology of the saguaro and progression of the seasons, rather than the sun and its equinoxes." In the spring months, the tribe had rituals to ensure a good saguaro harvest, and summer time marks the harvest. During the harvest months, they moved to "cactus camps" and the picking season lasted two to four weeks. The harvesting itself was strenuous and time-consuming; women would  collect fruits with long poles made of dead saguaro ribs to knock the fruit of the top of the saguaros. Each woman collected about two basketfuls each day, and by the time the basket was full, it usually weighed about 88 pounds!

When I first came here I remember thinking that the desert was a strange, even unnatural place for a human dwelling. Maybe people weren't meant to live in such a harsh environment. The desert doesn't present itself as immediately friendly to an agrarian lifestyle. But after living here, things have taken on a new light. The desert has a world of potential, but it is hidden. It's difficult to see, and perhaps it will be hard to work with. The desert is like the dark night of the soul---seemingly harsh, dry, and  empty, but resonating with life and sustenance if one sees it for what it truly is.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Work of His Hands

Saint Joseph was, in a radical way, the model of masculinity and virtue for our Lord and Savior. In a real and tangible sense, Our Lord worked beside St. Joseph, learning from him how to work with his hands, how to pray, how to be a man, not only in the active work of the carpenter, but also in the contemplation of truth and justice. As Blessed John Paul II says in  Redemptoris Custos: 

" Joseph, the apparent tension between the active and the contemplative life finds an ideal harmony that is only possible for those who possess the perfection of charity...We can say that Joseph experienced both love of the truth---that pure contemplative love of the divine Truth which radiated from the humanity of Christ---and the demands of love---that equally pure and selfless love required for his vocation to safeguard and develop the humanity of Jesus..." 

Today's feast of St. Joseph the Worker, which was only just instituted in 1955, reminds us that the work of our hands is an opportunity for sanctification, that even simple tasks have the potential to shape the human spirit. It is beautiful to imagine the hidden years of Christ, working beside his father in Nazareth.

As we noted in our March post, the Italians have a special devotion to St. Joseph. In "My Name Day - Come For Dessert," a wonderful little book, Helen McLoughlin gives a great recipe for St. Joseph's Sfinge, or cream puffs. You can also find a recipe here

St. Joseph the Worker, pray for us!