Rules for Celebrating: An Observation from the Way of Saint James, Part 2

altarContinued from last week.

The Way of Saint James—El Camino de Santiago—is a pilgrimage across Spain that began in the Middle Ages and remains popular today. Each year 200,000 pilgrims walk a route to Santiago de Compostela, a city where, according to tradition, the apostle James the Greater is interred.

Last September my husband and I were among the pilgrims. We hiked 200 miles from Léon in stages, many with Fr. Lukasz, a sprightly, thirty-something priest, and a group of young adults from the Catholic Newman Center at the University of Washington.

Fr. Lukasz set pattern of our days right at the outset of the journey. We rose before dawn and departed Rabanal del Camino, a stone village with a tiny central square. As we walked beneath the moon and stars, guided by a few pilgrim headlamps, I could feel the grade increasing, straining the backs of my legs. We were ascending the pass of Irago. Soon the sun rose lemon-yellow, revealing iridescent mountains, releasing the scents of heather and gorse.

By midmorning we reached the Cruz de Ferro, a simple iron cross atop a weathered pole that marks the Camino’s highest point. There we stopped for morning prayers before descending the pass through several villages: Manjarín, Acebo, and Riego de Ambros, where we walked through a grove of giant chestnuts and a green, wild-flowered vale. After crossing a Roman stone bridge over the Río Meruelo, we stopped at Molinaseca, a medieval town where we would spend the night. [Read more...]

Our Mother Mary

DormitionToday is the Feast of the Dormition (the “falling asleep”) of the Mother of God. It is the analogue in the Eastern Orthodox Church of the Assumption of the Virgin in Roman Catholicism, and on balance, the similarities between the two commemorations are greater than their differences: The Dormition is one of the twelve Great Feasts in the Orthodox year. The Assumption is a holy day of obligation and, I am told, is superseded only by Easter in its importance for Catholics.

The heart of the feast remains the same for both: the end of Mary’s earthly life of faithfulness, the culmination of her own original yes in her agreement to bear the Son of God in the reception of her sanctified body into heaven. It is believed (contrary to some popular misunderstanding) by both Orthodox and Roman Catholics that Mary experienced a normal, natural death, but received upon her burial the glorified state—reunion of body and soul—that is the ultimate end for which all we faithful pray.

In their aesthetic emphasis, though, the two feasts are utterly different: In all the Roman Catholic portrayals of the event that I have seen, Mary is bright-faced and young—evoking the description of the woman “clothed with the sun” from Revelation. [Read more...]

Blow on the Coal of the Heart

candlesI light the first candle of Advent. We have no wreath. This is our first Christmas in the evergreen forests of Northern Michigan, and bringing branches inside seems redundant. Besides, there hasn’t been time. I’ve been coughing and wheezing since I caught a late September cold I can’t shake.

We have to wake before the weak winter sun rises to get our daughter to school. The roads are slick and icy and the commute into town takes twice as long as usual. There are parties and performances to attend and presents to buy and three family birthdays to observe.

The candle is an ordinary white candle, not purple or pink. I don’t know where to buy Advent supplies in town and I ran out of time to order online. [Read more...]

Spiritual Counsel Part 2: Prayer and the Desert

Jean Francois Millet, The Angelus (1859)

As I wrote yesterday, my spiritual director, Fr. Bill Shannon, had said early in our twenty-five years together, “It’s good that you see spiritual direction in terms of a barking dog instead of only as a matter of prayer methods.” But before long he was asking me about my prayer life at nearly every one of our monthly sessions.

“There’s no need to go to Mass every day,” he said (he who, as a priest, presided at daily Mass). “Sunday Mass is different in kind from daily Mass; Sunday is the Lord’s day. What’s important in one’s daily life is prayer, not Mass.”

“What kind of prayer?” I naturally asked.

First he recommended the Liturgy of the Hours, a version of the breviary that used to be prayed only by clergy but now is offered to laity as well. My husband George and I had already bought a copy of the book at our nearby Trappist monastery, but we were confused by all the different sections: Ordinary Time, the Proper of Sundays, the Office of Readings, the Proper of Saints….

[Read more...]

Spiritual Counsel Part 1: Barking Dogs

“It’s good that you see spiritual direction in terms of a dog, instead of only as a matter of prayer methods.” This was my spiritual director’s response when, early in our twenty-five years together, I told him about a neighbor’s dog barking all night, keeping me awake. I’d been agonizing over my soul’s relation to this constant distress. How could I accept this trial in grace?

“You’re not meant to simply accept it,” Bill said. (Bill was Fr. William Shannon. Previously I wrote about how I started going to him, and the soul friendship we developed. “Your neighbor is being inconsiderate by leaving his dog outside all night. You must talk to him about it: tell him the barking is keeping you from sleeping.”

Wow, I thought, such utterly practical advice. So this wasn’t a matter of my spiritual inadequacies after all.

Over the twenty-five years of monthly meetings with Bill, this kind of experience would recur. (I’m a slow learner, I guess.) I’d come to him with a trial that was distressing me, assuming that my spiritual immaturity was the problem. Bill would respond by asking lots of practical questions about the issue. [Read more...]


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