For All the Saints: Simeon Stylites the Elder

Someone who you may have never heard of in the Communion of Saints is also celebrated by the Church today. Would you believe a guy who sat atop a pillar for over 35 years? I can’t make this one up folks so I’m going to share the citation from the Catholic Encyclopedia at New Advent about my steadfast and devoted friend named St. Simeon “Stylites.”

When I first heard about the Stylites, I was taken aback.  I thought how could someone do such a thing? If my own child came to me with an idea to do something like this, would I support them? Or would I be like St. Francis of Assisi’s father and be outraged. I hope not. Come and see how this story unfolds,

St. Simeon was the first and probably the most famous of the long succession of stylitoe, “pillar-hermits,” who, during more than six centuries, acquired by their strange form of asceticism a great reputation for holiness throughout eastern Christendom. If it were not that our information, in the case of the first St. Simeon and some of his imitators, is based upon very reliable first-hand evidence, we should be disposed to relegate much of what history records to the domain of fable; but no modern critic now ventures to dispute the reality of the feats of endurance attributed to these ascetics.

Wait a second…for six hundred years there were hermits climbing pillars and living atop them? Holy renunciation! That is seriously hard corps. And think of all the folks who aided and abetted these “stylitoes.” Impressive charity, that. Tell me more about this Simeon character.

Simeon the Elder, was born about 388 at Sisan, near the northern border of Syria. After beginning life as a shepherd boy, he entered a monastery before the age of sixteen, and from the first gave himself up to the practice of an austerity so extreme and to all appearance so extravagant, that his brethren judged him, perhaps not unwisely, to be unsuited to any form of community life.

I told you he was gungy, which is Marine slang for “gung-ho.” Get outta here Simeon because you’re making us look bad! Blaise Pascal wrote, “All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone.” Simeon didn’t have this problem.

Being forced to quit them he shut himself up for three years in a hut at Tell-Neschin, where for the first time he passed the whole of Lent without eating or drinking. This afterwards became his regular practice, and he combined it with the mortification of standing continually upright so long as his limbs would sustain him.

The whole season of Lent. When I was in the Marines, I stood for long periods during inspections. Then I went on to serve as a Marine Security Guard where standing watch for 8 hours at a time in some posts at the Embassy was just another day at the office. Simeon, I’m starting to like you. Because when I thought 8 hours was a long time, you were just getting warmed up.

In his later days he was able to stand thus on his column without support for the whole period of the fast. After three years in his hut, Simeon sought a rocky eminence in the desert and compelled himself to remain a prisoner within a narrow space less than twenty yards in diameter.

I know what you’re thinking. This guy is a showboat. But you’ve got Simeon all wrong, because he was devoted to the LORD. He didn’t change his mind about this and people noticed.

But crowds of pilgrims invaded the desert to seek him out, asking his counsel or his prayers, and leaving him insufficient time for his own devotions. This at last determined him to adopt a new way of life.

I think he prayed for a solution, and one was provided.

Simeon had a pillar erected with a small platform at the top, and upon this he determined to take up his abode until death released him. At first the pillar was little more than nine feet high, but it was subsequently replaced by others, the last in the series being apparently over fifty feet from the ground.

OK, so from nine feet up, his benefactors could throw him a jug of water, or a bunch of grapes. But it was still a little to crowded and noisy, see. So he just kept getting help to go higher. How did he pay the workers? How did he get food and water, relieve himself? We’ll see later when I take you to the movies.

However extravagant (!) this way of life may seem, it undoubtedly produced a deep impression on contemporaries, and the fame of the ascetic spread through Europe, Rome in particular being remarkable for the large number of pictures of the saint which were there to be seen, a fact which a modern writer, Holl, represents as a factor of great importance in the development of image worship.

And people kept coming out to see him, seeking his counsel, and asking him to pray for them and bless them. The accessible hermit. Here is how,

Even on the highest of his columns Simeon was not withdrawn from intercourse with his fellow men. By means of a ladder which could always be erected against the side, visitors were able to ascend; and we know that he wrote letters, the text of some of which we still possess, that he instructed disciples, and that he also delivered addresses to those assembled beneath.

Probably with a voice trumpet or something. Can you even imagine such a spectacle today? What about sunscreen and umbrellas Simeon? What about lightning? Stop worrying will you? Have a little faith.

Around the tiny platform which surmounted the capital of the pillar there was probably something in the nature of a balustrade, but the whole was exposed to the open air, and Simeon seems never to have permitted himself any sort of cabin or shelter. During his earlier years upon the column there was on the summit a stake to which he bound himself in order to maintain the upright position throughout Lent, but this was an alleviation with which he afterwards dispensed.

I’m glad he cut himself some slack. Sheeesh! And the high and the mighty came calling, just as they did with the Desert Fathers. Centuries later, Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote a poem about him too.

Great personages, such as the Emperor Theodosius and the Empress Eudocia manifested the utmost reverence for the saint and listened to his counsels, while the Emperor Leo paid respectful attention to a letter Simeon wrote to him in favour of the Council of Chalcedon.

Why would they bother? Well, as you’ll see, Simeon was up there for quite some time. And besides, he must have been talking some sense and providing good counsel.

Once when he was ill Theodosius sent three bishops to beg him to descend and allow himself to be attended by physicians, but the sick man preferred to leave his cure in the hands of God, and before long he recovered.

What, and climb down from his perch every time he got the sniffles? Simeon was no “sick-bay commando” folks.

After spending thirty-six years on his pillar, Simeon died on Friday, 2 September, 459 (Lietzmann, p. 235).

Talk about staying power. 36 years is not a fad folks. That is an institution. Later on, another Simeon would break his record, by another 32 years for a total of 68! And there was something of a bidding war for his relics,

A contest arose between Antioch and Constantinople for the possession of his remains. The preference was given to Antioch, and the greater part of his relics were left there as a protection to the unwalled city. The ruins of the vast edifice erected in his honour and known as Qal ‘at Sim ‘ân (the mansion of Simeon) remain to the present day. It consists of four basilicas built out from an octagonal court towards the four points of the compass.

Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for this photograph (see below) being described here.

In the centre of the court stands the base of St. Simeon’s column. This edifice, says H.C. Butler, “unquestionably influenced contemporary and later church building to a marked degree” (Architecture and other Arts, p. 184). It seems to have been a supreme effort of a provincial school of architecture which had borrowed little from Constantinople.

How about watching this short film about the Stylite? It’s only 43 minutes (and change) long. It’s called Simon of the Desert and it’s the 1964 classic by Luis Bunuel. It even has subtitles, and a surprise ending.

One of the really beneficial things about being a Catholic Christian is learning about all of our brothers and sisters in Christ in the Communion of Saints. Their witness and example run the gamut of,  and make manifest, the individual ways that Christ calls us to serve Him.

St. Simeon, pray for us.

Because These Catholic Chaplains Were Awarded the Medal of Honor

This photograph is for all of you who get really persnickety about the altar, vestments, and such ancillary things like that. This is Major Charles Watters, U.S. Army, celebrating Mass out in the field for the troops. The altar is a couple of ammo boxes sitting on top of two water cans.

Though there are no relics of saints embedded in this altar, what matters most, Our Lord and Savior, will be there with His men soon. I attended services just like this one, even when I wasn’t a Catholic. Because beggars can’t be choosers, see? [Read more...]

Thanks to St. John of the Cross, Master of Paradoxes

In the past, I have shared my affinity for both the writings of John C.H. Wu (the Chinese Chesterton, here with his family and Pope Pius XII) and St. John of the Cross. Do you remember when I shared my friend John’s thoughts on Thérèse of Lisieux? He compared her to Lao Tzu and Confucius.

As this is the feast day of St. John of the Cross, I would like to share with you some of John Wu’s thoughts about this Doctor of the Church as well as this diagram of St. John’s Ascent of Mt. Carmel. [Read more...]

Because of Francisco De Osuna and a Minor Miracle

During the Summer of 2007 I read an awful lot of books that led me to join my parish RCIA program in the Fall of that same year. I’ve written about most of my reading program in earlier posts in this series, and I continued reading great Catholic books once my RCIA class started too.

For example, I read Mirabai Starrs’ translation of The Book of My Life by St. Teresa of Avila. It is a fascinating book about prayer by a fascinating woman. By reading Big Terry’s book, I discovered the work of another obscure author I had never heard of who had a big impact on this Doctor of the Church and on me. Here is what St. Teresa says on page 20 of her book that peaked my interest,

On the way to my sister’s village, we stopped in to see my Uncle Pedro. He gave me a copy of The Third Spiritual Alphabet by Francisco de Osuna. This is a book all about the Prayer of Recollection. In the past year, I had realized what harm my appetite for romance novels had done to my soul, and I had begun to develop a tremendous appreciation for spiritual books. Since I did not know a thing about the practice of contemplative prayer, or how to go about recollecting my senses and my thoughts, I was thrilled to find a book that told me exactly what to do.

I remember thinking to myself, I don’t know what St. Teresa is talking about (contemplative prayer? What’s that?), but if she liked de Osuna’s book enough to give it such a ringing endorsement, then I need to get a copy of it too, post haste! And the “harm of romance novels” comment resonated with me too, as I sheepishly realized how much of my reading time had heretofore been wasted on a lot of superfluous junk. Since this time, my night stand has been cluttered with “spiritual books”, and lots of them, instead. I wonder if she introduced de Osuna’s book to another Doctor of the Church too, you know, her friend and colleague St. John de la Cruz.

It turns out that Paulist Press published this book as a part of their excellent The Classics of Western Spirituality Series and it’s readily available. A visit to Amazon.com, a few clicks of the mouse, and a credit card authorization later, and The Third Spiritual Alphabet was on its way to me.

Within a week it arrived, all 609 pages of it. And let me tell you, de Osuna did not disappoint. I broke out my pencil for underlining purposes early, and often. Here are some examples of his thoughts from a few of the chapter and section headings,

Communion to God is Open to All; As Gifts Increase, So Do Our Debts; How We Should Give Thanks In Adversity; Blindness is Necessary to See God; How We Cannot Know God in Himself While We Live; Imitating Our Lord in the Desert of Recollection.

And here are a few of his thoughts on recollection that I underlined,

p.170: …we note that the devotion is called recollection because it gathers together those who practice it and, by erasing all dissension and discord, makes them of one heart and love. Not content with just this, recollection, more than any other devotion, has the known, discernible property by which someone who follows it can be greatly moved to devotion when he sees another person also recollected.

Having just left the greater Los Angeles area for my hometown in the hills of Tennessee, these words on the next page struck a chord with me too,

p.171: This devotion encourages us to retire from the traffic of people and noisy places to dwell in more secluded regions and to go out only now and then. If we do leave, we find ourselves anxious to return to our retreat to enjoy recollection, and we are just as eager as when we began the practice. We are like an eel that slips around in the fisherman’s hands so it can wriggle back into the water.

He could say that again. He goes on to say,

In recollection news and vain gossip have no appeal, nor do we like to hear anything that does not advise us to withdraw further into our hearts…for (the recollected) only wish is to see God with their hearts.

And Fray Francisco doesn’t pull any punches on what it takes to get from A to Z in the practice of this devotion. These are his thoughts from p. 175 that maybe only a Marine Corps Drill Instructor can appreciate,

You should also remember that no one masters any art without arduous practice, and the more one practices and becomes accustomed to something, the more quickly he masters it. Do not be so foolish as not to respect in this devotion and art the two things we observe in all occupations. First, learn it so that you are its master; do not be content to remain a beginner all your life like stupid, listless people who are forever learners, never attaining the science of truth because they are insufficiently attentive to their tasks. They are like the one in the gospel of whom it is said, “This man began to build and could not finish( Luke 14:30).”

How ignorant is the man who starts to build a house but does not concentrate on finishing it as quickly as possible so he can enjoy it soon! …If you wish to build the house of recollection for your souls, brother, you will profit immensely by remembering your intention. Plan to finish it.

Aye, aye sir! Now that I’ve given you a taste of my pal Fr. Francisco, I promise to share more of his thoughts in future posts. I can assure you of this because of the minor miracle that I will briefly describe for you now.

You may not have noticed that I’ve been blogging here for just over a year and this is only the second time that I am writing about my friend Fr. Francisco. I mentioned him briefly in the YIMC Book Club discussion of Mere Christianity when we were reading C.S. Lewis’ thoughts on pride. The principal reason for me keeping Fr. Francisco hidden from view is simple: I misplaced his book!

I had searched up and down my house, and my office, for it too. I reckon that it has been missing from my shelves for well over a year. Miraculously, and admittedly this is a minor miracle, not a supernatural one, the book reappeared in the back seat of my car last night. Here is the story.

Our family attended a Christmas party last night, see, and we took two cars because my wife had to go early to help set up. She took my eldest son with her to help her carry things. In Marine Corps jargon, her and my son were the Weathers “advance party” to the event. I followed in trace with the “main body” which included myself and my two younger children.

With the advent of cellular phones, this “advance party(AP) – main body (MB)” jargon makes sense to me because the AP called the MB about five times between the time the AP left and the MB crossed the line of departure. The message traffic went sort of like this,

AP to MB: “Could you bring my make-up bag? I left it in my other purse. Over.”

MB to AP: “Roger that AP, will do.”

AP to MB: “MB, MB, could you stop by the ATM and get some money so we can buy some raffle tickets? I’m out of cash. Over.”

MB to AP: “Roger that AP, will do. Over.”

AP to MB: “Could you bring XYZ with you? I just realized I forgot it. Over.”

MB to AP: “Negative AP, we are enroute and only 5 mikes (minutes) from your location. Over.

AP to MB: “OK then, disregard. Over and out.”

Granted, my wife and I don’t really talk like this on our cell phones. But really, isn’t this the way these AP to MB conversations go? Surely you have experienced this too. After that first exchange about the makeup bag, I found that bag and took it directly to the back seat of my car. I know what is of vital importance to a mission being successful or not, and a missing makeup bag would have been unimaginable. I absolutely did not want to forget that, thus I put it right there on the empty back seat of my car and walked away knowing that all would be well.

The MB arrives at the party and finds it well attended and packed to the gills with people enjoying themselves immensely and noted a long, snake-like, slow-moving, line of people waiting their turn for the food. I tracked down my wife, who was busy helping out, etc. I informed her that I had the makeup bag in the car and to let me know when she needs it and I’ll go get it. She said, “why didn’t you bring it in?” and discretion being the better part of valor, I turned tail and went and got it, ASAP.

As I approached my car, unlocked the doors, and rounded the rear bumper to open the passenger door on the side of the car where I had deposited the make-up bag, I was shocked to see Fr. Francisco’s book sitting there pretty as you please. When I unlocked the car, the dome light comes on automatically and I just stared through the window at that book for probably 15 seconds before I opened the door. I was thinking to, “where did you come from?” That seat had been empty when I threw the makeup bag there less than an hour earlier.

I was happy though, and thanked the Lord that it reappeared. It turned out that my youngest son had somehow noticed that something was bulging in the pouch on the back of the front passenger seat. He may have thought that I was hiding a Christmas present in there or something. I’m sure he was disappointed when it turned out to be one of his Dad’s dog-eared and well worn old books. So he just tossed it onto the seat and never said a word.

Sometimes that is how minor miracles work themselves out. Regardless, I’m just glad Francisco is back and I look forward to sharing more of his thoughts with you in future posts.

For the Sacraments (A Few Words for Wednesday)

I just ran across these thoughts by Reverend Jesse Brett over at my favorite electronic library. Though on Wednesday ordinarily I try to feature a poem, after reading these few paragraphs on the Sacraments, I realized that I should share them with you.

Brett is a bit of a mystery too, though I found out that he was the chaplain at All Saints Hospital in Eastbourne in the U.K. (in the 1920′s), I haven’t been able to uncover anymore information about him. I’ll keep digging.

Recently I was asked to give a talk on the Communion of the Saints to the folks in RCIA (Class of 2011) at my parish. I hope it was helpful to them. But I also know that they still have many questions about the saints, the Church, the Sacraments, etc. etc.

They are embarking on what hopefully will be a lifetime of study and practice. I hope they are excited at this prospect. Because as Blessed John Henry Newman said, and I’ll paraphrase him gladly, Catholicism is deep and you can’t take it up in a tea cup.

Reading these words of Rev. Bretts may not answer all of their questions or yours. But they ring as true as a clarion call about the importance, nay, the absolute necessity of the Sacraments in the spiritual life of the followers of Christ.

In this regard, the following thoughts are pure “signal” without any interference or “noise.”

From The Hidden Sanctuary: Devotional Studies
Sanctifying grace is the Divine gift to the soul through the Sacraments; and upon that as a foundation is built the superstructure of the spiritual life and, we may add, of true mystical life. Catholics do not need to be taught this. They know the mystery of the Sacraments through the very clearness of their love. Their mystical knowledge, whatever it may be, is an integral part of their sacramental experience.

But for the sake of others be it said: there is no true Christian mysticism that ignores the Sacraments; while a truly lived sacramental life must always be open to mystical experience. The Catholic can never define a line of demarcation between the sacramental and the mystical. There should be a will to recognize, and a readiness to receive, the mystical. If there has been, and is, a tendency to neglect the mystical in the natural and proper protest against much that is false or pernicious in popular mystical teaching, we are also in some danger of going too far.

There is a true mysticism which the Catholic Church knows, approves and protects. It is not fantastic, but sober and balanced, because the Saints, in whom it has been most remarkable, have been so trained and disciplined that their very teaching concerning it has been too severe for such as are weakly imaginative. It is the science of the spiritual life as tested by heroic souls. It is the science of Divine love in its strength and beauty.

In the New Testament Scriptures sacramental and mystical teaching are intimately related. The apostles who are foremost in proclaiming sacramental truth, S. John and S. Paul, are themselves mystics of the highest order. The Old Testament writers also, whose teaching and experience were most clear and definite, were likewise mystics. Catholic mysticism is no new discovery, but rather the continuation of that which runs through Holy Scripture from its beginning to its end. It is the experience of souls in their relation to God, conveyed in language which they understand who pursue the same spiritual way, inspired by the same compelling love.

It is all-important, therefore, that we should know ourselves and realize our advantages and blessings in the way of the Sacraments. It is our sure ground of safety. It makes all, after experience, the more reasonable. If the soul is strong in sacramental grace, and burning with love to our Lord, Who is known in His sacramental presence, there is a development of interior life; and it will in some ways be advanced on the mystical side. What is that reality of life and power which we feel in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament but a Divine certainty apprehended by a developed mystical sense? This is an aspect of the sacramental life which we should not forget, though we must be careful not to exaggerate it.

In Holy Baptism we were born again, and the new life was none other than that in which we are to know God, enjoy Him, attain to high union with Him. In Confirmation we received the fulness of spiritual gifts, and were made strong for spiritual endeavour. In Penance we are renewed in cleanness of heart, the state essential to the vision of God. In Holy Communion we are nourished by the Heavenly Food, the Divine Sustenance given continually to souls in the wilderness way of this world. Reverent attention to the truth of this, and loving effort to realize the spiritual dignity, and richness, and power which are the immediate effect of the sacraments upon prepared souls, and the humble, yet joyous, recognition of all within ourselves, should lead to a profound sense of possibilities and responsibilities.

What is the purpose of all we have received if it be not that we should enter into simply loving, and actively living, experience of God? And that which follows will be mystical knowledge of God.

See more of  Father Brett’s book here.

To Pray for the Christians of Iraq

Post by Allison Salerno,
I drive New Jersey highways to work each morning, one uninspiring state road after another. Lately, I have found a scenic side road, right before I pull up to the large public high school where I work. The subdivision has large yards and ranch homes festooned for the season. Pumpkins, bales of hay and scarecrows dot the lawns. Some folks even have started to display Christmas wreaths even.

As I was navigating these hilly pretty suburban streets, a news report came on my car radio about more Christians killed in Iraq. Overnight, bomb attacks targeted Christian homes in the Baghdad neighborhoods of al-Mansour, al-Duarah and Sara Camp.

Al-Qaida– the same folks who murdered innocents on Sept. 11 – including dozens of my husband’s friends – is taking “credit” for the massacre of more than 50 worshippers, including priests, at Our Lady of Salvation Syriac Catholic Church in Baghdad at a vigil Mass for All Saint’s Day.

It is considered the worst attack on Iraqi Christians in modern times. This is the land we learned as children was the “Fertile Crescent,” the “Birthplace of Civilization” 4,000 years ago. God have mercy on us all.

How many of us Americans consider ourselves Christians and yet do little to live out our faith day by day? How many of us would be willing to be martyrs, to pray in public no matter what the consequences? Would we be willing to die for the faith?

A dear friend, whose father works in Jordan with Iraqi Christian refugees, tells me the persecution of Iraqi Christians has been unrelenting ever since Saddam Hussein was ousted from power. Hussein was brutal, for sure, but he had other targets, such as the Kurds, for his persecution.

Let us pray none of us blessed enough to be living in countries where religious freedom is cherished take our faith for granted. Let us pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ in Iraq and every place where Christians are persecuted. Let us pray for the souls of their tormentors too. May they begin to understand that God gazes on us all and waits for us to turn our hearts to Him.

UPDATE: To Send Supplies to the Christians of Iraq.

Because Kenelm Henry Digby Could Write Such A Poem

Are you interested in Christian chivalry? You could do worse than read the works of Kenelm Henry Digby. Author of The Broad-Stone of Honour or Rules for the Gentlemen of England(1822), he was a Romantic who yearned for the days when knights upheld the honor of kith and kin. And the honor of the Holy Catholic Church as well.

I don’t know much, but I think he may have written the best poem for All Souls Day that I have ever read. Please allow me to share it with you.

It’s a little long, so be warned. But it really helps to explain why the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of All Souls, and why we pray for the faithful departed.

It’s simple, really. Because it is the right thing to do.

All Souls

There’s a race that we love, though it thinks it can soar
Above truths that it held to in ages of yore.
We deem it pretension; and we judge it from acts;
Let us single but one out of numberless facts,

Not confined to the circle which doubts or denies
That a prayer can be needed when any one dies,
But e’en showing this error extending as wide
As the nation renouncing the primitive side.

‘Tis the day of the dead, it was once here well known;
Yes, but then all such fancies have hence long flown.
For religion reform’d is now far too wise
To demand of our time such a fond sacrifice.

For suppressing the custom, this way is the first;
But then who can feel certain that it is the worst?
Although heads remain firm, one quickly discovers
That hearts pretty nearly agree with the others.

‘Tis the day of the dead, and it comes once a year,
But sooth few are now found to attend to it here.
For some are too busy, aye with too much in hand,
To suppose that a moment they have at command.

And there’s always some pressure on that very day,
Which must keep both the busy and idle away;
Our profession, affairs, visits—these are supreme—
And to think of suspending them, merely a dream.

‘Tis the day of the dead, and it comes with the cold,
With the fall of the leaf and the soft drench’d black mould;
The long damp waving grass and the tall dripping trees
Would do quite as much hurt as the wild wintry breeze.

‘Tis the day of the dead, and long has it gone by;
Mediaevalists only can like thus to sigh:
If you will talk and have us both pray and feel so,
‘Tis in warm and gay churches we should all of us kneel.

For what can one place be now more than another,
Unless superstition your reason will smother?
These old customs romantic and certainly wild
Belong to the vulgar for too often beguiled.

‘Tis the day of the dead, but then what would they say
Who might hear that through graves thus we too would stray?
You and I, my good friend, must now be like others,
However thus any one talks on and bothers.

‘Tis the day of the dead—but no great bell sounds
To invite us in thought from our brief earthly bounds:
Through the streets one runs hastening, another one stays;
All for business or pleasure; in brief no one prays.

Oh! England, that once wert believing and holy,
So free too from Pagan-like dull melancholy,
Aye so quick to attend to religion’s great voice,
Inviting gravely to mourn or gladly rejoice,

Just behold thy graves now left so lonely ever!
With the tears of fond memory on them never!
So deserted by all their surviving best friends:
And you’ll see at least here where thy long boasting ends.

But the scene changes now to a different shore,
Where religion exists as in ages of yore,
Where no one pretends that men are not clever,
The true and the false to distinguish and sever.

‘Tis the day of the dead, and it comes once a year:
The crowds are now moving, none ashamed to appear.
So the busiest men all engaged in their trade
Leave their shops and their ledgers, and thoughtful are made.

The statesman. the senator, the great and the small,
View the spot loved by each one, and kneeling down fall,
Yet at home much to do! constant work for their head!
But now all is forgotten excepting the dead.

Then the maiden so pale, and the old pensive sire,
With the youth for the day free, in deep black attire,
The widow, the orphan, and the seamstress so shy,
Gently pass to the spot where their loved ones still lie.

The little one grasping, and with such a tight hold,
The frock of sweet sissy, who herself’s not too bold;
Though all walk on order like relatives dear,
By their looks even charity letting appear.

Then some strew their pale flowers, and some light the lamp,
Unlocking in silence the cold monument damp,
And kneel like mute statues, and others stray on,
And all love to linger, and thence none will be gone.

There is woodbine that flourishes best o’er a grave;
Each alley, death’s violets—Pervenche—will pave;
Poet’s fictions of worms all engender’d below
Yield to wreaths of immortals which friends will bestow.

‘Tis the day of the dead; it comes bright or cold,
But all are not nervous like some timid and old;
The slopes amid flowers, and the high stirring breeze,
Have enchantment for him who both feels and who sees.

So the tortuous path and the dark cypress spire,
He will follow half pleased, e’en, and he will admire;
The tombs shining graceful, or the green mossy sod–
Oh, how all of these lift up his heart unto God!

The day of the dead–to our old faith we owe it;
Both dear to the Christian and dear to the poet.
Our fathers they taught us on the graves thus to stray,
Although still in churches each morning we pray.

And the men of our age with their courage so high,
Have yet time thus, and hearts too, to breathe a soft sigh.
And let no one suppose we are sorrowful made
By wandering so thoughtful through this peaceful shade.

‘Tis the day of the dead, and the day of each home,
While recalling each household, wherever we roam;
‘Tis the day of our fathers, of sons, and of brothers,
The day of our sisters so fond, and of mothers.

‘Tis the day for the young, for the old, and for all,
And which needs not of priests the particular call.
Thus domestic, ancestral, the day has its claims
Still on every being who human remains.

See whole families walk in groups as they pass.
Do they weep for a brother, a boy, or a lass?
Do they think of a mother, a sister, or bride?
Oh, then mark with what pains will they seek tears to hide!

And when now fresh processions are seen to arrive,
What a sympathy moves all the rest who survive!
During eight days, from morning till evening ’tis so,
And all raise up to Heaven the hearts from below.

‘Tis the day of the dead, and here no one is found
To take his way reckless to a differnt ground;
It is known, and respected, and honor’d here still,
By all those who have even the faintest weak will

Thus to follow the customs so closely allied
With the faith of the Church that is elsewhere denied;
For the worst and most thoughtless, the wildest here then
Will remember that they too are mortal and men.

‘Tis the day of the dead, do you hear the strange bell?
Hark! it tolls thus all day, through the night too as well:
The guards are there mounted to keep the long way,
Such multitudes hasten to weep and to pray.

O then France, sprightly France, still so faithful and true
To defend what their fathers all believed in and knew,
With soft hearts that are warm, and aye kindled with light,
The same that dispell’d once, the old sad Pagan night,

Now behold thy deck’d graves thus from year unto year,
So bedew’d and refresh’d with poor grateful tear,
Thus frequented at times as the sweetest of fields,
And see there what good fruits now thy old faith still yields.

Thou art praised for thy science, thy art, and thy grace,
For courage so high that belongs to thy race,
But when all is admired, and all has been said,
There is nothing surpasses thy love for the dead.

You can read more of Digby’s poems here. For a further selection of his work click here.

For Purgatory, Thank Heavens

—Feast of All Souls

When I was straddling the fence on whether or not I should become a Catholic, I never had a problem with Purgatory. It just makes the most sense to me, not that my personal opinion about this doctrine means anything.

I’ll admit that I thought I would have a big problem with it at first. Because, you see, it isn’t mentioned specifically in the Bible (along with many other details). But where did all the people who died go, for example from the Old Testament times? Assuming that all the people who had died before the Incarnation were just, ahem—out of luck, is ridiculous to me. And that was before I knew the doctrine of purgatory very well.

And praying for the dead? Well, once the books of the Bible tossed out by the reformers were put back where they belong, that was no longer an issue either. Like this from Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 7:36-37,

And stretch out thy hand to the poor, that thy expiation and thy blessing may be perfected. A gift hath grace in the sight of all the living, and restrain not grace from the dead.

I just ran a quick search over at the handy-dandy YIMCatholic Bookshelf of the word “purgatory” and came back with references to 175 different books. You’ll find everything from St. Catherine of Genoa’s Treatise on Purgatory(only 67 pages, so give it a look) to the Manual of the Purgatorian Society.

Below are some thoughts I want to share with you from an American named John L. Stoddard. Back in 1922, Stoddard wrote Rebuilding A Lost Faith, By An American Agnostic. It’s 246 pages of top-notch conversion story.  But I’m only going to share Stoddard’s thoughts on Purgatory with you because in many ways, they mirror my own path to understanding this doctrine. Like Stoddard, the crux of the matter for me hinges on authority. Either you believe that, heads, the Church has the authority to teach this doctrine or, tails (like Martin Luther), you don’t. Guess which side of this coin I side with?

I’ll let Stoddard take it from here,

From Chapter XV, Purgatory and Indulgences

THE difficulty in regard to Papal Infallibility (See chapter XIV) having been overcome, I turned to consider the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory and the Sacrament of Penance. My feelings in respect to this will best be shown by the following extract from a letter which I wrote about this time to a Catholic friend.

“My Dear Francis:

“I find no special difficulty in the Catholic dogma of Purgatory. On the contrary, the idea of a state of purification, appointed for those souls who, though redeemed by Christ, are nevertheless still unprepared to pass at once into God’s presence, appears to me logical and even comforting. I think that every soul who feels his own unfitness for the Beatific Vision (and who does not feel this?) must wish for such a state of preparation, even though attended with a cleansing punishment. The lack of this idea in Protestantism leads, I think, to an objectionable feature in their system,—namely, the altogether improbable and presumptuous supposition that the soul of some monster of depravity can straightway enter the society of heaven, provided only that he says, at the last moment of his ill-spent life, that he repents and believes in Jesus as the Son of God. Christ’s Divine insight into the soul of the penitent thief, who hung beside His cross on Calvary, could justify, of course, His promise to him of an immediate entrance into Paradise; but that was a solitary instance, upon which one can hardly build much hope.

The statement, often loosely made, that, since ‘Jesus paid it all, all the debt I owe,’ a hardened criminal is thereby rendered instantaneously fit for Heaven, is dangerously demoralising. The Bible assures us that ‘there shall in no wise enter into the heavenly City of God anything that defileth, or that is defiled,’ and the acquisition of a pure character is not the affair of a moment by means of a death-bed repentance. I never shall forget the description in a Chicago paper, many years ago, of the hanging of a negro, who, on the night before his execution, was said to have repented of a peculiarly atrocious crime, and ‘knew that he was saved.’ The report was heralded by the flaring headline ‘Jerked to Jesus!’

This blasphemous alliteration probably did less harm, however, than the sensational story, which accompanied it, of the negro’s ‘edifying remarks’ which preceded his death. The idea of such a wretch going at once to Heaven was revolting to a sense of justice and even of decency. No Catholic would have supposed such a translation probable, or, save for a miracle, possible. We know, of course, nothing of what the purgatorial state may be, through which the soul must pass, to reach the sphere to which God calls it; but that some place of purification must exist for those who pass into eternity with no sufficient spiritual preparation, appears to me just, necessary and consoling.”

To this my friend replied as follows:—

I well remember the crudely blasphemous headline which you quote. It had a great success, and was accounted ‘clever,’ though I am sure its ribald, vulgar character shocked all in whom a consciousness of the dignity of life and of the majesty of death remained, even though they had no positive Christian faith. There is little, if any, analogy between the case of the wretched negro and that of the penitent thief, for the latter was redeemed by his humility and faith. He did not ‘know that he was saved.’ He confessed his guilt in a supreme moment, and admitted the justice of his punishment. Whether or not the grace given him by our Lord was the only one ever offered him, we are not told; but to this opportunity at least he did respond, and by a single aspiration expiated with his dying breath a life of crime.

That the consoling doctrine of Purgatory should appeal to you does not surprise me. There is hardly a religious system of antiquity in which some similar provision is not found. It was left for the ‘Reformers’ of the sixteenth century to reject this immemorial dogma of the Church. When they denied the sanctity of the Mass and many other sacramental features of Catholicism, the doctrine of Purgatory went with the rest. If the souls of the dead pass instantly into an eternally fixed state, beyond the efficacy of our intercessions, then all our requiems, prayers and similar practices are vain. But if, on the contrary, we believe in the Communion of Saints,—that is, in the intercommunion of the three-fold Church,—militant on earth, suffering in Purgatory, and triumphant in Heaven,—then we on earth can influence, and be influenced by, the souls who have crossed the border.

Few, indeed, quit this life in a state of purity and grace which warrants their immediate entrance into Heaven. Still fewer, let us hope, are those to whom the blessed refuge of Purgatory,— that half-way house of our dead,— is closed. I cannot conceive how Protestants can believe as they do on this point, nor is it astonishing that their rejection of Purgatory has been followed, in the case of many, by the elimination of a belief in Hell; for the latter doctrine, taken alone, is monstrous. In fact, all Catholic doctrines are interdependent; they stand or fall together. You cannot pick stones out of the arch, and expect it to stand, for it will not do so. Purgatory is one of the most humane and beautiful conceptions imaginable. How many mothers’ aching hearts has it not soothed and comforted with hope for some dead, wayward son!

Soon after receiving this letter, I read the following words from Mallock:—”As to the doctrine of Purgatory, time goes on, and the view men take of it is changing. It is fast becoming recognised, that it is the only doctrine that can bring a belief in future rewards and punishments into anything like accordance with our notions of what is just and reasonable; and so far from its being a superfluous superstition, it will be seen to be just what is demanded at once by reason and morality.” My attention was at this time also called to the fact that the idea of Purgatory is no longer confined exclusively to Roman Catholic Christians. At a recent General Convention of Episcopalians in America resolutions looking towards prayer for the dead were defeated by only a very small majority.

The doctrine of the Catholic Church in reference to Purgatory states that there is such a place, in which souls suffer for a time, before they can be admitted to the joys of Heaven, because they still need to be cleansed from certain venial sins, infirmities and faults, or still have to discharge the temporal punishment due to mortal sins, which is as yet uncancelled, though the lasting punishment of those sins has been forgiven and removed through Christ’s atonement. Furthermore, the Church declares, that by our prayers and by the acceptable sacrifice of the Mass we may still help those souls, through the merits of Christ.

Beyond this statement the Church’s formal doctrine does not go; but it is not an article of Catholic faith that there is in Purgatory any material fire. It is generally believed that souls in Purgatory suffer spiritual anguish from the fact that they then feel acutely, as they could not do on earth, the perfect happiness from which they are for a time excluded, while they must also understand the enormity of the sins which they committed against their Heavenly Father and their Savior.

The entire story is here.
*****

What follows now are a few thoughts from Saint, and Doctor of the Church, Alphonsus Liguori, on our duty to pray for the faithful departed souls in Purgatory. This is from the Introduction to the Manual of the Purgatorian Society. With a book title like that, it’s got to be good!

The practice of recommending to God the souls in Purgatory, that He may mitigate the great pains which they suffer, and that He may soon bring them to His glory, is most pleasing to the Lord and most profitable to us. For these blessed souls are His eternal spouses, and most grateful are they to those who obtain their deliverance from prison, or even a mitigation of their torments. When, therefore, they arrive in Heaven, they will be sure to remember all who have prayed for them. It is a pious belief that God manifests to them our prayers in their behalf, that they may also pray for us.

It is true these blessed souls are not in a state to pray for themselves, because they are so to speak, criminals atoning for their faults. However, because they are very dear to God, they can pray for us, and obtain for us, the divine graces. St. Catherine of Bologna, when she wished to obtain any grace, had recourse to the souls in Purgatory, and her prayers were heard immediately. She declared that, by praying to those holy souls she obtained many favors which she had sought through the intercession of the saints without obtaining them. The graces which devout persons are said to have received through the holy souls are innumerable.

But, if we wish for the aid of their prayers, it is just, it is even a duty, to relieve them by our suffrages. I say it is even a duty; for Christian charity commands us to relieve our neighbors who stand in need of our assistance. But who among all our neighbors have so great need of our help as those holy prisoners? They are continually in that fire which torments more severely than any earthly fire. They are deprived of the sight of God, a torment far more excruciating than all other pains.

Let us reflect that among these suffering souls are parents, or brothers, or relatives and friends, who look to us for succor. Let us remember, moreover, that being in the condition of debtors for their sins, they cannot assist themselves. This thought should urge us forward to relieve them to the best of our ability. By assisting them we shall not only give great pleasure to God, but will acquire also great merit for ourselves.

And, in return for our suffrages, these blessed souls will not neglect to obtain for us many graces from God, but particularly the grace of eternal life. I hold for certain that a soul delivered from Purgatory by the suffrages of a Christian, when she enters paradise, will not fail to say to God: “Lord, do not suffer to be lost that person who has liberated me from the prison of Purgatory, and has brought me to the enjoyment of Thy glory sooner than I have deserved.

For all the answers on Purgatory (and on Indulgences) that you want to know, but are afraid to ask, click on the hotlinks you just passed over. You’ll be glad you did.

Rerum Creator optime (A Few Words For Wednesday)

From todays Office of Readings, this hymn attributed to Pope St. Gregory the Great. I also found a little more information about this particular hymn at Thesaurus Precum Latinarum, a neat little website that you may want to bookmark. There, Michael Martin writes,

This traditional Matins hymn is used in the Liturgia Horarum for the Office of the Readings for Wednesdays of the 1st and 3rd weeks of the Psalter during Ordinary Time. Likewise it is found as the Matins hymn for Wednesdays in the Roman Breviary.

I get a tingle up my spine when I hear words like Matins. Formerly the early morning prayer of the Church, it has now been replaced by the Office of Readings in the modern form of the LOTH. But I like the original Latin usage to signify the various prayers of the day, such as Lauds, Vespers and Compline. Some very neat vocabulary words to help orient your day around Our Lord.

More trivia from Michael’s website: this English translation of this hymn is by Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman.

Rerum Creator optime (Thou Madest All)

Thou madest all and dost control,
Lord, with Thy touch divine,
cast out the slumbers of the soul,
the rest that is not Thine.

Look down, Eternal Holiness,
and wash the sins away,
of those, who, rising to confess,
outstrip the lingering day.

Our hearts and hands by night, O Lord,
we lift them in our need;
as holy Psalmists give the word,
and holy Paul the deed.

Each sin to Thee of years gone by,
each hidden stain lies bare;
we shrink not from Thine awful eye,
but pray that Thou wouldst spare.

Grant this, O Father, Only Son
and Spirit, God of grace,
to whom all worship shall be done
in every time and place.

Amen.

Ave Maris Stella, A Poem and a Prayer

The poem below was written by a Scot by the name of John Leyden (1775 – 1811). From what I could find, Leyden was a medical doctor by trade and a Christian. He was even a minister, and according to Wikipedia,

Though he completed his divinity course, and in 1798 was licensed to preach from the presbytery of St Andrews, it soon became clear that the pulpit was not his vocation.

But he evidently had a soft spot in his heart for Our Lady as attested to by the following apologetic words of his publisher in the introduction to these verses,


Though valuing highly the principles of the Protestant faith, we cannot withhold our approval of the many avenues of thought opened up by the Catholic creed, which afford material for beautiful poetry. These stanzes with exception of a few lines are executed in Leyden’s best manner.Many avenues of thought indeed! And material for beautiful poetry? Well, Dr. Leyden was inspired is all that I can figure.  The spray in his face and the wind at his back, set his inner Catholic yearning to breathe free, aboard the good ship ironically named the St. Anthony.  Take a look at what flowed forth from his pen,

Portuguese Hymn

To The Virgin Mary, “The Star of the Sea.”
Written At Sea, On Board The Ship Santo Antonio.Star of the wide and pathless sea,

Who lovest on mariners to shine,

These votive garments wet, to thee,

We hang within thy holy shrine.
When o’er us flash’d the surging brine,
Amid the waving waters tost,
We call’d no other name but thine,
And hoped when other hope was lost.
Ave Maris Stella!
Star of the vast and howling main!
When dark and lone is all the sky,
And mountain-waves o’er ocean’s plain
Erect their stormy heads on high;
When virgins for their true-loves sigh
They raise their weeping eyes to thee;—
The Star of ocean heeds their cry,
And saves the foundering bark at sea.
Ave Maris Stella!
Star of the dark and stormy sea!
When wrecking tempests round us rave,
Thy gentle virgin-form we see
Bright rising o’er the hoary wave;
The howling storms that seem’d to crave
Their victims, sink in music sweet;
The surging seas recede to pave
The path beneath thy glistening feet.
Ave Maris Stella!
Star of the desert waters wild,
Who pitying hears’t the seaman’s cry!
The God of mercy as a child
On that chaste bosom loves to lie;
While soft the chorus of the sky
Their hymns of tender mercy sing,
And angel voices name on high
The mother of the heavenly king.
Ave Maris Stella!
Star of the deep! at that blest name
The waves sleep silent round the keel,
The tempests wild their fury tame,
That made the deep’s foundations reel;
The soft celestial accents steal
So soothing through the realms of woe,
The newly-damn’d a respite feel
From torture in the depths below.
Ave Maris Stella!

Star of the mild and placid seas!

Whom rain-bow rays of mercy crown,
Whose name thy faithful Portuguese,
O’er all that to the depths go down,
With hymns of grateful transport own,
When clouds obscure all other light,
And heaven assumes an awful frown,
The Star of ocean glitters bright.
Ave Maris Stella!
Star of the deep! when angel lyres
To hymn thy holy name assay,
In vain a mortal harp aspires
To mingle in the mighty lay;
Mother of God! one living ray
Of hope our grateful bosoms fires—
When storms and tempests pass away,
To join the bright immortal choirs.
Ave Maris Stella!

And what, pray tell, is this Ave Maris Stella? A beautiful prayer, that’s what.  Again, I’m indebted to the anonymous authors of Wikipedia for the following citation:

“Ave Maris Stella (Latin, “Hail Star of the Sea”) is a plainsong Vespers hymn to the Virgin Mary. It is of uncertain origin and can be dated back at least as far as the eighth century. It was especially popular in the Middle Ages and has been used by many composers as the basis of other compositions. The creation of the original hymn has been attributed to several people, including Saint Venantius Fortunatus.

The melody is found in the Irish plainsong “Gabhaim Molta Bríde”, a piece in praise of St. Bridget. The popular modern hymn Hail Queen of Heaven, the Ocean Star, is loosely based on this plainsong original. It finds particular prominence in the “Way of Consecration to the Blessed Virgin Mary” by Saint Louis de Montfort.”

It is certainly a beautiful way to ask Our Lady to pray for us. Won’t you pray this with me now?

YouTube Preview Image


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X