Because He is Emmanuel

This afternoon my family will remove the lights from our Christmas tree, which now stands on our front porch, and haul the tree to the curb. Then our borough will collect it and grind it to mulch.

It is time for the tree to come down because this feast day, the Baptism of our Lord, marks the end of the Christmas season, and the beginning of Christ’s public ministry.

Christ is baptized in the River Jordan, not because He needs to free Himself of original sin. He is, after all, without sin. No, He does so that He can enter into our humanity and become one with us. This means that from the start, Christ is someone who longs for relationship with us. He wants to meet us where we are and then help us deepen  in holiness.

“Spiritual progress tends toward ever more intimate union with Christ,” our Catechism teaches. ” This union is called mystical because it participates in the mystery of Christ through the sacraments.” 

As we celebrate our Lord’s baptism, let us call to mind our own. And as we enter Ordinary Time, let’s remember Christ stands beside us. The Prophet  Isaiah foretold a Messiah whose name would be “Emmanuel,”  meaning “God is with us.”

“What Christ brought into life with his incarnation, Death and resurrection is a novelty that allows us to live everything that life is,” says Fr. Julian Carron. “The drama of living with a different outlook on reality…Christ came answering, making himself contemporaneous, and He continues to accompany us.”

Because The Church Militant Transforms Us

—Originally posted back in July, perhaps you will give it a second look on this day before we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord.

I ran a half-marathon once, courtesy of the United States Marine Corps—13.1 miles on a hot, humid September morning in Quantico, Virginia. Along with 120 other happy Leathernecks, I never could have run this distance successfully without prior training.

I couldn’t have made it  without the refreshment stops provided by our benevolent leaders along the way either. Even though I had stamina, discipline, and faith in my abilities, all of that would have been for naught without ice cold water available at stations along the route. I wouldn’t have made it to the finish line without them, and no one else would have either. [Read more…]

For All the Saints: Angela of Foligno

The other day I shared with you the story of St. Simeon Stylites the Elder, the original “pillar-hermit.” Simeon was a lay person, but he evidently was unencumbered by family responsibilities. Today, I want to introduce you to a saint for the rest of us. Her name is Angela and she lived in Foligno, Italy from 1248 until her death in the year 1309.

As I reported back when I shared Algar Thorold’s essay, I stumbled upon the story of this lay Catholic mystic and stigmatic and I’m glad I did. Algar busts the myth that there are two Catholic Church’s (one for the priests and religious, and one for lay people) and Angela’s life shows this as well.

That this is a myth is obvious to anyone who turns their attention to the Communion of Saints. Although there are many priests and religious in the saintly ranks, there is also a heaping helping of regular folks like you and me too. Blessed Angela is an example of a regular person who accepts the call to become a saint.

A friend of mine noted that Angela’s life reminds her of the television series Desperate Housewives except that in Angela’s case the story is that she used to be desperate until she came to rest in Our Lord’s arms. Let’s take a look at the Catholic Encyclopedia citation on her,

Umbrian penitent and mystical writer. She was born at Foligno in Umbria, in 1248, of a rich family; died 4 January, 1309. Married at an early age, she loved the world and its pleasures and, worse still, forgetful of her dignity and duties as wife and mother, fell into sin and led a disorderly life. But God, having in His mercy inspired her with a deep sorrow for her sins, led her little by little to the height of perfection and to the understanding of the deepest mysteries.

So she was well to do, and footloose and fancy free. Maybe a party girl like the one’s you knew in school. Or someone from the popular crowd who you secretly admired while you openly despised her. But she had a profound change of heart around the time she turned 40 years old. And as she details in her Eighteen Steps, it was not an instantaneous change, but one that was progressive. Thankfully, her confessor decided to document her incredible story.

Angela has herself recorded the history of her conversion in her admirable “Book of Visions and Instructions”, which contains seventy chapters, and which was written from Angela’s dictation by her Franciscan confessor, Father Arnold of Foligno. Some time after her conversion Angela had placed herself under the direction of Father Arnold and taken the habit of the Third Order of St. Francis.

Note to self:  it’s time for me to find a spiritual director too.

In the course of time the fame of her sanctity gathered around her a number of Tertiaries, men and women, who strove under her direction to advance in holiness. Later she established at Foligno a community of sisters, who to the Rule of the Third Order added the three vows of religion, without, however, binding themselves to enclosure, so that they might devote their time to works of charity.

Angela at last passed away, surrounded by her spiritual children. Her remains repose in the church of St. Francis at Foligno. Numerous miracles were worked at her tomb, and Innocent XII approved the immemorial veneration paid to her. Her feast is kept in the Order on the 30th of March.

Bl. Angela’s high authority as a spiritual teacher may be gathered from the fact that Bollandus, among other testimonials, quotes Maximilian Sandaeus, of the Society of Jesus, who calls her the “Mistress of Theologians”, whose whole doctrine has been drawn out of the Book of Life, Jesus Christ, Our Lord.

Angela has been noticed by Pope Benedict XVI as well. Back in October, while speaking during his weekly audience, he said that the lesson of her life is that “God has a thousand ways, for each of us, to make himself present in the soul, to show that he exists and knows and loves me.” Regarding her conversion and constancy, Our Pope credits Angela’s commitment to a life of prayer and quoted her words as follows,

“However much more you pray, ever more greatly will you be illuminated; however much more you are illuminated, so much more profoundly and intensely will you see the Supreme Good, the supremely good Being; how much more profoundly and intensely you see it, much more will you love it … Successively you will arrive to the fullness of light, because you will understand not being able to comprehend.”

Third Order Franciscans are still active today, though they no longer “take the habit” as recounted above. When Algar Thorold writes of Angela, it is in glowing praise because of her complete conversion, her humility, her commitment to prayer and for the miracles and visions that she was gifted with. She bore the stigmata, and you may read of her visions The Book of Divine Consolations and of her conversion in Thorold’s Essays on Catholic Mysticism.

Blessed Angelo of Foligno, pray for us.

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…]

A Question For Readers: Faced With Overhearing Racist Remarks, What Would You Do?

Between Christmas and Epiphany, my family took a vacation. Days of pleasant family togetherness were marred only once: by comments my teen-aged son and I heard in the lobby of a chain hotel in central Virginia. He and I were  working at the hotel computers, around the corner from the reception desk. A white clerk behind the desk was telling jokes to another white clerk – using liberally the “n word” as punch lines. I was so shocked I didn’t know what to do. I am still struggling, as a Christian, on how best to respond.

My son understood what the woman said was wrong, but didn’t think we should respond at all. I explained to him that it is important to respond to wrongdoing we encounter, and that we don’t need to do so in anger. Later that afternoon, I approached the front desk and asked to speak to the manager. Turns out the “jokester,” who had finished her shift, was the assistant manager. Well then, may I speak to the manager? Turns out that would be her husband. Well then, who is his supervisor? “The owner but he won’t get involved,” the clerk replied. She suggested I call the corporate offices.

Later that day, our room phone rang. It was the same clerk, apologizing on behalf of the assistant manager, to whom she had spoken, and refunding our money because she had offended me. The following morning, as we were checking out, the assistant manager apologized to my husband for offending me and went on to say none of her African -American employees found her jokes offensive that morning.

Now then, should I call the corporate offices? My inclination is to do so. The Catechism teaches that racism is “Unjust discrimination on the basis of a person’s race; a violation of human dignity, and a sin against justice.” Refunding my money feels like the sin was just against me, in the fact I happened to overhear some racist jokes.

To me this is a jarring reminder that sin, though seemingly a solitary action of one person, affects others in ways that we sometimes don’t realize. This incident brought these words from the Catechism (1869) to life for me,

Thus sin makes men accomplices of one another and causes concupiscence, violence, and injustice to reign among them. Sins give rise to social situations and institutions that are contrary to the divine goodness. “Structures of sin” are the expression and effect of personal sins. They lead their victims to do evil in their turn. In an analogous sense, they constitute a “social sin.Thus sin makes men accomplices of one another and causes concupiscence, violence, and injustice to reign among them. Sins give rise to social situations and institutions that are contrary to the divine goodness. “Structures of sin” are the expression and effect of personal sins. They lead their victims to do evil in their turn.

Our entire family was distressed by the jokes. My husband and I let our sons know that this woman has every right to her own thoughts and feelings about the world, but that when she speaks, she should be carefully considering how her words could damage others. As Christians, we cannot condemn her as a human being, but we can speak up when someone’s words or actions are sinful.

I am meditating whether my obligation is to let the corporate offices know I heard the jokes. After all, the assistant manager supervises employees and welcomes guests of all cultural backgrounds. One could also argue, however, that I have made my views known, and received an apology fitting to our relationship, which is purely a business transaction.

What would you do, and why?

Thanks to Little Christmas

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, also known as Little Christmas. My family and I attended Mass last night at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church, which serves the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. The parish is under the care of the Dominican Province of St. Joseph, which, by the way, has a great website. The priest who celebrated the Mass, Father Joseph Scordo, O.P., delivered a magnificent homily about the meaning of this feast day. I want want to share his thoughts with you.

After discussing the significance of the visit by the Maji to the Christian event, Father Scordo asked us these questions.

*How did Christmas change you? The magi took another way home because God called them to do so. What changes have you made as a result of this Christmas?

*What gifts do you bring to Christ? Christ tells us that whatever we do to the least among us we do for him. The gifts we bring to others could include our love, our hope, our faith and our encouragement.

*What kind of a sign are you to lead others to Christ? The magi followed a star. What kind of star can you be for others? Just as God manifested himself to us through His Son, we must manifest Christ to others.

I pondered the questions in my heart and frankly, came up short. I pray this new year will be a time for me to grow spiritually.

Because His Real Presence Cannot Be Destroyed

During a recent family tour of colleges in the Carolinas, it became clear that Duke University isn’t exactly a center of Catholic culture. The interdenominational chapel at this university founded by Methodists features statues (I found that deliciously ironic), including one of John Wyclif, who, in 1380 attacked the Eucharist by calling it merely “an effectual sign.”  The chapel crypt is where they bury dead university presidents and their wives. The God worshiped here feels distinctly different to me.

During the same visit of Duke, we stumbled on a lovely trove of medieval art at the Nasher Art Museum. The Duke University Art Museum began in 1969 when members of the Brummer family donated their extensive collection of medieval art to the university. The Nasher Art Museum, an architectural showpiece which opened in 2005, is a great place to explore. I was particularly provoked by the beauty of the medieval art in the collection. (Such as the statue of martyr Saint Sebastian, pictured here.)

Among the collection’s treasures are portions of the abbey of Saint Martin, Savigny. The Huguenots sacked this abbey in 1562, destroying or removing many valuable manuscripts. The abbey once was the largest church in the world and was destroyed in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Statues were scattered or mutilated.  

More grievous than the destruction of Christian art, it is almost overwhelming for me to reflect on the millions of Christians throughout history who have willingly separated themselves from the Real Presence of Our Lord. 

As I strolled through the Nasher Art Museum, I was at once saddened and reassured to see pieces of the abbey and other medieval Catholic churches displayed on the wall  in fragments – part of a statue here, an altar piece there.  How distressing to reflect on how the Church has been  broken – both spiritually and physically – by so-called reformers and by the relentless secularization of Western culture. Taking another view, however, I meditated that people had seen it important to preserve these fragments. This made me consider that Christ’s body is everywhere. No matter what physically happens or happened to our churches, the Body of Christ and His Real Presence cannot be destroyed.

Father John A. Hardon, S.J. says it better than I can. “We are to believe that the Eucharist is Jesus Christ – simply, without qualification. It is God become man in the fullness of His divine nature, in the fullness of His human nature, in the fullness of His body and soul, in the fullness of everything that makes Jesus Jesus. He is in the Eucharist with His human mind and will united with the Divinity, with His hands and feet, His face and features, with His eyes and lips and ears and nostrils, with His affections and emotions and, with emphasis, with His living, pulsating, physical Sacred Heart. That is what our Catholic Faith demands of us that we believe. If we believe this, we are Catholic. If we do not, we are not, no matter what people may think we are.”

And then, after our visit to Durham, I was profoundly moved to learn the Duke Catholic Center is located in the basement of this very same chapel and that priests and students celebrate Mass upstairs every Sunday night.

For New Years Resolutions Like This: Choose A Patron Saint for 2011

Earlier today I mentioned that I was dipping into the Communion of Saints for inspiration. And why not? I love these people and I’m glad they are praying for me. Later this afternoon I noted that Elizabeth Scalia, “the Anchoress” was wondering about her patron saint for the new year. Readers may have noticed that we have two full time patrons here at YIMCatholic: St. Joseph and St. Joan of Arc.

But we can always use someone else to pray for us too. And I really like this neat Patron Saint Generator that Jennifer Fulwiler of Conversion Diary came up with. Elizabeth gave it a try and guess which saint choose to represent her this year? St. Catherine of Siena. So I decided to give it a whirl too.

Jennifer’s application makes it so easy. Just click the button and off it goes. Putting out a call in heaven I reckon, “Patron Saint needed for the man on aisle three,” or something like that. Whoever shows up has chosen you, see? Don’t go second guessing the saint that arrives at your doorstep, because even if you don’t know why this saint should be your patron, invite them in and get to know them! Look over in the sidebar and you’ll see that St. Frances of Rome is my patron this year. Looking at the citation that arrived with her, I’ll just say that I am looking forward to getting to know her better.

I am so excited about this that I too am posting on it. When I got home from work, I gathered the family after dinner so we could all pick a saint for this year too. My youngest son went first and St. Aloysius of Gonzaga arrived on our doorstep. Wow, I said, that was your great-grandfathers middle name kiddo! My daughter was up next and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton rang our doorbell. Break out the fine china! My oldest son gave it a whirl and St. Jane de Chantal entered our little circle, and she can teach us a thing or two about forgiveness. Lastly, my wife was introduced to her patron for 2011, St. Margaret of Hungary—a princess no less!

Next, I let them all know that I want to know all about their patrons too and I want them to know them as well as they know their best friends. And when we say our prayers at night, we’ll ask our saints to pray for us. And Elizabeth had another great idea, which I shared with my family: we’ll also ask our patron saints to teach us what they know. Schools out, so saint school is in! I walked them over to the YIMCatholic bookshelf and showed them how to learn more. Then I went searching for more on their particular saints to see if there were any biographies written about them. 4 out of 5 ain’t bad, so 4 new classic books were added to the self too.

So join the club dear reader, and give Jennifer’s application a try. Don’t over-think this, just click it and open your door. Don’t forget how the apostles (after prayer) chose Matthias—they drew straws! Add the name of your patron that arrives on your doorstep in the comm box below, and I’ll see if I can find a book about them and I’ll add it to the YIMCatholic Bookshelf for you too.

Getting to know you, getting to know all about you…that’s what I’m singing now. Because the saints are Christian role models for us all.

Saints Be Praised!

Because He Feeds His Lost Sheep

We tried. God knows we really tried. My family and I were driving south from New Jersey and into a blizzard. We had planned to stop for 11 a.m. Mass at St. Anthony of Padua parish in Wilmington, Delaware’s Little Italy neighborhood. I had the directions penciled in my Liturgy of the Hours and had even googled a restaurant where we could eat lunch after. But then, I missed the exit on I-95.

By the time we got to Maryland, we figured – hey Maryland was founded by Catholics. Surely every town has a Catholic church. So we stopped in North East, Maryland and asked at the Best Western: Where’s the nearest Catholic church? The clerk told us to head out on Turkey Point Road. We did, passing through the quaint and tired town of North East.

We passed the North East United Methodist Church, which sits across Main Street from Saint Mary Anne’s Episcopal Church. Where was the Catholic Church? Where was Turkey Point Road? We turned around. We asked at the Walgreens. Where was Turkey Point Road? You’re on it. And no, we’ve never heard of a Catholic Church in these parts. We piled back into the van. It was nearly 10 a.m. now. We headed back down Turkey Point Road, through town and toward the state park. And then we saw it: St. Jude Mission Parish.

The parking lot was full, and a few cars were driving out as we drove in. We walked into the church. The priest was giving his final blessing. We saw from the bulletin this was a mission church and this was the only Mass of the day. My family knelt in prayer. My husband went to talk with the priest, as he greeted parishioners at the Mass’s end. Then my husband summoned the rest of us over.

After the pastor finished greeting his parishioners, introducing us to a newly engaged couple and asking us about our travels, we said the Penitential Rite with him by the tabernacle. And then he offered us the Eucharist. The priest said we had received a grace just by trying so hard to find a way to attend Mass even though the skies threatened and we were lost. And he sent us on our way with a blessing.

Yes, Catholics are obliged to attend Mass every Sunday and every other Holy Day of Obligation. “Sometimes, though, we just can’t be there. One’s own sickness or the obligations to care for a sick person, having given birth within the past 6 weeks, dangerous weather (and other safety hazards), not being able to find a way there — life happens. There is no guilt in missing Mass if the circumstances are out of one’s control (mortal sin always requires not only grave matter and knowledge, but consent of the will).”

Thank you, Father Joseph J Piekarski, and thank you, to our beloved Christ, for blessing my family with your body, blood, soul and divinity on a Sunday far from home as we headed south into a storm.