For All the Saints: Popes Cletus and Marcellinus

Two Popes of the early Church sit on opposite corners of the portico ceiling of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Today, we celebrate their feast days. The two men served as Popes two centuries apart. What they share is that their pontificates occurred during times of great torture and persecution for professing Christians under Roman rule. Reflecting on the lives of Popes Cletus and Marcellinus puts into perspective the trials the faithful now are facing.

To be a Pope in the first three centuries after Christ was to face the prospect of death by Roman authorities. Pope Cletus was the third pope and reigned from 76 to 88. Marcellinus was Pope from 296 to 304. Cletus, like St. Peter before him, was martyred. Marcellinus himself was not martyred; instead he died a natural death in an era when scores of Christians, including St. George, were murdered for their faith. Thanks be to God, we live in a world where, with a few notable exceptions, Christians are not being killed for their beliefs. But the Church still faces enemies, both in the secular world, as well as from sinners within our own ranks.

The first persecutions of Christians happened in Rome, a generation after Christ, under the reign of Nero. This was several years before Cletus became Pope. The tyrant, who killed his own mother and eventually committed suicide, arrested and tortured Christians in Rome. Some were crucified. Others were burned alive. Their bodies were eaten by dogs. It is stunning to consider that just six years before Cletus became pope, a new Emperor, Titus, destroyed the City of Jerusalem, then the hub of Christianity. Until then, Christians were considered a sect of the Jews. Cletus was a Greek ordained by St. Peter. As Pope, St. Cletus ordained at least 25 priests. Here was a man of great faith who knew the dangers he faced by leading the Church.

As for St. Marcellinus, he died in 304, one year after St. George was martyred during the great Diocletian persecution. During this persecution, Roman authorities confiscated the Callistus Catacomb, which for 100 years had been the official cemetery of the Church of Rome. Martyrs and Popes had been buried there. Christians blocked the main entrances to the catacomb to protect the tombs. It is hard to imagine living and dying in such a time.

Sts. Cletus and Marcellinus’s lives tell us that, as improbable as it seems, the Church is indestructible, no matter the filth within the Church or the attacks from outside Her. We must continue to pray for Pope Benedict XVI, for the children damaged by priest-criminals, and, yes, for the souls of their predators, too.

May your continual pity, O Lord, cleanse and defend Your Church; and, because without you she cannot endure in safety, may she ever be governed by Your bounty. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, Who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, world without end. Amen.

For the Joys of Prayerful Silence

Guest Post by Warren Jewell
The general quiet and often hushed silence of my solitude is a remedy, consolation, comfort, and luxury, like an unspoken call to prayer a hundred times a day. My effective muezzin is my own heartbeat, you see. I have forsworn TV all my adult life; I own no radio; I long ago gave away my sound equipment. Life can sound so much like the crash and the fury and the cry. And, when my littlest grandchild has Mommy call Grandpa to ‘talk,’ her gentle gurgles and attempts to convey her blossoming feelings can mean something to one more and more acculturated to hear God in every little natural sound. As yet, no words: just an angel’s innocence.

If I sometimes suffer in loneliness, and I do, in the course of my daily rounds I more often thank God for the silence that speaks of that loneliness in softest terms; and I can hear God come closer to my side. “Silence, son, and know that I am your God, and your Best-Beloved.” I live in a carpeted chapel within an out-of-the-way cloister.

In our noisy modern times, we just don’t get enough hush, or quiet, and even less, silence. I have found my secret place, time, life era, etc., to have those nearly from God’s own hand. In just my writing about it, you may hear the blessing of it.

I don’t urge such conditions on another. A big aspect of it, and heart of the loneliness present, is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy: widowhood from my best friend, my late wife, Sharon. However, all things work to the good of those who take to trusting God about it all, and He is goodness and love personified, and who needs much else? In the silence one can find that God, so full of Good News, just can’t hold His tongue for ten minutes in a row. The soft speech He gifts me with can make me wish the silence, on human and earthly parts, would go on forever.

We all need such times so that God’s messages can come through. At Mass, the Church helps by affixing the messages common for the day, and that is wonderful. But God has personal messages for each of us, and we must find the silence to give our ears, and souls, spirits, wills, minds and hearts, to Him. So find your own little chapel. Make some time and place your cloister. Closing your eyes and having the simple white noise of an electric fan might help. However, do get yourself so alone in silence that God can’t resist getting so close He whispers sweet everythings to you.

Oh, it won’t happen every time. But to have it even once from out of a myriad of silences lets you know that your Redeemer lives, and He lives that He can love and bless you, He can comfort and console you, He can give you Himself in His own intimate way just for you.

It really isn’t such a privilege to you or to me. Remember, you are His child. It is He Who makes the event special, and He Who privileges Himself to have you so intimately open to Him.

I suppose that I could go on and on about this, for much of God’s gifts of peace, joy, assurance, guidance and other wonderful things come out of prayerful silence for me. Even of paradox the ascending descent into humility grows within me. To finish, may God find His glory shine in silent love with you.

Be so kind, O Lord, to frequently remind me that I am always in Your Holy Presence, and You are in my humble presence.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Because He Works Through Us

Today we have another reflection from our guest Julie Cragon of Nashville, Tennessee.  It is a powerful example of how Christ works through His children and allows us to be His partners in the “ministry of reconciliation” as “we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us.” (2 Corinthians 5:18-20)

Guest post by Julie Cragon

I was gently reminded today of one of my favorite prayers by St. Teresa of Avila
Christ has no body now, but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth, but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which
Christ looks compassion into the world.
Yours are the feet
with which Christ walks to do good.
Yours are the hands
with which Christ blesses the world.”

I give each of my children’s teachers a card with this prayer as a thank-you note at the end of the school year. With all I see that goes on in schools today, I know that Christ works through these men and women as they witness to our Catholic faith. But this prayer also brings to mind an encounter this past February on a Saturday, when Nashville was pretty well shut down due to icy road conditions. My husband, Allen, and I ventured to open our bookstore  around 10:30 or 11:00, answer a few phone calls,  and wait on a handful of customers.

Our first transaction of the day was actually a return, so we started $3.48 in the red. We laughed  at the irony that we’d worried about a potential “loss of business day.” Then a man came for a Baptismal candle he needed for Sunday, and he was glad to see that we had braved the storm to be open for a few hours. But the real reason God sent us to open for those few hours came  in the door a little after noon.

 A young mom and dad and two young boys, maybe 4 and 6, arrived and walked straight up to the counter. The young father said, “Let me ask you. We have a son in intensive care and I heard a story about a little boy being critical and getting well and telling his parents that he was going to miss the little boy who brought him back. What saint would that be? Would that be St. Christopher?”
This brought about story after story of different saints who protect and defend and about archangels and miracles. The couple never moved from the front counter as Allen and I went up and down the stairs for inexpensive medals and coins and holy cards and I told story after story. I was so glad that I had spent hours researching and writing the mini bio cards of saints so that I could not just show this couple the cards but tell them a little about the saints and angels.
The two young brothers stood there good as gold waiting for us to give their daddy something to make their brother come back home and play with them again. Finally, after about 45 minutes or so the family left with a little bag of a few medals and cards. But what they really held was a little hope. We were meant to be there that day if only for a few hours. This young couple and their boys needed to be in the quiet atmosphere of the store and amid God’s peace. Allen and I had nothing to do with helping these people or their seriously injured nine-year-old son in intensive care. All we did was show up. And for that moment, it was enough. May God hold them in the palm of His hand.

To Recapture the Faith of My Youth

The joint was jumping as I entered the Cathedral of the Holy Cross last Saturday, April 17. The nave was filling for the 2010 Boston Catholic Men’s Conference, and I was attending for the first time. I didn’t expect a rockish sort of band singing faith songs in front of a video screen that flashed the lyrics or hundreds of men on their feet, sort of swaying, sort of clapping, depending on their age and level of inhibition. I certainly didn’t expect to find myself beside Dick from Foxboro and wonder what had happened to my faith when I turned fifteen.

I learned Dick’s name only later. What I was first aware of was a guy in a New England Patriots slicker, somewhat older than my 58 years, on his feet, bobbing his head, clapping his feet, and definitely totally into it, singing something about loving Jesus. I was momentarily embarrassed for Dick. Then, for quite a while longer, I was embarrassed for myself and brought up short by my embarrassment.

The music was good, the lyrics inspiring, the temperature rising—and yet there was some kind of reserve wedged between my heart and a mind that had grown skeptical, then cynical during my boarding school years. Before I left home at fifteen, I was an Episcopal altar boy thinking about becoming an Episcopal minister. By the time, three years later, that I had completed “the best educational years of my life” (as I’ve always considered them), I had been led away (e-ducatus) from an innocent faith to a sophisticated agnosticism.

What had done the trick? The 800 boys, each of whom thought he was smarter than his neighbor? The religion classes that were really an indoctrination in existentialism? Or just the wise-guy, butt-smoking smart-aleckness of teenage kids, with no parentis in loco and little available in the way of a faith experience? Our daily “chapel” was really an assembly without the pretense of devotion. Maybe we had an invocation, once, at the beginning of the year, I don’t remember.

It strikes me that becoming Catholic has turned my world view, and my self view, butt over teakettle. Because I understand now that the same seductive cultural forces that we Catholic parents worry about when we think of our children in today’s world were working their magic, 1960s style, with me, just when I thought I was getting the best education money could buy, just when I thought I was so smart.

I’m probably not shocking anyone by writing this. Unless you were raised in a strongly evangelical setting and went to a Christian college, you probably had a similar experience of adolescence. The amazing thing is that I ever recovered. Because I was an insufferable wise guy by the time I went to college, reading Camus (pictured) with a Marlboro hanging off my lip, reciting Beckett while trucking around campus with my hands thrust deep in my pockets, thinking that Kafka must have been an amazingly cool guy, mostly because I didn’t understand a word of what he wrote.

In college began my long and winding path back to the church, stretching through 35 years of midlife, my “prime working years.” I’ve documented that path before in this space. But right now, I’m back beside Dick from Foxboro wondering about that reserve, the residue of doubt and skepticism that is often (always?) still there, a lasting legacy of my Exeter years. How do I grind that doubt away? How do I fully reopen my heart and silence the agnostic in my mind, so that next year I can be on my feet from the opening bell, clapping and singing along with the guy in the Patriots slicker?

I have been asking myself these questions all week long.

For All the Saints: George

I live in a time and a country where many Christians take their faith for granted. If it hadn’t been for brave souls such as St. George throughout history, however, despots might have  destroyed that faith.

When  I was a child, my parents had a small print in their study of Saint George slaying a dragon whose tail wrapped around the edges of the print. In deep blues and greens, the print hung on a corner wall  near my parents’ dictionary stand and our set of World Book encyclopedias. I knew, of course, that St. George was the stuff of British folklore and no more real than Robin Hood. I was wrong. 

The real St. George, depicted above in this bronze sculpture by early Renaissance artist Donatello, lived in the fourth century after Christ. He was born in Turkey to Christian parents. When his father died, he and his mother moved to her ancestral home in Palestine. When he was 17, George joined the Roman army and became known for his bravery.

He served under pagan Emperor Diocletian. For much of his reign, Diocletian allowed Christians to prosper. When the Emporer started persecuting Christians, however,  George protested. But in 302, edicts were issued to suppress Christianity throughout the Roman Empire.

George was imprisoned and tortured. He did not back down. He stayed true to his beliefs and for this, he was beheaded in Palestine on April 23, 303. The Church of St. George in Lod, just outside Tel Aviv, contains his tomb. The church is an Eastern Orthodox Shrine. The Greek Orthodox Church calls George “the Great Martyr” and his feast day is a Holy Day of Obligation. Most interestingly, many Muslims venerate Saint George as well. 

The year George was martyred, 303, began the “Great Persecution,” against Christians. Diocletian issued a series of decrees to force Christians to pledge allegiance to an imperial cult. An edict was issued “to tear down the churches to the foundations and to destroy the Sacred Scriptures by fire; and commanding also that those who were in honourable stations should be degraded if they persevered in their adherence to Christianity.” Can you imagine living under such conditions? Do you think you would be bold enough to risk your life for your faith?

It got worse. “Three further edicts (303-304) marked successive stages in the severity of the persecution: the first ordering that the bishopspresbyters, and deacons should be imprisoned; the second that they should be tortured and compelled by every means to sacrifice; the third including the laity as well as the clergy. The atrocious cruelty with which these edicts were enforced, and the vast numbers of those who suffered for the Faith are attested by Eusebius and the Acts of the Martyrs.”

About 10 years after George’s death, the Christian emperor Constantine came to power and George, along with other martyrs, was revered as a saint. From there,  legend about St. George developed. During the First Crusades, the story was he slayed a dragon. At that time, dragons symbolized the Devil. George is said to have appeared to the crusading armies at the Battle of Dorylaeum, in 1097, and the Siege of Antioch, in 1198. Both were great crusading victories, and so St George came to be seen as a protector of Christian soldiery.

Saint George, who is the patron saint of England, found his way into British literature. He is mentioned in Spencer’s Faerie Queene, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and Shakespeare’s Henry V.

I do love good stories, and the ones about George are fanciful and fun. But they also do a grave injustice to this saint who, after all, was an ordinary man of faith living in a tumultuous times. The real story of St. George is powerful without embellishment: Once upon a time, George, a brave Roman soldier, endured  torture and death so generations to come might be blessed with the gift of Christian faith.

O God, who didst grant to Saint George strength and constancy in the various torments which he sustained for our holy faith; we beseech Thee to preserve, through his intercession, our faith from wavering and doubt, so that we may serve Thee with a sincere heart faithfully unto death. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Because Sorrow Enriches Us

More than once, I’ve had my heart shattered. In my late teens, my first love left me without warning. In my late twenties, I lost my former college boyfriend to a drug overdose. In my late thirties, I nearly lost my beloved husband to a terror attack. Since then, until most recently, I have been haunted by a recurring dream that my wonderful, loyal Greg would not marry me, despite the life we’ve built together. The shock of nearly losing my husband has echoed in my heart. Only now, in my late forties, do I realize that the sorrows I’ve carried have woven themselves into the tapestry that is me. A recent encounter with my teen-aged self taught me that my sorrow has been a helpful companion. [Read more...]

John Milton, “On His Blindness” (A Few Words for Wednesday)

At the Boston Catholic Men’s Conference on Saturday, 1,000 men seated in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross were challenged to “go all in” in the great poker game with Jesus Christ. This challenge applies to you and me, whether we have a huge stack of chips in front of us or just a pair of white ones, like the widow with her mite. English poet John Milton (1608–1674) was completely blind by the age of 44—not as serious a calamity as Beethoven’s deafness but certainly a handicap to the author of Paradise Lost. His chips were depleted.

Meditating on his “spent light,” Milton came up with the beautiful sonnet known as “On His Blindness.” Any time you feel you have little to give, or the wrong thing, you can recall Milton’s final line: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” At the center of the sonnet stands Patience.

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.” 

To Sing My Part

Our oldest son told me once: “Mom, life is not an opera.” Oh, I don’t know about that. My older sisters and I called ourselves “The Singing Salerno Sisters” when we were growing up. We sang constantly: pop songs, church pieces and folk music. When I became a mother, singing my babies to sleep was merely the end of a day spent singing to them. Now, I sing while schlepping our boys to their activities. I sing (not too loudly) to relieve my stress in the grocery store line. I sing while waiting for the tank to fill up at the gas station. All my singing, however, largely has been done in private. I hadn’t sung in any kind of group for at least a decade until I joined our church choir this fall. Because the choir is so small—two voices to a part—I’ve had to rethink the way I sing and the way I live.

The last time I sang for any sustained time in formal groups was 30 years ago. I sang in three high school groups: chorus, concert choir and madrigal choir. Even the madrigal choir was big enough that I could hide.  There always were several altos who were much more confident and talented than I. So I hid behind their voices. I waited for them to come in on our part. I followed behind.

I can’t hide now. In my church choir, I’m one of two altos. Sometimes, my fellow alto has to sing tenor because her range is too low. Sometimes, she has trouble finding the right notes or rhythms, as do I. This means I can’t lean on her. I can’t hide my voice behind hers. I can’t assume she’s leading me anywhere.

As a result of being one of just two altos, I’ve discovered I don’t always have the best grasp on lyrics. Often, what I imagine the words to be is slightly off from what the words are. I’ve discovered I can be lazy about counting, so I invent my own rhythms. I’ve discovered I’m always waiting for someone else to start singing my part.

I’ve had to confront the idea that my voice is my own. I’ve got to keep the time. I’ve got to know my part. I’ve got to know my words. My voice is part of a larger group of singers who are relying on me to be prepared and confident so in harmony we can all pray to God through song.

I am thankful that God, who created the music of the cosmos, led me to this choir. My fellow choristers are helping me learn to share what gifts I have in ways I never have before.“Give thanks to the LORD on the harp; with the ten-stringed lyre chant his praises. Sing to him a new song; pluck the strings skillfully, with shouts of gladness.”

Gettin’ Twangy, Sister (Music for Mondays)

Frank and I have so much fun with this regular feature we might have to make it a daily affair. Well, maybe not. We’ve had chants, polyphony, Christian rockers, and just plain rockers in recent weeks. It’s time to get twangy with some of America’s top country and bluegrass ladies, each of whom has something to say to the spirit. Last week, I did a post on Mary Gauthier’s lovely tune “Mercy Now,” recorded at the Grand Old Opry. Here’s a quartet of tunes that make good company for that one and may just rain a little more mercy down on us all.

Gillian Welch, “Orphan Girl
You’d never guess she’s a native New Yorker, playing here with her longtime musical partner David Rawlings. By the way, the G in Gillian is hard, as in “Gilligan’s Island”—

I am an orphan on God’s highway
But I’ll share my troubles if you go my way
I have no mother no father
No sister no brother
I am an orphan girl

I have had friendships pure and golden
But the ties of kinship I have not known them
I know no mother no father
No sister no brother
I am an orphan girl

But when He calls me I will be able
To meet my family at God’s table
I’ll meet my mother my father
My sister my brother
No more orphan girl

Blessed Savior make me willing
And walk beside me until I’m with them
Be my mother my father
My sister my brother
I am an orphan girl

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Nanci Griffith, “From a Distance”
Bette Midler went platinum with this tune by Julie Gold, but long before that, my little daughters and I used to sing along with Nanci Griffith on the tape player in the beloved old Blue Bomber, and at the top of our lungs—so that’s the version you get here.

God is watching us, from a distance . . . 

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Alison Krauss and Union Station, “A Living Prayer”
Their version of “There is a Reason” is even better for my money, but You Tube won’t let you embed it. So you’ll have to click here for that one.

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The Wailin’ Jennys, “Glory Bound”
This Canadian trio—Ruth Moody, Nicky Mehta, and Heather Masse—is one of my favorite finds on Pandora Radio, and Lordy knows, they’re headed in the right direction:

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Allison Krauss and Gillian Welch, “I’ll Fly Away”
And you thought they were already good on their own—they are even better together! The duo combined forces and was featured on the O Brother Where Art Thou movie soundtrack. Frank really likes it and snuck it in at the last second.

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For Practical Advice Like This from Benedict Baur

Webster was kind enough earlier this year to send me a gem of a book about developing one’s interior spiritual life. This is one of those books, like St. Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle, that is so deep, so lovely and so helpful that one certainly cannot read it in one sitting, or even a chapter at a time. In fact, I have been reading it sentence by sentence, pausing to take notes and meditate on how the book’s message speaks to my own circuitous pilgrim path.

The title of this book, “Frequent Confession”  by the late German abbot Benedict Baur  O.S.B.,  was about as appealing to me as would be a book titled “Monthly Weigh-ins” that focuses on improving one’s physical health. That is because Baur’s book, first published in 1922, is not so much about encouraging Catholics to make frequent use of the Sacrament of Penance, which it does, but rather about cultivating an understanding of one’s exterior and interior faults daily so as to grow spiritually. Thus, frequent confession becomes a kind of weigh-in for our souls.

Thanks to poor faith formation as a child and my own spiritual immaturity, my understanding of the Sacrament of Penance has been shallow. I knew one is supposed to go to Confession at least once a year and always after one has committed a mortal sin, including deliberately missing Sunday Mass. So my habit has been to go at least once a year, and when I am aware of a mortal sin. Then before I head into the confessional I will do a quick examination of conscience, which helps me to confess a few venial sins for good measure. Until I started reading Baur’s book, sadly enough, I never connected my earnest freelance efforts to grow as a Christian throughout the year with this sacrament. This book is a useful guide.

Baur, for example, recommends that we examine our conscience every evening. He suggests we take a look at our “thought, feelings, words and deeds.” This is not an obsessive-compulsive exercise in scrupulosity; rather, Baur says: “When this examination of conscience is made regularly it is not very difficult; a person knows his customary failings,  and so he discovers without much trouble whatever faults he has committed during the day.” It’s pretty humbling.

Another point Baur makes early on in the book is that we can confess sins more than once. I never had considered this;  I had felt an overwhelming sense of relief that some of the more embarrassing sins of my youth had been confessed and that was that. Baur is helping me to see the links in my journey, the way my path sometimes winds back upon itself.  In other words, perhaps as a youth I had the tendency to sin in a certain way. While I have confessed those particular sins, and no longer sin in that way, the underlying character fault that caused those sins has remained and perhaps found expression in different ways of sinning.

Baur follows this insight with a discussion of exterior and interior faults. Exterior faults are those “by which those around us are annoyed or irritated.” I am finding those are easy to tackle, or at least to identify. For example, I have a tendency to gossip. When I fall into that bad habit or feel as if I am about to, it is relatively easy to realize and then I quite literally hold my tongue.

What is much more difficult to face and diminish are my interior faults: “our own faults of character, the weak points in our makeup.” These are the brutes I’m now confronting. It’s painful and cathartic and perhaps the subject of another post at another time. I am so grateful to have this monk, Benedict Baur, as my companion through rough terrain.

For now, dear readers, I’d like to ask you: what role does confession play in the cultivation of your own interior life?