To Become Like Little Children

This afternoon my friend Carol led my fourth-grade religious ed class through the Stations of the Cross. Teaching this class this year has been a revelation, and while I look forward to the summer break, I will miss these kids. They continue to teach me.

They have surprised me in so many ways: Boys who didn’t seem to give a hang in October now reading along attentively with Carol. Look at my pal C at left! Not to mention the other C in the Jacoby Ellsbury Red Sox jersey.

Girls who wanted only to blend in with the woodwork, meek, seemingly afraid or unwilling to step forward, now front and center with their interest. That’s my friend E to the left of the column, looking so intently at the 11th Station. Beautiful!

Children have a deep, indelible wish to know God. I can’t wait for my next class in the fall. I can’t wait to start learning again.

Thanks to Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich

“On the day upon which the Church celebrates the feast, I had a vision of Mary’s Annunciation.”

At daily Adoration I have been reading slowly The Life of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the visions of German visionary and stigmatist Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824). I opened the book today (volume one of four) and found that I had reached the Annunciation, which we celebrate tomorrow. It reads:

“I saw the Blessed Virgin a short time after her marriage in the house of Nazareth. Joseph was not there. He was at that moment journeying with two beasts of burden on the road to Tiberias, whither he was going to get his tools. But Anne was in the house with her maid and two of the virgins who had been with Mary in the Temple. Everything in the house had been newly arranged by Anne. Toward evening they all prayed standing around a circular stool from which they afterward ate vegetables that had been served.”

I feel a bit kooky reading Emmerich. She starts with the Garden of Eden, for goshsakes, complete with a tree on an island in the middle of a pond, as vivid as the island green at Sawgrass (left). Emmerich’s vision of the Annunciation is just as vivid.

“Anne seemed to be very busy about the household affairs, and for a time she moved around here and there, while the Blessed Virgin ascended the steps to her room. There she put on a long, white, woolen garment, such as it was customary to wear during prayer, a girdle around her waist, and a yellowish-white veil over her head. The maid entered, lighted the branched lamp, and retired. Mary drew out a little, low table, which stood folded by the wall, and placed it in the center of the room. It had a semicircular leaf, which could be raised on a movable support so that when ready for use the little table stood on three legs. Mary spread upon it a red and then a white, transparent cover, which hung down on the side opposite the leaf. It was fringed at the end and embroidered in the center. A white cover was spread on the rounded edge.”

I love all this detail. Don’t you wonder where it came from—and how it could possibly go on for 1,800 pages? What was happening here?

“When the little table was prepared, Mary laid a small, round cushion before it and, resting both hands on the leaf, she gently sank on her knees, her back turned to her couch, the door of the chamber to her right. . . . I saw her praying for a long time with intense fervor. She prayed for Redemption, for the promised King, and that her own supplications might have some influence upon His coming. She knelt long, as if in ecstasy, her face raised to Heaven; then she drooped her head upon her breast and thus continued her prayer. And now she glanced to the right and beheld a radiant youth with flowing, yellow hair. It was the archangel Gabriel. His feet did not touch the ground. In an oblique line and surrounded by an effulgence of light and glory, he came floating down to Mary. The lamp grew dim, for the whole room was lighted up by the glory.”

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Emmerich entered an Augustinian convent when she was twenty-eight. “Here she was content to be regarded as the lowest in the house.” Her sisters were disturbed and annoyed with her weak health, her ecstasies, her strange powers. In 1813 she became bedridden, and soon afterward she received the Stigmata, including the marks of thorns encircling her head. In about 1820 Klemens Brentano, a famous poet, visited her. She recognized him, saying that he was the man who would help her fulfill the word of God. She dictated the entire
Life of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ to Brentano. He was won over by her purity, humility, and patience under indescribable sufferings.

“The angel, with hands gently raised before his breast, spoke to Mary. I saw the words like letters of glittering light issuing from his lips. Mary replied, but without looking up. Then the angel again spoke and Mary, as if in obedience to his command, raised her veil a little, glanced at him, and said, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done unto me according to they word!’ I saw her now in deeper ecstasy. The ceiling of the room vanished, and over the house appeared a luminous cloud with a pathway of light leading up from it to the opened heavens. Far up in the source of this light, I beheld a vision of the Most Holy Trinity. It was like a triangle of glory, and I thought that I saw therein the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

“As Mary uttered the words: ‘May it be done unto me according to thy word!’ I saw an apparition of the Holy Ghost. The countenance was human and the whole apparition environed by dazzling splendor, as if surrounded by wings. From the breast and hands, I saw issuing three streams of light. They penetrated the right side of the Blessed Virgin and united into one under her heart. At that instant Mary became perfectly transparent and luminous. It was as if opacity disappeared like darkness before that flood of light.”

The Catholic Encyclopedia tells us, “Sister Emmerich lived during one of the saddest and least glorious periods of the Church’s history, when revolution triumphed, impiety flourished, and several of the fairest provinces of its domain were overrun by infidels and cast into such ruinous condition that the Faith seemed about to be completely extinguished. Her mission in part seems to have been by her  . . .  Besides all this she saved many souls and recalled to the Christian world that the supernatural is around about it to a degree sometimes forgotten. A rumour that the body was stolen  caused her grave  to be opened six weeks after her death. The body was found fresh, without any sign of corruption. In 1892 the process of her beatification was introduced.

“While the angel and with him the streams of glory vanished, I saw down the path of light that led up to Heaven, showers of half-blown roses and tiny green leaves falling upon Mary. She, entirely absorbed in self, saw in herself the Incarnate Son of God, a tiny, human form of light with all the members, even to the little fingers perfect. It was about midnight that I saw this mystery.”

Because of the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Guest post by Allison Salerno
Tomorrow, nine months before Christmas, our Church celebrates the Feast of the Annunciation—the moment when God became Incarnate in the womb of an unmarried, virgin teenager. So important is this start to our Lord’s life that the only time we Catholics bow when we recite the Nicene Creed is when we say “by the power of the Holy Spirit, [Jesus] was born of the Virgin Mary and became man.”

Did Mary fully understand what she was agreeing to? Did she consider the risks? Did she imagine her pain at the eventual crucifixion of this baby? Did she foresee how her gift of yes would give humanity the possibility of eternal life? Pope St. Leo the Great, in his eloquent letter, details the consequences of Mary’s fiat:

Lowliness is assumed by majesty, weakness by power, mortality by eternity. To pay the debt of our sinful state, a nature that was incapable of suffering was joined to one that could suffer. Thus, in keeping with the healing that we needed, one and the same mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ, was able to die in one nature, and unable to die in the other.

Once, March 25 was a Holy Day of Obligation and the day was called the Feast of the Incarnation. The newer, vaguer name, with the removal of any obligation, diminishes its importance. Still, across the globe, Catholics are reclaiming the day.

In 1993 El Salvador became the first nation to make March 25 a secular holiday to commemorate the unborn. Other Latin American countries have followed suit, including Peru, Ecuador and Argentina. In 2001 the Dominican Republic approved the celebration, saying it is “appropriate and necessary to assign a day to the unborn child, for the purpose of encouraging reflection on the important role of a pregnant woman in the destiny of humanity, and the value of the human life she carries in her womb.”

In an effort to highlight the significance of the Incarnation, since 2002 the Knights of Columbus have been calling March 25 ” The Day of Prayer for the Unborn Child,” to encourage Catholics to pray for an end to abortion. In Virginia last year, Sarah Harkins designed and made this lovely pro-life rosary.)

Conception is a hidden miracle. Abortion is a hidden evil.

If your local Knights of Columbus chapter is not sponsoring prayers for unborn children, pray the rosary in the morning for the safety of innocents now being nurtured in their mothers’ wombs. Pray too, as Pope John Paul II asked: for all of us to find ways to support women in crisis pregnancies; provide counseling services, open our hearts and homes to “unwanted” and abandoned children, young people in difficulty, to the handicapped, and to those who have no one to care for them.”

It’s the least we can do for our Blessed Mother.

Because Jesus Beats the Devil at Martin Luther’s Game

Reading my daily gospel chapter (Matthew 4), I started out thinking, “So why four Gospels?” Islam has one Koran, one truth never to be challenged, on pain of death. By approving a canon of four Gospels, the Church Fathers opened themselves to, nay invited multiple interpretations. As though the story of Christ’s life among us had been made by Akira Kurosawa and the four Gospels were a Greek “Rashomon.”

In that 1950 classic starring Toshiro Mifune (pictured), the story of a crime is told from four conflicting viewpoints. So with the Gospels and its story of the answer to a Great Crime, original sin: Did Mary hear an angel’s voice and visit Elizabeth, as Luke has it; or did Joseph hear an angel in a dream and flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt, as Matthew tells us? Or both?!

What exactly happened after the Resurrection, and in what order, and how long did it take? I’m sure you Bible scholars (Frank?) can give far better examples. I’m just a po’ largely unchurched, unBibled Episcopalian gone Roman.

But you see my point? The structure of four Gospels makes interpretation required. So sola scriptura, the “Reformation” “creed” that only Scripture is infallible, has an inherent self-contradiction at the outset.

Then you come to Matthew 4, and the three temptations of Christ. Jesus and “the tempter” have what amounts to a Scripture Slam, fending each other off with passages from what we now know as the Old Testament. The second temptation is the kicker. The devil uses Scripture (the 91st Psalm in this case) to tempt Jesus. And what does Jesus do? Contradicts the devil with Scripture (Deuteronomy 6:16)!

Now, I’m sure the “Reformers” have an answer for this quandary of mine, and I hope to hear from a few of them. But for now, I’m just a po’ Catholic boy scratching my thinning white head. Was Kurosawa Catholic?

“And Death Shall Have No Dominion” (A Few Words for Wednesday)

I know, Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (1914–1953) was an agnostic, and this poem hardly offers a Christian world view. It takes shots at the Inquisition (“twisting on racks”) and offers a vision of the afterlife that is antic, caustic, not Catholic. Still, and although he died a drunken mess when I was but two, I have always loved Thomas’s poetry, ever since Mr. Griswold taught us “Fern Hill” in eighth grade.

Thomas More was a great believer in meditating on the Four Last Things: death, judgment, hell, and heaven. Here’s an opportunity. Whether it is ironic or positive, or both, “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” is a fitting poem for this time of year, don’t you think? In such beauty God reveals Himself.

And Death Shall Have No Dominion
And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan’t crack;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.

Now that you’ve had a chance to read it to yourself, listen to Dylan Thomas reading it.

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Because the First Shall Be Last

Those who attack the Pope and the Vatican, thinking that this might bring down the Catholic Church, will never succeed. They are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. They are beating the donkey on his rear end instead of on his head; a donkey only moves faster when you beat its tail. The Catholic Church is not the Pope and cardinals. The Catholic Church is us.

For the Church to die, my faith will have to die, and yours. Our hope, grounded in faith, will have to be destroyed. Our charitable works, moved by faith, will have to end. And critics will have to chastise and ultimately destroy not Benedict XVI, who (horrible to think) might have had knowledge of abuse in Germany while he was a prelate there. They will have to destroy you and me.

They will have to silence people like my friend Z, who ministers to dying people as a physician in the OR of a leading Boston hospital. Or J, who selflessly tends our rectory garden, utterly pro bono, all summer long, even while Finbar, the zany rectory dog, uproots anything planted. Or F and C, who take communion to the old and enfeebled of our parish, though they are quite old themselves. They stop to say a rosary at each rest home.

Critics will have to bring down famous Catholics, too—not famous like BXVI or JPII, but famous like Mother Teresa, like Francis of Assisi, or like Jesus of Nazareth, who still lives in each of these beautiful human beings.

This line of thinking occurred to me this morning after I did two things. (1) Read a New York Times op-ed piece about the history of abuse in Germany, called “Benedict’s Fragile Church.” (2) Read my daily gospel chapter, in this case, Matthew 3, the story of Jesus’s baptism by John.

It struck me as remarkable that Jesus’s public life began by submitting to baptism at the hands of a wild-eyed prophet in the wilderness, wearing camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey. The wild-eyed one asks, whatever for? You should be baptizing me! Jesus answers, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” And bows down and is submerged in the waters of the Jordan.

On Maundy Thursday, one of the most beautiful days in the Christian calendar, our priest, Father Barnes, will wash the feet of twelve parishioners, recalling Jesus and the apostles on the evening of the Last Supper. Jesus bowing down again, and again water. Two thousand years later, His Church rolls on like the Jordan.

For Chants Such as These (Music for Mondays)

It’s Monday, and looking very gloomy in my neck of the woods. Pop music? Not interested. Blues? I feel them, but no. I need something a lot more holy than that today. Spring may have sprung, but it still felt like I was in hibernation this morning. Here are a few selections that fit the bill for my frame of mind.

First, the Regina Caelorum (the Marian antiphon from the Presentation of the Lord until Good Friday). Here is an English translation:

Hail, O Queen of Heaven enthroned.
Hail, by angels mistress owned.
Root of Jesse, Gate of Morn

Whence the world’s true light was born:
Glorious Virgin, Joy to thee,
Loveliest whom in heaven they see;
Fairest thou, where all are fair,
Plead with Christ our souls to spare.

V. Vouchsafe that I may praise thee, O sacred Virgin.
R. Give me strength against thine enemies.

Let us pray: We beseech thee, O Lord, mercifully to assist our infirmity: that like as we do now commemorate Blessed Mary Ever-Virgin, Mother of God; so by the help of her intercession we may die to our former sins and rise again to newness of life. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Remember the Gospel reading yesterday when Jesus brought Lazarus back to life? Rejoice O Bethany. And the rest of these are in English, so I can follow along.

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And now for a couple more that are in English (whew!). First, the Polyeleos. The citation from Wikipedia reads:

The word “polyeleos” also refers to a large chandelier used in some Orthodox churches, particularly in monasteries. It is in the form of a very large circle (also called a corona or horos) with many candles on it, and is often adorned with icons of numerous saints. The polyeleos is suspended by a chain from the ceiling. During the chanting of the Polyeleos psalms (134 and 135), all of the candles are lit and it is pushed with a rod so that it turns back and forth during the singing, adding to the joy of the service. This practice is still seen in the monasteries of Mount Athos and in other traditional Orthodox monasteries throughout the world.

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This one reminds me of St. Romanus singing of the unapproachable light: Now Christ, Thou Sun of Justice

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Because Soccer Doesn’t Matter

Guest post by Allison Salerno 
Yesterday afternoon, our ten-year-old recorded nine saves during his two quarters as goalie, helping lead his traveling soccer team to a 4-0 victory over the U-10 team a few towns over. I watched intently from the sidelines and felt oddly indifferent to it all. My lack of reaction was so apparent that parents sitting next to me were saying things like, “Did you miss it? Your son just made a really great save.”

I’d like to think it’s a sign of spiritual maturity that the farther into my faith journey I walk, the less attached I feel to my son’s God-given talents. I now also cherish the parts of his life where our son struggles, because I have come to see challenges as gifts, too. I feel content to know that the talents and the struggles are all part of God’s plan for my little boy.

Our 10-year-old acquired the nickname “Lucky” a few years ago because his Little League team deemed it lucky when he was playing. The boy was gifted with athletic abilities. He never crawled; he started walking at nine months, the same age he started throwing and catching balls.

At one time, I was emeshed in his athletic successes. When he was seven, he made the regional swim championships as a summer swimmer competing against boys who already were swimming yearround. “This is our big moment,” I said out loud as one of Lucky’s races was about to begin. A wise acquaintence next to me said gently, ‘No Allison, this is his big moment, not yours.”

One of my midlife epiphanies is that God created humans to worship. If we don’t worship God, we end up worshipping something else. In the case of many of us middle-class parents in the United States, we worship our children.

We build our lives around their schedules and end up treating them like little gods. Our son plays on two travel teams: summer baseball and spring-and-fall soccer. I estimate we’ve logged thousands of miles in the family van, shuttling him across Central New Jersey for games. I’ve stood on the sidelines of soccer fields, swimming pools, and baseball fields, cheering Lucky on in all kinds of weather, acting as if my destiny depended on how well he played that day.

As I have grown older and, I hope, wiser, my husband and I have brought our own family’s internal rhythm in sync with the Church’s. The great drama playing out is not the ref’s latest call, but our own ability to grow in holiness and faith. The challenge before us is to help our sons mature in all their dimensions, to ensure that they treat themselves and others with the exquisite care that God has demonstrated for them.

I have also come to cherish my son’s challenges as much as, if not more than, his talents. Lucky is a bright boy who struggles with school. Speaking came with difficulty; by age four my husband and I could understand only about five percent of what he was saying. His older brother understood him and served as a translater for us and everyone else.

Lucky has worked hard to speak, to read, and to write. He doesn’t expect anything to come easily to him. Neither my husband nor I know anyone who works harder than Lucky does on whatever task lies before him. The kid has grit.

Sure, I like the fact that my son’s good at sports. It gives him the chance to have fun and use his talents to help whatever team he’s playing for.

What really matters, however, is what we do with the multitude of gifts God gives us, including our hardships. This might sound blasphemous in some circles, but at the end of our days, soccer is irrelevant

Because of Vespers

Guest Post by Allison Salerno
We Roman Catholics have nearly forgotten the tradition of Vespers. A parishioner approached my priest last week after Sunday Vespers, wondering why we have started to incorporate “Anglican traditions” into our own. Thanks to some dedicated parishioners,  our sons get to grow up knowing Vespers is very much a “Catholic thing.”

To be fair, I never heard of Vespers growing up Catholic in the 1970s, except for the Evensong services offered by the Episcopal church across town. I didn’t realize until recently that Vespers are evening prayer services whose roots go all the way back to the Apostles, who followed the Jewish practice of praying certain prayers at certain times of the day.

Vespers are part of the Liturgy of the Hours, also known as the Divine Office. This is the official set of daily prayers that clergy and religious have been praying for centuries. Since the sixth century, the prayers have been virtually unchanged. Thanks to Vatican II, members of the laity are encouraged to pray them as well.

Two of our newer parishioners  have urged our pastor to restore this ancient tradition of Vespers (at our parish). We are fortunate that our pastor has been not only receptive, but most enthusiastic. To quote the Second Vatican Council:

Pastors of souls should see to it that the chief hours, especially Vespers, are celebrated in common in church on Sundays and the more solemn feasts. And the laity, too, are encouraged to recite the divine office, either with the priests, or among themselves, or even individually.—Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, § 100  

About twenty parishioners have been gathering for Vespers every Sunday in Lent. The service is sacred and simple. On Sunday, the service began after our pastor entered the sanctuary in his resplendent purple cope. Then three members of our Chant Club chanted in Latin Audi, Benigne Conditor (Merciful Creator, Hear!) under the direction of a retired choir director who leapt at the opportunity to restore an ancient form. This chant is used at all Sunday Vespers during Lent. The Vespers, which include Scripture readings, prayers and psalms, took no more than 20 minutes.

So, why Vespers?  As the Council was at pains to point out, we do these things for “the sanctification of men and the praise of God.” That’s good enough reason for anyone.

How powerful to consider that throughout the world, for centuries, the faithful have been praying and chanting these very same prayers and chants. What a privilege to be able to gather with my parish family to end Sundays this way.

Because It Allows Me to See Everything Differently, Even “Avatar” in IMAX 3-D

Saturday was a day of contrasts. I ate lunch in Boston’s North End with Z and other friends from Communion and Liberation (CL). Over pasta with salmon, we discussed CL and its “main instrument,” the School of Community. In the evening, I had a dinner date with my sweetheart: a vegetarian meal on Long Wharf followed by Avatar in IMAX 3-D at the Boston Aquarium. I came home exhausted.

First, about the exhaustion. I had left Z’s North End home invigorated, ambling up Prince Street to my car with renewed appreciation for the charism offered by Father Giussani, founder of CL. Fr. James Martin, in his book My Life with the Saints, so instrumental in my conversion, notes that Ignatius of Loyola became a priest because of contrasts: He realized that when he read accounts of war, he felt sapped, but when he read Scripture or the lives of the saints, he felt renewed. And so was I renewed, weaving through the Saturday afternoon crowd on Prince Street while looking around for an Italian mother leaning out a second-floor window shouting, “Anthony!”

After the full-metal barrage of the 162-minute Avatar, by contrast, it was all I could do to drive safely home—over the Tobin Bridge, up Route 1, and out onto 128, thinking all the while about the film, trying to “judge my experience,” in the parlance of CL. This is the beautiful thing about Catholicism in general and CL in particular: Together (especially together) they are an invitation to see life through new eyes, though not exactly eyes of the Na’vi. (For the three of you in America who have not seen the film: refer to poster.)

I had a snap reaction to the film: It offers nature worship and romantic love as the highest values, while reveling in technology (those special effects!). Avatar’s idea of crucifixion is being confined to a wheelchair, like the main human character. Its idea of resurrection is for a paralyzed man to lie down in a tomb-like bed of electrodes and come back to life in the body of an ersatz Na’vi, by some sort of electronic mind transfer. Avatar posits an Earth that is dying and a distant planet, Pandora, where there is some sort of vague hope, although in the end that hope comes true for one and only one character, the protagonist. Director James Cameron (“The Terminator,” “Titanic”) does not exactly espouse a Catholic world view.

And yet . . . In an effort to “judge” the film, which boils down to looking for the presence of Christ in it, I realized that, for all its pantheism and enthrallment to technology, Avatar’s main character, the protagonist, is motivated by an unquenchable desire. At first, paralyzed from the waist down, he wants only to walk, and a hard-ass army officer has promised him the needed operation if he agrees to use his ersatz Na’vi figure as a sort of undercover elf. (The three of you who haven’t seen the film—are you getting confused yet?) But Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) discovers a deeper desire once he encounters the Na’vi people, and it is that desire that drives the narrative. Without that desire, no story, no humanity—just a lot of special effects and the inevitable climactic megamilitary blow-out, complete with hard-ass officer making like The Terminator for one last showdown.

It is the desire in our hearts for the divine that drives our narrative, that is the most indelible feature of our human nature. That desire is finally satisfied only in one place—not on another planet or through any kind of science-driven “resurrection”—but in Jesus Christ. That’s my take on Avatar—and why I found it not only sense-numbing and exhausting but also compelling.

My friend Z is always full of surprises. Having already worked out this post in my mind, I sent him an e-mail about having seen Avatar. His “judgment” was much more basic and beautiful. Z wrote:

Wonderful Avatar . . . However I just prefer the old movie style where the American army are the good people.


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