Tuesday, May 31, 2011

God seeks out Abraham

From The Life of Abraham: Abraham and the Angels and The Sacrifice of Isaac c AD 547
Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna

Abraham and the Angels
c. AD 547
San Vitale, Ravenna

Elonei (oaks of) Mamre was Abraham's dwelling place. Here he built an altar to God (Gen. 13:18).

It lies about 3 km from Hebron

In Christian (but not Jewish ) tradition, it is the place where Abraham was visited by three angels. Others such as St Augustine have postulated that it was in fact the Trinity, or God the Father and two angels.

The visit is described in Genesis 18, the subject of Pope Benedict`s allocution on 18th May 2011 in his series of catechesis on Prayer

It has been a place of pilgrimage since the earliest Christian times. It is a special place of veneration in the Orthodox tradition especially in the Russian Orthodox Church

We do not need to look further than Rublev`s famous icon itself based on an earlier icon The Hospitality of Abraham:

Andrei Rublev
c. 1360 - c 1427
The Icon of the Trinity c. 1410
Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Now it is a place of tensions between Christian, Jew and Muslim.

But about 4250 years ago the Patriarch Abraham was there visited by angels, where he was told by God that his wife Sarah would have a son and where he prayed for Sodom and Gomorrah to be spared.

It is the first solemn prayer we have upon record in the Bible. Presumably that is why the Pope decided to speak on it in his series on Prayer.

Chapter 18 of Genesis is as follows:

" 1 The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.

2 Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.

3 He said, If I have found favour in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by.

4 Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree.

5 Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way— now that you have come to your servant. Very well, they answered, do as you say.

6 So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. Quick, he said, get three seahs of fine flour and knead it and bake some bread.

7 Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it.

8 He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.

9 Where is your wife Sarah? they asked him. There, in the tent, he said.

10 Then the LORD said, I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son. Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him.

11 Abraham and Sarah were already old and well advanced in years, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing.

12 So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?

13 Then the LORD said to Abraham, Why did Sarah laugh and say, 'Will I really have a child, now that I am old?'

14 Is anything too hard for the LORD? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son.

15 Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, I did not laugh. But he said, Yes, you did laugh.

Abraham Pleads for Sodom

16 When the men got up to leave, they looked down towards Sodom, and Abraham walked along with them to see them on their way.

17 Then the LORD said, Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?

18 Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him.

19 For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just, so that the LORD will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.

20 Then the LORD said, The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous

21 that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.

22 The men turned away and went towards Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the LORD.

23 Then Abraham approached him and said: Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?

24 What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it?

25 Far be it from you to do such a thing— to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?

26 The LORD said, If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.

27 Then Abraham spoke up again: Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes,

28 what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city because of five people?

If I find forty-five there, he said, I will not destroy it.

29 Once again he spoke to him, What if only forty are found there?

He said, For the sake of forty, I will not do it.

30 Then he said, May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?

He answered, I will not do it if I find thirty there.

31 Abraham said, Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?

He said, For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it.

32 Then he said, May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?

He answered, For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.

33 When the LORD had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home."

In his talk the Pope concentrates on verses 20 and following.

But the earlier verses in the Chapter are needed for context.

The incident takes places three months after Abraham had initiated the ritual of circumcision. He did this out of obedience to God

The Three men suddenly appear as out of nowhere.

They have the appearance of men.

Hans Bol (1534–1593
Abraham and the Three Angels 1586
Bodycolour heightened with gold, some retouching in the sky, black ink and gold framing lines
Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden

(The city in the background which represents Sodom is Delft)

Christian Rohlfs 1849 – 1938
God seeks out Abraham 1921
Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart

The hospitality is warm and lavish even although the Patriarch was not aware of their divine nature. The conformity of the Patriarch and later of his nephew Lot to the ancient laws of hospitality contrasts sharply with the breach of the same laws by the inhabitants of Sodom towards the two strangers in the next chapter.

But the penny must have started to drop with Abraham when the strangers asked after his wife. And when the senior informed Abraham that she would have a child. They confirm the promise lately made to Abraham. The promise is then renewed and ratified, that she should have a son

Sarah`s reaction is cynical laughter. Abraham is silent. Then even Sarah realises that these are no ordinary men. They knew what she was thinking.

As the men set off towards Sodom, Abraham accompanies them. He has confidence in them. They have confidence in him. They decide to reveal their true identities and their mission.

As the Pope said:

"It is recounted that the evil of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah had reached the height of depravity so as to require an intervention of God, an act of justice, that would prevent the evil from destroying those cities.

It is here that Abraham comes in, with his prayer of intercession. God had revealed to him what is about to happen and acquaints him with the gravity of the evil and its terrible consequences, because Abraham is his chosen one, chosen to become a great people and to bring the divine blessing to the whole world.

His is a mission of salvation which must counter the sin that has invaded human reality; the Lord wishes to bring humanity back to faith, obedience and justice through Abraham. And now this friend of God seeing the reality and neediness of the world, prays for those who are about to be punished and begs that they be saved."

Then we realise why Sarah had every right to be fearful. These men were to embark on a horrifying mission. Cities and their populations were to be obliterated from the face of the earth - as an act of divine punishment.

But perhaps now we have become immune to the feeling of awe and horror.

The twentieth century and all its horrific wars and the sight of modern wars on television may have put deadened any sensibilities in that regard. Through the medium of television we can see the missiles being luached and their effect on cities. Man has built great machines of destruction. And truly they are great as anyone who has ever stood beside a modern jet fighter or near a modern battleship or aircraft carrier can attest. We are in awe at the power of man. It is as if man has become a god. He can cause the whirlwind.

In the light of this shocking revelation from God, Abraham tries to plead for the city and people of Sodom.

The Pope discussed Abraham`s prayer of intercession addressed in his face to face encounter with Almighty God.

Communion with God is kept up by the Word and by prayer. In the Word God speaks to us. In prayer we speak to Him.

The prayer of the Patriarch is a remakable prayer. He accused God of planning to act unjustly:

"And now this friend of God seeing the reality and neediness of the world, prays for those who are about to be punished and begs that they be saved.

Abraham immediately postulates the problem in all its gravity and says to the Lord: “Will you indeed destroy the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen 18: 23-25).

Speaking these words with great courage, Abraham confronts God with the need to avoid a perfunctory form of justice: if the city is guilty it is right to condemn its crime and to inflict punishment, but — the great Patriarch affirms — it would be unjust to punish all the inhabitants indiscriminately.

If there are innocent people in the city, they must not be treated as the guilty. God, who is a just judge, cannot act in this way, Abraham says rightly to God."

Indeed the question posed by Abraham is subtle: "What is Justice ?"

It is a question which we in our 21st century Western comfort and our pride in our "progress" might not expect to hear being discussed by a Bronze Age nomad in the desert of the Middle East. Today it is usually only discussed in certain courses for certain students in universities.

The language in the passage under discussion hitherto has been that of a court case. God proposed a collective lex talionis on the city and its inhabitants. Abraham argues that this is not Justice.

But the argument comes from a man filled with deep faith and humility and who addresses God with reverence and respect. The King James version perhaps indicates this better in its translation:

"And Abraham answered and said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes" (Gen 18:27)

The Pope continued:

" [I]f we read the text more attentively we realize that Abraham's request is even more pressing and more profound because he does not stop at asking for salvation for the innocent.

Abraham asks forgiveness for the whole city and does so by appealing to God’s justice; indeed, he says to the Lord: “Will you then destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it?” (v. 24b).

In this way he brings a new idea of justice into play: not the one that is limited to punishing the guilty, as men do, but a different, divine justice that seeks goodness and creates it through forgiveness that transforms the sinner, converts and saves him.

With his prayer, therefore, Abraham does not invoke a merely compensatory form of justice but rather an intervention of salvation which, taking into account the innocent, also frees the wicked from guilt by forgiving them.

Abraham’s thought, which seems almost paradoxical, could be summed up like this: obviously it is not possible to treat the innocent as guilty, this would be unjust; it would be necessary instead to treat the guilty as innocent, putting into practice a “superior” form of justice, offering them a possibility of salvation because, if evildoers accept God’s pardon and confess their sin, letting themselves be saved, they will no longer continue to do wicked deeds, they too will become righteous and will no longer deserve punishment.

It is this request for justice that Abraham expresses in his intercession, a request based on the certainty that the Lord is merciful. Abraham does not ask God for something contrary to his essence, he knocks at the door of God’s heart knowing what he truly desires."

The argument is not simply that it is not just to destroy the innocent along with the guilty. It is also that by destroying the guilty one defeats any opportunity for conversion of the guilty.

The "dust and ashes" Patriarch presses God. He haggles over how many "just men" need to be found before God will issue a reprieve. From fifty the number is gradually whittled down to ten

Divine Mercy is a fundamental element of Divine Justice. Without unlimited mercy, there is no Justice. Justice does not exist.

The Pope continued:

"Sodom, of course, is a large city, 50 upright people seem few, but are not the justice and forgiveness of God perhaps proof of the power of goodness, even if it seems smaller and weaker than evil?

The destruction of Sodom must halt the evil present in the city, but Abraham knows that God has other ways and means to stem the spread of evil.

It is forgiveness that interrupts the spiral of sin and Abraham, in his dialogue with God, appeals for exactly this. And when the Lord agrees to forgive the city if 50 upright people may be found in it, his prayer of intercession begins to reach the abysses of divine mercy.

Abraham — as we remember — gradually decreases the number of innocent people necessary for salvation: if 50 would not be enough, 45 might suffice, and so on down to 10, continuing his entreaty, which became almost bold in its insistence: “suppose 40... 30... 20... are found there” (cf. vv. 29, 30, 31, 32). The smaller the number becomes, the greater God’s mercy is shown to be. He patiently listens to the prayer, he hears it and repeats at each supplication: “I will spare... I will not destroy... I will not do it” (cf. vv. 26,28, 29, 30, 31, 32).

Thus, through Abraham’s intercession, Sodom can be saved if there are even only 10 innocent people in it.

This is the power of prayer. For through intercession, the prayer to God for the salvation of others, the desire for salvation which God nourishes for sinful man is demonstrated and expressed.

Evil, in fact, cannot be accepted, it must be identified and destroyed through punishment: The destruction of Sodom had exactly this function.

Yet the Lord does not want the wicked to die, but rather that they convert and live (cf. Ez 18:23; 33:11); his desire is always to forgive, to save, to give life, to transform evil into good. Well, it is this divine desire itself which becomes in prayer the desire of the human being and is expressed through the words of intercession.

With his entreaty, Abraham is lending his voice and also his heart, to the divine will.

God’s desire is for mercy and love as well as his wish to save; and this desire of God found in Abraham and in his prayer the possibility of being revealed concretely in human history, in order to be present wherever there is a need for grace.

By voicing this prayer, Abraham was giving a voice to what God wanted, which was not to destroy Sodom but to save it, to give life to the converted sinner.

This is what the Lord desires and his dialogue with Abraham is a prolonged and unequivocal demonstration of his merciful love. The need to find enough righteous people in the city decreases and in the end 10 were to be enough to save the entire population."

The question arises: why ten ? Why did Abraham stop at ten ?

The Pope takes up the question of the number of righteous men needed to halt evil and reverse a soulless and sick society and applies it to today:

"The reason why Abraham stops at 10 is not given in the text. Perhaps it is a figure that indicates a minimum community nucleus (still today, 10 people are the necessary quorum for public Jewish prayer). However, this is a small number, a tiny particle of goodness with which to start in order to save the rest from a great evil.

However, not even 10 just people were to be found in Sodom and Gomorrah so the cities were destroyed; a destruction paradoxically deemed necessary by the prayer of Abraham’s intercession itself.

Because that very prayer revealed the saving will of God: the Lord was prepared to forgive, he wanted to forgive but the cities were locked into a totalizing and paralyzing evil, without even a few innocents from whom to start in order to turn evil into good.

This the very path to salvation that Abraham too was asking for: being saved does not mean merely escaping punishment but being delivered from the evil that dwells within us. It is not punishment that must be eliminated but sin, the rejection of God and of love which already bears the punishment in itself.

The Prophet Jeremiah was to say to the rebellious people: “Your wickedness will chasten you, and your apostasy will reprove you. Know and see that it is evil and bitter for you to forsake the Lord your God” (Jer 2:19).

It is from this sorrow and bitterness that the Lord wishes to save man, liberating him from sin. Therefore, however, a transformation from within is necessary, some foothold of of goodness, a beginning from which to start out in order to change evil into good, hatred into love, revenge into forgiveness.

For this reason there must be righteous people in the city and Abraham continuously repeats: “suppose there are...”. “There”: it is within the sick reality that there must be that seed of goodness which can heal and restore life.

It is a word that is also addressed to us: so that in our cities the seed of goodness may be found; that we may do our utmost to ensure that there are not only 10 upright people, to make our cities truly live and survive and to save ourselves from the inner bitterness which is the absence of God.

And in the unhealthy situation of Sodom and Gomorrah that seed of goodness was not to be found."

Abraham returned to his place to observe what that event would be. His prayer was heard, but Sodom was not spared, because there were not ten righteous in it.

The Pope then considered how this concept of divine justice was developed through time in the history of the Jewish Covenant as its Covenant with God deepend and matured.

"Yet God’s mercy in the history of his people extends further. If in order to save Sodom 10 righteous people were necessary, the Prophet Jeremiah was to say, on behalf of the Almighty, that only one upright person was necessary to save Jerusalem: “Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, look and take note! Search her squares to see if you can find a man, one who does justice and seeks truth; that I may pardon her” (5:1)."

As the Pope pointed out the question of how many righteous men are required before a city is spared did not go away. Does it ever ?

Jeremiah could not find one righteous person and Jerusalem was destroyed.

Then after this God himself interved decisively in the history of mankind: the Incarnation and the Crucifixion:

"It was to be necessary for God himself to become that one righteous person.

And this is the mystery of the Incarnation: to guarantee a just person he himself becomes man. There will always be one righteous person because it is he.

However, God himself must become that just man. The infinite and surprising divine love was to be fully manifest when the Son of God was to become man, the definitive Righteous One, the perfect Innocent who would bring salvation to the whole world by dying on the Cross, forgiving and interceding for those who “know not what they do” (Lk 23:34).

Therefore the prayer of each one will find its answer, therefore our every intercession will be fully heard."

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Study the Bible with the Pope

Jacopo da Ponte (Bassano) (1510-1592)
Detail of Paradiso terrestre (Terrestial Paradise)
1568 - 1576
Oil on canvas
77 x 109 cm
Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, Rome

The Pope has recently started a new cycle of catecheses on "Prayer"

However with this series he has a deeper purpose. He wants to reflect on certain figures of the Old and the New Testaments

In doing so he wants to engage on Lectio Divina on certain passages in Scripture

It is quite a radical step: Bible study with the Pope

In the allocution on Abraham on Wednesday, 18 May 2011 he said:

"In the last two Catecheses we have reflected on prayer as a universal phenomenon which — although in different forms — is present in the cultures of all times

Today instead I would like to start out on a biblical path on this topic which will guide us to deepening the dialogue of the Covenant between God and man, which enlivened the history of salvation to its culmination, to the definitive Word that is Jesus Christ.

This path will lead us to reflect on certain important texts and paradigmatic figures of the Old and New Testaments. ...

And I would also like to ask you to benefit from the journey we shall be making in the forthcoming catecheses to become more familiar with the Bible, which I hope you have in your homes and, during the week, to pause to read it and to meditate upon it in prayer, in order to know the marvellous history of the relationship between God and man, between God who communicates with us and man who responds, who prays."

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Roman Missal

This week the Bishops of England and Wales published a Letter about the New Translation of the Roman Missal.

The letter will be read tomorrow in all parishes. It welcomes the new translation due to come into effect this Advent.

A special website under the Liturgy Office of the Bishops of England and Wales has been set up to explain everything that needs to be known about the new translation.

In his recent post WDTPRS: 6th Sunday of Easter (2002MR) – memory and busy love Father Z explains and illustrates simply, cogently and concisely why the ICEL translation presently in use since 1973 has been in need of reform and has to be replaced by a new and more literal English translation.

He does this by examining the Collect for tomorrow, the 6th Sunday after Easter.

He writes:

"ICEL (1973):
Ever-living God,
help us to celebrate our joy
in the resurrection of the Lord
and to express in our lives
the love we celebrate.

In the ICEL version [1973] just what we are “celebrating” (which we do a lot – here we have that same word twice), is not entirely clear. We are celebrating the “our joy” and then later “our love.”

The Latin says we are celebrating “days of joy in honor of the rising Lord.” In Latin we celebrate with sedulus affectus (or at least affectus sedulo (adv.)).

Also, the aspect of “remembering” has been expunged.

While there is none of the poetry of the original in this rendition, it does however get at the dimension of expressing concretely what we are celebrating. This is important. Doing something because of what Christ did is clearly important in both versions of the prayer.

I regret that ICEL forgot the memory aspect: it is important in understanding what the prayer really says"

The Struggle

Frans Francken II 1581-1642
The Struggle of Jacob and the Angel
Oil on canvas
68 cm x 86 cm
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn 1606 - 1669
The Struggle between Jacob and the Angel
Oil on canvas
1.37m x 1.16m
Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

Luca Giordano 1634 – 1705
The Struggle of Jacob and the Angel
Oil on canvas
251 x 112 cm
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863)
Jacob struggling with the Angel
La Chapelle des Anges, Eglise Saint-Sulpice, Paris

Genesis relates three major encounters that the Patriarch Jacob had with angels.

In the first, he sees them ascending and descending a stairway that links heaven and earth (28:10-15).

In the second, he meets them on his journey back to Canaan and his parental home after years of exile in the home of Laban (32:2-3).

Soon afterwards, he has a third and traumatic encounter with an enigmatic being, perhaps an angel, who maims him, but from whom Jacob secures an important blessing.

It is the third encounter at the Jabbok or Peniel which formed the centrepiece of Pope Benedict`s recent catechesis on Prayer. The incident has often been portrayed in art and literature. It is a metaphor for human struggle: whether creative, personal or spiritual.

As the Pope makes clear in his catechesis, the context of the third struggle is important.

Jacob is returning home after about twenty years, filled with apprehension. Years ago he had tricked his brother Esau of his inheritance. His brother had promised vengeance. He is approaching his brother`s lands and his brother`s forces are much stronger than his. Jacob fears total destruction at the hands of his brother. Jacob has split up his followers in an attempt to evade this possible vindication at the hands of Esau and his followers.

Up till now Patriarch Jacob has not been wholly straight forward in his dealings with people such as Esau and Laban. Some might describe it as downright treacherous.

Tomorrow or soon thereafter he will encounter Esau. Filled with fear and dread, Jacob wants God`s blessing before this important encounter. Does he still have God`s support ? Without it, he has nothing.

The whole incident and background are in Genesis 32:

"Genesis 32 verses 3 et seq

3 Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom.

4 He instructed them: This is what you are to say to my master Esau: 'Your servant Jacob says, I have been staying with Laban and have remained there till now.

5 I have cattle and donkeys, sheep and goats, menservants and maidservants. Now I am sending this message to my lord, that I may find favour in your eyes.'

6 When the messengers returned to Jacob, they said, We went to your brother Esau, and now he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.

7 In great fear and distress Jacob divided the people who were with him into two groups, and the flocks and herds and camels as well.

8 He thought, If Esau comes and attacks one group, the group that is left may escape.

9 Then Jacob prayed, O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, O LORD, who said to me, 'Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,'

10 I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two groups.

11 Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children.

12 But you have said
, 'I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.'

13 He spent the night there, and from what he had with him he selected a gift for his brother Esau:

14 two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams,

15 thirty female camels with their young, forty cows and ten bulls, and twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys.

16 He put them in the care of his servants, each herd by itself, and said to his servants, Go ahead of me, and keep some space between the herds.

17 He instructed the one in the lead: When my brother Esau meets you and asks, 'To whom do you belong, and where are you going, and who owns all these animals in front of you?'

18 then you are to say, 'They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a gift sent to my lord Esau, and he is coming behind us.'

19 He also instructed the second, the third and all the others who followed the herds: You are to say the same thing to Esau when you meet him.

20 And be sure to say, 'Your servant Jacob is coming behind us.' For he thought, I will pacify him with these gifts I am sending on ahead; later, when I see him, perhaps he will receive me.

21 So Jacob's gifts went on ahead of him, but he himself spent the night in the camp.

Jacob Wrestles with God

22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.

23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions.

24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.

25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob's hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man.

26 Then the man said, Let me go, for it is daybreak. But Jacob replied, I will not let you go unless you bless me.

27 The man asked him, What is your name? Jacob, he answered.

28 Then the man said, Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.

29 Jacob said, Please tell me your name. But he replied, Why do you ask my name? Then he blessed him there.

30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.

31 The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip.

32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob's hip was touched near the tendon."

Before the encounter, Jacob is scheming, ducking and diving to ensure survival. He is filled with fear. The odds are against him succeeding. He is driven to prayer: to seek God`s blessing. He is a wilful man. He knows what he wants and he is determined to get it. Before the encounter did he think that this was an easy thing to receive ? To ask and he would simply receive it ? He was not going to take "no" for an answer. But did he realise that he may have to pay a price or that something needed to be done before his prayer would be answered ?

The battle description is complex and rather obscure.

Was it God who was Jacob`s opponent ? Did Jacob or was it God who obtained victory ? Was either victorious ? How could a mortal obtain victory from an omnipotent and omniscient God ? Is God merely toying with Man ? Is God testing Jacob ? Can Man change the mind of God ? Is the encounter with God the means by which God changes Man ?

"Reading the passage, it is hard to establish which of the two contenders succeeds in having the upper hand. The verbs used often lack an explicit subject, and the actions progress in an almost contradictory way, so that when one thinks that either of the two has prevailed, the next action immediately contradicts it and presents the other as the winner.

At the beginning, in fact, Jacob seems to be the strongest, and the adversary -- the text states -- "did not prevail against him" (verse 26 [25]); yet he strikes the hollow of his thigh, dislocating it.

One would then be led to think that Jacob has to surrender, but instead it's the other who asks him to let him go; and the patriarch refuses, laying down a condition: "I will not let you go, unless you bless me" (verse 27). He who by deception had defrauded his brother of the firstborn's blessing, now demands it from the stranger in whom perhaps he begins to see divine characteristics, but still without being able to truly recognize him.

The rival, who seemed to be held and therefore defeated by Jacob, instead of submitting to his request, asks his name: "What is your name?" And the patriarch responds: "Jacob" (verse 28).

Here the battle undergoes an important development. To know someone's name, in fact, implies a kind of power over the person, since the name, in biblical thinking, contains the most profound reality of the individual; it unveils his secret and his destiny. Knowing someone's name therefore means knowing the truth of the other, and this allows one to be able to dominate him. When, therefore, at the stranger's request, Jacob reveals his own name, he is handing himself over to his opponent; it is a form of surrender, of the total giving over of himself to the other.

But in this act of surrender, Jacob paradoxically also emerges as a winner, because he receives a new name, together with an acknowledgement of victory on the part of his adversary, who says to him: "Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed" (verse 29 [28]).

"Jacob" was a name that recalled the patriarch's problematic beginnings; in Hebrew, in fact, it calls to mind the word "heel," and takes the reader back to the moment of Jacob's birth when, coming from the maternal womb, his hand took hold of his twin brother's heel (cf. Gen. 25:26), as though prefiguring the overtaking of his brother's rights in his adult life; but the name Jacob also calls to mind the verb "to deceive, to supplant."

In a straight contest of wills between Man and God, Man`s struggle is doomed to failure. But by the struggle and subsequent surrender to God`s will, he is rewarded through God`s mercy and is transformed. He is given a new name and is declared the victor. His will is aligned to God`s will.

Having seen God face to face at Penuel, Jacob can now prepare to meet Esau face to face as well. His fear is overcome

The Pope went on to say:

" [T]he Catechism of the Catholic Church also affirms: "the spiritual tradition of the Church has retained the symbol of prayer as a battle of faith and as the triumph of perseverance" (No. 2573).

The biblical text speaks to us of the long night of the search for God, of the battle to know his name and to see his face; it is the night of prayer that, with tenacity and perseverance, asks a blessing and a new name from God, a new reality as the fruit of conversion and of forgiveness.

In this way, Jacob's night at the ford of the Jabbok becomes for the believer a point of reference for understanding his relationship with God, which in prayer finds its ultimate expression.

Prayer requires trust, closeness, in a symbolic "hand to hand" not with a God who is an adversary and enemy, but with a blessing Lord who remains always mysterious, who appears unattainable. For this reason the sacred author uses the symbol of battle, which implies strength of soul, perseverance, tenacity in reaching what we desire.

And if the object of one's desire is a relationship with God, his blessing and his love, then the battle cannot but culminate in the gift of oneself to God, in the recognition of one's own weakness, which triumphs precisely when we reach the point of surrendering ourselves into the merciful hands of God.

Dear brothers and sisters, our whole life is like this long night of battle and prayer that is meant to end in the desire and request for God's blessing, which cannot be grasped or won by counting on our own strength, but must be received from him with humility, as a gratuitous gift that allows us, in the end, to recognize the face of the Lord.

And when this happens, our whole reality changes; we receive a new name and the blessing of God.

But even more: Jacob, who receives a new name, who becomes Israel, also gives a new name to the place where he wrestled with God; he prayed there and renamed it Peniel, which means "the Face of God." With this name, he recognized that place as filled with God's presence; he renders the land sacred by imprinting upon it the memory of that mysterious encounter with God.

He who allows himself to be blessed by God, who abandons himself to him, who allows himself to be transformed by him, renders the world blessed."

As the Pope points out in his catechesis there have been numerous interpretations of this chapter in the Book of Genesis.

Often the story becomes a metaphor for the existential process of "artistic creation" but as can be seen above only by a superficial reading of the Scriptural passage. For instance in the poem "A Little East of Jordan" (Poem 59), Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) wrote:

"A little East of Jordan,
Evangelists record,
A Gymnast and an Angel
Did wrestle long and hard -

Till morning touching mountain -
And Jacob, waxing strong,
The Angel begged permission
To Breakfast - to return -

Not so, said cunning Jacob !
"I will not let thee go
Except thou bless me"- Stranger !
The which acceded to -

Light swung the silver fleeces
"Peniel" Hills beyond,
And the bewildered Gymnast
Found he had worsted God !

(Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems. Edited by Thomas H. Johnson. London : Faber, 1975, p. 31.)

Other interpretations deny that the mysterious adversary was either God or an angel. In Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis (p.229), Robert Graves and Raphael Patai posit the theory that the adversary was in fact his elder brother Esau:

"The prime enemy to be faced by Jacob upon crossing the Jabbok was his twin Esau, from whose just anger he had fled twenty years before. In fact, one Midrash presents Esau as Jacob’s unknown adversary [i.e., “man” or “angel”] at Peniel, an identification based on his likening Esau’s countenance to God’s (Genesis xxxiii. 10)."

Writers of the modern historical novel (and those of "Psycho history") have used the incident as a myth on which to hang their own particular theories. The first volume of Thomas Mann`s Joseph and his brothers (Joseph und seine Brüder) (1926 - 1943) concentrates on Jacob and his Sons.

One does wonder if the present catechesis by the Pope on prayer is an attempt to rescue important parts of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible from those who regard it Bronze Age myths influenced by Babylonian sources and to instill the importance of these narratives to present day Christian spirituality and practice.

But not all artists within the last 150 years have looked on the story as myth and rejected the spiritual importance of the story. Here is Gerard Manley Hopkins` poem, Carrion Comfort:

Carrion Comfort

NOT, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Here is the famous work by Gauguin:

Paul Gauguin 1848 - 1903
Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel)
Oil on canvas
72.20 x 91.00 cm
The National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

and a beautiful study by Jean Revol (b. 1929)

Jean Revol b. 1929
La Lutte avec l’ange
c. 2000
Black ink
Artist`s collection

Monday, May 23, 2011

Saint Mary Magdalene dei Pazzi

Giovanni Camillo Sagrestani (1660–1731)
Saint Mary Magdalene dei Pazzi in Ecstasy (also known as St Augustine writing on the Heart of Saint Mary Magdalene of Pazzi)
San Frediano in Cestello, Florence

Saint Maria Magdalena de Pazzi (or Mary Magdalene de Pazzi) (April 2, 1566 – May 25, 1607)became a Carmelite of the Ancient Observance at a convent where there is now the Church of San Frediano in Cestello in Florence

She was one of the great Carmelite mystic saints. She was canonised in 1669

This painting by the Florentine baroque artist Sagrestani commissioned for a Chapel in San Frediano in Cestello is rather unique in its iconography

It is obviously an important work: it was commissioned for the Church built on the Convent in which the saint lived.

She is a Florentine saint, having born, lived and died there and from a very old and distinguished Florentine family

Her cult was strong (and still is) in Florence. Only a Florentine artist could be entrusted with such a work.

The saint was prone to raptures and ecstasiesand in the painting her posture and expression remind one of Bernini`s statue of The Ecstasy of St Teresa of Avila. If such events happened nowadays of course, the saint would be in a secure psychiatric unit drugged up to the gills.

But instead of the angel`s firey dart in The Reverberation, here we see St Augustine of Hippo writing with a quill pen on the saint`s heart.

The scene depicts an event which happened when aged eighteen and on the Feast of the Annunciation, the saint was meditating on the Gospel of St John. St Augustine apparently engraved twice on her heart the words of the Gospel: "Verbum caro factum est" (John 1:14) These words are particularly meet for a Feast commemorating the Incarnation.

In the painting, the Word is written into flesh, literally and metaphorically. The spritual sphere merges with the ordinary life. The saint`s name reminds us of Mary, the Mother of God whose free and unconditional consent allowed salvation to commence.

We are also reminded of some of the famous phrases of St Augustine:

“[Y]ou were created through the word, but now through the word you must be recreated”. (St Augustine, In Iohannis Evangelium Tractatus, I, 12: PL 35, 1385)

"Our hearts are restless until they rest in you" (St. Augustine, Confessions, I, 1)

“Remember that one [word] alone is the discourse of God which unfolds in all sacred Scripture, and one alone is the word which resounds on the lips of all the holy writers” (St Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos, 103, IV, 1: PL 37, 1378)

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity

Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity (July 18, 1880 – November 9, 1906)

Stained glass window of The Holy Trinity
Made in Hessen 1240-1250
Universitätsmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte, Marburg

Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity (July 18, 1880 – November 9, 1906) was a French nun and religious writer, a mystic and a Carmelite.

Her name "Elizabeth" which was the name she was baptised with was also the name she kept on her profession. It means "House of God". For her the name had a particular resonance.

On 21st November 1904 (The Feast of the Presentation of the Temple) she composed a prayer which summed up her spirituality: Ô mon Dieu, Trinité que j’adore:

Ô mon Dieu, Trinité que j'adore

O mon Dieu, Trinité que j'adore, aidez-moi à m'oublier entièrement pour m'établir en vous, immobile et paisible comme si déjà mon âme était dans l'éternité. Que rien ne puisse troubler ma paix, ni me faire sortir de vous, ô mon Immuable, mais que chaque minute m'emporte plus loin dans la profondeur de votre Mystère. Pacifiez mon âme, faites-en votre ciel, votre demeure aimée et le lieu de votre repos. Que je ne vous y laisse jamais seul, mais que je sois là tout entière, tout éveillée en ma foi, tout adorante, toute livrée à votre Action créatrice.

O mon Christ aimé crucifié par amour, je voudrais être une épouse pour votre Cœur, je voudrais vous couvrir de gloire, je voudrais vous aimer... jusqu'à en mourir ! Mais je sens mon impuissance et je vous demande de me « revêtir de vous même », d'identifier mon âme à tous les mouvements de votre âme, de me submerger, de m’envahir, de vous substituer à moi, afin que ma vie ne soit qu'un rayonnement de votre Vie. Venez en moi comme Adorateur, comme Réparateur et comme Sauveur.

O Verbe éternel, Parole de mon Dieu, je veux passer ma vie à vous écouter, je veux me faire tout enseignable, afin d'apprendre tout de vous. Puis, à travers toutes les nuits, tous les vides, toutes les impuissances, je veux vous fixer toujours et demeurer sous votre grande lumière; ô mon Astre aimé, fascinez-moi pour que je ne puisse plus sortir de votre rayonnement.

O Feu consumant, Esprit d'amour, « survenez en moi » afin qu'il se fasse en mon âme comme une incarnation du Verbe : que je Lui sois une humanité de surcroît en laquelle Il renouvelle tout son Mystère. Et vous, ô Père, penchez-vous vers votre pauvre petite créature, « couvrez-la de votre ombre », ne voyez en elle que le « Bien-Aimé en lequel vous avez mis toutes vos complaisances ».

O mes Trois, mon Tout, ma Béatitude, Solitude infinie, Immensité où je me perds, je me livre à vous comme une proie. Ensevelissez-vous en moi pour que je m'ensevelisse en vous, en attendant d'aller contempler en votre lumière l'abîme de vos grandeurs

O my God, Trinity whom I adore; help me to forget myself entirely that I may be established in You as still and as peaceful as if my soul were already in eternity. May nothing trouble my peace or make me leave You, O my Unchanging One, but may each minute carry me further into the depths of Your mystery. Give peace to my soul; make it Your heaven, Your beloved dwelling and Your resting place. May I never leave You there alone but be wholly present, my faith wholly vigilant, wholly adoring, and wholly surrendered to Your creative Action.

O my beloved Christ, crucified by love, I wish to be a bride for Your Heart; I wish to cover You with glory; I wish to love You...even unto death! But I feel my weakness, and I ask You to "clothe me with Yourself," to identify my soul with all the movements of Your Soul, to overwhelm me, to possess me, to substitute yourself for me that my life may be but a radiance of Your Life. Come into me as Adorer, as Restorer, as Savior.

O Eternal Word, Word of my God, I want to spend my life in listening to You, to become wholly teachable that I may learn all from You. Then, through all nights, all voids, all helplessness, I want to gaze on You always and remain in Your great light. O my beloved Star, so fascinate me that I may not withdraw from Your radiance.

O consuming Fire, Spirit of Love, "come upon me," and create in my soul a kind of incarnation of the Word: that I may be another humanity for Him in which He can renew His whole Mystery. And You, O Father, bend lovingly over Your poor little crature; "cover her with Your shadow," seeing in her only the "Beloved in whom You are well pleased."

O my Three, my All, my Beatitude, infinite Solitude, Immensity in which I lose myself, I surrender myself to You as Your prey. Bury Yourself in me that I may bury myself in You until I depart to contemplate in Your light the abyss of Your greatness

Overshadowed by her fellow Carmelite Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face who died in 1897, gradually more attention is being paid to Blessed Elizabeth. Elizabeth was familiar with the works of Saint Thérèse

Like Saint Thérèse she died young at the age of 26, in her case of Addison`s Disease.

She had a great devotion to the writings of the Apostle St Paul. It was her discovery of the Letter to the Ephesians which opened a door for her spirituality and in particular this passage from Chapter 1:

"In him [Christ] we were also chosen, destined in accord with the purpose of the one who accomplishes all things according to the intention of his will,

so that we might exist for the praise of his glory, we who first hoped in Christ.

In him you also, who have heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and have believed in him, were sealed with the promised holy Spirit,

which is the first installment of our inheritance toward redemption as God's possession, to the praise of his glory."
(St Paul Letter to the Ephesians 1: 11 - 14)

Of her life as a contemplative and the taking by her of the name laudem gloriae, she wrote:

“Praise of glory always involves thanksgiving. All its actions, its movements, its thoughts and aspirations, just as they root the praise of glory more deeply in love, are like an echo of the eternal Sanctus”. Writings, Retreat 10, 2

Shortly before her death she wrote to a friend:

« C’est ce qui a fait de ma vie, je vous le confie, un ciel anticipé : Croire qu’un Être, qui s’appelle l’Amour, habite en nous à tout instant du jour et de la nuit et qu’Il nous demande de vivre en Société avec Lui »

For more about this fascinating figure see

Michel-Marie Philipon, La doctrine spirituelle d’Élisabeth de la Trinité

Homily of Blessed John Paul II on the Beatification of Elizabeth of the Trinity (25th NOvember 1984) (French only)

The Denial of St Peter

Michelangelo Merisi (Caravaggio) (1571 - 1610)
The Denial of St Peter
Oil on canvas,
94 x 125 cm
Formerly in the Shickman Gallery, New York, now in The Metropolitan Museum, New York

The scene depicted is narrated in all four Gospels.

Matthew 26:69–75 describes it thus:

"69 Now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard, and a servant girl came to him. You also were with Jesus of Galilee, she said.

70 But he denied it before them all. I don't know what you're talking about, he said.

71 Then he went out to the gateway, where another girl saw him and said to the people there, This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.

72 He denied it again, with an oath: I don't know the man!

73 After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, Surely you are one of them, for your accent gives you away.

74 Then he began to call down curses on himself and he swore to them, I don't know the man! Immediately a cock crowed.

75 Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: Before the cock crows, you will disown me three times. And he went outside and wept bitterly."

At one time this scene was part of the depiction of the Passion. After the Counter-Reformation, the emphasis changed to Peter`s repentance after the denial.

Caravaggio cuts the scene down to an inter-action between three figures: the servant girl, Peter and one other man.

Caravaggio`s father died when he was six. His mother died when he was nineteen. A brother Giovan Pietro died at an early age.

When the mother died there was only Caravaggio, his brother Giovan Battista (a Jesuit priest) and his sister Caterina.

Caravaggio was estranged from them.

In a recent account of Caravaggio`s life, there is a sad story indicating how bad the relationship had become:

"[O]ne of the most affecting moments in any account of Caravaggio’s life is the melancholy encounter that took place in the Palazzo Madama, the official residence of Cardinal del Monte, between the artist and his  brother Giovan Battista, a Jesuit priest.

There was obviously bad blood dating back to their adolescent years in Spanish Lombardy when so many of their relations died of the plague, and Carlo Cardinal Borromeo held sway in Milan. ...

Finding himself ambushed in a semi-public setting, Caravaggio sullenly denied his brother three times, a not particularly subtle allusion to Mark 14: 66–68.

Mancini implies that he was himself present when this occurred, and even noted the tender sorrow with which Giovan Battista departed without so much as a goodbye from Caravaggio, assuring him of the constancy of their sister’s prayers. Mancini made no further comment about the episode, nor tried to account for its meaning, or even to proffer context

The work is a late work of Caravaggio, executed just before his death. The work seems gloomy laden with guilt. Apparently the dispute with his brother centred on a claim by Caravaggio that when some family land in Caravaggio was sold, he did not receive his due (more than the other two) as the eldest son. There was probably more to it than this. There always is.

In his short but eventful life Caravaggio had received pardons for several crimes through the intercession of several influential patrons. At the end of his life he was awaiting pardon from the consequences of a killing. However he felt that because of his crime his life was going to be forfeit. Perhaps he recalled an earlier part of St Matthew`s Gospel which again involved St Peter (Matthew 18: 21 - 35):

"21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?

22 Jesus answered, I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

23 Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.

24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him.

25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

26 The servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.'

27 The servant's master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go.

28 But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow- servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded.

29 His fellow- servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.'

30 But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.

31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.

32 Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.

33 Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow- servant just as I had on you?'

34 In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

35 This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."