Sunday, September 29, 2013

Open the Doors

Nicolas Toussaint Charlet 1792–1845
Children at a Church Door
c 1820
Oil on canvas
24.1 x 33 cm
The National Gallery, London

The National Gallery website has this to say about this work:
"The painting shows clergymen gathering children at a church door. The priest in the foreground has a tag inscribed with the word 'Hane' pinned to his back. This is a childish misspelling for 'âne', French for 'ass'. Charlet was best known as a lithographer who produced caricatures and this picture has a satirical aspect."
Pope Francis had lunch with seven Roman priests on Thursday, 28 March 2013 , after celebrating the Chrism Mass in the Vatican Basilica.

 ‘Open the doors of the Church, and then the people will come in…if you keep the light on in the confessional and are available, then you will see what kind of line there is for confession’
After a recent short trip to Italy, it would appear that this simple message has been taken to heart by many of the bishops and priests in Italy

The churches are again open for long periods.

Times set aside for confession are lengthening and in some dioceses there are special calls or events for confessions

This is in contrast to what obtains elsewhere.

It is not unusual for even Cathedrals in Britain to only be open for only short times during the day - about one hour or two on days other than Sunday. And times for confession in some cathedrals limited to one hour per week. 

One might say that there are more priests in Italy. However there are many many more churches in Italy and many contain very valuable artefacts than would be the case in the United Kingdom. To hang with the insurance seems to be the catchphrase.

All the doors are open.

Will there be an effect ?

No one knows

But the importance of the church building as an icon, house of prayer, sacramental place and house of God as well as an assembly place for the celebration of the Liturgy has often been ignored or undermined.

It was Calvin who did not recognize physical spaces as being sacred apart from the use. 

For him,  there was no point in a lay person coming into a church to pray during the week since the action he is performing can be conducted just as efficiently anywhere. 

Calvin  urged that places of worship be locked during the week, only to be opened during times of public worship. 

He wrote, “If anyone be found making any particular devotion inside or nearby, he is to be admonished…” (Calvin, cited in William A. Dyrness, Poetic Theology: God and the Poetics of Everyday Life, p. 192.)

In the modern environment filled with retail units, offices, busy roads, anonymous houses, and the extinguishing of religious imagery and messages, the Church as oasis in a spiritual desert may be what is required.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Bulls and Golden Calves

Domenico Giacomo di Pace (called Beccafumi) (1486 – May 18, 1551)
Moses and the Golden Calf
Oil on wood
197 x 139 cm
The Duomo, Pisa

With Baldassare Perruzzi, Domenico Beccafumi was one of the greatest painters of the Sienese High Renaissance

He is mystical rather than naturalistic

Mannerist but in the tradition of Michelangelo and Raphael

As well as paintings and drawings, he is also renowned for the work he did for the decorative pavement at the Duomo di Siena from 1517 – 1544. His white marble engravings depict stories from the bible, including Ahab, Elijah, Melchisedec, Abraham, and Moses

These have only now been recently restored and can only now be properly appreciated again

The above work again of Moses was one of six paintings commissioned for the Duomo in Pisa by the then administrator for OPA, Antonio Urbani

The theme of the work is well known. It is narrated in Exodus 32

While on the Mountain, the Israelites began to regress. They fashioned a golden calf which they worshipped.
Moses destroyed the calf.

Punishment was meted out to the disobedient and ungrateful people
"26 Moses stood at the gate of the camp and shouted, “Whoever is for the LORD, come to me!” All the Levites  then rallied to him,
27 and he told them, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Each of you put your sword on your hip! Go back and forth through the camp, from gate to gate, and kill your brothers, your friends, your neighbours!”
28 The Levites did as Moses had commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people fell."

In this work Moses is seen venting his anger on Korah, Dathan and  Abiron, later to be  three of the conspirators against Moses and Aaron who with their families were later swallowed up in the ground (Numbers 16:1-40;  26:9-11) for their crimes

Needless to say there are many similarities between this series on the life of Moses in the cathedral in Pisa and the pavement engravings in Siena

The Golden Calf is a lesson which at this time the authorities both Church  and State wished to drive home.

At this time outbreaks of bubonic plagues affected much of Italy on a frequent basis.

It was also the time of The Italian Wars when Italy was little more than a gigantic battleground for the armies of the Holy Roman Empire, France and the various republics and duchies which made up the peninsula

Often there were changes in leadership in the various principalities as well as power vacuums

But it was also the time when reformation and catholic reformation was much talked about and desired

Surely a return to paganism was out of the question ?

In his book The golden days of the renaissance in Rome, from the pontificate of Julius II to that of Paul III (1906), Rodolfo Amedeo Lanciani (1845 –  1929) described a very serious incident in Rome which occurred in April 1522:
"In April, 1522, while the pestilence was at its height, [Pope] Adrian VI sent word from Spain that a new tax of five giulii per house should be imposed on the city, to start a crusade against the Turks !  
And as the cardinals were leaving one by one, by land or by sea, under plea of joining the Pope, the Town Council [of Rome] in the meeting of June 4, voted an address to the Sacred College, asking them not to desert their place of duty.  
In the mean time the citizens, trying to escape in the direction of the Sabine and Simbruine hills, were met by Tiburtinians at the outskirts of their territory and chased back with spikes and cudgels, amidst yells of " Death to the Romans !"  
No wonder that, forsaken by their leaders and driven to desperation, the Romans should have lent a willing ear to the suggestions of an impostor, a Greek from Sparta named Demetrios, a master of the black art and a necromancer by profession.  
Demetrios told them that, as the ordeal they were going through was the work of the devil, to him they were bound to appeal in their distress.  
Accordingly he was permitted to lead through the streets, by a silken string, a bull whose fierceness he had tamed by magic power. The bull was led into the arena of the Coliseum and sacrificed to the evil one, according to the ritual of classic times.  
We can hardly believe that such a sacrilege could have been committed in Rome in the year of our Lord fifteen hundred and twenty-two, and under the rule of the austere Adrian VI ; yet the event is duly chronicled by Bizarus, Rinaldi, and other historians of that period. 
As soon as the clergy and the people realized the enormity of the sacrilege of which they had been willing witnesses, an expiatory procession was ordered, in which men and boys marched scourging themselves to bleeding, while women barefooted and in sackcloth cried "Misericordia, Misericordia"  
The beautiful Oratorio del Crocifisso, by the church of San Marcello, must also be considered as an expiatory monument of the same event"

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Mary in Norwich

The Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery is a bit out of the way for visitors to London. It contains a number of works dedicated to the Virgin Mary

Master of the Magdalen Legend (ca.1483-ca.1530)
The Seven Sorrows of Mary (The Ashwellthorpe Triptych)
Oil on panel
83.8 x 26.7 cm
Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, Norwich, England

The Seven Sorrows of Mary  are the Presentation in the Temple, the Flight into Egypt, Christ and the Elders, the Carrying of the Cross, the Crucifixion, the Lamentation and the Entombment

The kneeling donor figures represented in the wings are  Christopher Knyvett of Ashwellthorpe in Norfolk and his wife Catherine van Assche.

The saints beside each donor are St Christopher and St Catherine, the name saints of the donors

On 15th September 1988 Blessed Pope John Paul II preached on the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows:
"At the foot of the Cross Mary never ceased to praise the wondrous mercy of God, the mercy which endures “from generation to generation”. And she did not cease to proclaim the saving “power of his arm”, which puts down the proud and raises the lowly. Like no other person on earth, Mary was able to penetrate the Paschal Mystery of Christ; she understood it with her heart. 
...[T]he  Church sees the Mother of God as the one who “preceded in the pilgrimage of faith” all the People of God on earth. In this faith she became a true daughter of Abraham; indeed she even surpassed him whom Saint Paul calls “the Father of all believers” (Rom. 4, 11). Her pilgrimage of faith has done something even greater: it has enabled us to enter ever more profoundly into the inscrutable mysteries of God. 
The Church in your country, in Lesotho, here in Maseru, as does the Church throughout the earth, goes forward on this same pilgrimage of faith, the pilgrimage on which the Mother of God has gone before us. Today the Bishop of Rome meets you on this pilgrimage. 
He stands in your midst and celebrates with you the Eucharistic Sacrifice on the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows."

Alice Havers 1850–1890
'But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart'
Oil on canvas
122.2 x 91.9 cm
Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, Norwich, England

The title is from Luke 2:19

When the shepherds  visited the infant Jesus in the manger, the shepherds tell Mary and Joseph what they had been told by the angels. 

Then the Evangelist St Luke makes the remark which is the title of the work.

Blessed Pope John Paul II often meditated on these words

He said in a homily on 1st January 2000 The Solemnity of Mary when he opened the Holy Door of St Mary Major in Rome:
"How can we marvel that the Mother of God should remember all this in a special and indeed unique way? Every mother has a similar knowledge of the beginning of a new life within her. Every person's history is written first of all in his own mother's heart. It is no wonder that the same was true for the earthly life of the Son of God"

Recently on 7th September 2013 Pope Francis held a Day of Fasting and Prayer for Peace in Syria. The booklet for the four hour long liturgy is here

One of the central prayers was the The Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary also called the Litany of Loreto approved of by Pope Sixtus V in 1587

Many of the praises in the litany came from prayers of the Greek Church, in particular the Akathist Hymn  possibly composed by Saint Romanos the Melodist or the Hymnographer who was born either in Homs or Damscus in Syria
"Lord, have mercy. 
Christ, have mercy. 
Lord, have mercy.  
Christ, hear us. 
Christ, graciously hear us.
God, the Father of Heaven, have mercy on us. 
God the Son, Redeemer of the world, have mercy on us.  
God the Holy Spirit, have mercy on us. 
Holy Trinity, One God, have mercy on us. 
Holy Mary, pray for us. 
Holy Mother of God, pray for us. 
Holy Virgin of virgins, pray for us. 
Mother of Christ, pray for us. 
Mother of divine grace, pray for us. 
Mother most pure, pray for us. 
Mother most chaste, pray for us. 
Mother inviolate, pray for us. 
Mother undefiled, pray for us. 
Mother most amiable, pray for us. 
Mother most admirable, pray for us. 
Mother of good counsel, pray for us. 
Mother of our Creator, pray for us. 
Mother of our Savior, pray for us. 
Virgin most prudent, pray for us. 
Virgin most venerable, pray for us. 
Virgin most renowned, pray for us. 
Virgin most powerful, pray for us. 
Virgin most merciful, pray for us. 
Virgin most faithful, pray for us. 
Mirror of justice, pray for us. 
Seat of wisdom, pray for us. 
Cause of our joy, pray for us. 
Spiritual vessel, pray for us. 
Vessel of honor, pray for us. 
Singular vessel of devotion, pray for us. 
Mystical rose, pray for us. 
Tower of David, pray for us. 
Tower of ivory, pray for us. 
House of gold, pray for us. 
Ark of the covenant, pray for us. 
Gate of heaven, pray for us. 
Morning star, pray for us. 
Health of the sick, pray for us. 
Refuge of sinners, pray for us. 
Comforter of the afflicted, Help of Christians, pray for us. 
Queen of Angels, pray for us. 
Queen of Patriarchs, pray for us. 
Queen of Prophets, pray for us. 
Queen of Apostles, pray for us. 
Queen of Martyrs, pray for us. 
Queen of Confessors, pray for us. 
Queen of Virgins, pray for us. 
Queen of all Saints, pray for us. 
Queen conceived without original sin, pray for us. 
Queen assumed into heaven, pray for us. 
Queen of the most holy Rosary, pray for us. 
Queen of Peace, pray for us. 
Lamb of God, who take away the sins of the world, spare us, O Lord!. 
Lamb of God, who take away the sins of the world, graciously hear us, O Lord! 
Lamb of God, who take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. . 
V. Pray for us, O holy Mother of God.  
R. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ. 
Let us pray. Grant, we beg you, O Lord God, that we your servants, may enjoy lasting health of mind and body, and by the glorious intercession of the Blessed Mary, ever Virgin, be delivered from present sorrow and enter into the joy of eternal happiness. Through Christ our Lord.  
R. Amen."

Saturday, September 14, 2013

At Subiaco

Jean-François Montessuy  (1804–1876)
Pope Gregory XVI Visiting the Church of San Benedetto at Subiaco
Oil on canvas
125.1 x 140.7 cm
The Metropolitan Museum, New York

In the late 18th and early 19th century the French painters who went to Rome discovered the village town of Subiaco.

Originally it was the village which was built for housing the slaves of the Emperor Nero who had a villa nearby. The villa is destroyed and few ruins remain.

However that is not why people visited and do visit the village now . There was and there is  much more to see

Montessuy did not see this visit of the Pope which took place on April 30, 1834 while Montessuy was still in France. He did not set out for Rome for another two years

The visit by Pope Gregory is described in detail in the monastery’s chronicle, Libro delle Memorie dal 1831 al 1850 (housed in the library of its sister institution, Santa Scolastica): 
". . . After a brief rest in the Abbot’s Apartment, where he picked up the mozzetta and the Pontifical stole, the Holy Father entered the Superior Church, whence, having venerated the Most Blessed Sacrament, he descended to the Sacred Cave to celebrate the Holy Mass, assisted by the R[eve]r[end] F[athers] Abbots Bini and Piacenti."
Abbot Vincenzo Bini had been Abbot of the Abbey of San Pietro in Perugia and in 1825 became Procurator General of the Cassinese Congregation.  He later became Abbot of the Great Abbey of St Paul in Rome. 
He knew, assisted and trained amongst many others Dom Gueranger  the founder of the new French Benedictines 

The chronicle also describes the deep impression the event of the visit  made on the area`s inhabitants: 
"While the Holy Father ascended the steep slopes, the Municipal Administrators of Jenne were expressing their jubilation with the continuous firing of mortars, and at the same time the village people, as well as others from nearby villages, men and women spread out around the tortuous turns of that road, paid him homage with their acclamations, giving him unequivocal demonstrations of their tender devotion, to which his Sanctity responded with the most endearing gestures of his benevolent nature, listening to the supplications of many, and permitting to all the kissing of the Foot." 
The scene is of course the site leading to the cave where St Benedict of Nursia (c. 480 – 21 March 543 or 547), the patron saint of Europe, spent three years as a hermit before establishing  twelve communities for monks at Subiaco and then later at Monte Cassino

The scene of the painting  is set at the top of the Scala Santa with the fresco of Pope Innocent III to the left 

The artist has taken some licence

Here it is today

The "Specco" or Cave, itself can also be seen here and here and here

The Benedictine Rule became the foundation of Western Monasticism

The Sacred Cave can be seen here.

It is the principal point of reference of the whole monastery complex

There have been many visits  by reigning Popes and many Popes have given the monastery many privileges

Pope Gregory XVI was Pope from 2 February 1831 until his death on 1 June 1846

He did not have a good press while he was alive. Even today if he is mentioned his name is accompanied by a clearing of the throat.  

In 1805 he was made abbot of the Monastery of San Gregorio on Rome's Caelian Hill. He was the last monk to be elected pope

Although a cardinal, he was not a bishop.  He was the last man so far to be elected Pope prior to his episcopal consecration. He had to be consecrated as bishop after his election as Pope

The visit would have been an emotional one for the Pope. He had been Abbot of the Monastery where Pope Gregory the Great had been Abbot and founder. He had taken his name as Pontiff. Pope Gregory the Great was the author of the Life of St Benedict

Now derided as an extreme reactionary, it is often forgotten that he was the author of In Supremo Apostolatus - Condemning the  Slave Trade

Friday, September 13, 2013

No way to treat your mother

Jan Luyken (1649 - April 5, 1712)
Christ heals the possessed Mark Chapter 3
From  The Bowyer Bible in Bolton Museum, England. Print 4234

Robert Bowyer (bap. 18 June 1758 – 4 June 1834) was a British miniature painter and publisher.

Bowyer sought to illustrate every aspect of the Bible world by hunting all over Europe and Britain for appropriate images. 

The result was The Bowyer Bible now in Bolton Museum

It consists of 45 volumes comprising of: Old Testament, 23 volumes and 2315 engravings; Apocrypha, 3 volumes and 959 engravings; New Testament, 19 volumes and 3019 engravings

It took over 30 years to compile and is presently undergoing restoration

Jan Luyken was a Dutch poet, illustrator and engraver

He and his son, Casper (1672-1708),  are considered the most important book illustrators of their time in the Netherlands

Deeply religious, they were sometimes pilloried.

The print above illustrates the story  in Mark 3 at the beginning of Christ`s public ministry

It is one of the strangest chapters in Mark`s Gospel

There is an account of Jesus' miraculous healings and exorcisms: 
"11 And whenever unclean spirits saw him they would fall down before him and shout, “You are the Son of God.”
12 He warned them sternly not to make him known."
Then follows an account of the appointment of the twelve apostles

After this, Christ  goes back home again. But although he is mobbed, he receives a hostile reception from his family and the scribes. His family do not recognise him as the Messiah and thought he had become insane.

The scribes accuse him of being possessed by evil spirits:
"20 He came home.Again [the] crowd gathered, making it impossible for them even to eat.
21 When his relatives heard of this they set out to seize him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”
22 The scribes who had come from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “By the prince of demons he drives out demons.”
Of this passage and the following verses one commentator has said with deliberate understatement:
" Mark's frankness in impressive" (Cranfield)
Jesus quickly disposes of the scribes` charges of demonic possession. He is clearly angry

But then he goes on to deal with his family. And it is not pleasant. He rejects them including it would appear on the face of it, Mary his mother:
"31 His mother and his brothers arrived. Standing outside they sent word to him and called him.
32 A crowd seated around him told him, “Your mother and your brothers [and your sisters] are outside asking for you.”
33 But he said to them in reply, “Who are my mother and [my] brothers?”
34 And looking around at those seated in the circle he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers.
35 [For] whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
One can only imagine the reaction to these words.

Mary would no doubt have then recalled the words of Simeon at  the time of the Presentation at the Temple:
"And a sword will pierce your very soul"
It would have felt like it.

Those who consider that Jesus is an agent of the Devil, rather than God, are warned of the danger of never being forgiven (the Sin against the Holy Spirit). The disciples, on the other hand, are pronounced members of Jesus' family, members of the family of God, and this because they do God's will.

There are similar passages but very much softer  in the other Synoptic Gospels: Luke 8:20-21;  and Matthew 12

But they are not quite as frank, sharp and as brutal as that narrated in Mark

This dismissal of Mary and his family reminds us of the similar dismissal of Mary at the Wedding of Cana

But it should be noted that the family members have not included "father" as Joseph had obviously died well before the commencement of Jesus' ministry. 

Yet, Jesus continues the family description without "father", since the father of this new family of brothers is God himself.

The incident is not among the incidents specifically recalled in the Mysteries of the Rosary

In his homily at Altötting (Monday, 11 September 2006), Pope Benedict XVI took this treatment of Mary head on when he discussed The Wedding Feast of Cana as recounted in John

He said:
"We can understand, I think, very well the attitude and words of Mary, yet we still find it very hard to understand Jesus' answer.  
In the first place, we don't like the way he addresses her: “Woman”.  
Why doesn't he say: “Mother”? But this title really expresses Mary's place in salvation history.  
It points to the future, to the hour of the crucifixion, when Jesus will say to her: “Woman, behold your son.  Son, behold your mother” (cf. Jn 19:26-27).  
It anticipates the hour when he will make the woman, his Mother, the Mother of all his disciples. On the other hand, the title “Woman” recalls the account of the creation of Eve: Adam, surrounded by creation in all its magnificence, experiences loneliness as a human being. 
Then Eve is created, and in her Adam finds the companion whom he longed for; and he gives her the name “woman”.  
In the Gospel of John, then, Mary represents the new, the definitive woman, the companion of the Redeemer, our Mother: the name, which seemed so lacking in affection, actually expresses the grandeur of Mary's enduring mission. 
Yet we like even less what Jesus at Cana then says to Mary: “Woman, what have I to do with you? My hour has not yet come” (Jn 2:4).  
We want to object: you have a lot to do with her! It was Mary who gave you flesh and blood, who gave you your body, and not only your body: with the “yes” which rose from the depths of her heart she bore you in her womb and with a mother's love she gave you life and introduced you to the community of the people of Israel.  
But if this is how we speak to Jesus, then we are already well along the way towards understanding his answer.  
Because all this should remind us that at the incarnation of Jesus two dialogues took place; the two go together and blend into one.  
First, there is Mary’s dialogue with the Archangel Gabriel, where she says: “Let it be with me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). But there is a text parallel to this, so to speak, within God himself, which we read about in the Letter to the Hebrews, when it says that the words of Psalm 40 became a kind of dialogue between the Father and the Son,  a dialogue which set in motion the Incarnation.  
The Eternal Son says to the Father: “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me ... See, I have come to do your will” (Heb 10:5-7; cf. Ps 40:6-8). The “yes” of the Son: “I have come to do your will”, and the “yes” of Mary: “Let it be with me according to your word” . 
This double “yes”  becomes a single “yes”, and thus the Word becomes flesh in Mary. 
 In this double “yes” the obedience of the Son is embodied, and by her own “yes” Mary gives him that body.  
“Woman, what have I to do with you?” Ultimately, what each has to do with the other is found in this double “yes” which resulted in the Incarnation. The Lord’s answer points to this point of profound unity. It is precisely to this that he points his Mother.  
Here, in their common “yes” to the will of the Father, an answer is found. 
We too need to learn always anew how to progress towards this point; there we will find the answer to our questions. 
If we take this as our starting-point, we can now also understand the second part of Jesus' answer: “My hour has not yet come”.  
Jesus never acts completely alone, and never for the sake of pleasing others.  
The Father is always the starting-point of his actions, and this is what unites him to Mary, because she wished to make her request in this same unity of will with the Father.  
And so, surprisingly, after hearing Jesus' answer, which apparently refuses her request, she can simply say to the servants: “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5).  
Jesus is not a wonder-worker, he does not play games with his power in what is, after all, a private affair. No, he gives a sign, in which he proclaims his hour, the hour of the wedding-feast, the hour of union between God and man.  
He does not merely “make” wine, but transforms the human wedding-feast into an image of the divine wedding-feast, to which the Father invites us through the Son and in which he gives us every good thing, represented by the abundance of wine.  
The wedding-feast becomes an image of that moment when Jesus pushed love to the utmost, let his body be rent and thus gave himself to us for ever, having become completely one with us - a marriage between God and man.  
The hour of the Cross, the hour which is the source of the Sacrament, in which he gives himself really to us in flesh and blood, puts his Body into our hands and our hearts, this is the hour of the wedding feast.  
Thus a momentary need is resolved in a truly divine manner and the initial request is superabundantly granted. Jesus' hour has not yet arrived, but in the sign of the water changed into wine, in the sign of the festive gift, he even now anticipates that hour. 
Jesus’ “hour” is the Cross; his definitive hour will be his return at the end of time.  
He continually anticipates also this definitive hour in the Eucharist, in which, even now, he always comes to us.  
And he does this ever anew through the intercession of his Mother, through the intercession of the Church, which cries out to him in the Eucharistic prayers: “Come, Lord Jesus!”. In the Canon of the Mass, the Church constantly prays for this “hour” to be anticipated, asking that he may come even now and be given to us.  
And so we want to let ourselves be guided by Mary, by the Mother of Graces of Altötting, by the Mother of all the faithful, towards the “hour” of Jesus.  
Let us ask him for the gift of a deeper knowledge and understanding of him.  
And may our reception of him not be reduced to the moment of communion alone.  
Jesus remains present in the sacred Host and he awaits us constantly.  
Here in Altötting, the adoration of the Lord in the Eucharist has found a new location in the old treasury. Mary and Jesus go together. Through Mary we want to continue our converse with the Lord and to learn how to receive him better. Holy Mother of God, pray for us, just as at Cana you prayed for the bride and the bridegroom! "

Blessed Pope John Paul II in his homily for the Jubilee of Consecrated Life (Wednesday, 2 February 2000) said of this passage in Mark:
"Invited to leave everything to follow Christ, you, consecrated men and women, no longer define your life by family, by profession or by earthly interests, and you choose the Lord as your only identifying mark.  
Thus you acquire a new family identity.  
The divine Teacher's words apply particularly to you:  "Here are my mother and my brethren" (cf. Mk 3: 35).  
The invitation to renunciation, as you know well, is not meant to leave you "without a family" but to make you the first and distinctive members of the "new family", a witness and prophetic example for all whom God wishes to call and bring into his house. 
Dear friends, at every moment of your life may the Virgin Mary be close to you as an example and support. Simeon disclosed to her the mystery of the Son and the sword that would "pierce through your own soul also" (Lk 2: 35)"
 Blessed Pope John Paul II also addressed the matter at length in his Encyclical Redemptoris Mater. Here is a short extract
"This same shift into the sphere of spiritual values is seen even more clearly in another response of Jesus reported by all the Synoptics. When Jesus is told that "his mother and brothers are standing outside and wish to see him," he replies: "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it" (cf. Lk. 8:20-21). This he said "looking around on those who sat about him," as we read in Mark (3:34) or, according to Matthew (12:49), "stretching out his hand towards his disciples." 
These statements seem to fit in with the reply which the twelve- year-old Jesus gave to Mary and Joseph when he was found after three days in the Temple at Jerusalem. 
Now, when Jesus left Nazareth and began his public life throughout Palestine, he was completely and exclusively "concerned with his Father's business" (cf. Lk. 2:49).  
He announced the Kingdom: the "Kingdom of God" and "his Father's business," which add a new dimension and meaning to everything human, and therefore to every human bond, insofar as these things relate to the goals and tasks assigned to every human being.  
Within this new dimension, also a bond such as that of "brotherhood" means something different from "brotherhood according to the flesh" deriving from a common origin from the same set of parents. 
 "Motherhood," too, in the dimension of the Kingdom of God and in the radius of the fatherhood of God himself, takes on another meaning. In the words reported by Luke, Jesus teaches precisely this new meaning of motherhood. 
Is Jesus thereby distancing himself from his mother according to the flesh? Does he perhaps wish to leave her in the hidden obscurity which she herself has chosen?  
If this seems to be the case from the tone of those words, one must nevertheless note that the new and different motherhood which Jesus speaks of to his disciples refers precisely to Mary in a very special way.  
Is not Mary the first of "those who hear the word of God and do it"? And therefore does not the blessing uttered by Jesus in response to the woman in the crowd refer primarily to her?  
Without any doubt, Mary is worthy of blessing by the very fact that she became the mother of Jesus according to the flesh ("Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked"), but also and especially because already at the Annunciation she accepted the word of God, because she believed it, because she was obedient to God, and because she "kept" the word and "pondered it in her heart" (cf. Lk. 1:38, 45; 2:19, 51) and by means of her whole life accomplished it.  
Thus we can say that the blessing proclaimed by Jesus is not in opposition, despite appearances, to the blessing uttered by the unknown woman, but rather coincides with that blessing in the person of this Virgin Mother, who called herself only "the handmaid of the Lord" (Lk. 1:38). If it is true that "all generations will call her blessed" (cf. Lk. 1:48), then it can be said that the unnamed woman was the first to confirm unwittingly that prophetic phrase of Mary's Magnificat and to begin the Magnificat of the ages. 
If through faith Mary became the bearer of the Son given to her by the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit, while preserving her virginity intact, in that same faith she discovered and accepted the other dimension of motherhood revealed by Jesus during his messianic mission.  
One can say that this dimension of motherhood belonged to Mary from the beginning, that is to say from the moment of the conception and birth of her Son.  
From that time she was "the one who believed."  
But as the messianic mission of her Son grew clearer to her eyes and spirit, she herself as a mother became ever more open to that new dimension of motherhood which was to constitute her "part" beside her Son.  
Had she not said from the very beginning: "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word" (Lk. 1:38)? Through faith Mary continued to hear and to ponder that word, in which there became ever clearer, in a way "which surpasses knowledge" (Eph. 3:19), the self-revelation of the living God.  
Thus in a sense Mary as Mother became the first "disciple" of her Son, the first to whom he seemed to say: "Follow me," even before he addressed this call to the Apostles or to anyone else (cf. Jn. 1:43)."

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Syriac Christianity

Thomas Allom (1804-1872)
The House of the British Consul, Damascus
Watercolour over pencil heightened with bodycolour, on paper
30.30 cm x 25.70 cm
Government Art Collection, London

Richard Carline (1896-1980)
Damascus and the Lebanon Mountains from 10,000 Feet
Oil on canvas
143.5 x 105.4 cm
 IWM (Imperial War Museums), London

The recent tensions over Syria has shown me my ignorance of Syria and its large Christian population and its ancient history

The Syrian Catholic Church under the Patriarch of Antioch is in full communion with Rome

St Peter founded the See of Antioch. It was visited by Saints Paul and Barnabas

Antioch was where "Christians" were first called "Christians"

Bab Tuma, a suburb of Damascus, was home to Saints Thomas, Paul and Ananias as well as Popes John V and  Gregory III.

Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Syriac Catholic and Syriac Orthodox churches and monasteries have been built in the city of Saidnaya (only 17 miles north of Damascus) throughout history. 

It is a town dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

It was an important centre of Christianity well before it was adopted as the official religion of the Roman empire.

Its episcopate was present  at the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325 

Pope Benedict XVI referred to this ignorance in one of his catecheses:
"Common opinion today supposes Christianity to be a European religion which subsequently exported the culture of this Continent to other countries.  
But the reality is far more complex since the roots of the Christian religion are found in the Old Testament, hence, in Jerusalem and the Semitic world.  
Christianity is still nourished by these Old Testament roots.  
Furthermore, its expansion in the first centuries was both towards the West - towards the Greco-Latin world, where it later inspired European culture - and in the direction of the East, as far as Persia and India.  
It thus contributed to creating a specific culture in Semitic languages with an identity of its own."
He spoke of St Ephrem the Syrian, who was born into a Christian family in Nisibis in about AD 306 A.D, Romanus the Melodist who was born in about 490 in Emesa (today Homs), in Syria, Saint John Chrysostom born in about the year 349 A.D. in Antioch, Syria (today Antakya in Southern Turkey) and many others

Jack Tannous, Scott Johnson, Dr. Sebastian Brock and others at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C. have produced Resources  for Syriac Studies 

Included is a Hagiography about the Saints and Martyrs in the Syriac language

The Bibliographical Handouts by Dr. Sebastian Brock are fascinating.

Here is Brock`s translation of Ephrem the Syrian`s The Pearl (Hymn No 81)
"Hymns on Faith, no 81, on the Pearl. 
1.       One day, my brethren, I took a pearl
into my hands; in it I saw symbols
which belong to the Kingdom, images and figures
of God's majesty. It became a fountain
from which I drank the symbols of the Son. 
Refrain: Blessed is he who likened the Kingdom on high to a pearl! 
2.       I placed it, my brethren, in the palm of my hand
in order to contemplate it. I turned to look at it
from one side, but it had facets
on every side. So it is with enquiry into the Son:
it is something unattainable, for He is entirely light. 
3.       In the luminosity of the pearl I saw the Luminous One
who cannot be perturbed. In its purity
is a wonderful symbol - the Body of our Lord,
utterly unsullied. In the undivided nature of the pearl
I beheld Truth, which is not divided. 
4.       I saw there Mary, with her pure conception;
there was the Church,
with the Son within her. Like a cloud
is she who carried Him, and like the heaven
is she from whom flashed the wonderful Ray. 
5.       I beheld in it the trophies of His victories
and his triumphs; I saw his succour,
with all its benefits, both hidden
and manifest. To me it was greater
than the Ark, absorbed as I was with it. 
6.       I beheld within it hidden chambers that had no shadows,
for it is the daughter of the luminary. In it types are eloquent,
though they have no tongue; symbols are utter4ed
without the help of lips. The silent lyre,
though it has no sound, gives forth its songs. 
7.       The trumpet murmurs, the thunder whispers:
'Do not make bold - leave alone the hidden things,
take only what is manifest`. I have seen in the clear sky
the latter rain: the stream-bed of my ears
is full with explanations, as after the rain clouds. 
8.       Like the manna which of its own sufficed
to fill the People, in place of other foods,
with its tasty things; so too has the pearl
filled me, replacing books,
with the reading and commenting of them. 
9.       In order that I might ask if there were
any further symbols, it had no mouth available
to give me answer, nor ears to hear
my question. O Pearl that has no sensation,
it is from you that I have acquired new senses. 
10.       The Pearl replied and said to me: 'I am
the daughter of the immeasurable sea, and the treasures of symbols
that I carry in my bosom are greater than those of the sea
whence I have come up. You may examine the sea,
but do not examine the Lord of the sea! 
11.       'I beheld the divers who went down in search of me
return panting from the sea
to the dry land: they could not endure
for even a short time. Who then can examine for long

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Shoddiness in Brighton

William Hogarth (1697 - 1764)
The Distressed Poet
359 millimetres x 408 millimetres
The British Museum, London

"As the Milvains sat down to breakfast the clock of Wattleborough parish church struck eight; it was two miles away, but the strokes were borne very distinctly on the west wind this autumn morning. Jasper, listening before he cracked an egg, remarked with cheerfulness: 
'There's a man being hanged in London at this moment.' 
'Surely it isn't necessary to let us know that,' said his sister Maud, coldly. 
'And in such a tone, too!' protested his sister Dora. 
'Who is it?' inquired Mrs Milvain, looking at her son with pained forehead. 
'I don't know. It happened to catch my eye in the paper yesterday that someone was to be hanged at Newgate this morning. There's a certain satisfaction in reflecting that it is not oneself.'
'That's your selfish way of looking at things,' said Maud. 
'Well,' returned Jasper, 'seeing that the fact came into my head, what better use could I make of it? I could curse the brutality of an age that sanctioned such things; or I could grow doleful over the misery of the poor—fellow. 
But those emotions would be as little profitable to others as to myself. It just happened that I saw the thing in a light of consolation. Things are bad with me, but not so bad as THAT. I might be going out between Jack Ketch and the Chaplain to be hanged; instead of that, I am eating a really fresh egg, and very excellent buttered toast, with coffee as good as can be reasonably expected in this part of the world.—(Do try boiling the milk, mother.)—The tone in which I spoke was spontaneous; being so, it needs no justification.' 
He was a young man of five-and-twenty, well built, though a trifle meagre, and of pale complexion. He had hair that was very nearly black, and a clean-shaven face, best described, perhaps, as of bureaucratic type. The clothes he wore were of expensive material, but had seen a good deal of service. His stand-up collar curled over at the corners, and his necktie was lilac-sprigged." 
George Gissing New Grub Street  From Chapter 1 : A Man of His Day (1891)

Britain has always been home to salacious journalism

Young people especially men have always seen it as a way to make their fame and fortune and fulfil their dreams of being a person of some standing and influence

But it has always had some standards even for the self respect of the author

Unfortunately in Brighton it would appear that it has no standards, not even the barest attempt to attain a semblance of truth. Times are indeed hard for local journalism.

Father Ray Blake has been subject to a vicious and unproked attack in the local newspaper. It is purportedly based on a post which he wrote about his work with the poor and indigent in his parish and his thoughts about it

Father`s full response to the newspaper`s attack is here: Bill Gardner: an unscrupulous journalist

Unfortunately "the hatchet job" was sold and taken up by various national newspapers who should have known better

Please pray for Father Blake and the continuance of his good work

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Two Beheadings

Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898)
The Beheading of St John the Baptist
Oil on canvas
124.5 x 166 cm
The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham

Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898)
The Beheading of St John the Baptist
Oil on canvas
243.5 x 318.4 cm
The National Gallery, London

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898) was one of the greatest muralists of the latter nineteenth century

During his lifetime he was one of the most universally admired painters in the world. 

In 1895 a huge banquet in his honour was given at the Hôtel Continental in Paris. It was  chaired by the sculptor Auguste Rodin, at which the entire spectrum of modern French art was represented including Fantin-Latour, Renoir, Pissarro, Monet, Signac, Bourdelle, Bernard, Carrière and Gauguin. 

His works were for public buildings in France such as the Panthéon and the amphitheatre at the Sorbonne. Few were smaller in scale. To see his work you have to travel in France (or Boston)

For those who like categories, he was a "symbolist"

The execution of John the Baptist is not a frequent subject apart from Caravaggio. It is rather gory

It is not set in a dungeon. Rather in a garden in the open air

In the nineteenth century, public executions were still common. In France beheading by guillotine was the norm as it was felt to be more humane than by hanging or other means. The last public execution in France by gullotine was in 1939

They were regarded as good sources of entertainment.

There is something of that attitude in the figures of Salome and Herod.

Of course the execution of an innocent as John was revolts and repels us

The Barber picture shows Salome witnessing the execution of John the Baptist, charger in hand, ready to take his head to the offended Herodias (Mark 6: 21-28)

The National Gallery picture shows the same execution, with differences

Salome was said to be modelled on Chavanne`s wife. Herod is supposed to be modelled on Anatole France

The National Gallery work is unfinished.

In the Barber work, Salome stands apart and is separated from the event that is about to happen. But she does appear to be a bit impatient at how long the whole event is taking. In the National Gallery work she appears to be a creature with nerves and a stomach of steel. A Lady Macbeth. A figure entirely lacking in pity and charity. Like a spectator in the audience of one of the gory afternoon confessional TV programmes listening to people confessing on day time TV to the most terrible of crimes.

In the National Gallery work, the Baptist has been moved to centre stage but the central image is the cross at which he is gazing with intensity. It appears to be illuminated. The two central figures are John and the cross. 

In the Barber work,  the Baptist faces front looking at us in the audience. The figure is iconic. He lit by some unreal light. He has a halo. He is putting forward his neck for the executioner to strike.

Puvis de Chavannes entirely reworked the background in the Barber picture. The tree is a major figure. Not so in the work in The National Gallery. Both in both works the tree oerforms an important function in the staging of the human figures

The tree is a fig tree. It appears to be barren or before the summer when it will bear fruit

The fig tree is redolent with symbolism.

The fig tree could be a reference to Israel. But it can symbolise much more than that.

Habbakuk Chapter 3 describes the time of oppression by one`s enemies as when
"the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit appears on the vine,
Though the yield of the olive fails
and the terraces produce no nourishment,
Though the flocks disappear from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls"
Yet even in such desolation the prophet sings:
"18 Yet I will rejoice in the LORD
and exult in my saving God.
19 GOD, my Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet swift as those of deer
and enables me to tread upon the heights"
John appears to be imbued with the spirit of Habbakuk

Luke 13 and Luke 21 also are relevant

In Luke 13, after the call to repentance (which was also the call of John in the wilderness) Jesus tells the parable of the barren fig tree the parable of the barren fig tree, a story about the continuing patience of God with those who have not yet given evidence of their repentance and a warning to those who have not repented that the Kingdom of God may be nearer than they wish to think.

In Luke 21, Jesus tells the Lesson of the Fig Tree as a sign of the Apocalypse:
"The Lesson of the Fig Tree. 
29 He taught them a lesson. “Consider the fig tree and all the other trees.
30 When their buds burst open, you see for yourselves and know that summer is now near;
31 in the same way, when you see these things happening, know that the kingdom of God is near.
32 Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.
33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away"

Monday, September 02, 2013

Crows and Vipers

Théodule Ribot  (1823-1891)
Saint Vincent
Oil on canvas
98  x 130 cm
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Blois (Lille)

The saint and martyr is Saint Vincent of Saragossa, also known as Vincent the Martyr, Vincent of Huesca or Vincent the Deacon. He  is the patron saint of Lisbon and Valencia. 

He was martyred in AD 304

A pious legend found in The Golden Legend states that after his death, crows and ravens protected St. Vincent's body from being devoured by vultures, until his followers could recover the body. 

Unfortunately St Vincent was not that great an advocate or a diplomat. When he attempted to defend himself and his bishop, he so antagonised the Roman governor that the governor put him to death. The governor let the bishop off with exile.

Unfortunately it was not this type of crow which protected St Vincent that a great servant of the Church spoke about recently in the context of being assailed by "crows and vipers"

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone the (still) Secretary of State is a man of great integrity and ability. 

He is also a man of unimpeachable loyalty. Many a time while in office he took a bullet for his boss, Pope Benedict XVI and the Church

When they attacked Bertone, everyone knew that the real target was Benedict

We and the Church owe the Cardinal much.

May he have a long and happy and peaceful retirement free from the pricks of  the darts of lesser men. 

It is clear from Pope Francis`s homily today that one of his main tasks is to stop the fratricidal bickering in Rome and the clergy and laity which seems to pass as "peer criticism" in some circles

Vatican Radio reported this about the Pope`s homily:
"And Pope Francis reflected on the reading pointing out that a situation which had started off with admiration was to end with a crime: they wanted to kill Jesus. Because of jealousy and envy. This – he said – is not just something that happened two thousand years ago: “this kind of thing happens every day in our hearts, in our communities”.  
And he made the example of when somebody new enters a community, on the first day – he said - people speak well of him; on the second not so well; and from the third on gossip and badmouthing starts to spread and end up skinning him”. 
The Pope elaborated on the concept quoting from the First Letter of St. John 3, 15 in which he says: “He who hates his brother is a murderer”. We are used to gossip – he continued – “but how many times our communities, even our families have become a hell in which we criminally kill our brother with words”. "
As the story of St Vincent of Saragossa shows, even crows can change their nature. Let us hope they do before the next victim is struck.