Monday, October 7, 2013

The Holy Rosary: Offending and Grounding Sensibilities

Pious bric-a-brac.
To many who are not Catholic and to some who are, the rosary, which we celebrate today, is perhaps the most ubiquitously offensive thing left in Catholicism. Today, we commemorate the victory of Lepanto, where tradition says thousands of people fingering beads hundreds and thousands of miles from the battle played a role as decisive as ships and cannons. That’s uncomfortably superstitious sounding stuff to the modern mind.

Other devotions went into eclipse as the fads and fashions of modernity stripped much of the material grounding from our religion, but the beads remained as comforting tokens and reminders of promises. The beads and the other sacramentals call us outside of ourselves and ground us. They have the salutary effect of reminding us that Catholicism is a religion of acts, not merely of thoughts and theological argument. They are a sign of contradiction in that they are material, and yet they remind us that the concerns of our religion can never be merely a program of material and human development. They speak at the deepest level of our humanity and, while derided for leading to superstition, their role in grounding us and protecting us from falling too far into our own intellectual fantasies and fancies is too often overlooked.

There is a tremendous hunger in the world for traditions of material religion that have been lost in the last 50 years. A trip to any national chain bookstore will offer the browser ten varieties of tarot decks, crystal kits, the I Ching, dream journals and catchers, and how-to books on making charms and talismans and the secrets of candle magic. But you probably won’t find a breviary, much less the Raccolta with its indulgenced prayers and acts. The world is buying, but for too long Christianity has stopped selling. Under Pope Benedict, it looked as if we might see the day when Barnes and Noble had an aisle crammed with St. Joseph home sale kits, votive candles, Miraculous Medals, prayer books, rosaries and all of the other things from which progress was to liberate us and yet our spirits still crave, but the new administration in Rome seems to be much more of the poster, book, and record variety.

As a former monk, I don’t have the devotion to the rosary that many others do. Monks believe that we will work out much of our salvation in the turning of pages rather than in the counting of beads. Those of us with a devotion to the Divine Office often make much of the difference between the glories of the Breviary and mere “devotions” like the rosary, but, stepping back, I think I probably have to admit that the distinction is lost on the outsider.

Even for all of the liturgical and aesthetic sobriety that marked life as a Cistercian, we still did a heavy business in material religion.  We had a particular devotion to the Cult of the Relics and the Cult of the Dead, but sacramentals and other blessed objects also grounded the life of the house throughout the year. The Church year began with the advent wreath in the refectory. At Epiphany, we blessed salt, water, and chalk and blessed the house. At Candlemas, there was the blessing of candles, followed closely by the blessing of throats on St. Blaise’s Day. On St. Agatha’s Day, we blessed bread. On Ash Wednesday, there was the imposition of blessed ashes. At Easter, we blessed fire and water then eggs and food. At Assumption, we blessed herbs. On St. Francis Day there was one blessing of animals, followed by the blessing of the horses on Martinmas. At professions we blessed habits, cappas, and cowls. Each day ended with being aspersed with holy water by the prior after Compline. Rather than standing in opposition, these were the things that balanced and give ballast to the hours spent in lectio divina and mental prayer that most people find much more palatable.

In the wider world, the Rosary has survived. Ultimately, I think that can be attributed to Our Lady, but proximately it was often thanks to the determination of Saturday morning sodalities of feisty, pious old ladies, whom even the most renewed pastor was hoping to outlive rather than have to tangle with. And, after all, it was something that they could do on their own. But they and their beads didn’t die. The beads carried the Church through the worst of the storm. And so today, give thanks to Our Lady of the Rosary and also for feisty old ladies who may well have carried the day, just as they did at Lepanto.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Our Lady of the Snow

West end of Rome's St. Mary Major.
Today's feast, which has a particularly pleasant title in the depths of southern summer, marks the dedication of St. Mary Major, Rome's great church of the Virgin.  From the Middle Ages until 1969, this feast was kept under the title of Our Lady of the Snow in memory of the legend that the Virgin herself caused a snow to fall on August 5th on the site where the basilica should stand and that its outline was traced in the snow by Pope Liberius.* The Miracle of the Snow is still commemorated at the Basilica on August 5, when a shower of white rose petals falls from the basilica's coffered ceiling. 

The legend of the miraculous snow only arose several centuries after the building of the Basilica and one Church commission had recommended that it be removed from the Breviary as early as 1741, but the legend remained in place in the annual reading until 1969.  It ran as follows:

Under the pontificate of Liberius, John, a Roman patrician, and his wife who was of an equally noble race, having no children to whom they might leave their estates, vowed their whole fortune to the Blessed Virgin Mother of God, begging her most earnestly and continually to make known to them by some means in what pious work she wished them to employ the money. The Blessed Virgin Mary graciously heard their heartfelt prayers and vows, and answered them by a miracle.

On the nones of August, usually the hottest time of the year in Rome, a part of the Esquiline hill was covered with snow during the night. That same night, the Mother of God appeared in a dream to John and his wife separately, and told them to build a church on the spot they should find covered with snow, and to dedicate it to the Virgin Mary; for it was in this manner that she wished to become their heiress. John related this to Pope Liberius who said that he had dreamt the same thing.

The reliquary of the crib in the Sistine Chapel.
He went therefore with a solemn procession of priests and people to the snow-clad hill, and chose the site of a church which was built with the money of John and his wife. It was afterwards rebuilt by Sixtus III. At first it was called by different names, the Liberian Basilica, St. Mary at the Crib. But since there are many churches in Rome dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, and as this one surpasses all other basilicas in dignity and by its miraculous beginning, it is distinguished from them also by the title St. Mary Major. On account of the miraculous fall of snow, the anniversary of the dedication is celebrated by a yearly solemnity.

Aside from how pleasant it is to imagine a snowfall in August at the height of Southern summer, there is something quite appealing about the idea of something as solid as a great basilica mapped out by something as transitory as a snowfall.  We are always tracing outlines of things to be, some of which come to pass and some of which are entirely illusory.  It is also quite easy to get a bit jealous of clear instructions falling down from on high and to wish that God would precipitate all of our actions.

Alone among Rome's patriarchal basilicas, Mary Major has kept its original form, though it is now encased in several centuries of accretions. Two of Rome's greatest treasures are kept in chapels on either side of the high altar. The Borghese chapel houses the icon of Salus Populi Romani, Rome's beloved icon of the Virgin, which legend attributes to the hand of St. Luke. The Sistine Chapel contains the relics of the crib, brought from the Holy Land by Pope Theodore in the seventh century. Throughout the church, one finds fine examples of Christian art from almost every century.

There are more photos of Mary Major here from a trip a few years ago.


* The Latin is "Sancta Maria ad nives," which would literally be "Our Lady of the Snows," but in English, since we are talking about one snowfall, that seems a bit like translating "cervi" as "deers."  I will admit that is a subjective point, as translation often is.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Progressive Christian Social Media: Is It Truthful? Is It Kind? Is It Necessary?

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love.
-I John 4:18-19

The other morning I had five or so religion posts in my Facebook feed.  The messages largely ran in the vein of “You awful haters out there don’t understand love, justice, and compassion the way real Christians like me do.”  Sadly, I find that online progressive Christianity seems to be as fearful and as anger and stereotype-driven as the familiar caricatures of fundamentalism.  The language is peace and justice, but the subtext is too often the fear of the other and an appeal to the right-thinkingness of the progressive in-group.  Friends,  Sister Bertha Better-than-You is a turn off whether she’s wearing a button from MoveOn or from the Family Research Council.  That is unless your goal is to gain the hearty agreement of those who already agree with you at the expense of hardening the lines of division.

One thing for which I will always be grateful from my 16 years working for the Quakers is experiencing their very serious commitment to loving everyone.  Friends are far from perfect, as they will readily attest, but they take very seriously their beliefs that, ultimately, no one is an enemy and that “There is that of God in every person.”  Foregoing demonizing those with whom one disagrees is a tall order to be sure, but this focus on looking for a future in which we all stand together redeemed and whole radically alters one’s perspective.  It was certainly quite an eye-opener for someone with a particularly cutting mouth, a love of mockery, and who very much likes to win.  I am afraid that, for the most part, I failed to be transformed, but the principle maintains its power in my thinking, especially when I think about speech in the public square.

Too much progressive Christian rhetoric in social media centers on trumpeting our own rightness and winning the likes and shares of those who agree with us rather than in changing hearts and minds.  We all do it and I am painfully aware of how many more likes I get for writing about politics than about some obscure saint, but, as someone who sees a lot of liberal and conservative religious diatribes coming across my screen, the only difference between the two is usually in the buzzwords.  The level of vitriol is about the same.  We dig ourselves deeper into our own little holes and push others further away.  That will never lead to a future where the lion lies down with the lamb and the child shall play on the hole of the asp.  It won’t even lead to a future where we can be civil to the guy next door with the wrong bumper sticker.  

One of my mentors when I first began working for the Quakers would say that we should run our words through the three sieves before we speak them.  (She had more than one occasion to make this point to me.)  The idea of the three sieves has several versions and attributions, but I remember them in what I think is the way that SaraSue put them to me.  Before we speak, she would say, we must ask of ourselves is it truthful? is it kind? is it necessary?  To put it another way we must ask:

1.  Do I have my facts straight or am I actually uninformed or consciously bending reality to match my rhetoric?

2.Am I saying this out of genuine concern or to wound?

3.Does saying this help the situation, especially if I am saying it in a public forum? 

When I was a communications director, I kept a piece of paper with the sieves thumb tacked to the wall behind my desk.  I still missed the mark, but that little piece of paper made me write or say something better many times.  The world and the internet would be better places if we all did even a moderately better job of this.  I have certainly let my own standard fall now that I am not a spokesperson for an organization or a member of a religious order.  

We seem to be on the verge of becoming a nation of people living in bunkers connected by fiber optic cable to like-minded people living in bunkers of their own.  After all, why go talk to the people at the bar down the street, who believe Lord-knows-what, when there’s someone in New Zealand who agrees with me on everything and likes, shares, and comments on all of my posts?  I am afraid that is generally a sign that love has not cast out fear--the fear of being wrong, the fear of having to change, the fear of leaving our comfort zones.  Too often, progressive Christians want to live in the purity and unanimity we find so appalling in our more conservative co-religionists, whom we make into straw men in our posts and memes.  

What if instead, we measured our words and our tone and tried to talk to rather than about each other?  And, rather than contributing to the polarization asked, “Is it truthful? Is it kind? Is it necessary?”  At the very least, what if instead posting our latest rant on our Facebook wall for the whole world to see, we sent it to a friend as a private message and did our part to cut down on the internet’s smog of smug?  These are small things and nothing that our mothers and grandmothers didn’t try to teach us, but they might make a bigger difference than we think.  

How would your day be different if the next time you logged into Facebook you only read two or three angry posts about the state of the world instead of six or seven?  The residual effects of all of that frenetic righteousness out there may be ruining your day more than you realize.

As is often the case, Tom Lehrer said something similar both first and funnier:

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Our Lady on Saturday: Sancta Maria

Lady Altar, Abbaye de Fontfriode.

Holy Mary,
Help the suffering:
Strengthen the fainthearted;
Pray for the people;
Entreat for the clergy;
Intercede for all women
Vowed to God.

Marian Antiphon at Vespers for the Season from
Pentecost to Advent in the Cistercian Breviary

Friday, May 31, 2013

A Throne Fit for the King of Kings

As a postgame note on the Feast of Corpus Christi, I thought of a monstrance, but not just any monstrance.  In 2009, I had the good fortune to go to the south of France for the wedding of my friends Rachel and Sebastian.  Ticket prices worked out so that the best route that summer was to fly into Barcelona a couple of days early, giving me a chance to look around that amazing city.  As you might imagine, this involved crawling through many medieval churches.

I I had already been thoroughly impressed with Barcelona's cathedral when I made my way into the treasury off the cloister, but I was entirely unprepared for the Great Custodia, with its three sections standing more than five feet tall. Spanish cities are known for their large processional monstrances or custodia and Barcelona was particularly known for its fine work in gold and silver. The Custodia of Barcelona is the intersection of the two.

The monstrance proper is a triumph of 14th Century goldsmith's work. It sits on a silver gilt chair known as the throne chair of King Martin the Humane, though the chair, at least in its present form, is probably of a later date than the reign of King Martin, likely dating from the second half of the 15th Century. Above, there are two royal crowns. Over the centuries, contributions of jewels by the faithful, some of them of incredible quality, have come to cover a large portion of its surfaces. More than 2000 pearls and 1200 diamonds adorn the Custodia in addition to numerous other jewels.

Several pieces are displayed in the same case, including some particularly fine pectoral crosses and several larger jewels that can be affixed to the Custodia.

A jeweled sash in a nearby case, another royal gift, was fitted to be fastened around the throne-chair.

This sort of beauty and extravagance can still re-ignite the battle of the alabaster box--"Surely this could be sold and the money used to fund a five-year pilot program to demonstrate the effectiveness of ...." Thankfully, this does not seem to be an issue in Barcelona, which even as it continues to experiment with various architectural and artistic styles, seems to have never lost its love of beauty. Unlike many pieces of this caliber that spend their days in museum cases, the Custodia of Barcelona is still used each year in the city's main Corpus Christi procession. The Custodia invites us to consider the power of a faith that is not too intellectually proud to encompass a fairly literal interpretation of "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Corpus Christi and the Mass as Worship and Instruction

The Rev'd Basil Maturin.
The Rev’d Basil Maturin has always been a great favorite of mine.  An Episcopal priest who once served at my old parish in Philadelphia, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church and in 1913 was appointed the Catholic chaplain to Oxford University. In 1915 he made a successful preaching tour of the United States, booking a return passage on the Lusitania. As the ship began to sink, he was seen moving among the passengers giving absolution. He did not take a life belt for himself and was last seen handing a child into a lifeboat with the words, "Find its mother."
Unlike many converts of his generation, Maturin resisted the temptation to browbeat his former compatriots with his new-found faith and he never lost his sense of mystery and beauty, the Anglican Oxford Movement’s great gift to nineteenth-century Christianity. As we approach the Feast of Corpus Christi tomorrow, when we remember the institution of the Mass, I always think of Maturin’s description of the Most Blessed Sacrament as being both worship and instruction:
Till the Truth has gone down into the heart and burns there like fire, and breathes there like air, it is lifeless. Now it is in worship that we learn our faith as we are drawn closer and closer to its Author; the learned man with his cultured mind kneels beside the beggar who cannot read, yet both believe the same. Now the Blessed Sacrament is the concentration of faith and worship, it is the presentation of the great dogmas of our faith in the language of the heart. 
Our Lord Himself prescribed one and only one form of worship in which all the great doctrines of our faith were taught. To that he bid men come to be taught almost unconsciously. Two great doctrines sum up Christian faith and life: God becomes man and gives us His nature. 
I can't doubt the meaning when I hear This is My Body. Other religions profess to satisfy the religious instinct: Christianity to give a gift to heal us—this is the life of Christ. Therefore the Altar has always protected the supernatural teaching of Christianity. If, then, we believe this, if Christianity is the fulfillment of the religious aspirations of humanity, if it is the divine means whereby God has chosen to reveal Himself to man, every detail of the Christian worship and teaching becomes of the utmost importance, for it safeguards the great truths of revelation.

Melchizedek offers bread and wine.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Fr. Faber on Aridity in Prayer

Frederick Faber, the great hymn writer of Faith of Our Fathers fame, wrote on many topics.  Earlier today, I ran across some verses he wrote on aridity in prayer.  Aridity is the demon that is always lurking for those of us who attempt to keep some regular discipline of the Divine Office and/or mental prayer.  There are the days when prayer is easy and full of consolation and then there are those when dry words stick to the roofs of our mouths and mental prayer seems to be no more than an echo chamber of our jumbled thoughts.

Faber was neither a systematic nor an ascetic theologian.  He wrote practical advice for those living in the world, often in the forms of hymns that served as catechesis on various aspects of the Christian life.  He once said, “Faith is letting down our nets into the transparent deeps at the Divine command, not knowing what we shall take.”  His advice on aridity in prayer is very much in the same spirit, seeing what seems to us to be fruitless as an opportunity for grace.

O for the happy days gone by,
When love ran smooth and free,
Days when my spirit so enjoyed
More than earth's liberty!

Then, when I knelt to meditate,
Sweet thoughts came o'er my soul,
Countless and bright and beautiful,
Beyond my own control.

What can have locked those fountains up ?
Those visions what hath stayed?
What sudden act hath thus transformed
My sunshine into shade?

This freezing heart, O Lord! this will,
Dry as the desert sand,
Good thoughts that will not come, bad thoughts
That come without command,—

But if this weariness hath come
A present from on high,
Teach me to find the hidden wealth
That in its depths may lie.

Thrice blessed be this darkness then,
This deep in which I lie,
And blessed be all things that teach
God's dear supremacy!