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!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Richard, First Abbot of Fountains

The ruins of Fountains.  Thanks, Henry.
It has been a while since I have run across something so long that it needed to be posted here rather than on Facebook and the end of the semester has slowed me down in general, but one of the entries in yesterday's section of the Menology was that for Richard, fist abbot of Fountains in Yorkshire.  I will draw no contemporary moral for the story, though I'm sure there is more than one to be found about perseverence in adversity, etc.  Chalk this one up to just because.

In England, Blessed Richard, first Abbot of Fountains.  He had been Prior of St. Mary’s of York when the thirst of leading a more perfect life urged him to leave that house, along with twelve associates, to follow the Rule of Citeaux.  The had the happy encouragement of our Father St. Bernard, who wrote to them stating that is was indeed easier to find a multitude of seculars converted to a good life than to witness a religious pass to a better observance.  He even sent them the Monk Geoffrey of Ainai to initiate them into our discipline.  Under his guidance, they began to build cabins, and to chant, as the old monk instructed them.  Yet, for two years, they had to suffer the hardship of of so great poverty that their food consisted in the leaves of trees and wild herbs.  Finally, as history records, the Lord multiplied the brethren and, enlarging his vineyard, shed therein the dew of his benediction, so that the monastery materially increased in possessions, and, much more, spiritually in sanctity.  Its name became very famous, and the Princes of the land revered it.  However, Blessed Richard went to receive a still better reward in Heaven, and to enjoy forever the glory merited by his labors and virtues.

Richard died at Rome while attending the Second Lateran Council. Perhaps the moral of the story is that, despite the best of intentions, one is never beyond the reach and, perhaps, allure of bureaucracy and intrigue.