Three of the saints in Michelangelo's "Last Judgement." St. Blase, St. Catherine and St. Sebastian. Tradition usually dictates that a saint is depicted with the instruments with which the saint was martyred or another symbol which stands for their life (e.g. a lily for chastity). Here Blase is shown with the combs with which his flesh was raked before he was beheaded, St. Catherine with broken wheel on which her the first attempt to kill her failed, and St. Sebastian with the arrows of his persecution.
Wednesday of Holy Week, March 31
St. Michael Media Room at 7 :00 PM
Join us for an evening of reflection on the people we will encounter in Scripture and in the Stations of the Cross during Holy Week as shown in art through the ages. Our time together will be a thoughtful and prayerful introduction to the Sacred Triduum.
The phrase "blinding insight" coveys something of what happened to Paul in his conversion experience. Paul was privileged in the degree of his theophany or perhaps even the kind, but if we're receptive to divine insight, we experience them as well.
An "oh no" accompanied with an "ah ha" experience: Oh no, I've been persecuting Christians, Ah ha, Christ is the Light of the World. Such a revelation is disorienting - it takes a while to discern and regroup. This experience, not personal acquaintance with Jesus, changed the entire direction of Paul's life.
Unless we carefully protect ourselves with spiritual RayBans, we too will be gifted with Divine insight from time to time, perhaps like Paul, even at a moment when we least expect it.
Let us pray this day for the humility and courage to change directions in our lives, anything to follow the Light of the World more closely.
Caravaggio, an artist who explored the contrast between darkness and light in almost all his works, painted two version of St. Paul's conversion, the painting on the left emphasizes the blinding, pehaps even painful nature of Divine insight, while the painting on the right depicts Paul's ultimately receptive posture to God's revelation.
As Sister Wendy says in her Grand Tour video of art, St. Sebastian was an extremely popular subject for Renaissance painters, because he alone (beside Jesus), could be shown nude, giving artists an opportunity to demonstrate their mastery of the human male form.
The result is that there are many painings of St. Sebastian ranging from the inspiring to kitsch. One depiction which stands out from the others in style and point of view is that of Jacques Callot, which shows the saint all alone, surrounded by the emperor's power arrayed against him. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke became intrigued with the lone figure gathering up the arrows which had missed their mark.
Courage in the face of power, even the power of Satan does not ultimately prevail. We are not alone, Christ is with us.
Only two days after Jesus' birth in the liturgical calendar, the feast of the Holy Innocents hits home with the stark reminder that the world is not necessarily a safe place for innocent human life.
We find brutality to children and the massacre of the innocents offensive in art, but perhaps are not so attuned to its presence right under our noses. Would a representation of the Massacre of the Innocents find its place in any of our churches today? They are abundant in history.
Yet, the brutality of violence to the unborn in abortion is "too graphic" for us to see, but not for us to permit, even perhaps, to fund with tax dollars.
There is a famous work of art by Peter Breughel called the "Massacre of the Innocents" set in a village in the Netherlands. Art historians differ on whether the painting represents a modern interpretation of Herod's slaughter, or it depicts the brutality of King Philip of Spain in crushing the Protestant revolt in the middle of the sixteenth century, or both.
The owner of the painting asked that the children in the violent scene be overpainted, and they were. Children became packages or animals to erase the offending brutality. Out of sight, out of mind.
Here are two versions. Can you find the differences?
Wouldn't it be great if violence against the unborn and children could be eliminated from our world as easily? What can we do today to make the world a safer place for children?
Angels Appearing Before the Shepherds, Henry Osawa Tanner
One of my favorite Prefaces in the Sacramentary (the book of prayers for the Mass) is the Preface for Advent II. It's poetry and theology combined.
Father, all-powerful and ever-living God,
we do well always and everywhere to give You thanks
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
His future coming was proclaimed by all the prophets.
The virgin mother bore Him in her womb with love beyond all telling.
John the Baptist was His herald
and made Him known when at last He came.
in His love Christ has filled us with joy as we prepare to celebrate His birth,
so that when He comes He may find us watching in prayer,
our hearts filled with wonder and praise.
And so, with all the choirs of angels in heaven
we proclaim Your glory and join in their unending hymn of praise:
Because our parish is named for the Holy Cross, I think we should become very familiar with saints of the same name, or saints with particular devotion to the Cross. Surely, St. John of the Cross is an excellent beginning: mystic, poet, theologian, Doctor of the Church.
John's writings insist that progress in the spiritual life is only made with difficulty, and with suffering. Asceticism, i.e. leaving something behind or separating oneself from the world is never easy. Suffering, in his writings, produces understanding. His Spiritual Canticle is a poetic reflection on the Song of Songs and has been put to music by John Michael Talbot, "One Dark Night."
St. John's own artwork provided the inspiration for Salvador Dali's painting, Christ of St. John of the Cross. One unique aspect of St. John's sketch was that it took God's point of view and looked down on the crucifixion from heaven.
"In the end, you will be judged by love."
Tonight for our Faith Seeking Understanding discussion, we viewed an interesting video on Gothic Cathedrals, especially the Gothic Cathedrals of France and discussed a chapter in Dennis R. McNamara's newly published book on Catholic architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy. They were an interesting starting point for a discussion of our church, present and proposed.
I surely didn't know that the Holy Father was also speaking about Gothic Cathedrals today! Here's the text of his remarks and a link to the YouTube video:
Romanesque cathedrals are distinctive for their size and for introducing to churches beautiful sculpture, including the image of Christ as the Universal Judge and the Gate of Heaven. By entering through Him, as it were, the faithful enter a space and even a time different from everyday life, somewhere they can anticipate eternal life through their participation in the liturgy.
Gradually, Gothic architecture replaced the Romanesque, adding height and luminosity to the previous style. The Gothic cathedral translates the aspirations of the soul into architectural lines, and is a synthesis between faith, art and beauty which still raises our hearts and minds to God today. When faith encounters art, in particular in the liturgy, a profound synthesis is created, making visible the Invisible, and the two great architectural styles of the Middle Ages demonstrate how beauty is a powerful means to draw us closer to the Mystery of God. May the Lord help us to rediscover that "way of beauty", surely one of the best ways to know and to love Almighty God.
Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, November 18, 2009
Dressed in her Benedictine habit and holding the symbol of her authority as abbess of her 13th century monastic community, St. Gertrude is shown in a mystical prayer with the infant Jesus promoting devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. His words are written in a Latin inscription, "In corde Gertrudis invenietis me," "in Gertrude's heart you will find me."
St. Gertrude enjoyed many visions of Jesus and the rings on her fingers symbolize not only her virginal espousal as the bride of Christ, but specific private revelations given to her by Jesus.
St. Gertrude's widespread influence despite never leaving her monastic community is yet another amazing testimony to the power of holy Benedictine men and women and the power of prayer in general. Gertrude's prayers and meditations came from everyday events - the words of the Gospel at daily mass, the sounds of the fountain in the convent courtyard, a sunrise, a flower, the words of a sister. May we too be open to the graces surrounding us.
Soldier, bishop, saint. A career path which sounds a bit unusual. Martin was already a young soldier and only a catechumen when fully dressed in his military garb and on horseback, he happened upon cold and nearly naked beggar. His swift decision to split his cloak in half and give the beggar some warmth came back to him in his dreams later that night, when he saw a vision that Jesus himself was wearing the piece of the mantle Martin had given to the beggar.
This act of generosity has been reproduced hundreds of times and is no doubt the single most recognized event in long life of St. Martin of Tours.
Two paintings at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. depict his youthful spontaneous generosity.
El Greco and Jan Boeckhorst, respectively. National Gallery of Art
There are so many resources for learning about the rich heritage of our Catholic saints. To love them, to feel connected to them, we have to learn about their lives. They are human like us, and all have foibles like us, but perhaps, unlike us, they were able to deal with the circumstances in their lives with "heroic virtue." They can inspire us, console us, and intercede for us.
I've placed four good books for learning about saints on the reading list.
Blessed All Saints Day!
The last several weekday morning readings from Romans have been so encouraging. Earlier Paul struggled with the question of why he sins when he knows better. Today he reminds us that we love and serve a God, not as slaves, but as heirs. This dignity is the amazing gift conferred on us by our baptism through the merits of the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We suffer, Paul says, to be like Christ and so to be glorified with him. Sometimes, I think, we would prefer that Christ came not to save us from our sins, but from our suffering. Today almost surely we will have an opportunity to suffer something with Christ, or in spite of Him.
In a world where any suffering is increasingly viewed as pointless, Paul's rejoinder - "we are joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him, so that we may be glorified with him."
Instead of jeering at Jesus' suffering on the cross with the bystanders, or sounding like the unrepentant thief who demands to be spared from his suffering as proof of Jesus' power, Let us pray for the grace to join our sufferings to His.
Grunewald's famous Isenheim Altarpiece highlights the suffering and the glory of Jesus' invitation to follow him. The Crucifixion, surely one of the most gruesome in art, is contrasted with the glorious, smiling Risen Christ.
There is a great online Ordo for the United States published by the Priests of the Sacred Heart on their webpage. It is a handy and convenient reference to discover not only the mass readings of the day, but the saint(s) who are commemorated on that day. For those who pray the Liturgy of the Hours, the appropriate week in the psalter (I-IV) is also given.
October from the 15th Century Illuminated Manuscript Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry.
A giant of the Church, there are too many aspects to her vigorous and holy life to appreciate all at once. Every year, revisit her biography, prayers and spiritual writings to be nourished by something familiar, or discover something new. A tough reformer and traveler despite illness, soul mate of St. John of the Cross, mystic, doctor of the Church and in death, one of the incorruptibles.
Bernini's masterpiece of St. Teresa in Ecstasy gives us some idea of the love and passion for Christ the mystics experience. Simon Schama's discussion of Bernini's St. Teresa is both remarkable and thought provoking. You may still be able to find it on the PBS Series, "The Power of Art" or read it in Schama's companion book, which is a wonderful book worth owning for its art and its prose.
The book of Joel foretells the last days and the judgment of the Lord upon the nations. A plague of locusts invaded Judah, presaging the coming of the Lord on judgment day. After an assembly of the people was gathered and the priests prayed for deliverance, the Lord heard their prayer and promised to send peace and prosperity on Judah instead. Still, the Lord's vengeance will be meted out on Judah's faithless neighbors as God sounds not only jealous of Judah's affection, but angry over the suffering they have borne from their neighbors.
There's never a time I consider God's justice and mercy that my head doesn't start spinning after a while. It's a good thing I don't have to figure it out. It's well that we remember "God is God, and I am not."
Our response is fairly simple: confess our sins and depend on the mercy and justice of God; confess our sins and receive Jesus' Body and Blood. I'm not sure Tissot's Joel would be too merciful a fellow, just looking at him. I'll take Jesus, thank you.
Joel by James Tissot.
We know so little about St. Denis (bishop of Paris martyred c. 250 AD in the Roman persecutions) that it might be a good opportunity to take some time on his feastday to learn about our Catholic heritage.
St. Denis is shown in iconography carrying his own mitred-head. There was a legend that after his martyrdom on Montmarte, he walked (and preached) to the site of the current Basilica named in his honor. Montmarte (mountain of martyr) derives its name from St. Denis' martyrdom.
The Basilica of the Sacred Heart sits high atop Montmarte and is notable not only for its striking domes, but for the continuous Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament on the main altar since 1885.
The Basilica of St. Denis, one of the earliest examples of Gothic architecture, is noted for its beautiful stained glass windows and for being the burial place of French kings.
So much of the sacred and secular geography of Montmarte and environs takes shape around the death of St. Denis
The church needs martyrs ("the weak who are made strong" by the Lord) to witness to the truth of the Gospel in every age. An unflinching look at St. Denis carrying his head may give us a bit of courage before our morning coffee.
Who is Christ? Jesus expects an answer from us, just as he did from Peter and our answer should be formed by reading, thinking and prayer from the time we're in school to the time we leave this world.
What can I do today to learn something I didn't know about Jesus?
The Flagellation by Georges Rouault. Stained glass at Notre Dame de toute Grace.
The first reading reminds us our salvation depends on our response to God's love and grace in our lives.
Many priests at the Diocesan Convocation this week were discussing the inordinately large number of funerals they have had so far this year:that is certainly our experience here at Holy Cross.
Priests are lucky, in the sense that having constant contact with the sick and dying and praying at so many funerals helps keep the focus on the ultimate nature of things. This isn't to say that I don't get wrapped up in petty concerns all too often, but a trip to the hospital or the cemetery has a way of putting things in perspective.
How many times do we hear that someone "wasn't a church go-er" or that we like the quickest masses, or the masses where there is no preaching? Everyone is busy, even for our 9/11 evening prayer service?
God's generosity is extravagant, and he calls on us for the same response. Not tears and ointment, but generous praise and worship.
What can be lacking in the sufferings of Christ? I remember being taught that whatever sins Christ did not suffer (atone) for cannot be forgiven.
A beautiful modern theological interpretation of this question is John Paul II's Encyclical Salvifici Doloris. In it the pope affirms the perfection of Christ's suffering on Calvary, but calls them accomplished, not completed.
While we must avoid any Pelagian tendencies to think our sufferings earn our salvation, we can nevertheless actively join our own sufferings to Christ's and become not simply spectators at Calvary, but true participants. Linear time does not matter here: Just as Christ suffered to atone for sins we have not yet committed, so can we join our sufferings to his even though His crucifixion on Calvary is history. The sufferings of Christ on Calvary are both outside human history and yet intimately enfolded within it.
The good Sisters used to tell their pupils, "Offer it up." The pope even mentions this practice in his encyclical and embraces both the spirit and truth of the admonition, if not its simplicity. I return to this encyclical over and over because its truths are so important in accepting the blessings and meeting the challenges of Christian discipleship.
The painting is the part of the Isenheim Altarpiece (c. 1512) by Matthias Grunewald. It was remarkable then and now for the intense depictions of the Christ's sufferings. It was painted for a monastic chapel whose monks cared for the sick and suffering.
We've all had a pair of favorite bedroom slippers, an old shirt or blouse, a terry bathrobe, a cap, a pair of shoes or other article of clothing that became our favorite. Something we wore every chance we got long after our prized and comfortable item would have been rejected by any reputable second hand store.
We fall in love with the comfort of the familiar from early childhood, I suppose actually, from before we're born. Whooshing sounds remind babies of the blood flow in the womb, swaddling clothes cuddle them with security. Sunday mornings after masses, there is a silent and often unnoticed procession of worn-out stuffed animals, threadbare blankets and other precious commodities clutched tightly by our youngest churchgoers, their tickets for passage into the strange and wonderful world of church.
I don't remember if I toted a childhood security talisman around, but I still love my softest flannel shirts, my stonewashed jeans and prefer my oldest, threadbare pillow cases over a crisp, thick one anynight.
Young or old, the Linus in each of us eventually must surrender an ancient treasure. We either reluctantly give it up, or a parent or spouse cajoles it away from us. Sometimes our treasure mysteriously goes missing, a well meaning intervention by someone else for our own good (and to spare them from embarassment!)
Just as Jesus burst from his tomb, the Good News of the Gospel will burst tired wineskins and can't be grafted onto a threadbare spirituality. It claims us entirely.
Far worse than a pair of holey jeans is comfortable neglect of prayer, tenaciously held prejudice, addictive consumerism or customary indifference to the suffering of others. Are we willing to give them up? It's not likely these will simply go missing, we've got some stretching and bursting to do. At first, we don't need a carefully thought out plan to abandon a sinful attachment. We need only ask Jesus for the willingness to do so. This is a sincere prayer we can make before we feel like change, even in our comfortable slippers.
Sculpture by Paul Granlund, Resurrection II in St. Mark's Lutheran Cathedral, Minneapolis, MN. This image from Imaging the Word, Volume I, Kenneth T. Lawrence, editor, United Church Press: Cleveland, OH, 1994. Visit the Cathedral site here: Resurrection II by Granlund