Friday, June 30, 2023

Quo Vadis

Quo Vadis by the Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz is a jewel of historical fiction. While the 1951 film is excellent, it is dated; the novel, however, transcends time. The heartrending and vivid portrait of Roman life in the days of Nero combines a romance with the acta sanctorum amid breathtaking historical accuracy. The feelings of the young tribune Marcus Vinicius for the Christian maiden Ligia Callina are transformed by sacrifice and suffering from mere lust into profound love and devotion. In the meantime the early Church prepares to face a grueling ordeal at the hands of Nero. The brutality and decadence of Imperial Rome stand in glaring contrast to the indefatigable new sect, guided and instructed by Peter and Paul. The Christians must deal not only with the violence of the pagans but with some of their own members who betray and deceive. Indeed, part of the impact of the novel is the way it conveys continuity of the past with the present. Followers of Christ must struggle with their own sins and weaknesses as much as with the outside world which seeks to destroy them. It was not easy then; it is not easy now.

Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916) received the Nobel Prize for Quo Vadis. He was writing to encourage his Polish countrymen in their many difficulties, and combined superb story-telling with painstaking historical research. Although I prefer the book to the movie, I do not hesitate to recommend the latter. Among 1950's Biblical epics, Quo Vadis is outstanding. Peter Ustinov's performance as Nero is truly something worth watching; few actors could capture the same balance of comedy, pathos and unmitigated depravity. The sets are magnificent as well, and the flow of drama, quite piercing. It is a good way to glean both history and inspiration while being entertained.

Thursday, June 29, 2023

What Fairer Light?

For the last few days I have been thinking on and off of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, whose martyrdom is celebrated today in the universal church, and of how two men with such different personalities would come to share a similar fate. St. Peter was a robust and practical fisherman from a small town. St. Paul was more cosmopolitan, a scholar, a pharisee, and a Roman citizen. They were both killed in a public and grisly manner far, far from their homeland. One was crucified, the other was beheaded.

How easy it would have been to have retired to some safe corner somewhere where they would not have bothered anyone! To just give up preaching, and writing all those letters, and generally harassing the pagans and correcting lax Christians...surely they had already done and suffered enough! Didn't they have a right to live their own life, and find some peace and quiet? After all, they had given up all for God, and now they were old...why couldn't they obscurely die in bed?

Ask St Peter, as he was fleeing from Rome, where Nero was burning Christians at his garden parties, and suddenly he ran into Our Lord, Who was walking along the Appian Way in the opposite direction.

Quo vadis, Domine? "Where are you going, Lord?" asked St Peter.

"To Rome, to be crucified again," Jesus replied. And St. Peter knew what he had to do...he had to go back. He was arrested and crucified, upside down, at his own request, for he felt unworthy to die in the same manner as his Master. He was always deeply humbled by the memory of his past denial.

Here are some words from the ancient and beautiful hymn for this feast, "What fairer light?"

Rejoice, O Rome, this day; thy walls they once did sign
With princely blood, who now their glory share with thee.
What city's vesture glows with crimson deep as thine?
What beauty else has earth that may compare with thee?

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Sacred Fire: Practicing Devotion to the Heart of Jesus

Sacred Fire by Philip Michael Bulman is a gem of a book about the development of the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus among the Catholic faithful. From the words of Jesus Himself and the piercing of his Heart to the mystic writings of St. Gertrude and St. Margaret Mary, to the Carmelite saints and ending with St. Faustina and the Divine Mercy revelations, the author shows how the Sacred Heart devotion is firmly rooted in Scripture and Tradition. Not only has the devotion long been a part of the piety of the faithful but in times of crisis the symbol of the Heart of Our Savior has emerged with special power. The back of the book has many prayers, litanies and other devotions. Sacred Fire is a book for every Catholic household.

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Our Lady of Perpetual Help

It is the feast of Our Mother of Perpetual Help.
In dangers, in hardships, in every doubt,
think of Mary, call out to Mary.
Keep her in your mouth, keep her in your heart.
Follow the example of her life
and you will obtain the favour of her prayer.

~St. Bernard

A history of the feast.
As our Queen, she cradles the royal Child Jesus in her left arm while her right hand gently clasps the Savior’s little hands. A single sandal dangles from one of His bare feet in anticipation of the welcome He would give to the nails that would pierce them. Yet, the face of Jesus is more mature than His little frame should allow. It is the way of the icon. The icon painter follows a regimen that is laid out by a long tradition of masters. The idea is to teach divine truth in the work of art. In the image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Mary is central. On account of its similarity with Saint Luke’s painting of Our Lady and Child (the Moslem Turks ripped the original to pieces when they took over Constantinople in 1453) icon scholars believe that the original painting of Our Lady of Perpetual Help was based on a copy of Saint Luke’s painting. Our Lady is looking out straight ahead in the picture. Her eyes seem to be pleading for her Son, whom she knew was to die a terrible death in atonement for sin. The Child Jesus is turned toward one of the angels, Michael, who holds forth a cross like a standard; the other angel, Gabriel, carries the spear. Some interpret the face of Our Lord as expressing fear. I think that they are right. 
The central figure in eastern iconography, be it the Theotokos, the Hagia Sophia (the Son of God as Wisdom), or a saint, looms larger than the other figures in the painting, if there are any. There is in fact disproportion between the central figure, whose face is always luminous, rather than illumined, and whoever else is honored in the icon. With Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Our Lord is smaller than would be the case if the artist intended to draw a “picture.” What one immediately sees in looking at an icon is that the sanctity of the person drawn comes from within. To be sure, westerners must be educated when it comes to viewing an icon; the image is not meant to be gazed at for created beauty, but read for enlightenment of Faith. Icons reveal divine mystery more than just what appears to the physical eye. 
The history of this painting, its origin, its journeys, its miracles, its survival of persecution, its popularity, and its life in Rome for the past six centuries, is wonderful. No one knows who painted it. That is because it was the work of an eastern Catholic artist and icons are never signed. It is believed to have been composed in the thirteenth century in Crete. Notice, I chose to use the word composed rather than drawn. As I said, icons are meant to be read. Sharing the scene with Our Lady, whose title Mother of God is written beside her in abbreviated Greek letters, and Jesus, are the two angels, Michael and Gabriel, who are also named in abbreviated Greek characters The painting was a treasure cherished by the faithful of the Greek island who came to venerate it where it hung above the main altar of a cathedral, perhaps in the capital city of Candia. 
Near the end of the fifteenth century, a wealthy Venetian merchant managed to steal the painting and, hiding it in his possessions, he took it to Italy where he planned to sell it. However, while he was on business in Rome he became very ill. When it appeared that he would not recover, he somewhat repented for having taken the icon and, apparently, made a resolution to bestow it to a church. As he was dying he revealed to a friend where he had hid the work. Strangely, however, and no doubt providentially (for its original home in Crete was soon after overrun by the Turks), he asked his friend to give the image to any church in Rome. That is how the icon arrived at the Augustinian Church of Saint Matthew in the Eternal City. However, that did not happen right away. After the death of the “good thief” his friend showed the painting to his wife. The woman would not part with it. Her husband proved to be a wimp and he failed to fulfill the request of his dying friend out of fear of upsetting his wife. His wife’s father also got involved, encouraging his daughter to keep it, for it was truly an exquisite work of art and would be worth a lot of money. It took an apparition of Our Lady to this woman’s daughter and mother to convince her that she must let the holy icon go. Our Lady said to the little girl: “Go and tell your mother and your grandfather: Our Lady of Perpetual Help bids you to take her away from your house; otherwise, you will all die.” There you have it, Mary herself chose the title Our Lady of Perpetual Help! The devil tried again and again, even using a sceptical neighbor, to prevent the icon from leaving the merchant’s house. But he was vanquished in the end and the image was eventually enshrined in the humble Church of Saint Thomas, near the Basilica of Saint Mary Major on the Esquiline hill. (Read more.)

More HERE.

Sunday, June 18, 2023

The Heart of St. Joseph

From St. Joseph, Our Guide:

St. Joseph is known as “the just man” and, as such, was a man of singular virtue. This strength of character, this reign of virtue, extended to all aspects of his life and his person—including his heart. His whole being was oriented to his God. His love was properly ordered, his affections purified. Unlike St. Joseph, we tend to struggle, and oftentimes fail, with matters of the heart. Our culture certainly does not hold the virtue of chastity in high esteem. Therefore, it can seem incredible to us that a man like Joseph was able to rise to the lofty challenge presented to him: to be the “chaste guardian of the Virgin” (and of all virgins) and the foster-father of the Son of God. Such a task requires both remarkable human virtue and unexcelled amounts of God’s grace. St. Joseph had both.

The tradition with regard to the age of St. Joseph varies (the Eastern Church holds that he was an old man, while the West concedes that he may have been much younger), but at the heart of the issue is the fact that it was Joseph’s virtue—not merely old age, lack or virility, or lethargic passions—that safeguarded the perpetual virginity of the Mother of God, and allowed him to guide and protect Mary and Jesus with such strength of pure love.

This should be a great consolation to us who still wander in this vale of tears, striving for holiness. St. Joseph was a great man with a “most chaste heart” but whose love was certainly not cold. For this reason, the Diocese of Charlotte’s logo for the Year of St. Joseph depicts his Most Chaste Heart inflamed with love and adorned with the white lily of purity. The heart of St. Joseph should give us great hope that purity of heart lies within our reach, thanks to the grace of God and the intercession of Joseph-most-chaste! (Read more.)


 From St. Joseph: Our Patron:

I am convinced that by reflection upon the way that Mary’s spouse shared in the divine mystery, the Church – on the road towards the future with all of humanity – will be enabled to discover ever anew her own identity within this redemptive plan, which is founded on the mystery of the Incarnation. This is precisely the mystery in which Joseph of Nazareth ‘shared’ like no other human being except Mary, the Mother of the Incarnate Word. He shared in it with her; he was involved in the same salvific event; he was the guardian of the same love, through the power of which the Eternal Father ‘destined us to be His sons through Jesus Christ.’ (Eph. 1:5) ~St. John Paul II (Read more.)

Monday, June 12, 2023

Life: A Battlefield of Many Wounds

 From Church Life Journal:

“Men and women are flesh and bone, hands and feet, the pierced side of Christ—his mystic body,” adds the author concealed by the pseudonym Moine de l’Eglise d’Orient. “In them we can achieve the reality of resurrection by our actions.” He challenges us to see Christ not only in the socially needy, the sick, the poor, and the abandoned, but above all in people who are remote from us and that we don’t like: “Christ is imprisoned once more in many of those men and women—in wicked and criminal people. Free him by recognizing him quietly and silently and you will invoke him in them.”

These are difficult, demanding words. Who can listen to them? And who has the courage to put them into practice, or at least try? We are accustomed from many sermons to being challenged to help people in social distress, and maybe we do so from time to time. There are not too many sermons about loving one’s enemies—and when there are, one often has the embarrassing feeling that neither the preacher nor his listeners take it too “literally,” or, more likely, they don’t take it seriously at all. That’s just something they say in church! We have already mentioned that the main difficulty with that saying of Jesus is that we take the concepts of love and hate to be simply emotions (and not attitudes and conscious decisions, the focus of our life). Naturally we are well aware that “there is no accounting” for emotions and that feelings of resentment persist in spite of our good intentions to fulfill Jesus’s outlandish command.

Here the pseudonymous author presents us with a new theological and spiritual stimulus to have the courage to accept those people whom we would normally not be inclined to—“the wicked and criminal.” He doesn’t tell us to love and accept their wickedness, or to ignore, downplay, or forgive their wicked deeds and characteristics. Nor does he urge us to have any emotional attachment toward them. He simply tells us that Christ is present in the humanity of everybody through the mystery of the Incarnation. He is “imprisoned” in the “wicked” because they have not allowed him his freedom, they have not allowed him to reign in their hearts and actions.

By realizing that they too “belong to Christ” (and hence to us too) we do not liberate those people from evil. So far we only liberate our relationship to them—by allowing Christ to enter our attitude to them as the faithful image of the Father, who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Just how much our attitude toward them and our way of thinking about them influences our behavior and actions, and how much our behavior can retroactively affect them, influence them and possibly change them, is another open chapter of this story.

Christ only ever comes as a challenge, a proposition, an invitation to follow him, an open possibility—as The God Who May Be. It is entirely foreign to him to pressure us to manipulate us or not respect our freedom. The God that Christ presents us with (through his words and his personality) addresses us and challenges us but never forces us to do anything. That is what our Christian witness should be like: we are here to broaden the horizon of “possible” (i.e., anticipated, usual, “logical,” “natural” behavior—the way things are done, the way of the world) to include what to people who do not know God and don’t take Christ seriously naturally seems impossible. This also—being here as an “alternative”—is part of our ministry of healing, liberation, and “driving out evil,” of which many have a somewhat romantic perception.

The “supernatural” in day-to-day “exorcism” (driving out evil) does not consist of what gripping films about exorcists luridly describe. It is something quite different: the breaking down of the boundaries of “the possible,” or what the world around us regards as “normal” and natural, by our “impossible” behavior. Yes, we are called on to perform miracles—if we understand miracles, not in a romantic or Enlightenment sense of “breaking natural laws,” but as what they really are: events that we have no right to expect in the given circumstances. (Read more.)

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