Dominicana (Dominican Students of the Province of St. Joseph)
A couple of weeks ago, I went with a few brothers to the first installment of the Metropolitan Opera’s Summer Recital Series. Gathered around the SummerStage venue in Central Park, we listened—to something. Given the language barrier and the scarcity of bodily expression, I was relegated to the mere appreciation of vocal virtuosity and what touches of style I could detect. Something beautiful was happening, but I felt a touch barbarous, for I was unable to access the meaning. I was like a child at the grown-ups’ table.
That inability to understand the singer’s words brought home just how powerful language is. Words are positively potent. To think that I can cause the immaterial existence of a thing in the mind of another by a vocal enunciation is truly marvelous. Words permit us to clutch reality. And so, it should come as no surprise, as documented in a recent article, that exposure to words is a crucial factor in early childhood brain development:
Reading, as well as talking and singing, is viewed as important in increasing the number of words that children hear in the earliest years of their lives. Nearly two decades ago, an oft-cited study found that by age 3, the children of wealthier professionals have heard words millions more times than have those of less educated, low-income parents, giving the children who have heard more words a distinct advantage in school. New research shows that these gaps emerge as early as 18 months.
The article focuses on the benefits of introducing a child to more words, and its conclusions stay at the level of literacy. Familiarity with more words gives the child a larger lexicon, a greater familiarity with the language, its properties, and its rules, and (one might extend the logic) an advantage when learning to read—a general leg up on literacy. While this is true, I think we can extend its logic.
Words are important not only for the sheer fact that they are proven to increase a child’s scores on standardized tests later in life. Rather, words are important because they mediate things. By introducing the child to words, the parents also help them to forge the links between name and reality. “That’s a doggy,” says mom as she points to the picture of the Dalmatian. “What sound does it make?” By reading to their children, parents cultivate the more general appreciation for the world around us. Books extend the reach of a child’s imagination to the barnyard, the moon, neighboring countries, and (for some chosen few born during the glory days of Transformers) the planet Cybertron. By experiencing the world as a discovery and by growing sensitive to its varied colors, textures, sights, and characters, children begin their lives deeply immersed in an environment of realism. In this adventure, the parent holds the privileged place in this “art of accompaniment.”
Parents, beyond being mere contributors to the burgeoning child’s mental cache, are responsible for the most gigantic of tasks. For whereas the educational specialist is tasked with the remediation of a particular fault or the introduction of a particular skill, the parent is entrusted with the care of children who “require to be taught not so much anything as everything.” Chesterton once marveled at the fact that, “Babies need not to be taught a trade, but to be introduced to a world . . . in a time when [they] ask all the questions that there are, and some that there aren’t.”
So, though the article may consign itself to the recounting of facts, in calling for a renewal of story time, the author implicitly calls for a reinvigoration of the family. When the author innocently observes that “The pediatricians’ group hopes that by encouraging parents to read often and early, they may help reduce academic disparities between wealthier and low-income children as well as between racial groups,” she has stumbled into a greater question about hearth and home. For until the home is healed, made safe for leisure, and kindled with the flame of discovery, her injunction is a dead letter. In this pursuit, it is perhaps best to keep in mind that, though difficult, the task is worthy, for what greater calling is there for a parent than to be the custodian of all reality?
Image: Ludwig Bemelmans, Bedtime Story
On a sweltering Saturday earlier this summer, sixteen young men and women set out on foot on a fourteen-mile pilgrimage through the shale oil-rich countryside of Perry County, Ohio. The sizable band formed a cast of characters worthy of Chaucer: the Doctor, the Eagle Scout, the Farm Girl, and many more, along with a half-dozen Dominican student brothers. The destination: the small town of Somerset, home of two Dominican parishes, and the former site of the Province of St. Joseph’s novitiate, house of studies, provincial headquarters, and even a short-lived college. Yet the eponymous church of St. Joseph bears significance not only for the friars, for it is also the oldest Catholic parish in the Buckeye State, earning the nickname “The Cradle of the Faith in Ohio.” One may wonder why the Catholic faith was first nurtured, by an order known for ministry in the cities and university towns, in such an unlikely place as this…
While some Catholics had settled along the Ohio River back when the “Heart of it All” was part of the Northwest Territory, and traveling priests had then offered the holy sacrifice of the Mass, it was not until the first decade of statehood that a cluster of Catholic families had settled in one location. The homesteaders’ patriarch, Jacob Dittoe, had requested of John Carroll of Baltimore, then the only bishop in the fledgling nation, a priest to serve the spiritual and sacramental needs of this new Catholic settlement. Bishop Carroll, recalling that he had sent Fr. Edward Dominic Fenwick to the frontier of Kentucky to found the first Dominican province in the United States, wrote to the friar to lend his assistance, seeing that he was only 250 miles away. Fenwick journeyed on horseback, meeting Dittoe one afternoon while the latter was chopping wood, and offered Mass for the grateful settlers the next morning. The two stayed in correspondence, and ten years later, in 1818, after the town of Somerset was founded nearby, Fenwick and his nephew, Nicholas Dominic Young, also a Dominican priest, built a log cabin church on the half-square mile of land that Dittoe had graciously donated to the friars. The first Catholic parish in Ohio was born.
Fenwick and Young soon made St. Joseph’s the hub of their apostolic activity in Ohio, which other friars continued after Fenwick became the first bishop of Cincinnati. The Dominicans ran several mission parishes in the county, including St. Rose in New Lexington, St. Patrick in Junction City, and Holy Trinity on “Piety Hill” within the town of Somerset, as the Church at large spread throughout the state.
Yet, in 1864, a fire destroyed the large priory at St. Joseph’s and severely damaged the church, toppling the steeple and gutting the interior. The Province, seeing a growing need to minister to Catholic immigrants in the cities of the East Coast, used the accident to shift their focus eastward and even considered abandoning the rural Ohio ministry altogether–until the Master of the Order, Vincent Jandel, commanded them to stay, as an act of gratitude to the original benefactors, who to this day are buried in a plot next to the church. The friars turned over all the Perry County parishes, except the two in Somerset, to the newly-formed Diocese of Columbus, and built a new priory at St. Joseph’s, which served as a house of formation in various stages until 1968. The church acquired several striking works of art, such as a series of stained-glass windows from Germany depicting the mysteries of the Rosary (except for the Crucifixion, which appears as a life-sized wooden crucifix from Cuba), and its bell tower continues to provide the province’s novices with a place to make their mark on history, as they inscribe their names on its walls and staircases. While the priory is gone today, as the lone pastor of both parishes dwells in a rectory across the street, a museum in the sacristy, which once connected the priory to the church, chronicles the events of St. Joseph’s in photographs and memorabilia, from ordinations to parish picnics and studentate baseball games, throughout the decades…
As the road-weary and hungry pilgrims, who stopped to pray in the aforementioned churches, made the final push up Piety Hill to join Holy Trinity’s annual festival, and I myself (like Fenwick and Dittoe, an East Coast native who settled in Ohio) wished there truly were a patron saint of quality footwear as my boots continued to disintegrate, this trip through the early history of the Province merged with the active life of the present day. The pilgrims encountered several Somerset parishioners who have fond memories of the brothers who were formed there, and who are working on refurbishing St. Joseph’s Church in time for the parish’s upcoming bicentennial, thus keeping alive the tradition that Fenwick started. Therefore, as the intrepid young pilgrims who made the trek through the rural landscape found, and as any visitor to Somerset can see, in the Cradle of the Faith in Ohio, the Faith is still going strong.
Image: St. Joseph’s Catholic Church near Somerset
“The celebrant for today’s Mass is Father _________. Please stand and greet your neighbor.”
These can be words of controversy. Proponents emphasize the importance of community and hospitality. Their opponents claim that it shouldn’t take place during the Sacred Liturgy.
Previous generations boasted of ethnic parishes and parish-sponsored dances. Today, we still find parish festivals. The parish has been and continues to be a source of friendship and fellowship. But what exactly is the relationship between community amongst ourselves and the Mass? After all, as some are right to point out – our attention at Mass focuses on the liturgy, the re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice, in a way that transcends us Mass participants and centers us on Christ.
Mass isn’t for socializing and shaking hands, but the desire for belonging often drives us to choose a specific parish. Yes, many people choose a parish based on liturgy, but people also desire a good community. I have a hard time imagining someone desiring to attend a parish where they don’t feel welcome. It’s the rare person who enjoys being a mere number in the crowd of faces. As Catholics, we want both liturgy and community.
These desires to both feel at home and have a strong community aren’t entirely out of place. In fact, the Mass is a communal event: it’s the public work of the universal Church. You don’t worship God alone as an individual at Mass – it’s the one Church, the one community that worships God. Thus, desires for belonging to a community aren’t impediments to entering into the liturgy. In fact, they can help us understand the liturgy. They remind us that we aren’t a number in the sea of Mass attendees – we are a part of the one Church that offers fitting worship.
Cardinal Ratzinger comments on this in his Introduction to Christianity:
Communion with the Lord in the Eucharist leads necessarily to the communion of the converted, who all eat one and the same bread, to become in it ‘one body’ (1 Cor 10:17) and, indeed, ‘one single new man’ (cf Eph 2:15).
Parish festivals and dances aren’t the foundations of our community. Instead, by being united to the Lord we are united to one another. The liturgy turns the we into a one. It prompts the faithful to live together and help each other live the Christian life in the present day. And we assist one another by forming relationships in a healthy environment. The coffee and donuts, as good as they are, aren’t the source of our unity – they are simply the living out of our unity.
The liturgy and social activities don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but they must be placed in their proper order. Without the liturgy, the church becomes a community center. With the liturgy, the faces in the crowd become a community. Parish events, welcoming others, and feeling at home remind us that we are a communion, not because of these events but because of Christ.
Image: The Catholic Mass, Fyodor Bronnikov
There is a sort of triumphalism over death that the Gospel inspires. Christ’s victory, his resurrection to the right hand of the Father, has put something of a swagger in the Christian step. To those unfamiliar, it may seem rash; to those uncomfortable with medieval hagiography, it can seem downright morbid at times.
At heart though, it represents the flower and fruit of belief in the immortality of the soul, the perfection of faith, the universality of Christ’s mediation, and the resurrection of the dead. And yet, while we saunter on with tales of St. Lawrence and the musical styling of Matt Maher, there are still times when it can get to be too much.
A few days back, the New York Times ran a piece on a new type of funeral arrangements: “The Rite of the Sitting Dead”. The article documents how in recent years, it has become increasingly popular for families to request that their deceased loved ones assume familiar poses at their funeral. Most interesting are individuals who have appeared “standing” over a cooking pot, “seated” at a table with a can of Busch beer and a menthol cigarette, and propped up in the corner of a boxing ring. I do not mean to poke fun at the dead. I simply want to know what drives this tendency of dictating the terms of life to such an extent that the dictation overflows the very bounds of earthly days. Is this a case of the democracy of the dead, or the throes of a life hell-bent on control?
For a semester, I studied abroad at a campus in Austria that had functioned for about four centuries as a Carthusian charterhouse. Though the iconography was sparse, the Church and cloister included some beautiful art. One image in particular has stayed with me. On the western wall of the cloister, there was a sundial, dominated by the figure of a skeleton with sickle in hand.
For the monks who lived at the Kartause, the conceit was plain. Death and the judgment to come dictate the terms of life. Death, in a sense, overflows into the present: Frater, memento mori. Death’s inexorable claim on our earthly lives is a rich source of Christian reflection. Fr. Ed Oakes said, “There is no point in being a Christian unless we regard death as God’s greatest gift to us.” This may seem strange, as Br. Bonaventure Chapman recently pointed out. But by entering into the final crucible with Jesus, who endured it in his own flesh, and with hope for what lies in store, the final pilgrimage can become desirable.
In preparation for the final poverty, death, the Christian tradition invites us to live in poverty of spirit so as to cling more closely to Christ. This poverty of spirit is visible in the witness of some of the Church’s greatest saints. St. Dominic died in another friar’s cell clothed in another friar’s habit. St. Francis, with his classic one-upmanship, died blind and naked on the bare earth. In these prophetic gestures, we see in icon the purpose of this life—to prepare for the unmediated vision of the Most High. The story is one of friendship. The folly is one of lovers.
With this recent trend of posturing corpses, it seems that we observe just the opposite trajectory. Rather than countenancing the thought of death in life and shaping the terms of terrestrial existence by the terminal standard, the funeral rite is overwhelmed by an earthly anxiety. The vice president of one funeral home gives clear testimony to the fear at work:
“This is not a fun or funny event; the family is going through a lot of pain.” With these kinds of arrangements, “the family literally suffers less, because they see their loved one in a way that would have made them happy — they see them in a way in which they still look alive.”
The reasoning is a bit discomfiting and markedly therapeutic. Because many cannot bear the loss of a loved one, we make believe. But beyond shirking the responsibility of suffering graciously what eventually befalls every man, these mock mourners have traded their hope in the future resurrection (with all of the prayers, masses, and suffrages that go with it) for a contemptible resuscitation, and “Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”
Image: Vincent Van Gogh, Head of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette
Ashlyn Blocker is in many respects a normal American teenage girl. She lives with her family, has fun with her friends, watches TV and sings pop music. But there is something different about her, something very different. After she was born she hardly ever cried. For instance, once she nearly chewed off her tongue while her teeth were coming in, but she didn’t cry or complain. It turns out she has a genetic disorder which blocks the electrical transmissions of painful events from reaching her brain. She has a congenital insensitivity to pain.
On the surface, that sounds like a problem that we would all like to have. Imagine the amazing things we would be able to do, and yet, not feel the painful consequences. It seems that congenital insensitivity to pain is a lot like a superpower. In reality though, it is really a super-disability.
In an article in the New York Times Magazine about Ashlyn and her situation, Dr. Geoffrey Woods, the geneticist who discovered the mutation, says about pain:
It is an extraordinary disorder. It’s quite interesting, because it makes you realize pain is there for a number of reasons, and one of them is to use your body correctly without damaging it and modulating what you do.
For Ashlyn, what comes as second nature to us, like pulling a hand away when it is getting burned, has been acquired through a lifetime of damaging trial and error. All those who share her condition know the benefits of pain and the danger of not experiencing pain.
It doesn’t take much searching to encounter someone who decries “Catholic Guilt.” It is portrayed as the experience of feeling bad for doing things that should be natural to us. It prevents us from being fully alive. It is a prison which rational adults should cast off as soon as they realize they suffer from it. I concede that many times, people feel guilty when they shouldn’t. This should indeed be cast off. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.
As people of faith, we believe that each person is composed of body and soul. Just as dangerous things cause our bodies to feel healthy pain, so too does healthy guilt alert us to the fact that we are endangering our soul.
If we experience pain in our bodies, we ought to cease doing the action which causes that pain. If we set our hand on a burner, we pull it off. We are free to decide not to, but then our hand will be destroyed. If we experience guilt in an action we commit, then most likely we should stop doing it. Otherwise our soul will suffer.
Recall Dr. Woods’ finding, and substitute “guilt” for “pain” and “soul” for “body”:
It’s quite interesting, because it makes you realize guilt is there for a number of reasons, and one of them is to use your soul correctly without damaging it and modulating what you do.
Minor pains from cuts and bruises can be healed easily at home, just as minor venial sins simply need to be taken care of by an act of charity, devotion, or a simple expression of sorrow. But big pains—lost limbs, cancer, heart attacks—these need to be taken care of by a professional physician. So too, grave sins need to be taken care of by a spiritual physician. This physician is Jesus Christ himself, acting through the priest as his sacramental representative.
Often the healing regimens in the spiritual life are difficult, and they may involve cutting off activities and relationships that are dangerous. But we can have confidence that the Divine Physician knows exactly what he is doing, even if we don’t. His healing is our salvation. The prescriptions he gives out are remedies of love. They heal us and those around us. If we don’t take the medicine the doctor prescribes, then our health will get worse. If we don’t live out the life that Jesus Christ has shown to us through the Church, our soul will feel worse. The pain will still be there, but how will we treat it? Most forms of self-medication just mask the pain: alcoholism, careerism, living a double life, etc.
Often we can think of the life of sin vs. the life of the spirit as a legal drama. We want to do certain things, but there are laws that we try to avoid breaking because of various punishments that are imposed on us as a result. This is a poor way of looking at our lives.
On the contrary, in the life of the soul (and in the life of the body) our goal is to be happy. That is how we are made. We commit sin, though, when we search for happiness in the wrong places. We try to be happy, yet we hurt ourselves, and we hurt others. Just think, when we are not feeling our best–a cold, a stomach-ache–we can be crabby, we can want our alone time. When we are sick in our soul we suffer from similarly isolating behaviors. However, we can recognize the pain that we feel, be healed, and learn more about what activities cause us pain. All we have to do is make an appointment.
Image: Vincent van Gogh, The Good Samaritan, after Delcroix
St. Mary Magdalene is an icon of God’s mercy. Her life magnifies the workings of God’s love: how He heals us, restores our dignity, befriends us, and calls us beyond ourselves.
Leaving aside the tradition that she was a prostitute and the confusion about the different Marys in the New Testament, we are left with a simple introduction: “ . . . Mary called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out . . . ” (Luke 8:2). Seven demons—that’s nothing to scoff at! Whether or not she was a scandalous sinner, Magdalene knew the healing balm of God’s mercy.
To draw out the significance of this exorcism, we can compare Joshua and Jesus (in Hebrew, their names are identical). Joshua led the Israelites into their long-awaited Promised Land, driving out the seven occupying nations: the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites and Jebusites (Josh 3:10). Likewise, Jesus—the new Joshua—found His beloved occupied by seven demons, and by His mercy, He freed her and claimed her as His own. Mary of Magdala can sing with Mary of Nazareth: “the Almighty has done great things for me . . . He has shown the strength of his arm . . . for he has remembered his promise of mercy” (Luke 1:49-54).
Three important points can be highlighted from this comparison. First, Jesus initiates. His mercy anticipates Magdalene’s action. The Israelites waited forty years before entering the Promised Land, but Jesus desired Magdalene for all eternity. Second, Jesus wants to dwell in Mary’s heart with a celibate, but profound love. His mercy is relational. By analogy, His are the words of the Prophet Isaiah:
No more shall you be called ‘Forsaken,’
nor your land called ‘Desolate,’
But you shall be called ‘My Delight is in her,’
and your land ‘Espoused.’
For the Lord delights in you,
and your land shall be espoused.
For as a young man marries a virgin,
your Builder shall marry you;
And as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride
so shall your God rejoice in you. (Is 62:4-5)
Christ frees Mary from the destructive grip of demons and instead offers His abiding, life-giving presence. Third, Jesus’ mercy is strong. The Israelites eventually succumb to invading armies, but Jesus never surrenders his beloved. “For great is his mercy toward us; and the faithfulness of the Lord endures for ever. Praise the Lord!” (Ps 117:2).
God’s mercy flowers into a friendship of discipleship between Jesus and Magdalene. She follows Him throughout Galilee, supporting Him and the Apostles. She then follows them into Jerusalem, and when others flee, she remains at the Cross. At the tomb, she seeks her Teacher and is the first to witness the Resurrected Lord.
As a friend, Magdalene reciprocates God’s desire for her. The beloved whom Jesus seeks with chaste devotion now seeks her lover in turn. Or, to use St. Catherine of Siena’s imagery, God who is drunk with love has inebriated His beloved with that same love. In one of her letters, Catherine wrote of Magdalene:
She was no more self-conscious than a drunken woman, whether alone or with others. Otherwise she would never have been among those soldiers of Pilate, nor would she have gone and stayed alone at the tomb. Love kept her from thinking, “What will it look like? Will people speak ill of me because I am rich and beautiful?” Her thoughts weren’t here, but only on how she might find and follow her Master. (T165)
Within this friendship, Jesus calls her to a specific task. He sends her as the Apostle to the Apostles to announce the Resurrection to Jesus’ disciples (John 20:17). Here we see the wonders of God’s mercy. He heals us, He dwells within us, He seeks our friendship, and He entrusts us with His ministry.
This connection of mercy to ministry is not unique to Mary Magdalene. Both Matthew, a tax collector, and Paul, a persecutor of the Church, were forgiven by Jesus as he summoned them to proclaim the Gospel. Paul summarizes this connection, writing: “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart” (2 Cor 4:1).
In his own vocation story, Pope Francis shared how he experienced the connection of mercy and ministry through the sacrament of confession. He recalls that pivotal day:
I do not know why that particular priest was there, whom I did not know, or why I felt this desire to confess. But the truth is that Someone was waiting for me. He had been waiting for me for some time. After making my confession, I felt something had changed. I was not the same. I had heard something like a voice or a call. I was convinced that I should become a priest. (9/21/2013)
His papal motto, Miserando atque Eligendo, encapsulates this grace. This Latin phrase comes from St. Bede’s commentary on the call of St. Matthew: “Vidit publicánum et, quia miserándo atque eligéndo vidit, ait illi: Séquere me (He saw the tax collector, and, because he saw him through the eyes of mercy and chose him, he said to him: ‘Follow me.’)”
The mercy that changed Mary Magdalene’s life still envelops the world today. The Lover who sought her still seeks us. The healing touch that cleansed her is offered to us right now. O Lord, call us by name that we may confess Yours: Jesus—God saves.
St. Mary Magdalene, pray for us!
Image: Dieric the Elder, Christ in the House of Simon
I have been in Vienna, the capital city of the last Holy Roman emperor, learning German this summer. The legacy of the Kaisers, a transliteration of the title Caesar into German, is everywhere. I’m sure if Gaius Julius knew that his personal title would be last used by the descendants of that morally corrupt people he fought [see STh. I-II Q. 94 A. 4], he would be rolling over in his grave. That may be a bit difficult, however, for, like all good pagans, Julius Caesar’s remains were consumed by fire. Nonetheless, reflecting Julius’ continuing influence, perhaps the longest-lasting legacy of the Holy Roman Kaisers’ power is that Austria continues to exist as an independent state and has not been swallowed up into Germany.
Hofburg, the home of the Habsburgs from 1279 to 1918, is so large that today it houses multiple museums, the Austrian National Library, and the offices of the Austrian president, while preserving the living quarters of the last two kaisers and one of their wives. Their summer palace, Schloss Schönbrunn, built away from the center of city in the 17th century, is just as impressive.
The family’s piety has left a mark on the city, from the massive art collection that contains innumerable sacred works to the churches they endowed. One of the rooms in Hofburg displays a large painting of the Blessed Sacrament, and Franz Joseph’s bedroom has the prie-dieu where he began his day.
It can be peculiar for Americans, used to forests and new construction, to be surrounded by centuries-old buildings. Perhaps it’s even a little intimidating to live in a convent that has it origins in the 13th century attached to a church built in 1630.
But the dates that stand out above the rest are decidedly from the 20th century. One hundred years ago, the Austro-Hungarian government was preparing the last draft of the so-called July ultimatum. On July 22, 1914, the Germans received an advance copy, and on July 23, 1914, the ten demands were delivered to the Kingdom of Serbia. The first mechanised war was officially declared five days later on July 28th.
The latest scientific and technological advances would be put to use for killing. The tank made its deadly wartime premiere, while poison gas, the machine gun, and the airplane were put to ghastlier use than had been achieved up to that point.
While it had been imagined beforehand that the new war machinery would make things quick and decisive, it led to an intransigent horror. The bloodbath toppled the regimes of the last three Caesars (the Austrian and German Kaisers and the Russian Czar), and is the reason why common foreigners like me can poke around the Habsburgs’ massive art collection, peer into the now primitive-looking bathrooms they used, and stroll around their private gardens for a few Euro.
While Americans tend to think more of the Second World War, the Great War of 1914–1918 shows better the reality of Christ’s promise that “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). In one fearsome, bloody conflict, ancient dynasties were toppled. Kingdoms that had done all in their power to project strength collapsed.
The promise of technology and human might is always shorter-lived than we think. This is why the Psalmist warns us not to put our trust in princes (Psalm 146:3). Ultimately, we can only trust in a kingdom that is not of this world — the Kingdom of God. We can’t trust that rulers, however strong and powerful, will always be there, but we can always count on God’s strength.
While the houses of the Kaisers have become museums, libraries, and offices, the Catholic churches found on every corner of the Innenstadt retain their original function. Mass is still celebrated everyday above the Imperial Crypt. God’s kingdom lives on. Perhaps that understanding is why the friendly Austrian people still greet you on the street with „grüß Gott“: literally “May God greet you” or “God bless you.”
Image: Mihael Grmek, Austrian National Library 01
“O friends, not these sounds!
Let us instead strike up more pleasing
and joyful ones!
(Beethoven’s Prologue to Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”)
Pope Francis opens his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, with a call for the faithful to live out the Gospel in a joyful mode. Like the baritone who opens the final movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the Holy Father exhorts us to lead lives that are more evidently marked by joy. In the lines of Friedrich Schiller’s ode, Beethoven discerned a testament to the joy that impels men to unity and friendship, which leaves little room for gloom and sadness. Similarly, joy should mark the lives of Christians like a sweet-smelling perfume, leaving the trace of its scent wherever it is poured.
According to Pope Francis, this joy should permeate through our lives, even in somber moments, when we sow with tears. His point is that our lives should not be characterized as a struggle to uphold the burden of the Gospel. A faith that consists solely of rules and restrictions is not attractive, and Christ, himself, proclaims that his yoke is easy and his burden, light. So, rather than resembling the attendees of a funeral, Christians should reflect the light of the joyful end achieved by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Of course, the proclamation of a full Christian life requires the defense of the Church’s teaching on controversial issues like the dignity of marriage and scourge of abortion. However, it is important to keep in mind the primacy of the joy of the Gospel message; it is not the scourge of sin but, rather, the joy of life that characterizes Christian evangelization. Pope Francis challenges us to reexamine our preaching and evangelizing efforts and to ask whether they are in proper proportion with the entire Gospel message.
The challenges of our times do call for certain issues to receive more attention than strict proportionality might call for, but I do not think that the Holy Father’s point is one of strict proportionality. He emphasizes that even when we must sow in tears and speak of hardships, our actions should still be marked by the joy that the Gospel brings into our lives. Like a fragrance that leaves a subtle trace even in the furthest corner of the room, the joy of the Gospel should still be present and discernible in our lives, especially while preaching and discussing these difficult issues.
When Mary, the sister of Martha, anointed Jesus’ feet at Bethany, the scent of the perfume filled the whole house. Her actions foreshadowed the death of Jesus, whose body would be anointed in the tomb. However, Mary had also recently been touched by the saving power of Jesus when he raised her brother Lazarus from the dead. Perhaps, her actions foreshadow more than just the death of Christ. Perhaps, her actions point to the Christian’s response to the Resurrection. Perhaps, her actions flow from the joy that has come and touched her heart through the actions of Jesus. Let us, then, imitate Mary, whose actions filled her house with a pleasant fragrance. Let our own actions and faith overflow with the odor of Joy!
Image: Lawrence Lew, O.P., Stained Glass at Bath Abbey
There have been two basic impulses in the history of Christianity: to go into the wilderness, fleeing the city to prepare the way of the Lord, and to go into the city, letting the light of Christ shine in the midst of the difficulties and delights of everyday life. Jesus, of course, did both—he went into the desert after his baptism by John, and on countless occasions retired from the crowds to pray—and yet he continually returned to the Holy City, even when this meant risking his life.
Throughout the centuries, some Christians have received the grace to imitate Christ in one or the other of these two locations. The great Benedictine tradition has tended towards the evangelization of the wilderness, preaching the Gospel to every creature, including the cows that are milked and the grapes that are pressed. Other impulses, such as the mendicant orders, have tended to focus their efforts on the cities, for where sin (and universities) abound, Franciscans and Dominicans abound all the more. In each case, it is not a matter of one approach or location being better or worse in itself—each present authentic paths for following the poor, humble and cross-bearing Christ.
Those who attempt to evangelize within the city, however, are compelled to deal with the temptation of becoming enmeshed in the frantic pace which can dominate their environment. Within all their activity, as noble as it may be, it is necessary to enter into the rest of the Lord “in whom we live, and move, and have our being.” In the midst of activity, we must develop a contemplative spirit that can understand the presence of the Lord in both the earthquakes of the subway and the thin, small voice of the ersatz monk selling trinkets in Times Square. As Pope Francis recently wrote,
We need to look at our cities with a contemplative gaze, a gaze of faith which sees God dwelling in their homes, in their streets and squares. God’s presence accompanies the sincere efforts of individuals and groups to find encouragement and meaning in their lives. He dwells among them, fostering solidarity, fraternity, and the desire for goodness, truth and justice. This presence must not be contrived but found, uncovered. (Evangelii gaudium 71).
In this gaze of faith, we imitate the Lord Jesus who, when he approached the city, gazed at it—and wept over it (cf. Lk 19:41). It is not that we are set above our fellow city dwellers, for we too need to be gathered by Jesus like a hen gathers her brood (cf. Lk 13:34). Our weeping is often more like that of Peter, who after the Lord turned and looked at him, remembered the word of the Lord: “Before a rooster crows today, you will deny Me three times” (Lk 22:61-62). Like those with whom we dwell, we are sinners—and yet are sinners whom the Lord has looked upon. This gaze of Jesus is one that heals as it wounds. This means that despite our sin and imperfection, we can still offer a witness to the hope that is in us.
Christianity is not a religion for those who have already saved themselves, whether they carry out this task in the country or the city. Jesus Christ came to save sinners, for of ourselves we can do nothing. And yet, whether we bumble about in a bustling metropolis or toil with thirsty brow in the midst of the countryside, through the grace of God we can still follow Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Image: Dominicans in Washington, D.C.
The Blessed Virgin Mary is known to the Church under dozens of different titles. There are titles that describe her attributes, such as “Seat of Wisdom” or “Help of Christians,” which we find in the Litany of Loreto. Then there are titles that refer to her patronage of particular places or peoples, such as Our Lady of Guadalupe or Our Lady of Lourdes. Today the Church celebrates the Mother of God under her patronage of a particular religious order: the Carmelites. But who exactly is Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, and what does this title teach us about Mary?
The feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel was instituted to commemorate a thirteenth-century apparition of Mary to the English Carmelite St. Simon Stock. The venerable Catholic devotion of wearing the Brown Scapular comes from this apparition and Mary’s words that “This shall be a privilege for you and for all Carmelites: whoever dies clothed in this shall not suffer eternal fire, rather, he shall be saved.”
Carmelite tradition tells us that the Order is descended from the prophet Elijah and his followers, who spent a good deal of their time on Mt. Carmel. “Carmel” is said to mean “garden” or “orchard,” and this mountain was known in the Old Testament as a very beautiful and verdant place. It was used by many for retreat and prayer, as the long tradition of Carmelite hermits attests.
However, it was also on this mountain that Elijah did battle with the prophets of the false god Baal (1 Kings 18). Four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal spent hours calling on their god to come and consume the sacrifice they had prepared, but to no avail. Then Elijah prepared his own sacrifice, prayed to God, and was rewarded by having fire come from heaven to consume the sacrifice. The Israelites were inspired by this to return to the Lord and to quit following the false god, even putting the false prophets to the sword. Then, after Elijah went to the top of Mt. Carmel and prayed, God sent rain for the relief of Israel’s drought-stricken land.
Mary’s connection to the fertile mountain of Carmel highlights her spiritual fertility in bearing a rich produce for the kingdom of heaven. She is described in the traditional Carmelite hymn Flos Carmeli as a vine laden with blossoms: the “Flower of Carmel.” Mary is a vine whose blossoms are the souls that she aids by her patronage and prayers. She waters and nourishes them by obtaining the grace they need to grow and flourish in the spiritual life. The Blessed Mother models for all her children, but especially for Carmelites, what it means to live a quiet life of prayer and interior perfection. She “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart,” as St. Luke says.
Mt. Carmel’s history as a place of spiritual battle also reveals something to us about Mary: namely, that she is willing to fight for the salvation of her children, as manifested in her promise to St. Simon Stock: whatever the manner of vice and sin that someone mires himself in, Mary will aid him in breaking free from it.
It is easy to doubt this. Sin gains a powerful hold over us that at times seems impossible to overcome. However, there are countless stories that exemplify the greater power of Mary in winning out over sin. Pope St. John Paul II explains that wearing the scapular is a simple act that nourishes devotion and makes us “sensitive to the Virgin Mother’s loving presence” in our lives. When we thus become aware of her presence, we are able to allow her to work calmly and quietly in moving us to repentance. Mary intercedes for us and, like the prophet Elijah, calls down the fire of heaven. Her fire, though, is the fire of an all-consuming love for her Son, Jesus Christ. It burns up the bonds of sin and frees us to live as children of God.
It was consideration of the goodness of the Blessed Virgin and the power of her maternal care that moved the eminent Carmelite St. Therese of Lisieux to write: “Mary, if I were the Queen of Heaven and you were Therese, I should want to be Therese that you might be the Queen of Heaven.” Let’s rejoice today then with all Carmelites in giving honor to our Queen and Mother.
Image: Moretto da Brescia, Virgin of Carmel
People ask me all the time why a Dominican would choose a Franciscan name. I have developed some stock responses:
“Have you ever heard of the Trojan Horse?”
“If it is good enough for Pope Francis…”
If I’m feeling particularly cheeky:
“Wait…I’m a Dominican?!?”
All joking aside it is a good question, and I have a number of more serious and edifying (at least to me) responses, one of which I share here.
I have a twin brother who is a medical doctor and I proudly remember the day of his graduation, including a curious part of the ritual. When one of the newly minted doctors was called forward he was addressed as “Doctor Doctor So and So.” At first I thought this was a nervous mistake, but when it happened again I knew something was up. Apparently if one receives a M.D. and a Ph.D the correct title is “Doctor Doctor.” Which is fantastic.
So here’s my new response: I am after a double doctorate, not the M.D. and Ph.D kind, but rather the Angelic and Seraphic kind. As you are probably aware, St. Thomas is known as the “Angelic Doctor” whilst St. Bonaventure is the “Seraphic Doctor.” These designations are not random angelic order rationing; they are given because they characterize the differences in theological style of the two Doctors.
The angelic appellation of St. Thomas refers, at least in part, to his penetrating intellect: an intellect nigh on angelic in its ability to get right to the essences of things beyond the sense particulars. While not beholding the beatific vision in this life, anyone who has wrestled with his texts can’t help but feel closeness to that vision. The intellect focuses on being as its first object. And therefore, it is no surprise that St. Thomas—so energized by the life of the mind as he was—discerned that the supreme name for God is “He Who Is,” or the act of being (ST I.13.11). In other words, the human intellect is made to find God, and in Him we know the truth of all things. Veritas is a fitting motto for the Dominicans who see St. Thomas as their intellectual patron; a ravenous hunger for truth is what St. Thomas bequeathed to us. St. Thomas, the Angelic Doctor, is the Doctor of Truth.
St. Bonaventure earned his title from his passionate and devotional theology, a theology done on his knees. The seraphic order of angels is known for its closeness to God and its exemplification of divine love. For St. Bonaventure it is the rational will responding to God in an act of love that is first and foremost in the Christian theologian. St. Bonaventure wants before all else to love God, and thus theology is an affective or practical science more than a speculative one. Thus for St. Bonaventure the highest name of God is “The Good,” since the good is what the will desires (Journey of the Mind to God, VI.1-2). St. Bonaventure, the Seraphic Doctor, is the Doctor of Divine Love.
I think doctorates in both truth and love are essential to the way of perfection that is the religious life. Without truth one engages in meaningless acts of passion to the detriment of one’s own soul and the souls of others. But without love, as St. Paul says, “I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor 13.1). Immanuel Kant famously said, “Thoughts without intuitions are empty; intuitions without concepts are blind (Critique of Pure Reason, B75).” In St. Paul’s terminology, “Truth without love is vanity, love without truth is madness.”
It should go without saying that St. Thomas was not exclusively on a quest for truth to the exclusion of love, nor that St. Bonaventure was fawning after love without truth. Both men were knowers and lovers, but they offer different emphases in the relationship of knowledge and love in theology. Pope Benedict XVI described these different emphases in terms of the ends of man:
“St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure define the human being’s final goal, his complete happiness in different ways. For St .Thomas the supreme end to which our desire is directed is to see God. In this simple act of seeing God all problems are solved: we are happy, nothing else is necessary. Instead, for St. Bonaventure the ultimate destiny of the human being is to love God, to encounter him and to be united in his and our love. For him this is the most satisfactory definition of our happiness (Wednesday Address, 3/17/10).”
These differences do not lead to division or dissention, for Pope Benedict continues:
“It would be mistaken to see a contradiction in these two answers. For both of them the true is also the good, and the good is also the true; to see God is to love and to love is to see. Hence it was a question of their different interpretation of a fundamentally shared vision. Both emphases have given shape to different traditions and different spiritualities and have thus shown the fruitfulness of the faith, one in the diversity of its expressions.”
So why a Dominican with a Franciscan name? Because I want to be a “doctor doctor,” a lover in search of the truth and one truly and intelligently in search of love. Thanks to the wisdom of St. Thomas I know this to be possible; thanks to the wisdom of St. Bonaventure I desire it to happen.
Image: Francisco de Zurbaran, Saint Bonaventure Reveals the Crucifix to Saint Thomas Aquinas
St. Paul exhorts us to “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:17)
The Milwaukee Dominican Sisters of the Perpetual Rosary are a contemplative community of Dominican Sisters who literally put these words into practice by maintaining a continuous Rosary before the Blessed Sacrament, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In addition to attending daily Mass and reciting the Divine Office, like all Religious, each sister prays the traditional 15 decade Rosary once or twice per day. Since their foundation in 1897, the Milwaukee Dominican Sisters of the Perpetual Rosary have prayed the Rosary around the clock for the needs of the Church and the world.
The tradition of contemplative Dominican Sisters has its origin in the community of contemplative women established in 1206 by St. Dominic in Prouille, France, who by their prayers supported the Dominican Order’s work of preaching for the salvation of souls. In 1880, Fr. Damien Saintourens, O.P., Director of the Association of the Perpetual Rosary for the Dominican Province of France, founded the first community of Dominican Sisters of the Perpetual Rosary in Calais, France, with the help of Mother Rose of St. Mary who came from the Dominican Monastery of the Holy Rosary in Mauleon, France. The community in Calais moved due to religious persecution and eventually found a new home in Belgium. Fr. Saintourens was a fervent promoter of the Rosary worldwide, including in North America, and had established contacts in the United States and Canada. In 1891, Mother Mary of the Rosary, who had been among the first postulants to enter the first community in Calais, came to the United States and founded the first American Perpetual Rosary Monastery in Union City, NJ. After serving there as prioress, in 1897 she established the Milwaukee Dominican Sisters of the Perpetual Rosary where she also served as the first prioress of the community. They have now been praying the Rosary continuously for over a century.
At each hour a sister contemplates the mysteries of Jesus’ life from the point of view of the person closest to him: his mother Mary. This contemplation begins with the joyful mysteries, which celebrate our God who “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14) through his Incarnation, Birth, and early life. At the center are the sorrowful mysteries, which recall the events surrounding the Lord’s Passion, the sacrificial outpouring of his very life which won for us the gift of salvation. Finally, the prayer culminates with the glorious mysteries, celebrating Jesus’ victorious Resurrection and Ascension, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the Assumption and Coronation of Mary, the most perfect representative of the entire Church. While Christians in all states of life may not have the hour needed to pray the full Rosary each day, the practice of praying a single set of 5 mysteries daily and rotating among the sets of mysteries throughout the week is a way of contemplating Christ’s life recommended by numerous saints.
The sisters are further supported in their life of contemplation by maintaining silence outside of community recreation times, which frees them from distractions and disposes them to listen to God. The Dominican observance of study further nourishes their prayer life, and the sisters find Scripture to be an especially helpful aid supporting their contemplation of Jesus’ life through the Rosary. Many of the sisters also pray the luminous mysteries, added by Pope St. John Paul II in his 2002 Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae, and enjoy Romano Guardini’s book The Rosary of Our Lady. We see in the sisters’ lives a reminder that Mass and liturgical prayer, times of silence, mental prayer, study, Scripture reading, and structured devotional prayer such as the Rosary are all important components of developing a life of prayer. While these components are individually beneficial in themselves, they are complementary and greatly nourish spiritual growth when integrated together into one’s life.
The sisters are also models of evangelization. Even as they maintain the discipline of remaining hidden with the Lord inside the cloister as contemplatives, they give to others from the gifts they receive from the Lord. While physically committed to one location, through their prayer they engage in the worldwide mission of the Dominican Order and the missionary vocation of the Church. They also seek to share the treasure of the Rosary, which forms such an important part of their spirituality, by hosting a Third Order chapter and making Rosaries for the missions, by the Marian Shrine next to their monastery, and by their writings, including The Rosary: Prayer for All Seasons by Sr. Joanna Hastings, O.P.
O God, whose only begotten Son, by His life, death, and resurrection, has purchased for us the rewards of eternal life. Grant, we beseech Thee, that meditating on these mysteries of the most holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we may imitate what they contain and obtain what they promise, through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
For more information about the Milwaukee Dominican Sisters of the Perpetual Rosary, to send the sisters your prayer intentions, or to inquire about vocations, please visit their website.
Image: Dominican Sisters of the Perpetual Rosary in Bonsecours de Peruwelz, Belgium
“My work is my prayer.”
This oft-heard phrase roughly translates the Latin expression ora est labora (literally, “pray equals work”). A more dynamic translation might be “my spiritual life is dying,” since they mean the same thing. If someone tells us that their work is their prayer, we should start worrying about their life of prayer.
“Hold on,” you say, “isn’t that a bit much? I mean, we can make our work into a prayer, can’t we?”
Absolutely we can. Not only that, we should. Offering our daily work to God as a sacrifice is a beautiful way for busy people to remain in the presence of God.
But there’s a big difference between someone who says “my work is a prayer” (note the indefinite article, which gives us the distinct sense that this work is but one prayer among many) and someone else who says “my work is my prayer” (note the italics, which gives us the distinct sense that it isn’t). In the former case, prayer pervades everything, even our work; in the latter case, work replaces everything, even our prayer. The former is a sign of spiritual life, the latter of spiritual death. That’s why monks strive for the former, workaholics for the latter.
“But wait a minute,” you object again, “how can you say that when Benedictine monks have ‘ora est labora’ for their motto?”
Au contraire. They don’t. The Benedictine motto is ora et labora. That “s” may be easy to miss, but it’s pretty pivotal. The real Benedictine motto means “pray and work” or “prayer and work.” For monks in the tradition of Saint Benedict, the two stand side-by-side, complementary but distinct. In other words, ora et labora amounts to a full-on denial of ora est labora. We can (and should) accompany our work with prayer, but we can’t conflate the two.
“Fine,” you exasperate, “but why are you bludgeoning me with medieval mottos and technicalities of translation?”
Because a UVA study recently showed that almost 50% of college students would rather shock themselves with electricity than be silent and without distraction for 15 minutes. That strikes me as a bit unbalanced. Silence and freedom from distractions are necessary for keeping prayer separate from the other aspects of our lives. If we can’t handle simple tranquility, we can’t really pray.
Today, we celebrate the feast of St. Benedict, who was renowned for handing on to his monks a balanced way of life – particularly with respect to contemplative prayer and active work, ora et labora. He recognized the danger of letting one dominate, and the benefit of having both side-by-side. In a world where work (or at least activity) threatens to consume prayer, it behooves us to turn to him for help. So today I offer a challenge: spend 15 minutes in silent prayer, and don’t electrocute yourself.
Image: Henri Martin, Cultivation of the Vines
Materialism has always had a difficult time dealing with death, because it has to claim that death is not a big deal. If there is nothing more to life than the matter of the body, once the body dies there is nothing left to “experience” death.
The ancient atomists were explicit in this claim, with Epicurus stating:
Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.
While it is debatable how palatable this line of argument can really be when facing one’s own death, it is particularly impotent for comforting those who mourn a deceased loved one. If death truly is the end, then the loss that is felt is not imagined, but complete and final.
For those who espouse a strictly materialist worldview, any attempt to comfort the mourning must be scientific; this is exactly what Aaron Freeman proposes in a segment for NPR’s “All Things Considered.” He argues that the First Law of Thermodynamics, the law of conservation of energy, provides a context to give grieving family members the knowledge that their loved one is not completely gone but that his energy is a permanent part of the cosmos, or that her impact on them is not over but that the energy of those interactions carries on in our lives. Most importantly, this is something that those grieving need not simply have faith in. The conservation of energy can be and has been experimentally tested across all ranges of physics, so mourners can examine the evidence for themselves and find how sound it is.
Originally aired almost ten year ago, this little reflection bubbles up every once in a while on blogs or on Facebook. Freeman is right to point out the beauty and interconnectedness of the material world and how we can have an impact on it. It can be astounding to realize that the atoms that make up our bodies were originally formed in the heart of stars that have long since died, or that the breath you just took probably shared some air molecules with the dying breath of Socrates, Julius Ceasar, or even Jesus Christ. Physics can give us an amazing picture of the universe and of our place in it. But to claim that this is all we need for true comfort in the face of death is simply unreasonable.
What Freeman presents about the conservation of energy and about the fact that the energy that animated us in our lifetimes will never fully be lost is true. Nevertheless, just as we do not mourn the loss of nail clippings or hair trimmings, it is not the body or energy as such that we miss, but a human person. We long for the whole person, both the body and that intangible principle that made that body the unique person we so loved, their soul. In death there is a stark change, a true loss, for the body that was once given a unity and a purpose by the soul is now simply a collection of parts that are each going their own way. Freeman admits this but tries to put a positive spin on it in his closing line,
According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly. Amen.
But no one can honestly deny that something real truly is gone, namely the very order that makes you a person. The energy that suffused our loved one in life and that they used to make us laugh and cry and love, though not completely gone, has lost that unity and purpose, that order, that we so prized in their life.
The image that we somehow “merge” with the universe in death as the energy that we expended in life and the molecules that made up our bodies carry on an independent existence can only be comforting if we convince ourselves that all we are when alive is a particular collection of molecules with a particular pattern of energy. It is only by cheapening our understanding of and value for human life that this image can hope to comfort.
True comfort in mourning cannot rely simply on the material, on talk of the persistence of energy and physical parts. It must include reference to the soul, that principle of life that, by its very nature, orders us to something beyond the physical. As Christians we look to the promise that death is not a loss of the soul, that we can still be united to our loved ones in the Body of Christ and that we will one day be restored to the fullness of our personhood, body and soul, in the new creation. The truth of these promises is not exclusively grounded in any scientific experiment or any natural reasoning. They are grounded in the Truth that is Jesus Christ. To comfort those who mourn, we can only propose Him and pray for the supernatural gift of faith and hope which make Him truly known and desired.
Image: Max Ernst, Birth of a Galaxy
The fruit of silence is prayer.
The fruit of prayer is faith.
The fruit of faith is love.
The fruit of love is service.
The fruit of service is peace.
These are the words that appeared on Blessed Teresa of Calcutta’s “business card” while she still walked the earth, and it deeply shapes the spirituality of the order she founded. Working with the Missionaries of Charity in the Bronx this summer has given me opportunity to reflect on these words. To me the most striking line of the card is the first one. While most Christians who take their faith seriously recognize their need for prayer, faith, love, service, and peace, it is easy to forget the importance of silence.
We live in a world filled with noise: the hum of electronic devices, the incessant sounds of ring tones, music blaring from earphones and radios, the constant chatter of the television. Ours is not a society that places a high premium on silence. Given the constant noise that characterizes our culture, one might expect an order that so values silence to flee from society. Many of the older religious orders did just that, even before the explosion of sound that modern technology has made possible. Whether it’s the Desert Fathers, who staked out their place in the wilderness to wrestle with demons, or orders like the Benedictines, who sought more bucolic settings in which they could live the common life, praying and working for the glory of God, religious orders can sometimes give the impression that the only way to find silence is to retreat to a remote location.
The witness of the Missionaries of Charity suggests otherwise. Following Blessed Teresa’s “vocation within a vocation” to serve God in the poorest of the poor, the sisters establish their houses in the poorest neighborhoods around the world. These areas aren’t exactly the first place one thinks of when one is looking for silence. Queen of Peace Shelter is located in the south Bronx, a crime-ridden neighborhood plagued by drug deals and gang violence. Shootings are not uncommon, and even on “peaceful” days the noise from the street makes attempts to find silence difficult, to put it mildly.
The contrast between the noise of the Bronx and the sisters’ practice of silence is most acute between 2 and 3pm, when the sisters have their daily holy hour. Every day in their simple chapel they kneel before the Blessed Sacrament in silent meditation or praying the rosary in common as noise from the streets – the blaring music of a passing car, the whine of a police siren – wafts into their little sanctuary through the open windows. And yet amidst all the commotion, there they are, day after day, silent in the presence of the Lord.
What Blessed Teresa and her daughters have discovered is something that many of the saints throughout history knew: silence is not primarily the absence of sound, but rather an interior silence marked by an awareness of and attentiveness to the presence of God. St. Catherine of Siena speaks of the “interior cell” in which she would pray even in the midst of daily activities of both the mundane and the extraordinary variety. Catherine de Hueck Doherty, the 20th century Russian noblewoman and foundress of Madonna House, puts it this way: “Deserts, silence, solitudes are not necessarily places but states of mind and heart. These deserts can be found in the midst of the city, and in every day of our lives.” Silence, as the witness of the Missionaries of Charity testifies, can be found even amidst the hustle and bustle of a big city, and it leads to the fulfillment of the two great commandments: love of God and neighbor.
Our Lord tells us, “You will know them by their fruits” (Mt 7:16). One can see the genuine fruits of silence in the depth of the sisters’ prayer life, in the faith with which they reside in dangerous and neglected neighborhoods, in the love that radiates from their countenances and issues forth in their service to the poorest of the poor, and in the peace with which they lead such a radical life. Not everyone is called to such a radical witness to the gospel, but the Missionaries are a testimony to the fruitfulness of silence, as well as a reminder that even in the midst of this noise-filled culture anyone can find moments of silence. If we seek out these moments of silence, God will meet us there and transform our lives, bestowing upon us the peace that the world cannot give.
Image: Giacomo Balla, Rhythm + Noise + Speed of Car
Pope Francis’s recent remarks to the 31st International Drug Enforcement Conference in Rome this June were very blunt:
Drugs are an evil, and with evil there can be no yielding or compromise… Attempts, however limited, to legalize so-called“recreational drugs”, are not only highly questionable from a legislative standpoint, but they fail to produce the desired effects… No to every type of drug use. It is as simple as that. No to any kind of drug use.
This is not the first time the Holy Father has spoken out against drugs. At his General Audience of May 7, 2014, Pope Francis proclaimed that we should say no to every kind of drug. Visiting Brazil in June 2013, the Holy Father decried as “dealers of death” those who participate in the illegal drug trade.
These papal pronouncements are more than a “Just Say No!” campaign. Pope Francis concludes, “to say no [to drugs], you have to say yes to life, yes to love, yes to others, yes to education, yes to sports, yes to work…” The message of Christ is always one of hope, one of peace, one of joy and beauty, one of life.
Pope Francis’s statements denouncing drug use and the legalization of even “soft drugs” like marijuana are continuous with the Church’s teaching on drugs. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states simply, “The use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life. Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense” (2291). This teaching on drugs appears in the discussion of the Fifth Commandment—“Thou shall not kill”—in the section on Respect for Dignity of a Person. The use of drugs is dehumanizing and makes one less of a person. As “life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God,” we have the obligation to care for ourselves, not to abuse ourselves (CCC 2288).
Pope Francis is following Saint Pope John Paul II’s lead in making very public statements against the legalization of drugs. Like Pope Francis, Saint John Paul II acknowledged no difference between using “hard” and “soft” drugs. In 1997, the Pontifical Council for the Family spoke out against the legalization of drugs: “Through the legalization of drugs, it is not the product that is thereby legalized, but rather the reasons leading to the consumption of this product that are justified” (“Should ‘soft’ drugs be legalized?”, L’Osservatore Romano, English, 19 February 1997, 15). The Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers released a pastoral handbook in 2001: Church: Drugs and Drug Addiction. Almost five years in the making, this guide emphasizes the pastoral approaches to dealing with drug addictions and associated problems. This guide notes that the legalization even of “soft” drugs is not an answer, because no one has the right to harm himself through the use of drugs. The conclusion remains, “whether drugs are illegally purchased or distributed by the State, they are always harmful to man” and the gift of life (“Should ‘soft’ drugs be legalized?”, 15).
Say no to the legalization of drugs—it’s pro-life!
Image: Vasily Vereshchagin, Eaters of Opium
Cloistered Nuns have the special calling of living heaven here on earth. Yes, it is true for all of us that our heaven or our hell can start in this life. Yet, in God’s providence, some of the elect are asked to live in a very close way to Him. For example, in the Gospels we see that Jesus takes only Peter, James and John away on certain occasions. The greatest example is the account of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor. Jesus is transfigured in glory before Peter, James and John for an instant (Mt 17:1-8).
Our series on Dominican Monastic Life in the United States continues as we head out to the upper midwest region. At Mt. Thabor Monastery, Dominican Nuns live out this calling to consecrated life to accompany Jesus on the mountain top. However, the nuns do not go up alone, but take the entire world in their heart and prayers.
Located about an hour northwest of Detroit in Ortonville, MI, the nuns began to occupy the monastery on August 1, 1973. The first feast the nuns celebrated in the new dwelling was the Transfiguration, hence the name. Mt. Thabor Monastery sits at the end of a long tree-lined entrance and was built next to a serene lake. This picturesque setting is a long way from the monastery’s roots in Union City, NJ, where its two foundresses, Sr. Anne and Sr. Mary Martin, were members of the Blue Chapel Monastery. It was at this monastery that the nuns of the perpetual rosary devotion began in 1892 in the United States.
After the Second Vatican Council and its call for the renewal of religious life, Sr. Anne and Sr. Mary proposed a new mission to ponder a future contemplative mode of life within the monastic setting. An invitation from John Francis Cardinal Dearden in the Archdiocese of Detroit drew the sisters to an old home in a poorer section of the city in October of 1969. After the sudden sale of this first house, providence directed the sisters to Ortonville’s country setting. The owners of the property gave it to the sisters with no down payment and 10 acres of land, encouraging the sisters to repay them in the future. The sisters were blessed with neighbors skilled in construction, who helped build the monastery. In the four decades since the original construction much expansion has taken place including a library, cloister increase, retreat house and a chapel enlargement to accommodate more worshipers for Mass and the divine office. During this time, one of the most important moments came on December 8 1999, when Mt Thabor monastery received its official aggregation into the Dominican Order.
Sr. Anne, the current prioress and one of the foundresses, shared a few insights about life at Mt. Thabor. The sisters, who chose to live a less radical form of enclosure, similar to Benincasa Dominican Monastery in Delaware, explained that the people who pray with them “become part of us,” not to interfere but to “become part of [our] life.” Sr. Anne recalled that in her days at the Blue Chapel Monastery, prayer requests for the nuns would come in by phone or written communication or perhaps in person. However, when Mt. Thabor went online with a website, the very first prayer request was from Belgium.
Regarding the use of technology and social media, Sr. Mary Joseph, who was solemnly professed in 2012 and manages online communication for the monastery, offered some perspectives on its reality: “We use social media knowing that the particular effort could result in a vocation to this monastery, but you quickly realize that these efforts (in using social media) are not just for getting vocations but are for the whole church and the new evangelization. It’s a bigger mystery.”
The key goals in founding Mt. Thabor were to observe the following pillars of monastic life: prayer and liturgy, silence, solitude, work (especially sewing), study, and recreation. After the Council’s call for renewal there was a deep desire to foster and support the study of sacred truth. Much effort was put into the library wing, dedicated in 1995 under the patronage of St. Thomas Aquinas. And of course, the prayers of the nuns for the preaching of the Dominican Friars for the salvation of souls goes back to the very founding of St. Dominic’s order 800 years ago. Sr. Anne said that the best way she has heard this relationship described in her 57 years in religious life is when a friar told her, “You supply the ammunition to do the battle”.
The sisters pray for the whole world at Mt. Thabor Monastery and they are blessed to have such a peaceful setting in which to carry this call to be alone with the Lord, as were Peter, James and John. Why our Lord calls some to live closer to him while on earth is a mystery that will only be fully revealed in heaven. Just as the Transfiguration was only an instant, so too is this life on earth. And just as the three apostles heard the voice of God the Father on Mt. Tabor saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased, listen to him” (Mt 17:5), the nuns listen to Christ for us and for the whole world. Heaven starting now…
Image: Statue of Our Lady at Mt. Thabor Monastery
Today, as we celebrate the birthday of our nation, you will no doubt watch fireworks and hear patriotic songs about the grandeur of our great country. Freedom figures prominently in our associations with July 4th, and in such songs: “the Land of the Free” “Let Freedom ring” “Home of the Free and the Brave” and even Pilgrims whose “stern, impassioned feet” beat “a thoroughfare for Freedom across the wilderness” of early America. One song mentioning freedom you probably won’t hear today is Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee.” In this bluesy American tune of loving and losing, Ms. Joplin’s refrain concludes that “Freedom’s just another word for ‘nothing-left-to-lose.’” Those words perfectly encapsulate the current distortion of the notion of freedom, with more parallels to solitary confinement than to liberation.
When Janis Joplin released her first album (which shot “Me and Bobby McGee” to the top of the charts) in 1970, she had the star power to do whatever she wanted. Yet she was anything but free – she was shackled to the public she worked to entertain and to a drug habit that she couldn’t overcome. Before the year was out, she died of a heroin overdose at the age of 27, tragically achieving only the type of “freedom” she described in her hit song. Thomas Merton described this freedom, saying: “a superficial freedom to wander aimlessly here or there, to taste this or that, to make a choice of distractions, is simply a sham. It claims to be a freedom of ‘choice’ when it has evaded the basic task of discovering who it is that chooses.”
A rising star of a different ilk who died young, Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati (whose feast day we celebrate today), illustrates true freedom. His was a freedom which stemmed not from the wealth and influence of his high-profile family, but from the supernatural foundation of his faith in Christ Jesus.Rather than being based on what he had to lose, Frassati’s freedom was based on gaining God. Jesus identified Himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6), and promised that in knowing the Truth, we will come to know true freedom: “you will know the truth and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). This is the freedom which Zechariah announces in St. Luke’s Gospel: “free to worship Him without fear, holy and righteous in His sight all the days of our life” (Luke 1:74-75).
In a letter to his friend written a few months before his own death (from polio, contracted while serving the poor of his city), Bl. Pier Giorgio speaks of this freedom to be holy as the key to life: “to live without faith, without a patrimony to defend, without a steady struggle for Truth – that is not living, but mere existing.” A life of “mere existing” without faith is not only mediocre, but actually destructive, as the unfortunate Janis Joplin found out. Another saint, John Paul II explains that, “when freedom does not have a purpose, when it does not wish to know anything about the rule of law engraved in the hearts of men and women, when it does not listen to the voice of conscience, it turns against humanity and society.”
In an address to fellow young adults, Bl. Pier Giorgio shows how Jesus is the means to the truth and that living in this truth is our guarantee of happiness:
I urge you with all the strength of my soul to approach the Eucharistic Table as often as possible. Feed on this Bread of the Angels from which you will draw the strength to fight inner struggles, the struggles against passions and against all adversities, because Jesus Christ has promised to those who feed themselves with the most Holy Eucharist, eternal life and the necessary graces to obtain it. And when you become totally consumed by this Eucharistic Fire, then you will be able to thank with greater awareness the Lord God who has called you to be part of his flock and you will enjoy that peace which those who are happy according to the world have never tasted. Because true happiness, young people, does not consist in the pleasures of the world and in earthly things, but in peace of conscience which we can have only if we are pure in heart and in mind.
This is the peace of mind which always eluded Janis Joplin, who sought it in superficial pleasures instead of spiritual ones.
So, as you sing today of freedom, reflect on these two famous young people who died in their twenties, foils for each other: one lived life on its surface, adrift and ultimately betrayed by material success; the other, committed to living a deep faith and a strong awareness of purpose. Ms. Joplin sings of a life given to a feel-good drifter, Bobby McGee, and the heartbreak and longing for pleasures of a past which cannot endure; while Bl. Pier Giorgio’s life is given to Jesus and is one sustained by peace now, and animated by looking ahead to triumphant beatitude in heaven. Our great nation was born of a search for freedom. Its present and future depend on what sort of freedom we want to embrace: a freedom of choices without commitments – adrift in a moral vacuum; or a freedom built solidly on commitment to life, truth, and firm faith in Jesus Christ.
This work of art demanded of me four years of assiduous and exclusive attention, and it is nothing less than the result of the whole of my active life. I consider it, apart from its imperfections, my masterpiece. – Henri Matisse, speaking of the Rosary Chapel in Vence, France
In 1942 Monique Bourgeois, having completed only a year of training in nursing, answered a want ad posted on the board of her school calling for a young, pretty nurse. The mademoiselle—not previously honored by most persons as “pretty,” but still wanting employment during those difficult days of the Second World War—thus devoted herself to changing the bandages of the infirm Henri Matisse.
After healing, Matisse telephoned the young woman, asking her to pose as a model. Among the memories of those days, she recalls wearing costume jewelry and elaborate dresses and scrabbling to meet the artist’s demands for punctuality.
The two, Matisse and Monique Bourgeois, became quite close. Matisse treated Bourgeois like a grandfather would, showing her respect and true honor. He often treated her playfully during their sessions, revealing a joyful countenance few saw. To his great dismay, however, she chose to enter a convent of Dominican sisters. Distraught by her decision, Matisse tried to lure her away with promises of mentoring her budding artistic talents and offering her sums of money.
In his ten-page letter of entreaty, covered with text written at all angles and word after word scribbled out only to be replaced, Matisse dared to explain to her, perhaps for the first time to any other soul, his relationship with God. He writes, “I’ve not needed the sacraments to glorify the Creator throughout my life. I’ve gone even as far as Tahiti to admire his pretty light that I might share it by my work with others.”
Matisse’s comment about the sacraments strikes at the very heart of the Christian life. If the sacraments were merely symbols, simply familiar ritual or nothing more than cultural artifacts, the conversation between Matisse and Sr. Jacques-Marie would be completely moot. The fact of the matter is, though, that the sacraments alter the very fabric of reality. The world—by the power of the sacraments—is changed and renewed.
It is difficult to answer the question whether Matisse believed in God or not. It is certain that he did not consider himself a good, practicing Catholic. Nonetheless, he tirelessly worked, frail and faltering, near the end of his life to complete his “spiritual space.” The Way of the Cross for the Rosary Chapel in Vence perhaps best exemplifies the possible numinous intersection between the spiritual life and art. Of it, Matisse said, “It is no longer the Way made from cardboard, but a type of grand drama in which the scenes, accompanied by their number, are interwoven as a part of Christ on the cross who himself takes on the dimension of a dream—as does the rest of the tableaux. […] God has taken me by the hand. What am I to do? Bow down—but the others, they know nothing.”
Elsewhere, he goes on to say, “All art worthy of the name is religious. Only in the creation of the chapel of Vence did I finally come awake to myself, and I understood that all the furious labors of my life were for the great human family, to which must be revealed a little of that fresh beauty of the world by my mediation. I thus cannot but be a mediator.”
The beauty of Monique’s vocation as Sœur Jacques-Marie allowed Matisse to discover the artist’s parallel vocation: mediator to the divine.
Image: Henri Matisse, Way of the Cross, Rosary Chapel, Vence, France
Repetition gets a bad rap. Sure, as kids we might be cajoled into practicing an instrument or a sport by injunctions like “practice makes perfect” and the ever-confusing “peat, peat, and re-peat” (or is it “pete, pete, and re-peat”?), but as adults we quickly tire of the same thing over and over again. Once is enough, and twice may be altogether too much; as Laurie Anderson’s O Superman proves, “repetitive” is synonymous with “boring.” Yet for all that, Tom Cruise’s unexpectedly fascinating new movie Edge of Tomorrow helpfully points out why it’s worth taking another look (and another, and another) at repetition.
Edge of Tomorrow itself is a haphazard jumble of repetitions; the plot involves a weird time-loop where Cruise’s character keeps repeating the same disastrous day of man-vs-alien battle over and over again, returning to the previous morning every time he dies. There are countless other repetitions at the meta level, considering the film as it relates to reality: the critical landing whereby humans attempt to re-take continental Europe from its domination by an evil alien species occurs at Normandy, and is launched from England; a major previous battle takes place at Verdun; the whole plot is a pastiche of Groundhog Day; certain action scenes seem lifted from director Doug Liman’s Bourne Identity; the main non-Tom Cruise character unexpectedly wields a weapon from Final Fantasy VII; the epic conclusion is remarkably akin to Pacific Rim; and the premise of the film is taken from a Japanese science fiction novella called, in the original Japanese, All You Need Is Kill, which is itself based on repetitive clichés cobbled together from pulp war novels and first-person-shooter video games.
But so far, so standard; back in 1993, David Foster Wallace was already pointing out in his essay “E Unibus Pluram” that one of the defining features of contemporary literature and entertainment was its all-consuming capacity for self- and meta-referentiality, resulting in a seemingly endless series of nested repetitions. So what’s particular about Edge of Tomorrow?
Through two hours of guns, explosions, guts both alien and human, and more Tom Cruise than you can shake a stick at, the Edge of Tomorrow somehow manages to get to the heart of what repetition is all about: change. Because Cruise’s character has experienced all of these events before, nothing happens exactly the same way twice; everything is different because he is different, changed by his memory of the previous iterations of the event. Likewise, the film’s meta-repetitions are meant to be noticed, so that the viewer will realize that he is in Cruise’s situation vis-à-vis reality. The film’s basic argument is that even when things recur, nothing can ever truly repeat; the one who experiences the various iterations of one thing is aware of them all, and is changed by each of them.
Real repetition is the fruitful ground from which creativity and newness spring, as it lets the mind grasp discrete events in a wider context that enables them to be analyzed more deeply. Repetition is only boring when it undermines its true nature, insulting the listener or viewer’s intelligence by imagining that he doesn’t remember the previous occurrences of the theme.
This unexpected connection between repetition and change is the reason why the Church has always held that the liturgy is the privileged moment of worship, and one that forms the pattern for the rest of our lives. The words, gestures, sounds, sights, and symbols of the liturgy are largely the same day after day, and the one sacrifice of Calvary that is re-presented on the altar is precisely the same everywhere and every moment the Eucharist is celebrated. Yet the liturgy never truly repeats; the ever-changing mystical Body of Christ, the Church, comes afresh to the altar each time the unchanging substantial Body of Christ is received in the Eucharist. The liturgy expects believers to attend to the unchanging mystery that they are experiencing, and in so doing the liturgy weaves into the past, present, and future of those who worship, propelling them by grace to be changed, to grow, to be transformed ever more perfectly in the likeness of God.
So sure, Edge of Tomorrow is no more original or unique than any other summer blockbuster movie; but precisely by embracing repetition, it points unexpectedly to the one needful thing: the ever-new adoration of the unchanging God.
Image: Lincoln Harrison, Startrail