Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Early Church and the Virgin Mary: St. Gregory the Wonder-Worker

St. Gregory the Wonder-Worker (14th c. icon)
In honor of the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, I thought I would share with you a glimpse into how the early Church viewed Mary. In particular, I want to share excerpts from a homily delivered by one of the great Saints of the early Church, St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, who lived from about 213-270 A.D.

Gregory is little remembered today, but that's a shame. In the early Church, he was held in high esteem. To give you some sense of what I mean, “Thaumaturgus” isn't a last name: it's the Greek for “the Wonder-Worker,” in honor of all of the miracles that he performed. In addition, he was a great evangelist. When he became bishop of Neo-Caesarea, there were only seventeen Christians in his town. By his death, it is said that there were only seventeen pagans left unconverted. Writing some decades later, St. Basil (329-379 A.D.) had this to say about St. Gregory:
But where shall I rank the great Gregory, and the words uttered by him? Shall we not place among Apostles and Prophets a man who walked by the same Spirit as they; who never through all his days diverged from the footprints of the saints; who maintained, as long as he lived, the exact principles of evangelical citizenship? I am sure that we shall do the truth a wrong if we refuse to number that soul with the people of God, shining as it did like a beacon in the Church of God; for by the fellow-working of the Spirit the power which he had over demons was tremendous, and so gifted was he with the grace of the word for obedience to the faith among...the nations, that, although only seventeen Christians were handed over to him, he brought the whole people alike in town and country through knowledge to God. 
He too by Christ's mighty name commanded even rivers to change their course, and caused a lake, which afforded a ground of quarrel to some covetous brethren, to dry up. Moreover his predictions of things to come were such as in no wise to fall short of those of the great prophets. To recount all his wonderful works in detail would be too long a task. By the superabundance of gifts, wrought in him by the Spirit in all power and in signs and in marvels, he was styled a second Moses by the very enemies of the Church. Thus in all that he through grace accomplished, alike by word and deed, a light seemed ever to be shining, token of the heavenly power from the unseen which followed him. To this day he is a great object of admiration to the people of his own neighbourhood, and his memory, established in the churches ever fresh and green, is not dulled by length of time. Thus not a practice, not a word, not a mystic rite has been added to the Church besides what he bequeathed to it.
Now that we know who Gregory the Wonder-Worker is, what he had to say about the Virgin Mary. Again, this homily was delivered back in the mid-200s.This detail is significant, because there's a myth that Marian devotion didn't really start until after the Council of Ephesus in 431. But Gregory is clearly devoted to Mary, and in a way closely connected to his Christology. Notice how his praise of Mary flows over into praise of Jesus Christ, and his praise of Jesus Christ flows into praise of the Virgin Mary. He doesn't pit the two against each other, but clearly sees how love of Jesus and love of Mary are related to one another:
Mother of God, Milkgiver (19th c. Ukrainian icon)
1. When I remember the disobedience of Eve, I weep. But when I view the fruit of Mary, I am again renewed. Deathless by descent, invisible through beauty, before the ages light of light; of God the Father wast Thou begotten; being Word and Son of God, Thou didst take on flesh from Mary Virgin, in order that Thou mightest renew afresh Adam fashioned by Thy holy hand.

2. Holy, deathless, eternal, inaccessible, without change, without turn, True Son of God art Thou before the ages; yet wast pleased to be conceived and formed in the womb of the Holy Virgin, in order that Thou mightest make alive once more man first fashioned by Thy holy hand, but dead through sin.

3. By the good pleasure Thou didst issue forth, by the good pleasure and will of the invisible Father. Wherefore we all invoke Thee, calling Thee King. Be Thou our succour; Thou that wast born of the Virgin and wrapt in swaddling clothes and laid in the manger, and wast suckled by Mary; to the end that Thou mightest make alive once more the first-created Adam that was dead through sin. [....]

5. Turn ye, O congregations, and come. Let us all praise Him that is born of the Virgin. For that being the glory and image before the ages of the Godhead, He yet became a fellow-sufferer with us of poverty. Being the exceeding magnifical power [and] image of God, He took on the form of a slave. He that putteth on the light as a garment, consorted with men as one that is vile. He that is hymned by cherubim and by myriad angels, as a citizen on earth doth He live. He that being before (all) maketh all creation alive, was born of the Holy Virgin, in order that He might make alive once more the first created. [....]

7. And He took the form of a slave from the Holy Virgin, in order to call us up to the glorified dominical image. He put on the outward shape made of clay, that He might make [us] sharers of the heavenly form. He sat in the lap of the Holy Virgin, that He might place us on the right hand in the intimacy of His Father. In a vile body was He; and by means of the same He was laid in a tomb, that He might manifest us heirs of eternal life. In the womb of the Holy Virgin was He, the incomprehensible (or inaccessible) one, confined; in order that He might renew the Adam destroyed through sin. [....]

9. Wherefore even with one voice [let us sing the praises] of God the Word, that according to the worthiness of each is cause and promoter of salvation, unto young men and old, and unto children and women. For from Mary, the divine fountain of the ineffable Godhead, gushes forth grace and free gift of the Holy Spirit. From a single Holy Virgin the Pearl of much price proceeded, in order to make alive once more the first-created man that was dead through sin. [....]

Coronation of the Virgin (18th c.)
11. Let us twine, as with a wreath, the souls (or selves) [of them that love the festival and love to hearken] with golden blossoms, fain to be crowned with wreaths from the unfading gardens; and offering in our hands the fair-fruited flowers of Christ, let us gather [them]. For the God-like temple of the Holy Virgin is meet to be glorified with such a crown; because the illumining Pearl cometh forth, to the end that it may raise up again into the ever-streaming light them that were gone down into darkness and the shadow of death. [....]

13. The Holy Virgin is herself both an honourable temple of God and a shrine made pure, and a golden altar of whole burnt offerings. By reason of her surpassing purity [she is] the Divine incense of oblation ( = προθέσεως), and oil of the holy grace, and a precious vase bearing in itself the true nard; [yea and] the priestly diadem revealing the good pleasure of God, whom she alone approacheth holy in body and soul. [She is] the door which looks eastward [this is a reference to the Temple Gate of Ezekiel 44], and by the comings in and goings forth the whole earth is illuminated. The fertile olive from which the Holy Spirit took the fleshly slip (or twig) of the Lord, and saved the suffering race of men. She is the boast of virgins, and the joy of mothers; the declaration of archangels, even as it was spoken: "Be thou glad and rejoice, the Lord with thee"; and again, "from thee"; in order that He may make new once more the dead through sin.

14. Thou didst allow her to remain a virgin, and wast pleased, O Lord, to lie in the Virgin's womb, sending in advance the archangel to announce it [to her]. But he from above, from the ineffable hosts, came unto Mary, and first heralded to her the tidings: "Be thou glad and rejoice." And he also added, "The Lord with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb." But she was in tumult, and pondered in her mind what sort of tidings was this. But then in seemly fashion, I ween, the grace chose out the Holy Virgin; for she was wise in all ways, nor was there her like among women of all nations. [....]

18. The Virgin spake in turn unto the angel: My mind swims in thy words as in a sea. How shall this be unto me? for I desire not to know an earthly man, because I have devoted myself to the heavenly Bridegroom. I desire to remain a virgin. I wish not to betray the honour of my virginity. [...]

20. Great is the mystery. Thou hast learned, O Mary, that which till now was hidden from angels. Thou hast known that which deaf prophets and patriarchs heard not; and thou hast heard that which the choirs of the God-clad were not ever held worthy to hear. David and Isaiah, and all the prophets foretold in their preaching about the Lord's becoming man. But do thou alone, O Holy Virgin, receive the mystery unknown by them, and learn and be not perplexed as to how this shall be unto thee. For He that fashioned man out of virgin soil, the Selfsame shall even now do as. He will for the salvation of His creature.


21. New radiance now of eternal light gleams forth for us in the inspired fitness (or harmony) of these words. Now is it meet and fitting for me to wonder after the manner of the Holy Virgin, to whom in seemly wise before all things the angel gave salutation thus: "Be thou glad and rejoice"; because with her are quickened and live, all the treasures of grace. Among all nations she alone was both virgin and mother and without knowledge of man, holy in body and soul. Among all nations she alone was made worthy to bring forth God; alone she carried in her Him who carries along all by His word.

Bartolomeo Caporali, Madonna and Child with Angels, 1470
22. And not only is it meet to marvel at the beauty of the Holy Mother of God, but also at the excellence of her spirit. Wherefore were addressed to her the words: "The Lord with thee"; and again also, "The Lord from thee." As if this: " He will save him that is in His image as being pitiful." As purse of the Divine mystery the Holy Virgin made herself ready, in which the Pearl of Life was enveloped in flesh and sealed; and she also became the receptacle of supramundane and Divine salvation. [....]

24. Not any more doth Adam fear the crafty serpent; because our Lord is come and hath dispersed the host of the enemy. Not any more doth the race of men fear the craftiness and mad deceit of the serpent, because the Lord hath bruised the head of the dragon in the water of baptism. Not any more do I fear to hear the words: Dust thou wast, and unto dust shalt thou be turned. For the Lord in baptism hath washed away the stain of sin. Not any more do I weep, nor ever lament, nor ever reckon it again to wretchedness, when the thorns wound me. For our Lord hath plucked out by the roots the sins which are our thorns, and hath crowned His head withal. Loosed is the first curse in which He said: Thorns and thistles shall earth bring forth to thee, for the thorn is plucked out by the roots, and the thistle withered up; and from the Holy Virgin hath shot up the tree of life and grace. No more doth Eva fear the reproach of the pangs of childbirth; for by the Holy Virgin her transgressions are blotted out and effaced; forasmuch as in her was God born, to the end that He might make alive him whom He made in His image.

25. A bulwark of imperishable life hath the Holy Virgin become unto us, and a fountain of light to those who have faith in Christ; a sunrise of the reasonable light is she found to be. Be thou glad and rejoice. The Lord with thee and from thee, who in His Godhead and His manhood is perfect, in whom dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead: "Be glad and rejoice, the Lord with thee and from thee" ----with His handmaid the Lord of glory; with her that is unspotted, He that halloweth all; with the beautiful, He who is wonderful in beauty above all the sons of men, to the end that He may make alive him whom He made in His image. [....]

27. Holy and wise in all things was the all-blessed Virgin; in all ways peerless among all nations, and unrivalled among women. Not as the first virgin Eva, who being alone in the garden, was in her weak mind led astray by the serpent; and so took his advice and brought death into the world; and because of that hath been all the suffering of saints. But in her alone, in this Holy Virgin Mary, the Stem of Life hath shot up for us. For she alone was spotless in soul and body.

28. With intrepid mind she spake to the angel: Whence is this salutation, and how shall this be unto me? Dost thou desire to learn how the exceeding magnifical power becomes a fellow-sufferer with us of our poverty? How He that hath power over the hosts assumes the image of our baseness; and how He who is God before the ages is about to become a child and be made flesh, He that putteth on light as a garment and giveth life unto His creature. Grant me, said the Holy Virgin, to learn such an impenetrable mystery, and I become the vessel that receives the Divine mystery (or thought), being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, and [I am] to receive the truth of His flesh in my flesh, unto the building by Wisdom of her abode.[....]

30. The element of flesh doth the Son of God take from the Holy Virgin, for before the ages He is God. He hath deigned to be born, and to be called Son of man, and to become visible, He the invisible; and for our sake to be poor, who is all riches; and to suffer as man, He the impassible and deathless. For with (or in) the flesh in truth He was united, but He was not changed in spirit. In a mortal body the Invisible One was enveloped, that He might make it also deathless, making it sharer of His deathlessness through His Godhead; to the end that He might renew him that was fashioned by His holy hands. [....]

35. Therefore, O ye fair-fruited and comely branches of Christ's teaching, ye shall in this place bring to us the fruits of blessing (= εὐλογίας). Here, where is all purity and fragrance, let us offer to God with holy conscience the incense of prayer. Here, where virginity and temperance dance together, bearing for fruit the life-giving cluster of grapes. [...] Here, where the mystery of the Holy Trinity was revealed by the archangel to the Holy Virgin according to the gospel: "The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee. For Holy is that which is born of thee, Son of God." To whom be glory and honour for ever and ever.
Happy Feast of the Assumption!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Did the Catholic Church Try to Suppress the Bible?

Shortly before I left for Rome, I ran into a group of Baptists preaching on the street corner. I went over to greet them, because I know from experience how tough public evangelization can be. I was wearing a Roman collar, so they were quick to hand me a tract claiming that Catholics aren't Christians.

One of the men told me that Catholics weren't saved because we believe that Baptism saves us. I had him read 1 Peter 3:21 outloud and try to explain how that doesn't say that Baptism saves us. He was visibly surprised by the verse, and suggested maybe it only applied to Jews. He then changed the subject: didn't I know that the Catholic Church had all sorts of unbiblical doctrines, and had covered this up by keeping the Bible in Latin, and out of the hands of ordinary believers?

This is a common accusation. Once it becomes clear that Catholics can defend the Church's teachings from Scripture, many opponents of the Catholic Church will stop debating Scripture, and start debating history. And because neither side tends to know what they're talking about, this tends to be an unproductive debate. So today, I want to consider one of the most common accusations: that, in the run up to the Reformation, the Catholic Church was suppressing Sacred Scripture, and trying to keep it (and the Gospel) out of the hands of ordinary believers.

I. The Accusation

The standard objection goes something like this: the Reformation was necessary because the Catholic Church had all sorts of unbiblical doctrines; and it took years for people to know this, because the Church prohibited people from reading the Bible to find out what it really said. To keep people from comparing Church teachings to the Bible, the Church required all Bibles to be in Latin.

It wasn't until Luther that the Bible was translated into the common language. Even after this, those who tried to get Bibles into the hands of ordinary people (or in ordinary language) were burnt at the stake. Until these brave Protestants thwarted the Catholic conspiracy against the Bible, the pre-Reformation Catholic was a superstitious peasant with little knowledge of Scripture.

There are variations on this “history,” some versions more conspiratorial than others. But that's the general outline... and it's almost completely false.

II. Setting the Record Straight

There are two major points that the objectors get right: namely, that Bibles before the Reformation were typically in Latin, and that most ordinary people didn't have access to Bibles. But there are obvious reasons for this. First, for most of the history prior to the Reformation, the written language for /virtually everything was Latin, and reading and writing in Latin was taught in school. For much of that time, it was also the language commonly spoken by ordinary people.

1. The Bible was in Latin for the sake of the people.

In the ancient world, it wasn't unusual to speak one language, and write in another. For Protestants to criticize this is to betray a lack of historical understanding, and to attack the Evangelists. Remember that at the time of Christ, there were a wide variety of spoken languages throughout the Roman Empire, as Acts 2:5-8 makes clear. Yet the New Testament was written in Greek, not each local vernacular. Why? Because Greek was the standard written language. If you were literate, there was a good chance that, regardless of what you spoke, you read Greek.

By the fourth century, the standard written language in the West was Latin. This was also the language that most Westerners spoke. To respond to this shift, Pope Damasus ordered the Bible to be translated from the now-inaccessible Greek into more accessible Latin. As a result, this Bible became known as the Vulgate, because it was designed to reach the “vulgar” (common) people.

In other words, the Bible wasn't in Latin to be inaccessible, but so that any literate Western European could read it. Even as Latin gradually devolved into French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, Latin remained the standard language for writing. That the Bible was in Latin rather than the local dialects is no more surprising than that modern Protestants prefer the King James Bible over a Bible written in, say, a southern dialect or Ebonics or Australian.

Latin also ensured that you could reach people who didn't speak your local dialect. Having Latin as the standard language meant, for example, that St. Thomas Aquinas (an Italian) could learn under St. Albert the Great (a German) at the University of Paris, in France. The universality of Latin is also why many of the most famous writings of the Reformers, like John Calvin's Institutes of Christian Religion, were written in Latin.

2. The Catholic Church Invented an Entire Alphabet to Spread the Bible.

The Galgolitic alphabet
Latin, as I mentioned, was the norm for the Western half of the Church, particularly in the former Roman Empire. For the Eastern half, Greek remained the norm. But what about those areas that hadn't been in the Roman Empire, and didn't speak either? Often, the Scriptures and Christian writings would be translated into the local language.

Sometimes, this involved truly extraordinary efforts. For example, in the ninth century, St. Cyril and Methodius, with the support of Pope Nicholas I and Pope Adrian II,  went to convert a number of Eastern Europeans who hadn't heard the Gospel.

They quickly discovered that, not only did these people not speak Greek or Latin, but they didn't even have a written language. So Cyril and Methodius invented an entire alphabet for them, called the Glagolitic alphabet. They did this so that they could have a written language, and so that they could receive the Scriptures. A descendant of that alphabet, fittingly called called “Cyrillic” in honor of St. Cyril, is used by a quarter-billion Eastern Europeans and Russians to this day. Does that sound like a Church that hates Scripture, and wants to keep it out of the hands of ordinary people? I'd gladly take the Church's track record here and compare it with those who have named themselves “Bible Christians”: who has actually done more to spread the Gospel and the Scriptures?

3. Most People Didn't Have Bibles Because of Technology, Not Conspiracy.

While it's true that most people didn't have a household Bible prior to the Reformation, that's because (1) hand-printed, hand-copied Bibles were extremely time-consuming (and expensive) to produce prior to the printing press, and (2) ordinary Europeans were often illiterate. Gutenberg first invented the printing press in the 15th century, not long before the Reformation. And one of the very first mass-printed works he started to churn out was, you guessed it, the Latin Vulgate.

The whole idea an ordinary Christian is qualified to fact-check Church teachings against his personal reading of his family Bible is a novelty that would have been unthinkable prior to the printing press.

4. Ordinary Believers Still Heard and Knew Scripture.

Given that many people didn't have a Bible, and couldn't have read it if they did, how did the know what the Scriptures said? Through the Church. Ironically, this is the way of encountering Scripture that Scripture itself calls for. Revelation 1:3 says, “Blessed is he who reads aloud the words of the prophesy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written therein; for the time is near.” One person getting up and reading Scripture within the hearing of the gathered believers, adding an explanation needed to make sure the people understand it: that's the Scriptural norm.

It's what Moses does in Exodus 24:7, it's what he instructs the Levites (the Old Testament priests) to do in Deuteronomy 31:9-11, it's what Joshua does in Joshua 8:34-35, it's what we the Levites do in Nehemiah 8:7-8 (the Levites “helped the people understand the law, while the people remained in their places,” by reading “from the book, from the law of God, clearly; and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”), and it's what Jesus does in Luke 4:15-22 when He goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath to publicly read and interpret Isaiah.

It's why St. James says that “from early generations Moses has had in every city those who preach him, for he is read every sabbath in the synagogues” in Acts 15:21. It's why St. Paul says to the Colossians, “when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea” (Col. 4:16). And to the Thessalonians: “I adjure you by the Lord that this letter be read to all the brethren” (1 Thes. 5:27). And it's why he instructs Timothy to “attend to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim. 4:13). This notion that Scripture is meant to be read and interpreted privately is both ahistorical and unscriptural.

Still, as modern Christians, we might wonder: how well did the ordinary believer really know Scripture? It turns out, quite well. There have been several recent works showing this: for example, Eamon Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 looks at pre-Reformation popular devotions, and finds that the ordinary English believer understood Scripture and Church teachings better than you might think.

But there's an obvious witness to this truth that we can easily overlook: religious art. Why is art so important? Because as Pope St. Gregory I said, “images are the books of the unlearned,” a saying so well-known by the time of the Reformation that John Calvin felt the need to respond to it directly in his Institutes.

And what did this religious art say to laypeople then about Scripture? And what does it say to us today about the beliefs of the pre-Reformation Church?

III. What We Can Learn from the Illiterate's Bible.

There are several places to look for beautiful religious art, but I'm going to use some examples from where I am right now: Umbria, in central Italy. While we've been studying in Assisi, a few of us went on a daylong excursion to nearby Perugia (the capital of the state of Umbria). There, we went to the Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria, which features local Umbrian art, much of it from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. A lot of this art was at the local monasteries or in parish churches. So if you want an insight into the religious life of Catholics immediately prior to the Reformation, this is a good place to start.

A number of the paintings were striking, but for several reasons, this one really jumped out at me:


Let's consider three aspects of this painting, and those like it:

1. Scriptural Literacy.

One point, almost too obvious to mention, is that these paintings are frequently of scenes from Scripture: with a little effort, you can find reference to virtually every Book of the Bible, and to virtually every major event in the life of Christ. Here, the painting is of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38). So these paintings served a clear catechetical role, in that they reminded people of the Scriptures that they heard proclaimed. As Pope St. Gregory said, “what writing presents to readers, this a picture presents to the unlearned who behold, since in it even the ignorant see what they ought to follow; in it the illiterate read.

They also reflect the Scriptural literacy of the painters, of course: the painters include details that suggest that they have a thorough knowledge of Scripture, down to the finest points. In the painting above, we find St. Luke, with an ox behind him, sitting at the feet of the Virgin Mary. What's going on here? In Revelation 4:6-7, we see an image of “four living creatures” before the throne of God: a lion, an ox, a man, and an eagle. The earliest Christians (including St. Irenaeus, in the second century) recognized this as a reference to the four Evangelists and the four Gospels. Typically, Luke was associated with the ox or calf. As St. Augustine explained, this is fitting, because the calf was “the pre-eminent sacrifice made by the priest,” and St. Luke's Gospel features the priesthood prominently:
For in that Gospel the narrator’s account commences with Zacharias the priest. In it mention is also made of the relationship between Mary and Elisabeth. In it, too, it is recorded that the ceremonies proper to the earliest priestly service were attended to in the case of the infant Christ; and a careful examination brings a variety of other matters under our notice in this Gospel, by which it is made apparent that Luke’s object was to deal with the part of the priest. 
So, Luke is associated with the sacrificial calf, because his Gospel highlights Christ's connection to the priesthood.

But why is Luke here, at the Annunciation? Because the details of the Annunciation are only recorded by St. Luke (they're alluded to by St. Matthew, but he doesn't give details). Luke's Gospel records the events of Christ's conception, birth, and childhood from Mary's perspective. He's the one, for example, who says that “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19; Luke 2:51), and Luke mentions Mary more often than every other Scriptural writer combined. He lets us catch a glimpse into Mary's heart, and the reason seems to be that he sat with her and listened to her tell the Gospel in her own words. This painting captures that: we can see Mary “painting the picture” of the Annunciation, while St. Luke writes everything down. Thus, the painting doesn't reflect a Biblically-ignorant Church, but one with an intimate familiarity with the Gospels.

2. Theological Sophistication.

Not only is this religious artwork Biblically-literate, it's theologically sophisticated. Look at the interplay of the Three Persons of the Trinity: the Father is seen breathing forth the Spirit to overshadow Mary with the Son. Mary, for her part, is presented as a Tabernacle. If you're not familiar, the tabernacle is where the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ, is reposed. To imagine what a tabernacle in Umbria would have looked like during the fourteenth or fifteen century, look at this (from the same gallery):


The tabernacle itself isn't present here, but this is where it would have gone: in that ambo-shaped semi-circle. Now look at where the painter has placed Mary in the above painting: in the spot where the tabernacle normally is. This turns out to be a common theme in art from the period; for example, we find Mary in the pace of a tabernacle (seated on an altar!) here:

and here:


and (more subtly) here:


The Tabernacle contains Jesus; at the Annunciation, Mary became the tabernacle for Christ's Incarnation. This religious artwork is expressing that clearly, if subtly. So just as the religious art is Biblically-literate, it's also theologically orthodox and sophisticated. Finally...

3. The Importance of Scripture.

We've already considered the extensive knowledge of Scripture required to make the sort of art we're seeing here. But perhaps even more to the point, this religious artwork, aimed at the very masses that Catholics were supposedly keeping the Bible from, repeatedly encourages the reading of Scripture. Look at Mary at the Annunciation in the first picture: she's reading the Scriptures. This, too, is a repeated theme:


Here, it almost looks like she's holding her place in the Bible so that she can start reading again after the Angel Gabriel leaves:


And here, we see almost all of the elements we've looked at so far, wrapped into one:


Take a closer look:


She's not only reading Scripture (probably the Psalms), she's got several other Scriptures within arm's reach.

Of course, this isn't confined to images of the Annunciation: Scripture is featured throughout all sorts of religious art. The Evangelists are presented holding up the Scriptures that they wrote: for example, St. Paul is almost always presented holding a Book, to represent his many contributions to the New Testament. Later Saints are presented reading Scriptures, and writing their great spiritual works. But there's a particular connection being made here, between Mary's conceiving of the word of God in her heart through the reading of Sacred Scripture, and her conception of the Word of God at the Annunciation.

So here, in art inside the ordinary churches that ordinary Catholics attended weekly (or even daily), in art directed to the masses of believers, we see the Church reminding everyone of the importance of Sacred Scripture.

Conclusion

Rather than hiding the Scriptures from the masses of ordinary Catholic believers, we see the Church (1) presenting the Scriptures through religious art, (2) explaining them through sound theology, and (3) encouraging the reading of Scripture.

This is the same Church that has, for the last two thousand years, spread the Gospel to the four corners of the earth, proclaiming the Name of Jesus Christ to all nations... even if it takes creating an entirely new alphabet and written language to do so. And we're to believe that all of this is part of a conspiracy to hide the Gospel from people?

---

P.S. I took all of those photos at the Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria in Perugia, Italy, on Saturday. If you want to see the full set, you can find about 160 photos of religious art from the region here.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Obama the Traditionalist: What Catholics Can Learn from President Obama

Jonathan Capehart has written a great short piece discussing a recent town hall with President Obama involving the slur “acting white,” often used to denigrate academically-interested African-Americans (as if intelligence and education are the sole province of a single race). Both Capehart and Obama thoughtfully repudiate the notion that there is tension between “being black” and being educated and successful. But that's not what this post is about, really.

I.

I was struck by this line:
The Bible says without vision a people will perish. And what happens when you start losing your language and you start losing your culture and you don’t have a sense of connections to ancestors and those memories that date back generations is you start feeling adrift. And if you’re living in a society that devalues that, then you start maybe devaluing yourself and internalizing some of those doubts.
That was President Obama. And he's right. It's something that we need to remember as Catholics. This is what came to mind when I read those words:


Unintentionally, our president has cogently given an argument for traditional Liturgy, prayers, devotions, and the rest. They form a critical part of the Catholic identity. Even seemingly trivial things, like meatless Fridays, help form a truly Catholic identity. To be holy is literally to be “set apart” by, or for, God. Part of the call for us as Catholic Christians is to be holy and set apart in this way: in the world, yet not of it. 

We've done things a certain way for centuries. If we cut ourselves off from that tradition, and start behaving like the rest of the world, it's hardly surprising that Catholics begin acting less and less like Catholics; that they begin to think of themselves less and less as Catholics; and that they begin to believe and act less and less like Catholics.

Religious groups that are evangelistic and form distinctive identities tend to survive and grow (one need look no further than Mormonism, Pentecostalism, and Islam for clear examples of this). Religious groups that look virtually indistinguishable from the world are dying. If what I'm getting in church is no different from what I would get outside of church, why bother going to church? 

The less our faith forms our identity, the less we are somehow changed by being Catholic, the less of a pull the faith has on us. There are 168 hours in a week. If we have nothing distinctively Catholic about ourselves during the 167 hours of the week spent outside of Sunday Mass, we're not really Catholic. Being Catholic is not what we do one (or hopefully more than one) hour per week at Mass. It is who we are, and our lives should reflect that.

II.

Of course, there's no small irony in President Obama being the one to point this out, as he is no famous friend of the Catholic Church (as the various pending lawsuits between his administration and our Church make clear). But God has raised him up to the presidency nevertheless, and can still speak through him. There's good precedent for this. In Jeremiah 43:10, God says:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Behold, I will send and take Nebuchadrez′zar the king of Babylon, my servant, and he will set his throne above these stones which I have hid, and he will spread his royal canopy over them.
That verse should shock us a bit, because God is referring to Nebuchadrezzar, the Babylonian king who was oppressing the Israelites (and who tried to get the Israelites to worship him), as His Servant. If He can use even Nebuchadrezzar for His glory and the good of His people, He can certainly use President Obama as well. So let us take Obama's words to heart: when you start losing your language and you start losing your culture and you don’t have a sense of connections to ancestors and those memories that date back generations,” that spells disaster, whether we're dealing with the Church or a racial or ethnic group. Let us, then, hold fast to Tradition.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Rome and Relics

For the next few weeks, I'm going to be doing Italian immersion in Assisi, and so I will be monitoring the blog rarely, if at all. In the meantime, I wanted to talk about one of the really striking parts about being a Catholic in Rome: there are relics everywhere.

This allows for something amazing spiritually. As one of the second-year men explained to us on the first day, you can frequently celebrate a Saint's feast day here by visiting them, since the churches of Rome are home to innumerable relics of the Saints. That afternoon, I visited the Basilica di San Giovanni Battista dei Fiorentini (Basilica of St. John of the Florentines), and saw the foot of St. Mary Magdalene... the first foot that entered the Empty Tomb on Easter morning:

The foot of St. Mary Magdalene, encased in a reliquary.

Since then, I've seen some truly amazing relics, like the skulls of both St. Peter and St. Paul, and the tomb containing the body of St. Paul.

The accompanying sign, explaining her foot's importance.
So what's the deal with relics? For many Christians, they seem idolatrous, or at least superstitious, not to mention a bit macabre. And to be certain, it's possible to treat relics in an idolatrous or superstitious manner. But in my experience, that's not how most people use them. And in striking contrast to the modern queasiness that some (particularly Protestants) have about relics, the New Testament repeatedly presents the use of relics in a positive light.

Let's consider three examples. First, objects that touched St. Paul (Acts 19:11-12):
God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.
People are bringing objects, touching St. Paul with them, and then bringing those objects to the sick to cure them. And Scripture doesn't condemn this idolatrous or superstitious, but says that it's one of the ways that God worked extraordinary miracles through Paul.

Second, consider St. Peter's shadow (Acts 5:12-16):
The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. 
As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by impure spirits, and all of them were healed.
This passage is rich in significance: for example, it matters that, of all of the miracle-working Apostles, Scripture tells us that St. Peter was sought out. But for our present purposes, we again see people interacting with Peter as a living relic. These people aren't hoping to persuade Peter to perform a miracle: they believe that his mere shadow will be enough. And they're right: all of them are healed. Scripture describes this as on one of the ways that the Apostles performed their signs and wonders. So once again, we don't see relics as some sort of threat to God, but as a way that He manifests His power.

Finally, consider the woman who touched the hem of Jesus' garment (Mark 5:25-34):
And there was a woman who had had a flow of blood for twelve years, and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse. She had heard the reports about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. For she said, “If I touch even his garments, I shall be made well.” And immediately the hemorrhage ceased; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone forth from him, immediately turned about in the crowd, and said, “Who touched my garments?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say, ‘Who touched me?’” And he looked around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had been done to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.
This woman believed that if she so much as touched Jesus' garments. And she is. Christ doesn't rebuke her for superstition, either. He doesn't say, for example, “If you wanted to be healed, you should have spoken to Me.” Instead, He praises her for her faith.

And so, we can rest assured that He will praise the faith of the countless pilgrims who turn to relics in seeking intercession and healings. We believe that the same God who raised a dead man back to life when his corpse touched the bones of Elijah (2 Kings 13:21) will work wonders for those who seek recourse to the bones of Saints Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene. Far from being superstition, this is what the Christian faith looks like, all gritty and incarnational.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Demons, Playing Cards, and Telescopes

Atheistic materialism is the belief that matter is all there is: not only does God not exist, this theory argues, but there's no spiritual realm. From a Christian perspective, this position can seem baffling: how do these atheists account for all of the evidence of miracles, or conversely, demonic possession? One answer is that they just don't see this evidence. As it turns out, even very smart, well-meaning people can be so predisposed to the truth of a certain view (like materialism) that they're almost blind to contrary evidence. That's the phenomenon that I explore in a piece that I wrote for Strange Notions. Here's an excerpt:
Giotto, Exorcism of the Demons at Arezzo (1298)
In 1949, Jerome S. Bruner and Leo Postman asked a group of 28 students at Harvard and Radcliffe to perform a simple task: identify playing cards. There were just two catches. First, these cards were shown very quickly: for 10 milliseconds at first, but increasing up to 1000 milliseconds if they struggled to identify the card. Second, the researchers were using a deck of four ordinary playing cards and six “trick cards” in which the card's color and suit were incongruous (red spades, black hearts, and the like).

This second catch proved to be quite vexing. Bruner and Postman found that it took these students four times longer to identify a “trick card” than a normal card:
While normal cards on the average were recognized correctly -- here defined as a correct response followed by a second correct response -- at 28 milliseconds, the incongruous cards required 114 milliseconds. [...] The reader will note that even at the longest exposure used, 1000 ms., only 89.7 per cent of the incongruous cards had been correctly recognized, while 100 per cent of the normal cards had been recognized by 350 milliseconds.
The students' brains struggled to process something as out-of-the-ordinary as a red six of clubs. The first time that they saw a trick card, it took students an average of 360-420 milliseconds (more than twelve times longer than it took them to identify ordinary cards). Even after they had seen two or three trick cards, it still took a full 84 milliseconds for them to identify trick cards. [....]

This is what we might call an incongruous perception problem: when we encounter something that disagrees with our worldview, we have a strong tendency to ignore or disregard it, or try to finesse it into our worldview by compromising it in some way. [....]

With this in mind, consider the Indiana exorcism case that appeared in USA Today in January, after the story was picked up from the Indianapolis Star. The case is a remarkable one for several reasons. First, there's the sheer number of eyewitnesses: the Star interviewed “police, DCS [Department of Child Services] personnel, psychologists, family members and a Catholic priest.” There are nearly 800 pages of official records documenting the events. [....]

But what really stands out about this case are the things that the witnesses report having seen. They are remarkable, to say the least:
  • “Ammons and Campbell said the 12-year-old was levitating above the bed, unconscious.”

  • “Medical staff said the youngest boy was "lifted and thrown into the wall with nobody touching him," according to a DCS report."”

  • “According to Washington's original DCS report— an account corroborated by Walker, the nurse — the 9-year-old had a "weird grin" and walked backward up a wall to the ceiling. He then flipped over Campbell, landing on his feet. He never let go of his grandmother's hand. "He walked up the wall, flipped over her and stood there," Walker told The Star. "There's no way he could've done that."”

  • “[Gary Police Captain Charles] Austin said the driver's seat in his personal 2005 Infiniti also started moving backward and forward on its own.”
So what do we make of this case?

Christians are free to disbelieve that this case was demonic, of course. Believing that demons exist doesn't mean that everything blamed on demons is really demonic, as opposed to delusions, lies, mental illness, etc. There's no prior commitment to this being demonic or non-demonic: Christians are free to simply evaluate the evidence as it is presented.

But for atheists who deny the existence of the spiritual realm, stories like this one are a bit of a red six of clubs. There's no way to easily harmonize the facts presented with the belief that that matter is all that there is.
Read the full piece, and several reactions, over at Strange Notions.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

On Planting Seeds, and Sowing Them

Yesterday morning (about 8:30 a.m. local time, but 1:30 a.m. back in Kansas City), I arrived here in Rome. This is the beginning of a new chapter in my life; as you may recall, my bishop asked me and my classmate Carter to study at the North American College in Rome. This means that we will spend the next four years or so living and studying here in the Eternal City.

I was greeted at the NAC with a surprise: we are getting a new director of admissions, Fr. Daniel F. Hanley. As soon as he announced where he was from, I realized who he was, and that I needed to talk to him. See, Fr. Hanley and I had never met prior to yesterday, but without him, I might not be a seminarian today.

Here's why.

I. On Planting Seeds

In the 1990s, after Hanley graduated as a history major, he began to work as a high school teacher and then a staffer for a U.S. Senator. Shortly thereafter, he entered law school. During this time, he had begun to to feel called to become a seminarian, but was hesitant at first, because it "conflicted with my idea of the plan God had for me with what I wanted to do. I was happy with my career and its prospects, and I had a strong desire for a wife and family."

Finally, in 1999, on the verge of his 28th birthday, he entered seminary for the Diocese of Arlington. After two years of pre-theology, he came here to the North American College for four years for his theology.

In 2005, he was ordained. Fr. Hanley's first parish assignment was St. Mary's in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. There, the newly-ordained priest began a men's prayer group. At the time, I was still a lukewarm Catholic in Topeka, Kansas, but this small act would change my life forever.

Like Fr. Hanley, I was also a history major. After graduating in 2007, I also went to law school, which brought me out to Washington, D.C. It wasn't long before I was attending Mass at St. Mary's in Old Town Alexandria. By this time, Fr. Hanley had moved on to another parish, but the men's group was still going strong under the guidance of Fr. John De Celles (who I've written about before).

I didn't hear about the men's group right away. In fact, the first time I heard about it was during a Holy Hour. I was praying before the Blessed Sacrament when a guy I'd never met before approached me. He has a sort of surfer / Matthew McConaughey vibe to him, and he begins to speak to me by saying something along the lines of, “hey man, we have a men's prayer group tomorrow, do you want to come?” I was a little taken aback since I had no idea who he was, but I agreed.

It was life-changing: under Fr. De Celles' guidance, we formed a close-knit group of upwards of two dozen men who took their Catholicism very seriously. Eventually, Fr. De Celles was also moved to another parish, and a third great priest, Fr. Mick Kelly, replaced him.

One day, in men's group, I mentioned off-handedly that a number of people had asked why I wasn't discerning the priesthood. I had found this funny and a bit confusing, but it wasn't anything I was taking very seriously. Fr. Kelly knew better. He told me the story of St. Ambrose, whose vocational call was also external: St. Ambrose (also a lawyer, incidentally) was a politician in Milan when a feud broke out between the Catholics and the Arians about who should replace the deceased bishop Auxentius. Ambrose delivered a speech which calmed everyone down, and both sides quickly acclaimed him as Auxentius' replacement. At the time, this wasn't anything Ambrose could have foreseen: he was still a catechumen, not even baptized yet. The point of Fr. Kelly's story was that sometimes, for whatever reason (e.g., we're not listening), the Holy Spirit won't just speak within us, but will speak through others.

His advice was that I get a spiritual director and start taking discernment seriously. I did, and it ended me up here. My point is simple, and two-fold: (1) my “yes” to the will of God was built upon the “yeses” of countless other people before me, some of whom I've never even met, some of which have been dead for centuries; and (2) we can't always see the good fruit that the good seeds we plant will produce. It was only by Providence that Fr. Hanley got to learn that the men's group that he had started had helped guide several men into their vocations (in addition to me, another of our group is a Dominican novice, a third is preparing to head to Clear Creek Monastery in Oklahoma, and a few more are considering or have seriously considered the priesthood or religious life because of this group).

II. On Sowing Seeds

There's another aspect to this, as well: saying “yes” to God might take us out of our comfort zones. What had been a tight-knit group living near one another in northern Virginia is now spread all over the country (and if you include me, even across the world).

In the parable of the Sower and the seed, the Sower scatters the seed in order for it to produce better fruit. It's not a matter of sending it into chaos, as in the Tower of Babel, but a sending forth into the world, as at Pentecost. That's what happened to the Apostles. Most of them didn't get to stay in Jerusalem: they ended up everywhere from Spain (St. James) and India (St. Thomas).

But where were these seeds all together? In the hand of the Sower. And where shall the seeds be brought together again? When they die, are ground down, and become bread. So, to those that I leave behind (in D.C., in Kansas City, in Saint Louis, in Topeka, etc.), I'm heartened by the fact that we are all brought together in the hand of God. As we pursue the death-to-self that is the Christian life, let us remember that we are all one in the One Bread of Life. Let us see one another in the Eucharist and in glory, if not before.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Bearing the Yoke of the Cross

Two oxen sharing a yoke
In Sunday's Gospel, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” (Matthew 11:28-30).

At first brush, His promise seems hollow: the Christian life can be hard, and the burdens seem heavy. After all, Jesus also says, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24). The Cross doesn’t sound like an easy yoke or a light burden. And certainly, for those striving to live a life of holiness, it doesn’t feel like a light burden, either. Oftentimes, we find ourselves tempted to sin simply because it’s easier than doing what we know is right.

So how can Christ claim that His yoke is easy and His burden light?

First, because it is light, compared to sin. King David described himself as drowning in his sin, crushed by its weights: “For my iniquities have gone over my head; they weigh like a burden too heavy for me” (Psalm 38:4). There’s the weight of lies, from covering up the things we knew we shouldn’t have done. The weight of guilt, of regretting what we’ve done, or regretting the harm that our sins have caused those we love. And these weights seem to constantly grow: one sin leads to another and another until we find ourselves drowning. Almost anyone who has lived a sinful life knows this feeling, and certainly, David was no stranger to the deception and guilt brought about by sin. Christ offers us a way out, a way of redemption, of leaving those burdens aside.

But there’s another reason that Christ’s yoke is easy. A yoke, as you may know, is a wooden crosspiece fastened on the neck of two oxen (or other animals) so that they can plow. The ox isn’t alone under the weight of the crosspiece: there’s another ox there to help him. Who helps us carry our Cross, to Whom are we tethered under the yoke of the Cross? Jesus Himself.

This is the beautiful irony of the Passion of Christ. As Jesus is carrying the Cross towards Calvary, Simon of Cyrene is pulled out the crowd to help Him carry it (Matthew 27:32). But in a deeper way, we shouldn’t think of this simply as Simon helping Christ carry the Cross. After all, it’s Simon (and each of us) who is due the Cross, not Jesus. Rather, He is helping us carry the Cross.

And that’s why it’s not heavy: because under the most extreme Crosses of our life, during the most agonizing trials, we’re still never alone. Christ walks that road with us. Therefore, “let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2).