Wednesday, March 25, 2015

What lit bonfires in the imagination of the Fathers.


Thanks largely to the vicissitudes of a busy semester and a certain kind of blogging writer's block, this blog has been silent since Ash Wednesday. Though I did not plan it that way, the idea of a Lenten pause makes a certain amount of sense insofar as it encourages one to withdraw into self-examination and reflection (not that I have done much of that - I've been far too busy with academic papers and the like). Today's Feast of the Annunciation offers a joyful break from Lenten asceticism, so it seems appropriate that I break my unintended blogging fast to post something today. One thing I feel compelled to post is Fra Angelico's Virgin Annunciate (c. 1450/55), a painting with a special place in my heart and one I've posted about before.

I saw Fra Angelico's Virgin Annunciate for the first time a decade ago when I was a Jesuit novice, and what struck me then - and continues to strike me now - is the somewhat awkward placement of the book in Mary's left hand. The idea that the Archangel Gabriel came to Mary as she was reading a book is a commonplace in Western iconography of the Incarnation, but in this particular image Mary seems to have responded so readily to Gabriel's summons that she hasn't even taken the time to put down the book that she was reading. Crossing her arms in a gesture of submission, she retains her book in her left hand and even seems to be marking her page with her forefinger. Mary may be eager to return to whatever she was reading, but at the same time she recognizes that her life has been changed forever on account of Gabriel's message and her own fiat.

The second thing I would like to do in this post is to share a passage from a book by a friend, a passage that I have posted here before and can't help but share again because I like it so much and it fits today's feast:
In their attempt to supplement Mary's virginal birth with the explanation that neither Scripture nor tradition provided them, the Church Fathers, in putting Luke's Annunciation passage under their relentless hermeneutical scrutiny, unearthed the aural imagery that lay therein. For once, it made sense to take the ear as the very medium through which the Word entered the virginal body ("for the sense of hearing is the natural channel of words"). As Proclus has Mary explain, "I heard a Word, I conceived a Word, I delivered a Word." The complementary character of spoken (annunciation) and heard word (conception), and the underlining dialectics of sound and silence offered the great preachers of the fifth and sixth centuries a seemingly inexhaustible source of rhetoric that sustaied anything from the longest to the shortest homily. (A personal favorite is the - Christmas? - homily of Cyrus of Panopolis, which in its entirety reads as follows: "Brethren, let the birth of God our Savior Jesus Christ be honored with silence, because the Word of God was conceived in the holy Virgin through hearing alone. To him be glory forever. Amen.")

What lit bonfires in the imagination of the Fathers, however, was the typology entailed in the momentous encounter of Gabriel with Mary. The passage in Luke became the contrapuntal text to Genesis: as Eve in her disobedience (παρακοή) had "given birth" to death, so Mary, the second Eve, through hearing (ἀκοή) gave birth to Life. Whereas Eve obeys (ὑπακοῦειν) the serpent, Mary listens to (ἀκοῦειν) the salutation of the angel. To God's creation of man (Adam), humanity responded with the re-creation of man in the New Adam (Christ). Although both creation and Incarnation are the deeds of the Father's love, Christ's birth could not have happened without Mary's response. Tha's why Mary's fiat mihi in "let it be done to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38) repeats and completes God's fiat as in "let us make man" (Gen 1:26). Both creational formulas share the same paradox: as God creates the world through a self-contraction, that is, a self-limitation of His will,so Mary assents to God's plan of the Incarnation by willfully abandoning her will; "let it be done to me."
This passage was taken from God after Metaphysics: A Theological Aesthetic, by John Panteleimon Manoussakis, a book that I happily commend to your attention for reading during Lent or at any other time. Prayers for all on this bright feast, and continued prayers as we journey toward Easter. AMDG.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Lent and the ecumenism of blood.



For Roman Catholics, Lent begins today with Ash Wednesday. Thinking about how to mark the start of Lent on this blog, I took note of these paragraphs posted yesterday by Father Ray Blake:
'Authenticity' in the Liturgy should be important, it is important in the Christian life, it should be important in Lent. 'Authenticity' is the brother of Truth, one of the most important aspects of Lent is the Sacrament of Penance, one significant reason people fail to go to Confession is that they are afraid of facing the truth about themselves and afraid of admitting it to another human being. There is a cowardliness here that is quite alien to the Gospel.

Living in shadows, living with half truths, living with illusions is not Christian. Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Christians are supposed to be both truthful and honest, especially about themselves and the Lord.

The great spiritual masters tell us to 'seek humiliations,' ultimately the humiliation of the Cross, the best way of doing this is to be truthful and honest about ourselves, to face up to the reality of who we are, to remember that we are dust and to dust we will return, to be truthful, to be honest about what we do and who we are, without this we cannot even begin to pray authentically, because must be grounded in absolute honesty, we cannot live a lie in the face of God.

Perhaps this Lent for all of us our Lenten penance should be about scrupulous authenticity: honesty about who we are, integrity about our relationship with Christ, even if it brings us disadvantage, humiliation, pain, suffering, even death.
Father Blake links this call for Lenten authenticity to the witness of a group of twenty-one Coptic Christians who were recently beheaded on a beach on Libya by militant Islamists affiliated with ISIS. Last summer I noted that iconoclasm kills, and the victims of the current wave of iconoclasm represented by ISIS have included the vulnerable Christian communities of Iraq and Syria and, it now appears, Egyptian Christians as well. Though I have been following this tragedy for a long time, I have been particularly moved in recent days by the testimony of Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda, who laments that, after centuries of faithful perseverance in the face of persecution, "We are now facing the extinction of Christianity as a religion and as a culture from Mesopotamia." If more is not done to confront ISIS and others who wish to eradicate ancient Christian communities, I fear that Archbishop Warda's warning will quickly become applicable not only to Iraqi Christians but to Christians throughout the Middle East.

Considering the fate of the Copts beheaded in Libya, I have also been struck by some comments which Pope Francis made regarding their deaths. During a meeting with the leaders of the Church of Scotland, the Pope declared that the blood of the murdered Copts offers "a testimony which cries out to be heard," adding that "[t]heir blood confesses Christ. As we recall these brothers and sisters who died only because they confessed Christ, I ask that we encourage each another to go forward with this ecumenism which is giving us strength, the ecumenism of blood." Seen in the light of history, the notion of an "ecumenism of blood" is very provocative; one wonders whether the Scottish Presbyterians to whom the Pope addressed his remarks this week would readily acknowledge the Christian witness of someone like the Scottish Catholic martyr John Ogilvie - or, for that matter, what they would say about the suffering which Mary, Queen of Scots endured for refusing to renounce her Catholic faith.

Explicit talk about an ecumenism of blood may be relatively new, but it is not without precedent. Germany offers the example of the Lübeck Martyrs, a group of three Catholic priests and one Lutheran pastor who were executed together in November 1943 for their principled Christian opposition to National Socialism. In this context, I also can't help but think of the example of practical ecumenism offered by the White Rose movement, whose Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant members based their opposition to Nazism on a shared reading of Augustine, Aquinas, and John Henry Newman, and who died together for their common convictions. Reaching a bit further back, one might find another example of ecumenical martyrdom in the hundreds of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians who were killed in China during the Boxer Rebellion and in other outbreaks of anti-Christian violence during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

For another take on what the ecumenism of blood might mean today, let us consider the following take offered by The Economist, which acknowledges the doctrinal differences that make talk of 'ecumenical martyrdom' theologically problematic while also pointing out that the world's divided Christians are increasingly drawn together by hostile circumstances:
People who cannot come together for a ritual of sacrifice in a church are being cast by circumstances into a single, dire community of fate. In one sense, that very fact renders their differences irrelevant. It also challenges people living in safer circumstances to work harder on tearing barriers down.
Though I do not agree that the fact of persecution makes doctrinal differences "irrelevant," I do believe that the sense in which all Christians are targeted by groups like ISIS should force us to think more urgently about the meaning of Christian solidarity. For ISIS, it matters not that their Christian victims are Catholic or Orthodox or Protestant - what matters is that they profess a faith in Christ which they will maintain even at the loss of their lives. Perhaps particularly during the Lenten season, those of us who are privileged to find ourselves "in safer circumstances" would do well to think about how we can more effectively express our solidarity with those for whom a public profession of faith is truly a matter of life or death.

Reaching back to the words from Father Ray Blake cited at the start of this post, I would suggest that we make this Lent a time to redouble our efforts to live authentically as Christians. Our Lenten task must always include the challenging work of self-examination, as we seek to root out that within ourselves which prevents us from following Christ more closely. This year, perhaps we can give special attention to the question of how - or even whether - we live out our faith in public. We might also consider how we can express our solidarity with those who suffer for their faith in other parts of the world, perhaps particularly by supporting the Catholic Near East Welfare Association and other groups working to aid Christians in the Middle East. As we seek during these forty days to confront once again the truth about ourselves, may we also seek to live more fully the truths of our faith. AMDG.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Notes on the Memorial of St. Thomas Aquinas.


It has been the general custom of this blog to observe today's Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas with a post on the Angelic Doctor. This year's feast day post has a Toronto connection, insofar as it involves a lecture by Father Leonard Boyle, O.P., a longtime member of the faculty at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies who went on to serve as prefect of the Vatican Library. A few months before his death in 1999, Father Boyle gave a talk entitled "St. Thomas Aquinas and the Third Millennium" in which he offered various thoughts on the scholarly charism of the Dominicans and St. Thomas' role in its development. Father Boyle begins with some wonderful commentary on a fragment of Thomas' early work as an ordinary student, which Boyle reproduced as a handout for talk's original audience:
Because of his towering reputation, it is easy to forget that Thomas was once an ordinary student, and that he was not at all perfect from the outset of his Dominican life. Recently I came across and published a fragment of a commentary on the Pseudo-Dionysian De caelesti hierarchia by Albert the Great, Thomas' teacher, that Thomas had copied while a student at Paris, under Albert in 1245 to 1248, when he was in his 20's. This fragment, of which you each now have a copy as a souvenir, is in a reliquary in Salerno Cathedral and it was taken centuries ago from an autograph manuscript of Thomas now in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Naples, a manuscript which once had belonged to the Dominicans of San Domenico, Naples, Thomas’ last abode.

Now it is reasonably certain that the commentary of Albert on the De caelesti hierarchia is from the years that he and the young Thomas of Aquino were together in the Dominican studium at Paris at Saint Jacques, 1245 to 1248. For the many scholars who have worked on this period of the careers of Albert and Thomas, this Naples autograph is the textual source, directly or indirectly the archetype, if you wish, of all the known copies of this commentary of Albert, and the editors of the recent Cologne edition — four or five years ago — of that commentary of Albert have taken this for granted.

Now I have never seen — examined — the whole autograph at Naples, but only this fragment of some 38 lines. What you've got in front of you is 19 lines on one side, 19 on the other I didn’t give you. Now from an examination of these 38 lines, against the surviving manuscripts of Albert’s commentary on the De caelesti hierarchia, all of which are supposed to depend upon that Naples manuscript, there can be no doubt whatsoever that the Naples autograph is a very wayward copy of Albert's commentary. It's just not correct. Even in the short 38 lines here in the Salerno fragment, it's quite clear that this is a very personal copy which Thomas made for himself, and that that less than brilliantly. There are notable lapses and at least one instance where he skipped a line, through homoioteleuton, which, as you all know, means "lines with similar endings," so you skip, as you do in typing. On one occasion he added a phrase or two for his own benefit, to make more explicit what Albert had said. So in no way can the Naples manuscript be the exemplar, the archetype on which all these other manuscripts depend, as all scholars and the recent edition have maintained to that.

This is the young Thomas, industrious, but far from infallible. And it is one of the few occasions when we see Thomas as an ordinary Dominican, struggling along like the rest of us, and not always getting things right. He misspells horribly. Later on we shall see if he improved with age.
To read the rest - and I hope you will - click here. On this Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, I hope that you will also join me in seeking the Angelic Doctor's intercession, that his prayerful aid may benefit all students and teachers of philosophy and theology. AMDG.

Friday, January 16, 2015

On the Waterfront.



This blog has been fairly silent so far this year, and I can't promise that posting will become much more frequent in the coming weeks. That said, I would like to call your attention to a new venture by a fellow Jesuit scholastic here in Toronto, John O'Brien, who is currently curating a winter film series at Regis College. John will be posting spiritual reflections and questions on each of the films in the series on his blog, Veritas Liberabit, so readers who cannot attend the screenings in Toronto can still participate in the series vicariously by watching the films on their own and considering John's interpretations of them.

The first film in the series at Regis is Elia Kazan's 1954 classic On the Waterfront, which was shown this past Wednesday. I encourage you to read what John O'Brien has to say about the film, but I would also like to add one additional note: Father Peter Barry, the waterfront priest portrayed in the film by Karl Malden, was based upon a New York Jesuit, Father John M. "Pete" Corridan. Father Corridan's life and the larger story behind the film were both chronicled by a former professor of mine, Dr. James T. Fisher, in a book entitled On the Irish Waterfront: The Crusader, the Movie, and the Soul of the Port of New York. I have some personal history with this book, which I read in draft form during a course I took with Jim Fisher at Fordham; I can also remember watching On the Waterfront in class with the benefit of Jim's expert commentary, and a couple of fieldtrips we took to the New York waterfront helped to bring the story to life. To learn a bit more, read this 2009 interview in which Jim Fisher discusses Pete Corridan and On the Waterfront. For more on the Regis Film Series, keep an eye on John O'Brien's blog Veritas Liberabit. AMDG.

Monday, December 29, 2014

An update on St. Elias.



Today's print edition of the Toronto Star has an update on the reconstruction of St. Elias Church, which, as longtime readers of this blog may recall, was destroyed by a fire in April. I have a link to the story insofar as I have been a regular at St. Elias since I moved to Toronto, and I served my first liturgy as a deacon with the St. Elias community in their temporary digs at St. Augustine Secondary School in Brampton. Here is more, courtesy of the Star:
St. Elias the Prophet Church in Brampton has received $500,000 in donations, half of which came from an anonymous donor at a recent benefit concert and dinner.

"The local community has really supported us," said parishioner Lu Bobyk after the Sunday service, which has been held in the atrium of St. Augustine Secondary School since the fire.

...

Bobyk said the St. Elias' insurance will cover $3.8 million for construction of the new building plus $1 million for interior furnishings. The church has not yet officially started fundraising, he said, but more money will be needed for furnishings.

"We'll need significant funds to refurbish the inside with iconography."

...

Father Roman Galadza said the architects of the new church, which will have a wooden structure very similar to the old one, are in the final phase of their drawings. They recently met with city staff to discuss the next steps toward reconstruction.

"The city knows our parish and our community," he said. "It regrets the loss along with us and wants to see the building back."

The plan is to break ground in May and complete construction by summer 2016.

In the meantime, both Bobyk and Galadza said the congregation's 175 or so families have remained tight-knit while attending at St. Augustine.
If you would like to learn more about how you can help St. Elias rebuild, take a look at the parish website for more information. Of course, even if you cannot assist the parish financially, prayers are both needed and appreciated. AMDG.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

A new and wondrous mystery.


Having returned from Midnight Mass and before going to bed, I would like to repeat the annual tradition of this blog by extending to all readers my prayerful best wishes for Christmas and by sharing a portion of a Nativity sermon preached by St. John Chrysostom:

I behold a new and wondrous mystery.

My ears resound to the Shepherd's song, piping no soft melody but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn.

The Angels sing. The Archangels blend their voice in harmony. The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise. The Seraphim exalt His glory.

All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He Who is above, now, for our redemption, dwells here below; and he that was lowly is raised up by divine mercy.

Bethlehem this day resembles heaven: she hears from the stars the singing of angelic voices; in place of the sun, she enfolds within herself on every side the Sun of Justice.

Ask not how - where God wills, the order of nature yields. He willed, He had the power, He descended, He redeemed, and all things move in obedience to God.

This day He Who Is is born, and He Who Is becomes what He was not.

Christ is born! Glorify him! AMDG.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The power that will overcome the law of sin.


This is the last in a series of posts reflecting on the Sundays of Advent with the help of Father Alfred Delp's Prison Meditations. For the Fourth (and final) Sunday of Advent, Father Delp considers the themes of "binding and loosing" that are constitutive both of our Advent journey and of the Christian life generally. As Father Delp explains, our liberation from sin comes in our surrender to God:
. . . The power that will overcome the law of sin is not to be found within the heart of the sinner who seeks it. And he must first fulfil the necessary condition of a change of heart before he can even receive that redemptive power which lies beyond his reach. He must first call upon it and then make himself ready so that he may go to meet it. Advent does not offer freedom to the man who is convinced he is already converted. Stir up thy power: by the help of thy grace. It is a case of God against sin. Sin is very like a handcuff - only the person with the key can unlock it. It doesn't matter how fervently I desire it, I cannot rid myself of my handcuffs because I have no key. And sin is like the door of my cell - even if I had a key I could not unlock the door because it has no keyhole on this side. It can only be opened from outside. And opposed to sin is God, as accuser and judge of man obstinate in error, as liberator and saviour if he will turn to his Redeemer and ally himself with his Creator against sin. . . .
How do we ally ourselves with God? First and foremost, we do so by prayer. Though we must remain hopeful that God will answer our prayers, we cannot know the exact form that God's response will take:
The outcome of so many things, the occurrence of so many miracles depends on the wholeheartedness of our plea to God. He will not always provide sensational miracles - though they will occur now and again, witnessing to his divine power. But with truly regal bounty he will reveal himself in a thousand little everyday adjustments proving by innumerable apparently casual events that his will prevails in the end. The man of real faith has no doubt about the outcome - he leaves the means to God. And when God repays, and more than repays, man's trust we can only stand speechless in amazement and awe.
As we complete this time of preparation for the Feast of the Nativity, each of us could do well to reflect upon the ways in which our trust in God has been amply rewarded. The work of opening our hearts and our lives to receive Christ into our midst includes the task of recognizing how the One we await has already manifested himself in our lived experience. Just as God's answer to our prayers can take the form of "a thousand little everyday adjustments," the Lord can make himself present to us in subtle and often surprising ways. As we recall with gratitude the ways that God has been at work in our lives, let us prepare to joyfully celebrate the birth of our Redeemer. AMDG.

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N.B.: This is a lightly edited repost of an Advent meditation originally shared on this blog in 2009.