Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Bay State man speaks out on Newman miracle.

British media reports suggest that the date of the long-anticipated beatification of John Henry Newman will likely be announced in the next two months. This move follows the certification by medical and theological experts that a Massachusetts man's 2001 healing from a spinal condition cannot be explained by any means other than through prayers offered through the intercession of Cardinal Newman. The man at the center of the Newman 'miracle probe' was identified in 2005 as Marshfield resident John A. Sullivan, an attorney, husband and father of three who was preparing for ordination as a permanent deacon when he began to suffer from debilitating pain in his spine. In an article in today's Boston Globe, Deacon Sullivan shares the story of his recovery:
Sullivan's suffering erupted on June 6, 2000, he said, when he woke up with excruciating pain in his back and legs. At Jordan Hospital in Plymouth, a CAT scan showed several vertebrae squeezing his spinal cord. A doctor told him to find a surgeon fast, because his spinal stenosis could lead to paralysis. In the meantime, Sullivan said, he was forced to walk hunched over, his right hand gripping his right knee for support.

He learned that the long recovery from surgery would keep him off his feet for months and dreaded the timing: Halfway through a four-year program that would lead to his ordination as a deacon in the Catholic Church and passionately devoted to his goal, he was in the midst of classes and a 120-hour internship at a Boston hospital.

One night, watching television to escape his troubles, Sullivan happened on a show about Cardinal John Henry Newman. Born in London in 1801 and widely admired as a funny, brilliant thinker and writer on religion, Newman converted to Catholicism in his 40s after clashing with leaders of the Church of England over what he saw as a shift away from the church's roots.

The television show described the current movement, based in England, supporting the cardinal's beatification and appealed to viewers for news of miraculous happenings that might help make the case. Sullivan wrote down the address. And that night he asked Newman for help.

"I said, 'Please, Cardinal Newman, help me so I can go back to classes and be ordained,' " Sullivan said. "The next morning I woke up, and there was no pain."

. . .

Sullivan remained free of pain for eight months, but after his last class, the pain returned, he said. He had surgery at New England Baptist Hospital in Boston on Aug. 9, 2001. Five days later, his second prayer to Cardinal Newman was answered. He was ordained in September 2002, and now serves as deacon at St. Thecla Parish in Pembroke, where his duties include assisting at Mass, performing baptisms, and teaching classes for local prisoners.

After Sullivan shared his story with leaders of the campaign for Newman's sainthood, years of investigation followed, culminating in hearings in Boston where Sullivan and his wife both testified about his recovery.
For more of the story, click here. As one who hopes that Cardinal Newman will eventually be declared a saint, I'm pleased that his beatification is apparently now certain. I'm also inspired by the story of Deacon Sullivan's recovery, which provides eloquent testimony to the power of prayer. May his example be an inspiration to others who seek Cardinal Newman's intercession. AMDG.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

"Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."

I haven't had much time for this blog lately, as I've been very busy with term papers and exams as well as preparations for the De U (the oral comprehensive exam in philosophy taken by Jesuit scholastics). I will continue to be busy for the next couple of weeks, but I hope to post something now and then. Today, I wanted to share a gem of a footnote from the English translation of Dom Lucien Regnault's The Day-to-Day Life of the Desert Fathers in Fourth-Century Egypt, a book that I consulted for one of my term papers. A monk of the Benedictine Abbey of Solesmes, Regnault wrote extensively on the history of Christian monasticism. In this footnote (found on p. 24 of the book, if you really must know), he criticizes the work of another scholar, Jacques Lacarrière, only to incur the criticism of his own editor:
The same author [Jacques Lacarrière] unfortunately invented a Mary of Egypt (Marie d'Égypte, Paris, 1983) whom he claims lived and died in the desert in a manner which honors neither women nor the Fathers of the Desert. [Ed. note: Contrary to the author's statement here, Lacarrière did not "invent" Mary of Egypt. Her story has been told in monastic circles in the East since the sixth century. See Benedicta Ward, Harlots of the Desert, p. 26.]
Like Regnault's editor, I'm a bit baffled that such a learned scholar would suggest that Mary of Egypt was invented in the 20th century. (Then again, I'm biased.) More than that, though, I'm amused that the editor chose to add a bracketed correction to this misstatement when he just as easily could have deleted it from the book. It's not unusual to encounter academic sparring in footnotes, but I've never come across anything quite like this. AMDG.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Pascha in Palestine.

As I noted a couple of days ago, Orthodox Christians from around the world gathered at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Saturday to take part in the ceremony of the Holy Fire anticipating the Feast of the Resurrection. Though press reports indicate that many Greek, Russian and Ukrainian pilgrims took part in the ceremony this year, travel restrictions prevented all but a relative handful of Palestinian Christians from traveling the short distance from their home cities and villages to Jerusalem. Ironically, members of a community that maintained a continuous presence in the Holy Land for nearly two millennia are unable to join their fellow Christians from around the world in gathering at the empty tomb to proclaim their faith in the Risen Christ.

Yesterday, I read a reflection on the miracle of the Holy Fire by Dr. Maria Kouremenou Khoury, a Greek Orthodox laywoman and religious educator who is married to a Palestinian Christian and lives in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Though most Christians living in Ramallah and surrounding towns are unable to attend the ceremony of the Holy Fire in Jerusalem, the Holy Fire is brought to them after the ceremony by others who are able to travel through Israeli checkpoints. The arrival of the Holy Fire in Ramallah is celebrated with great joy, showing the resilient faith of an ancient Christian community even in times of considerable hardship and uncertainty. Here is some of what Dr. Khoury has to say about Saturday's celebration:
It was an amazing and extraordinary day in Ramallah and then in Taybeh receiving the Holy Fire following the miracle at Christ’s Holy Life-Giving Tomb in Jerusalem on this Great and Holy Saturday afternoon. I decided not to argue with the soldiers and the policemen in Jerusalem like last year where my husband David and I could not get anywhere near the Holy Sepulchre.

Also, I decided to take the advice of the Greek monk during my first time to witness the Miracle of the Holy Fire (2002) when he kicked me out of the front row near the Life-Giving-Tomb and said in Greek: “My child, it is not only with the eyes that we see.” I think he desperately needed the space for the Greek Consul and Greek dignitaries that attend this special miracle but his wise words never left my thoughts.

I had a wonderful day waiting for the Holy Fire to go through the checkpoints and arrive in Ramallah for all those who do not have permits to enter Jerusalem. Since on top of the security permits, we also need additional passes to go by further checkpoints to get to the Holy Sepulchre. To access holy places and pray on holy days should be a basic human right not needing any permits or passes but we live a bizarre life under Israeli occupation. Don’t ever take your religious freedom for granted; we suffer to achieve it.
To read the rest of the reflection, click here. I also encourage you to read another reflection in which Dr. Khoury discusses her experiences attending the ceremony of the Holy Fire in 2002. More importantly, I hope that you'll join me in continuing to pray for the Christians of the Holy Land. May the joy that they celebrate on the Feast of the Resurrection remain with them and give them the strength to endure in these times of trial. AMDG.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Holy Fire.

In preparation for tomorrow's celebration of Pascha according to the Julian Calendar, tens of thousands of Orthodox Christians descended on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre today for the ceremony of the Holy Fire. Attested in written accounts going back as early as the 4th century, the sharing of light that begins at the Tomb of Christ offers a powerful statement of Christian faith in the Resurrection.

An AP report on today's ceremony suggests that Greek, Russian and Ukrainian pilgrims dominated this year's celebration. This doesn't surprise me, as I noticed similar demographics last year when I celebrated Pentecost in Jerusalem. In a larger way, the increased visibility of Russian pilgrims struck me as notable when I made my second visit to the Holy Land; not only did I see a lot more Russians on this trip than I had when I visited Jerusalem eight years earlier, but I also noticed an increased number of Russian signs in the Christian Quarter of the Old City. I also met some Palestinian merchants who had evidently taken the time to learn a bit of Russian so as to better serve the pilgrims who come into their shops to buy candles, crosses, icons and incense. All of this suggests to me that Russian pilgrims (who flocked to Jerusalem in droves in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, before the First World War and the Russian Revolution made pilgrim travel virtually impossible) are once again an important constituency in the Holy Land.

My prayers are with those who are celebrating the Feast of the Resurrection this weekend. I also hope and pray that someday I will be able to attend the ceremony of the Holy Fire myself, joining the faithful who celebrate Christ's presence among us by sharing his holy light at his tomb. AMDG.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Christos Voskrese!

As in years past, I would like to mark this Feast of the Resurrection by sharing with the readers of this blog the great Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom:

Is there anyone who is a devout lover of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!
Is there anyone who is a grateful servant?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Are there any weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!
If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward;
If any have come after the third hour,
let him with gratitude join in the Feast!
And he that arrived after the sixth hour,
let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss.
And if any delayed until the ninth hour,
let him not hesitate; but let him come too.
And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let him not be afraid by reason of his delay.

For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour,
as well as to him that toiled from the first.
To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows.
He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor.
The deed He honors and the intention He commends.

Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!
First and last alike receive your reward;
rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!

You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!
Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry.
Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!
Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed death by enduring it.

He destroyed Hades when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.
Isaiah foretold this when he said,
"You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below."

Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.
Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O death, where is thy sting?
O Hades, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!
Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

Christ is Risen! AMDG.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Notes on Good Friday.

Last year, I offered a fairly lengthy post on Good Friday. I don't feel as though I have much to add this year, but I would like to share part of a Good Friday reflection that has been a help to me in my own prayer. These words, as some may not be surprised to learn, are from Father Alexander Schmemann:
From the light of Holy Thursday we enter into the darkness of Friday, the day of Christ's Passion, Death and Burial. In the early Church this day was called "Pascha of the Cross," for it is indeed the beginning of that Passover or Passage whose whole meaning will be gradually revealed to us, first, in the wonderful quiet of the Great and Blessed Sabbath, and, then, in the joy of the Resurrection day.

But, first, the Darkness. If only we could realize that on Good Friday darkness is not merely symbolical and commemorative. So often we watch the beautiful and solemn sadness of these services in the spirit of self-righteousness and self-justification. Two thousand years ago bad men killed Christ, but today we – the good Christian people – erect sumptuous Tombs in our Churches – is this not the sign of our goodness? Yet, Good Friday deals not with past alone. It is the day of Sin, the day of Evil, the day on which the Church invites us to realize their awful reality and power in "this world." For Sin and Evil have not disappeared, but, on the contrary, still constitute the basic law of the world and of our life. And we who call ourselves Christians, do we not so often make ours that logic of evil which led the Jewish Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate, the Roman soldiers and the whole crowd to hate, torture and kill Christ? On what side, with whom would we have been, had we lived in Jerusalem under Pilate? This is the question addressed to us in every word of Holy Friday services. It is, indeed, the day of this world, its real and not symbolical, condemnation and the real and not ritual, judgment on our life. . . . It is the revelation of the true nature of the world which preferred then, and still prefers, darkness to light, evil to good, death to life. Having condemned Christ to death, "this world" has condemned itself to death and inasmuch as we accept its spirit, its sin, its betrayal of God – we are also condemned. . . Such is the first and dreadfully realistic meaning of Good Friday – a condemnation to death. . . .

But this day of Evil, of its ultimate manifestation and triumph, is also the day of Redemption. The death of Christ is revealed to us as the saving death for us and for our salvation.

It is a saving Death because it is the full, perfect and supreme Sacrifice. Christ gives His Death to His Father and He gives His Death to us. To His Father because, as we shall see, there is no other way to destroy death, to save men from it and it is the will of the Father that men be saved from death. To us because in very truth Christ dies instead of us. Death is the natural fruit of sin, an immanent punishment. Man chose to be alienated from God, but having no life in himself and by himself, he dies. Yet there is no sin and, therefore, no death in Christ. He accepts to die only by love for us. He wants to assume and to share our human condition to the end. He accepts the punishment of our nature, as He assumed the whole burden of human predicament. He dies because He has truly identified Himself with us, has indeed taken upon Himself the tragedy of man's life. His death is the ultimate revelation of His compassion and love. And because His dying is love, compassion and co-suffering, in His death the very nature of death is changed. From punishment it becomes the radiant act of love and forgiveness, the end of alienation and solitude. Condemnation is transformed into forgiveness. . . .

And, finally, His death is a saving death because it destroys the very source of death: evil. By accepting it in love, by giving Himself to His murderers and permitting their apparent victory, Christ reveals that, in reality, this victory is the total and decisive defeat of Evil. To be victorious Evil must annihilate the Good, must prove itself to be the ultimate truth about life, discredit the Good and, in one word, show its own superiority. But throughout the whole Passion it is Christ and He alone who triumphs. The Evil can do nothing against Him, for it cannot make Christ accept Evil as truth. Hypocrisy is revealed as Hypocrisy, Murder as Murder, Fear as Fear, and as Christ silently moves towards the Cross and the End, as the human tragedy reaches its climax, His triumph, His victory over the Evil, His glorification become more and more obvious. And at each step this victory is acknowledged, confessed, proclaimed – by the wife of Pilate, by Joseph, by the crucified thief, by the centurion. And as He dies on the Cross having accepted the ultimate horror of death: absolute solitude (My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me!?), nothing remains but to confess that "truly this was the Son of God!" And, thus, it is this Death, this Love, this obedience, this fulness of Life that destroy what made Death the universal destiny. "And the graves were opened . . ." (Matthew 27:52) Already the rays of resurrection appear.
As we recall the death and burial of Christ, let us be mindful that in dying for us Christ also opened to us the way to life. AMDG.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Notes on Palm Sunday.

On Palm Sunday, the first day of Holy Week, we are confronted with the duty of memory that lies at the heart of Christian faith and practice. Celebrating Christ's triumphant entry into Jerusalem, we also recall his passion and death. Despite the somber tone of the liturgies of Holy Week, we also cannot help but remember that we will soon celebrate Christ's resurrection. In Great Lent: Journey to Pascha, Father Alexander Schmemann has this to say about the place of memory in the Christian life:

One can say without exagerration that the whole life of the Church is one continuous commemoration and remembrance. At the end of each liturgy we refer to the saints "whose memory we celebrate," but behind all memories, the Church is the remembrance of Christ. From a purely natural point of view, memory is an ambiguous faculty. Thus to remember someone whom we love and whom we lost means two things. One the one hand memory is much more than mere knowledge of the past. When I remember my late father, I see him; he is present in my memory not as a sum total of all that I know about him but in all his living reality. Yet, on the other hand, it is this very presence that makes me feel actutely that he is no longer here, that never again in this world and in this life shall I touch this hand which I so vividly see in my memory. Memory is thus the most wonderful and at the same time the most tragic of all human faculties, for nothing reveals better the broken nature of our life, the impossibility for man truly to keep, to possess anything in this world. Memory reveals to us that "time and death reign on earth." But it is precisely because of this uniquely human function of memory that Christianity is also centered on it, for it consists primarily in remembering one Man, one Event, one Night, in the depth and darkness of which we were told: ". . . do this in remembrance of me." And lo, the miracle takes place! We remember Him and He is here - not as a nostalgic image of the past, not as a sad "never more," but with such intensity of presence that the Church can eternally repeat what the disciples said after Emmaus: ". . . did not our hearts burn within us?" (Luke 24:32).

My prayers are with all readers who will be celebrating Holy Week in the coming days. May we who gather in remembrance of Jesus Christ feel his presence among us in a deeper and more intense way as we celebrate his passion, death and resurrection. AMDG.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Globe: Independent booksellers riding out recession.

Yesterday's edition of the Boston Globe has some good news for independent booksellers and their customers:

Signs on the doors of two Coolidge Corner bookstores told a tale challenging the conventional wisdom. The one at Barnes & Noble said "Closed." The one on the independent Brookline Booksmith welcomed the chain's customers and solicited their suggestions. Now, three months after Barnes & Noble departed, Booksmith savors modest growth in the midst of a recession that's battering most retailers.

"I do think there's a swing back to valuing local and independent," said Booksmith manager Dana Brigham. "Small and local can be good places to do business and very healthy for your community."

Booksmith is not the only independent bookstore proving surprisingly sturdy in a stormy economy. Other small booksellers are withstanding the downturn with the same combination of community involvement, personalized service, events, e-commerce, and such extras as cafés or gifts or used books, that enabled them to survive the onset of megachains and

"There's a standard line that the independents are collapsing and they're all going to disappear soon. I think that's a little dated," said John Mutter, editor of the online newsletter Shelf Awareness, which tracks the book industry. "Most of the independents that are left are much stronger than the group as a whole before."

To read the rest of the story, click here. As one who enjoys visiting independent bookstores, I was pleased to find evidence (anecdotal though it may be) to suggest that many are managing to stay open in difficult times. What the Globe says about such perks as "community involvement, personalized service, events" and so on resonates with my own experience of independent booksellers. Whenever I return home to Southeastern Massachusetts, I try to make time to visit Baker Books, a locally-owned bookstore that has been in business for twenty years. One way that Baker Books maintains its loyal customer base is by showcasing the work of local authors (many of whom come in regularly for readings and book signings) and by stocking many books on the culture and history of greater New Bedford. Baker Books also offers free membership in a "Baker's Dozen" book club that allows customers to build up credit toward a substantially discounted (or even free) book for every twelve that they purchase. For reasons like these, I return to Baker Books as often as I can.

New York has many more independent bookstores than I can keep track of, but in my years here I've become loyal to McNally Jackson Books (formerly McNally Robinson), which offers a broad and appealingly eclectic inventory as well as an array of author events (I once had an encounter with Garrison Keillor there) in a relatively relaxed setting. If there is a place like Baker Books or McNally Jackson in your area - or if you happen to be reading this in SouthCoast Massachusetts or in New York - I suggest that you check them out. Even if what the Globe says about independent booksellers in the current economy is accurate, it still wouldn't hurt to give these valuable community institutions a little extra support. AMDG.