Johan's Blog

Fast to Focus

It was noon and I heard the abbey bells announce that it was time for the Angelus prayer. The word Angelus, Latin for Angel is the first word of a simple prayer said three times each day: sunrise, midday and sunset. This prayer which dates back to the Middle Ages is intended to help people mark the beginning, the middle and the end of the day with prayer, helping them to focus on God from whom all good things come.

As was our custom in the abbey, when the bells announced the angelus everyone stopped to say this prayer quietly. That day, the cloister was dotted with praying monks. The sun illuminated the frescos on the cloister walls. It was beautifully quiet.  After finishing our prayer I watched the monks enter the refectory while I remained behind. Father Remacle, a senior monk walked by me and quizzically turned around as he noted I did not move.

Little did he know I stayed motionless because I had decided to crank up the severity of my Lenten fasting. Being young and enthusiastic I resolved to limit myself to one meal each day for the entire season, with the exception of Sundays. And, having just learned about saints who spent their lives standing in the same position or sitting on a pillar I elected to stay in my “angelus spot” until the monks returned from breakfast or lunch. I joined them for dinner.

On his way back from lunch, Father Remacle found me still standing in the same spot. He stopped and asked what I was doing. I very enthusiastically told him what I was doing. He looked at me and asked me how it made me feel. “Hungry” I told him, as hunger and thoughts of food had filled my day. “And silly” I added, as standing there for 30 minutes seemed a bit over the top. “Is that what Lent is about” he asked? “Might it be better to sit with us at table and eat maybe a bit less, rather than stand here dedicating all your thoughts to food and displaying your Lenten vigor for everyone to see? Fasting is an interior discipline not an exterior display.”

The next day I sat with the monks and ate a bit less than normal. My thoughts shifted from hunger to the meaning of Lent. I have always been grateful for Fr. Remacle’s brotherly correction. Fasting, I have discovered, is a great spiritual exercise when it is done for the right reasons. He further helped me understand that we fast so we may re- focus. We fast to focus on Christ.

Our world is filled with distractions, more so than ever before. We carry our primary cause of distraction in our hand, our pocket or purse: the ubiquitous electronic device. Only sleep keeps us away from it and many of us even cut back on our sleep because of it. It distracts us from focusing on what we ought to do or on who we ought to be. Most importantly it prevents us from focusing on the one we should be focusing on the most, especially during Lent: Christ.

Reflecting back on my time in the abbey, I now realize that I was offered so many opportunities to focus myself, even outside of Lent. Listening to our Basilica bells ring the Angelus, I now realize that those three prayer  times offered to me every day were and continue to be a great invitation to focus on Christ and my response to his calling. So, when you hear our tower bells announce the Angelus at 9:00am, noon and 6:00pm I invite you to stop for just a moment and focus on Christ and what He is calling you to do. And since we are called to focus on Christ during Lent, why not start now.

One day a friend of mine left his home early in the morning to attend the funeral of a neighbor. The deceased was a husband, a brother and a father. Driving home after the funeral my friend wondered what it might feel like to lose one’s father. That very afternoon he was forced to face that very reality as his own father, very unexpectedly died from a massive stroke.

When the news of his father’s passing spread, family and friends started to gather in his house. Sitting around the kitchen table they shared stories. They laughed and cried together. Suddenly my friend got up and left. To no-one’s surprise he ended up at the local supermarket. He gathered an assortment of foods to prepare dinner for those gathered in his home. When he approached the checkout counter he heard a familiar line, “paper or plastic?” He looked up and his eyes paused on the name badge of the checkout clerk. The name badge read: Hope. And hope he did.

We, Christians are a people of hope. No matter how dark our days or dire our dilemmas, we hold on to hope. Hope allows us and even almost forces us to go on when we think it impossible. Hope promises us light at the end of any tunnel of darkness. Hope not only provides us with the willingness to live but offers us life itself.

We, Christians are a people of hope because we believe in Jesus Christ who went through the darkest darkness of death in order to show us the brightest light of life. His resurrection is our invitation to hope.  

Sometimes we are tempted to give up on this hope. Every morning as I read the newspapers and every evening as I watch the news I am struck by the pain and suffering that we inflict on ourselves and on others, both here and abroad. Where are we going? When will all this end. What can we do?

The season of Lent is an antidote to a dangerous spiral of despair and depression which often leads to a kind of paralysis of indifference. The season of Lent invites us to approach the pain and problems of our world anew, with a deep sense of hope rooted in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. The season of Lent encourages us to face our fears and challenge all that defaces humanity.

Most importantly, the season of Lent has the power to fill us with the Spirit who makes us cry out: “We can do better than this! We can be better than this! We will do better than this! We are better than this!”

I often dream of a world where everybody’s name is Hope. May it be soon.

 

Many years ago I came upon a church dedicated to Saint Valentine. Apart from the usual Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary I was not used to seeing so many hearts displayed in a church. These ranged from the doily kind adorning the bulletin board to the hearts carved into the heart-shaped granite baptismal font. If I hadn’t known any better I might have thought a heart to be the attribute for Saint Valentine. And yet, contrary to common belief and despite the recent onslaught of red heart-shaped boxes filled with mediocre chocolates, it is not.

Why all the hearts? And what is it about this obscure saint that is supposed to send the hearts of the romantic sort all aflutter? The meaning of his name, derived from the Latin word valens meaning worthy, strong and powerful may do it for some but surely not for all.

A quick search for Valentine reveals that the Catholic Church venerates not one but twelve saints named Valentine, three of whom are said to have been martyred on February 14. Among those three, two were martyred in Rome and one was martyred in the Roman province of Africa. Of the two who were martyred in Rome one was a priest while the other was the bishop of Terni. Father Valentine is said to have been martyred in the second half of the third century. The official history of the diocese of Terni mentions that Bishop Valentine was martyred while visiting Rome on February 14, 273. Some have suggested that both men were actually one and the same person, a claim which can be made because we know close to nothing about saint or saints Valentine.

In 496 Pope Gelasius, who established the feast of St. Valentine on February 14 admitted as much saying that St. Valentine ought to be reverenced though for reasons known to God alone. Because St. Valentine is cloaked in near perfect obscurity he suffered the same fate as many other obscure saints as was removed from the official Roman Calendar of Saints after the Second Vatican Council. However, his name is still inscribed in the Roman Martyrology, the official list of Catholic Saints. This means that churches can still be dedicated to him; people can venerate him and his feast may be celebrated when no other higher ranking saint is to be celebrated on that day. In the United States we celebrate Saints Cyril and Methodius, 9th C. missionaries to the Slavs on February 14, not St. Valentine.

As far as the connection between Valentine and the hall-mark romance he has come to represent, there simply is none. As a matter of fact the attribution of love is to the date (February 14) rather than to the saint. Its origin pertains to birds rather than humans. During the Middle Ages it was believed that birds found their mate by February 14, i.e. Saint Valentine’s Day. Because of this belief St. Valentine’s Day was thought a perfect day for romance, also for humans. A well-known reference to this may be found in Chaucer’s funny poem "The Parliament of the Fowles." 

Once this connection was made, stories about Valentine’s commitment to love quickly were attributed to him. According to one of these stories he was put to death because he performed weddings for Roman soldiers while it was against the law for soldiers to be married. This infuriated the emperor and thus Valentine is said to have met his unfortunate fate.

The one question remaining pertains to the custom of sending written “valentines” to one’s “valentine.” This is rooted in the medieval courtly love custom of writing love notes and poems to mostly unattainable love interests. By the 18th C. this courtly love custom and the Valentine movement had intersected and given rise to our current valentine customs.

So, are we to celebrate St. Valentine or not? Celebrate of course, but it is always good to know what it is one celebrates. And if you plan to donate one of those heart-shaped boxes, please humor me and do yourself a favor by filling it with Belgian Chocolates.

I am sure you can’t wait to learn what I have to say about St. Patrick.

 

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After a recent presentation a young man walked up to me and simple said: “It does not matter whether a priest is conservative or liberal, during the consecration he is just a priest.” He quickly modified his statement and said “well, not ‘just’ a priest, of course, but you know what I mean.” Then he simply walked away. The statement surprised me since I neither had spoken about the Eucharist nor about priests, be they conservative or liberal or anywhere in between. And yet, I did know what he meant: what binds us together is stronger than that which sets us apart. When Christ comes in our midst there is neither male nor female; neither young nor old; neither gay nor straight; neither rich nor poor; neither over-educated nor under-educated. We are all children of God and part of the Body of Christ.

This strong belief we have as Catholics stands in stark contrast with our day to day experience. When I read certain catholic blogs and the reactions to the blogs I often have to stop reading because I am embarrassed by the anger we at times have toward one another. And I wonder what non-Catholics think when they read about us.

The same holds for all Christians. It is surprising, to say the least how we think about one another and what we say about one another. And I wonder what non-Christians think about us.

And by extension, the same holds for all descendant of Abraham, Jews, Christians and Muslims who all believe in the one true God; and yet we kill one another in the name of that same God. And I wonder what non-Abrahamic descendants think about us.

And in the broadest sense, the same holds for all humans who are all created in the image of God and yet are so divided. And I wonder what God might be thinking about us.  

Division is what seems to be the characteristic of our existence. We identify with those who are like us in their appearance, in their faith, in their political adherence, in their familial situation.  And we distance ourselves from those who look differently, believe differently, vote differently, live differently. And there are many, many more people in the “different” camp than there are in the “same” camp. Worse, it looks like the “same” camp gets smaller and smaller as we find more and more difference that distance us from one another.

If ever we hope to rid our world of hatred, violence and war we will need to free ourselves of the lethal philosophy of separation and embrace the life-giving theology of encounter. We will have to tear down walls that divide us and build bridges that connect us. We will have to overcome our fears and ignorance and invest in courage and knowledge. This does not mean we have to lose our own identity and become like one another.  Nor does it mean that we have to give up those beliefs we hold dear.   Rather it means we have to welcome and accept one another embracing our differences as additions to the great and interesting tapestry that makes up our human family.

May every celebration of the Eucharist be an invitation to commit ourselves to celebrate what unites us, rather than what divides us. After all, what binds us together as Catholics, as Christians, as sons and daughters of Abraham and as adopted daughters and sons of God is stronger than that which sets us apart. Granted, love does take effort, yet so does hatred.

As we prepare to celebrate the feast of Saint Blaise next week I am reminded of a chapter in my book “What’s the Smoke for. And other Burning Questions about the Liturgy.” In it I recount how I was approached by someone who described herself as a new Catholic. She mentioned she had noticed how the priest placed candles around people’s throat while whispering something she could not understand. She found it all too strange and decided not to participate.

This made me think of the many rituals we have which might seen strange to people who are unfamiliar with them, and even to some of us who have celebrate them, year after year.

Of course, the woman who approached me must have attended Mass on February 3rd, the feast of St. Blaise, a 4th C. bishop and martyr. On that day we have the traditional blessing of the throats. And just to be clear, the words the priest used while he placed the candles around people’s throat were: “Through the intercession of Saint Blaise, Bishop and martyr may God deliver you from every disease of the throat and any other illness. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

The little we know about St. Blaise comes from descriptions of the lives of saints which were written several centuries after his death. From these writings we learn that Blaise was a celebrated medical doctor when he was elected as bishop of Sebastea, Armenia, today’s Sivas, Turkey. He was brutally martyred around 316 during a wave of Christian persecution.

From the 6th C. on in the East and the 8th C. in the West the intercession of St. Blaise was invoked by people who were ill. By the 12th C. St. Blaise had become one of the most popular saints in Western Europe.

Two stories told about St. Blaise relate to the custom of blessing throats. According to the first story a distraught mother rushed her child to St. Blaise. The child was choking on a fishbone. After St. Blaise said a prayer the fishbone dislodged and the child was saved. Based on this miracle the intercession of St. Blaise is invoked when suffering from ailments of the throat as well as to prevent such ailments.

According to the second story a poor widow’s pig had been saved from a wolf by St. Blaise. Out of gratitude the widow brought 2 candles to prison so St. Blaise could have some light in his dark cell. Blaise is often depicted with two candles held together by a red ribbon. The red ribbon refers to the martyrdom suffered by St. Blaise. Based on this two candles tied together with a red ribbon are used during the blessing of the throats.

Even in our postmodern society, which is suspicious of any hint of superstition this blessing like many other similar rites remains popular among Catholics. They are the visible signs of a deep yet invisible reality. The blessing of the throats is a tangible reminder of God’s healing and saving presence among us. It is also an acknowledgement that we entrust ourselves to God’s providential care.

So, will you join us for Mass at 7:00am or noon on February 3 this year?

 

Bringing Christ to the World

Today we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord and thus the Christmas season comes to an end. This might come as Christmas outside the church has been forcibly erased from our memories with the red and green of Christmas gradually being replaced by the red-only of the next commercial holiday, St. Valentine’s Day. In the church, though, the evergreens still stand and the poinsettias, though visibly tired, persist.

The two main liturgical celebrations of the church: Christmas and Easter have a time of preparation, respectively Advent and Lent, and a time of celebration, respectively Christmastide and Eastertide. The Christmas season is punctuated by a number of liturgical celebrations, in chronological succession: the Feast of the Holy Family on the Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s unless January 1 falls on a Sunday when it is celebrated on December 30; the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God on January 1; the Solemnity of the Epiphany mostly observed on the Sunday between January 2 and 8; and the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord celebrated on the Sunday after Epiphany unless Epiphany falls on January 7 or 8 when the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord is celebrated the next day.

The more ancient of these celebrations, namely Epiphany and Baptism of the Lord, together with the Birth of the Lord, were originally celebrated as one big celebration of the Epiphany of God in Jesus Christ on January 6. This unified feast predates the separate celebration of Christmas on December 25. There is evidence of the celebration of the Epiphany by the end of the second century, while the earliest known reference to Christmas is no older than 354 AD.

The word Epiphany is the English transliteration of the Greek Epiphaneia, meaning appearance, revelation, and manifestation. The Feast of the Epiphany is thus the feast of the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God. It was also known as the Theophany or Theophaneia in Greek, meaning the revelation or appearance of God.

The original Feast of the Epiphany celebrated the four major epiphanic moments in the life of Jesus all bundled in one. The first epiphany being the revelation of Jesus as God to Israel symbolized by the announcement to the shepherds which we now celebrate on Christmas. The second is the revelation of Jesus as God to the gentiles symbolized by the Magi which is celebrated on Epiphany in the churches of the west. The third is the revelation of God as the Trinity which is now celebrated on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. The fourth major revelation is God’s desire to make all things new which happened at Cana when Jesus changed water into wine. Though not accorded its own feast, the reading recounting this event is now read on the Sunday after Baptism of the Lord every third year, thus in close proximity to the other three celebrations.

The main theological reason why these epiphanic moments are now spread out over several celebrations is due to the importance of each one of them in its own right. The goal of each celebration is twofold: first, we celebrate each epiphany so we come to know God better, and second, we celebrate each epiphany so we may in turn lead lives that reveal God to the world.

As we conclude the rich celebration of the Christmas season let us re-commit ourselves to reveal to the world in deed and in word what has been revealed to us. May each epiphany of God inspire us to become ourselves an epiphany of God to the world.

It is probably safe to say that most of us love the season of Advent and that Christmas is one of our favorite celebrations of the year. But what about Epiphany?

The word ‘epiphany’ is the English transliteration of the Greek epiphaneia, meaning appearance, revelation, manifestation. In our Christian context the word refers to the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God. This feast which has traditionally been celebrated on January 6 is now often celebrated on the first Sunday of January. Its origins can to traced back to the Church in the East and is older than the celebration of Christmas on December 25. 

While Christmas focuses on the Birth of Jesus, the feast of the Epiphany focuses on the Baptism of the Lord in the East and the visitation by the Magi in the West.  In both instances, Jesus is revealed to the world as the Son of God. Both of these revelations were rather grand experiences. At Jesus’ baptism, e.g. a voice from heaven proclaimed him to be the beloved Son of God. And the Magi successfully followed a star in search of the Son of God.

In addition to the Gospel stories, saints too seem prone to great and life altering revelations. Sometimes I wonder why such experiences have not befallen me. This has led me to think that saints have reached such a high state of holiness that God deems them worthy to receive such revelations. But maybe it is better to look at it a little differently. Maybe revelations are not a reward for saintly lives, rather saints reach such a high spiritual sensitivity that they have an extraordinary sense of God’s presence in the world so that small revelatory moments can become great experiences. By contrast, many of us are so dulled down by the hustle and bustle of our lives that we might not even recognize God, even if we were breaking bread together. 

That is why the celebration of the Epiphany is so important. It is an invitation to all of us to open our hearts and minds to God’s presence in the most ordinary as well as in the most extra-ordinary aspects of our lives: in the love between to people; in the beauty of a mountain range; in a playful herd of sheep and in a lonely row of cypress trees; in the people who risk their lives to save the life of others and in those whose lives are being save; in the people who work toward justice for all; and above all in the liturgy and the sacraments.

And if we are able to pause long enough, we might even recognize God’s presence in ourselves? After all, we are created in the image of God and by virtue of our baptism we are called to be a manifestation or an epiphany of God’s love in this world.

Thus the solemnity of the Epiphany not only celebrates that God was revealed in Christ some 2000 years ago; the Epiphany also invites us to open ourselves up to discover God’s presence among us today; and  the Epiphany remind us that each one of us is are called to be a revelation or epiphany of God in our world.

 

My penchant for collecting religious art is nothing new. It all started with the three porcelain Infants of Prague I received when I celebrated my first communion. I placed them on the dresser in my bedroom and thus my home altar and religious art collection was born. Though my tastes may have changed and the original Infants of Prague may have been lost in the attic I continue to collect.
Among the early statues was a porcelain blessed mother painted in pastel colors and equipped with a music mechanism which rendered “Immaculate Mary” beautifully. I have written about her before. Another favorite was a holy family that was part of the same porcelain collection though without the music box. It portrayed a very serene Holy Family. Mary was seated with a scroll in her hands teaching the young boy, Jesus. Joseph, depicted as a carpenter was standing behind both of them. 
I loved the warmth and dedication of Mary and the protective presence of Joseph. To this young beholder, the statue embodied the perfect family. I totally identified with the young Jesus and wanted my mom and dad to be like Mary and Joseph. Though I consider myself very lucky, having grown up in a loving family there were moments when we strayed from my ideal. At those times I would go to my room, overcome with feelings of guilt and disappointment and would gaze upon the Holy family asking that my family be just like them. 
Once I entered my teenage years I boxed up my religious art collection and put it in the attic. Posters and paraphernalia of Alice Cooper took its place, not so much because I liked Rock and Roll but rather because I felt the need to fit in with my classmates. When that did not work I gradually returned to my religious art collection. However, the porcelain ideals I had collected as a young boy remained in the attic, where they are still today. I had come to realize that the life of Jesus, Mary and Joseph could not have been purely pastel and porcelain. If they were truly human, there must have been moments of disagreement, anger, misunderstanding, etc. because that is what real people do. We laugh together and we cry together. We lift one another up and we put one another down. We take pride in one another’s accomplishments and at times we disappoint one another. Family life is not just pastel and porcelain, it is filled with ups and down, leaps forward and setbacks. Family life is real, not ideal. This holds for our nuclear families, our extended families, our neighborhoods, our Basilica community and the church at large.
The feast of the Holy Family celebrates the notion of family as it was realized in the lives of Jesus, Mary and Joseph and not the porcelain and pastel caricature we have made it out to be. The Holy Family reminds us that family life and all Christian relationships for that matter are pathways toward holiness. The feast celebrates that holiness is attained in our day-to-day relationship with others. The feast affirms that all of us are called to holiness, no matter how far we might think ourselves removed from holiness and no matter how little we resemble the porcelain and pastel image of the Holy Family.  
I have a new sculpture of the Holy Family in my collection. Rather than porcelain and pastel the new one is made our of partially glazed clay, and semi abstract. When I am disappointed in myself or others I spend some time with this new sculpture of the Holy Family and I console myself that it is holiness we are after, not perfection.

 

Yesterday, an electrician stopped by to do some repair work. He commented on the many nativity scenes that are exhibited in the house. Never had he seen anything like it. He asked how many I had and where they were from. We walked around the house to view all crèches. With the help of my catalogue I was able to talk about each one of them. When we were done I invited him to go to The Basilica to see the many crèches we have on exhibit in the John XXIII Gallery.

All these crèches together make for a great collection. Some of them are carved in wood or stone, others are made from scrap materials such as newspapers, bottles cap or soda cans. Some are made of fired clay, either colorfully painted or not at all. One of my favorites I found in a small town in Provence. The artist uses pebbles found in a local river. On them she paints the figures of the nativity.

What is remarkable about each one of these handmade crèches is how individual artists have represented the familiar story of the birth of Jesus in their own image. Jesus, Mary and Joseph and all the other figures in the scene often look like the artist who made them. As a result we have African, American, Asian, Australian and European versions of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. The animals surrounding them usually are the sheep we read about in Scripture. Sometimes the artist augmented or even replaced the sheep with more local animals such as llamas, warthogs or lions. In some of the crèches the artist has traded the traditional gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for gifts that are more typical to the culture of the artist such as monkeys and an armadillo which are given to Jesus by the Magi of the Amazon.

As he left my house the electrician asked me why I collect nativity scenes. I told him that beyond the fact that all these crèches are exceedingly beautiful and interestingly diverse they also pointedly testify to the reality of the Incarnation which we celebrate during Advent and Christmas. At the beginning of time we were created in the image of God.  In Jesus, God took on our image and became one of us so we could be shown how to become more like God. This is really the essence of what we celebrate at Christmas: Jesus became one of us so we might become like him. This is what these crèches are all about. They show Jesus as one of us in our great diversity so all of us together may become like him. And that, I told him, is why I collect them.

He looked at me with a slight sense of bewilderment. Then he smiled, shook my hand and without asking any further questions went on his merry way.

Bronze Door of Basilica

Open Wide Your Gates!

The Basilica of Saint Mary has a magnificent set of bronze doors. Mgr Reardon commissioned them in the 1950s to replace the original wooden doors.  Twice a year they are waxed so they retain their sheen. They are grand and shiny and inviting. Weather permitting they are open.

All sorts of people make their way through those doors. They vary in race, age, gender, creed. Some almost run up the majestic stairs toward them. Others approach them very hesitatingly wondering if they will be allowed inside. Still others move slowly, bent under the weight of many burdens. Once inside they stand in awe, kneel down in payer, light candles, bless themselves in the baptismal font or simply lie down in a pew to take a nap or hide from the cold.

There was a time when only Catholics in good standing would dare to enter through these doors. Today we are much more inviting and welcome anyone who is in need of prayer, quiet, rest or solace. There was a time when our majestic doors stood as a warning to all who were about to enter, today they are a shiny symbol of our commitment to hospitality.

During this beautiful season of Advent we mediate on the fact that the doors were shut on Mary and Joseph as they were looking for a place to spend the night. They were forced to retreat into a cave or a stable which they shared with farm animals. The one who became the door to salvation for all humankind found the doors closed to him

As we mediate on what happened to the Holy Family, Advent thus offers an invitation to all of us to open wide our doors: the doors of our souls to Christ, the doors of our heart to all who need our love and the doors to our homes to all who need shelter. And our church is to show the way by example. Too often, the beautifully crafted door of our cathedrals, churches and chapels have closed to too many people.

Christ, the one who found the doors closed to him yet opened his heart to all asks us to do the same. As we prepare for the celebration of the birth of Jesus let us take Jesus’ example to heart and open wide the doors of our souls, our hearts and our homes.

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