Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Visitation

 The Visitation
(Byzantine Fresco)

I love the Entrance Antiphon for today's feast of the  Visitation:
Come and hear, all who fear God; I will tell what the Lord did for my soul.

Today's gospel includes the Magnificat, Mary's great prayer glorifying God.   This fresco from the Balkans, depicting the embrace of Mary and Elizabeth is visually all about the inspiration of the Holy Spirit  (in an icon, billowing cloth is a symbol of the action of the Spirit).  Their loving embrace symbolizes the unity, joy and charity which are gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Octave of Pentecost

Because I was sick at home I was disappointed not to be able to join in the parish celebration of the Ascension and in daily Mass as we prepared for Pentecost (although I'm grateful that at least part of the time I was able to unite my prayer with that of the Church in the Liturgy of the Hours.) I'm much better now (thank you to all of the kind people who asked after me) and I plunged into Pentecost (serving at Confirmations at Vigil of Pentecost, at the Cathedral, Mass on Sunday morning and at Confirmation Sunday evening at St. Paul's.

For me, because of my own personal circumstances, Pentecost came and went at what seems like the speed of light. But Pentecost has for a long time seemed, to me, to come to a much too abrupt end in our liturgical calendar. It seems to me that this solemnity needs more time and space to unfold. Not simply on the preparation side, but after the feast as well. Pentecost needs an octave, like Christmas and Easter.

It used to have one -- prior to the Second Vatican Council. While I'm supporter of the renewed Roman liturgy post Vatican II, I found myself wondering this morning at prayer why those responsible made the decision to do away with the Octave of Pentecost. That one has me scratching my head wondering what they were thinking. The descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles and the birth of the Church seems to me to cry out for an octave like Christmas and Easter, if only to afford the opportunity to meditate further on the readings for the Vigil of Pentecost and the day of Pentecost itself.

I'm sure that the architects of the renewed liturgy had compelling reasons, pastoral and otherwise, for suppressing the octave. Regardless, I'm observing the octave this week (at least in my little oratory here in Douglas) in the hope of deepening my appreciation of the Holy Spirit, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, our anointing with the Spirit in the sacraments and how the Spirit animates the Church and the life of discipleship.

PS. The mother of Pam McAndrews, one of the catechists at St.Paul's sent leis from Hawaii for the Confirmation celebration last evening. The lei I was given I put around the icon of Christ (above) when I got home. Thank you Pam!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Ascension Sunday


I tried writing an entry this past Sunday -- the Sunday of the Lord's Ascension -- but I just felt too crummy to get any farther than looking for an appropriate icon. The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak. Actually, the fleshing was inflamed -- for the past week I've been enduring a somewhat painful outbreak of shingles. It took me a while to connect the pain with the condition (although my wife took one look at my back and instantly arrived at correct diagnosis). So I've been lying low, taking my medication and searching for a comfortable way to sit and lie down (still searching, I'm afraid).

I'll spare you, gentle reader, from the details (way too much information). But this latest vicissitude of the flesh did prompt some reflection on the mystery of the Ascension and the flesh. While I'm probably in a minority in wishing that the Church in the western United States continued to celebrate Ascension Thursday, the Sunday celebration of this feast has a lot to recommend it as well (for one thing, greater participation at Mass than on a weekday). But it seems to me that the Ascension is oftentimes presented in a kind of functionalist way -- Jesus departs so that the Holy Spirit will come. True enough (after all, this is how Jesus speaks of his departure and of the Paraclete).

But for me, I'm drawn to ponder the mystery of how the Divine Logos, the Word of God, which descended from heaven and assumed our humanity in the person of Jesus, then ascended to heaven and inserted our frail (if glorified) flesh into the very heart of the Godhead. That the joining of the divine and the human in the person of Jesus was not a temporary expedient but the turning point in the relationship between God and men and women.

Which is why for me, the image from over the entrance of Notre Dame in Paris, of the Last Judgment, in which Christ shows us his wounded hands, feet and side, is so moving. For me it is one way of reflecting on the Ascension. Jesus inserted our humanity into the communion of love that is the Blessed Trinity, still bearing his wounds, healed but still part of who he is. Ascending to heaven, he leads the way for all of us, wounded in so many ways by our own sins or the sins of others. Saved and healed by God yet changed people because of what we have undergone. Our sufferings and injuries are not simply wiped away, rather, they are transformed by grace into a new reality that is bound up in our history and at the same time, transcends it completely.







Tuesday, May 15, 2012

St.Hildegard von Bingen (Part 2)

This is the second part of a homily on St.Hildegard von Bingen preached by Pope Benedict in the fall of 2010 as part of a series of homilies on holy women of the medieval western Church.

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today I would like to take up and continue my Reflection on St Hildegard of Bingen, an important female figure of the Middle Ages who was distinguished for her spiritual wisdom and the holiness of her life. Hildegard's mystical visions resemble those of the Old Testament prophets: expressing herself in the cultural and religious categories of her time, she interpreted the Sacred Scriptures in the light of God, applying them to the various circumstances of life. Thus all those who heard her felt the need to live a consistent and committed Christian lifestyle. In a letter to St Bernard the mystic from the Rhineland confesses: "The vision fascinates my whole being: I do not see with the eyes of the body but it appears to me in the spirit of the mysteries.... I recognize the deep meaning of what is expounded on in the Psalter, in the Gospels and in other books, which have been shown to me in the vision. This vision burns like a flame in my breast and in my soul and teaches me to understand the text profoundly" (Epistolarium pars prima I-XC: CCCM 91).

Hildegard's mystical visions have a rich theological content. They refer to the principal events of salvation history, and use a language for the most part poetic and symbolic. For example, in her best known work entitled Scivias, that is, "You know the ways" she sums up in 35 visions the events of the history of salvation from the creation of the world to the end of time. With the characteristic traits of feminine sensitivity, Hildegard develops at the very heart of her work the theme of the mysterious marriage between God and humanity that is brought about in the Incarnation. On the tree of the Cross take place the nuptials of the Son of God with the Church, his Bride, filled with grace and the ability to give new children to God, in the love of the Holy Spirit (cf. Visio tertia: PL 197, 453c).

From these brief references we already see that theology too can receive a special contribution from women because they are able to talk about God and the mysteries of faith using their own particular intelligence and sensitivity. I therefore encourage all those who carry out this service to do it with a profound ecclesial spirit, nourishing their own reflection with prayer and looking to the great riches, not yet fully explored, of the medieval mystic tradition, especially that represented by luminous models such as Hildegard of Bingen.

The Rhenish mystic is also the author of other writings, two of which are particularly important since, like Scivias, they record her mystical visions: they are the Liber vitae meritorum (Book of the merits of life) and the Liber divinorum operum (Book of the divine works), also called De operatione Dei. In the former she describes a unique and powerful vision of God who gives life to the cosmos with his power and his light. Hildegard stresses the deep relationship that exists between man and God and reminds us that the whole creation, of which man is the summit, receives life from the Trinity. The work is centred on the relationship between virtue and vice, which is why human beings must face the daily challenge of vice that distances them on their way towards God and of virtue that benefits them. The invitation is to distance themselves from evil in order to glorify God and, after a virtuous existence, enter the life that consists "wholly of joy". In her second work that many consider her masterpiece she once again describes creation in its relationship with God and the centrality of the human being, expressing a strong Christo-centrism with a biblical-Patristic flavour. The Saint, who presents five visions inspired by the Prologue of the Gospel according to St John, cites the words of the Son to the Father: "The whole task that you wanted and entrusted to me I have carried out successfully, and so here I am in you and you in me and we are one" (Pars III, Visio X: PL 197, 1025a).

Finally, in other writings Hildegard manifests the versatility of interests and cultural vivacity of the female monasteries of the Middle Ages, in a manner contrary to the prejudices which still weighed on that period. Hildegard took an interest in medicine and in the natural sciences as well as in music, since she was endowed with artistic talent. Thus she composed hymns, antiphons and songs, gathered under the title: Symphonia Harmoniae Caelestium Revelationum (Symphony of the Harmony of Heavenly Revelations), that were performed joyously in her monasteries, spreading an atmosphere of tranquillity and that have also come down to us. For her, the entire creation is a symphony of the Holy Spirit who is in himself joy and jubilation.

The popularity that surrounded Hildegard impelled many people to seek her advice. It is for this reason that we have so many of her letters at our disposal. Many male and female monastic communities turned to her, as well as Bishops and Abbots. And many of her answers still apply for us. For instance, Hildegard wrote these words to a community of women religious: "The spiritual life must be tended with great dedication. At first the effort is burdensome because it demands the renunciation of caprices of the pleasures of the flesh and of other such things. But if she lets herself be enthralled by holiness a holy soul will find even contempt for the world sweet and lovable. All that is needed is to take care that the soul does not shrivel" (E. Gronau, Hildegard. Vita di una donna profetica alle origini dell'età moderna, Milan 1996, p. 402). And when the Emperor Frederic Barbarossa caused a schism in the Church by supporting at least three anti-popes against Alexander iii, the legitimate Pope, Hildegard did not hesitate, inspired by her visions, to remind him that even he, the Emperor, was subject to God's judgement. With fearlessness, a feature of every prophet, she wrote to the Emperor these words as spoken by God: "You will be sorry for this wicked conduct of the godless who despise me! Listen, O King, if you wish to live! Otherwise my sword will pierce you!" (ibid., p. 412).

With the spiritual authority with which she was endowed, in the last years of her life Hildegard set out on journeys, despite her advanced age and the uncomfortable conditions of travel, in order to speak to the people of God. They all listened willingly, even when she spoke severely: they considered her a messenger sent by God. She called above all the monastic communities and the clergy to a life in conformity with their vocation. In a special way Hildegard countered the movement of German cátari (Cathars). They cátari means literally "pure" advocated a radical reform of the Church, especially to combat the abuses of the clergy. She harshly reprimanded them for seeking to subvert the very nature of the Church, reminding them that a true renewal of the ecclesial community is obtained with a sincere spirit of repentance and a demanding process of conversion, rather than with a change of structures. This is a message that we should never forget. Let us always invoke the Holy Spirit, so that he may inspire in the Church holy and courageous women, like St Hildegard of Bingen, who, developing the gifts they have received from God, make their own special and valuable contribution to the spiritual development of our communities and of the Church in our time.

Monday, May 14, 2012

St. Hildegard von Bingen

I was pleased to notice a brief news item from the Vatican on May 10th noting that Pope Benedict has extended the veneration of the medieval mystic and visionary St. Hildegard von Bingen to the Universal Church.  According to the Vatican announcement on the 10th, the Pope has added St.Hildegard to the Church's universal calendar.  While his action (unfortunately) comes too late to include her September 17th feast day in the new English translation of the Roman missal, her feast day can be celebrated on that day using the readings and texts from the Common of Holy Men and Women (for a nun).  Presumably an excerpt from her writings or another text related to her life will be officially proposed as the second reading in the Office of Readings for her memorial. 
In 2010 Pope Benedict preached two homilies on St. Hildegard as part of his year-long series of homilies on some of the great women saints in the Western Church.  Below is his first homily.
St. Hildegard von Bingen
In 1988, on the occasion of the Marian Year, Venerable John Paul II wrote an Apostolic Letter entitled Mulieris Dignitatem on the precious role that women have played and play in the life of the Church. "The Church", one reads in it, "gives thanks for all the manifestations of the feminine "genius' which have appeared in the course of history, in the midst of all peoples and nations; she gives thanks for all the charisms that the Holy Spirit distributes to women in the history of the People of God, for all the victories which she owes to their faith, hope and charity: she gives thanks for all the fruits of feminine holiness" (n. 31).

Various female figures stand out for the holiness of their lives and the wealth of their teaching even in those centuries of history that we usually call the Middle Ages. Today I would like to begin to present one of them to you: St Hildegard of Bingen, who lived in Germany in the 12th century. She was born in 1098, probably at Bermersheim, Rhineland, not far from Alzey, and died in 1179 at the age of 81, in spite of having always been in poor health. Hildegard belonged to a large noble family and her parents dedicated her to God from birth for his service. At the age of eight she was offered for the religious state (in accordance with the Rule of St Benedict, chapter 59), and, to ensure that she received an appropriate human and Christian formation, she was entrusted to the care of the consecrated widow Uda of Gölklheim and then to Jutta of Spanheim who had taken the veil at the Benedictine Monastery of St Disibodenberg. A small cloistered women's monastery was developing there that followed the Rule of St Benedict. Hildegard was clothed by Bishop Otto of Bamberg and in 1136, upon the death of Mother Jutta who had become the community magistra (Prioress), the sisters chose Hildegard to succeed her. She fulfilled this office making the most of her gifts as a woman of culture and of lofty spirituality, capable of dealing competently with the organizational aspects of cloistered life. A few years later, partly because of the increasing number of young women who were knocking at the monastery door, Hildegard broke away from the dominating male monastery of St Disibodenburg with her community, taking it to Bingen, calling it after St Rupert and here she spent the rest of her days. Her manner of exercising the ministry of authority is an example for every religious community: she inspired holy emulation in the practice of good to such an extent that, as time was to tell, both the mother and her daughters competed in mutual esteem and in serving each other.

During the years when she was superior of the Monastery of St Disibodenberg, Hildegard began to dictate the mystical visions that she had been receiving for some time to the monk Volmar, her spiritual director, and to Richardis di Strade, her secretary, a sister of whom she was very fond. As always happens in the life of true mystics, Hildegard too wanted to put herself under the authority of wise people to discern the origin of her visions, fearing that they were the product of illusions and did not come from God. She thus turned to a person who was most highly esteemed in the Church in those times: St Bernard of Clairvaux, of whom I have already spoken in several Catecheses. He calmed and encouraged Hildegard. However, in 1147 she received a further, very important approval. Pope Eugene iii, who was presiding at a Synod in Trier, read a text dictated by Hildegard presented to him by Archbishop Henry of Mainz. The Pope authorized the mystic to write down her visions and to speak in public. From that moment Hildegard's spiritual prestige continued to grow so that her contemporaries called her the "Teutonic prophetess". This, dear friends, is the seal of an authentic experience of the Holy Spirit, the source of every charism: the person endowed with supernatural gifts never boasts of them, never flaunts them and, above all, shows complete obedience to the ecclesial authority. Every gift bestowed by the Holy Spirit, is in fact intended for the edification of the Church and the Church, through her Pastors, recognizes its authenticity.

I shall speak again next Wednesday about this great woman, this "prophetess" who also speaks with great timeliness to us today, with her courageous ability to discern the signs of the times, her love for creation, her medicine, her poetry, her music, which today has been reconstructed, her love for Christ and for his Church which was suffering in that period too, wounded also in that time by the sins of both priests and lay people, and far better loved as the Body of Christ. Thus St Hildegard speaks to us; we shall speak of her again next Wednesday. Thank you for your attention.

There is speculation that Pope Benedict is considering declaring her a Doctor of the Church in October 2012.  The Holy Father's second homily will be in my next post.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Mary's Garden (gilding)

Another step forward in the work on the icon for Mary's Garden - gold leafing the haloes of the figures of Mary and Jesus. Its not easy to see from the photo -- taken a few minutes ago in the pouring rain -- its Juneau after all, but the haloes are now gilded.

The next step in gilding is to brush on the fine gold rays that highlight the garment of Christ as well as the edges of Mary's overgarment and the stars on her shoulders and the front of her veil.

Of course, while hurrying back to the studio to retrieve my iPad to snap the picture, the icon pitched into the daffodils (probably the wind caught a corner and knocked it off its makeshift plinth.). I cleaned off the mud and put it back up, none the worse for wear.



Friday, May 11, 2012

Mary's Garden (color, continued)

More progress in laying in color on the icon for Mary's Garden at our house. The first step in actually painting the icon is to apply transparent layers of color to the entire icon to build up the deepest values. Then the garments, faces, hands and feet of the figures of Jesus and Mary are highlighted.

The highlighting either using color mixed with white or yellow ochre or gold leaf, signifies the transfiguring light of grace most perfectly and completely revealed in Christ. This grace, represented as light, fills not only Mary, the saints and those who are baptized into the saving death and life-giving resurrection of Jesus, but the creation and the entire cosmos.

If you look carefully at the icon you may be able to see the pale blue forget-me-nots that are beginning to take shape behind the throne of Mary. Its a joy to see how the flowers in Mary's Garden are beginning to emerge too (the violet-blue hyacinths are starting to open up in front of the daffodils).

Thursday, May 10, 2012

From B Street to the Vatican

It's hard to believe that a couple years ago I was in my little studio in Douglas  working hard to complete the illustrations for this book.    Even harder to believe is this photo of my Bishop, Edward Burns, presenting Pope Benedict with a copy of the Illuminated Easter Proclamation during his Ad Limina visit in April.Here he is showing the Holy Father the title page with the message I'd written to him.  The Exsultet was signed by our three Alaskan bishops and all of the priests of their dioceses as an expression of the prayers and affection of all of  Catholic clergy, religious and faithful of our state. 

Bishop Burns brought me back three official photos of the presentation of the book.  I was glad to see that in one of them Bishop Burns pointed out to the Pope the borders in the margins with plants from Southeast Alaska: blueberries, salmonberries, forget-me-nots and devil's club.  

What a humbling and gratifying moment this is.  Thank you Bishop Burns, Liturgical Press and all the good friends who made this book a reality!  I do hope that Pope Benedict had a chance to take another look at the book when he had a few moments to himself.  And I hope he liked the bees. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

Mary's Garden (continued)

I began to 'open up'* the icon for the garden shrine yesterday afternoon. So far, so good.

*To 'open up' an icon is the application of colors (and any gold leafing) to the icon panel.  I don't know the origin of the expression (probably from the Greek or Russian) but I love the implication that it is at this point in the work that the beauty of the icon begins to reveal itself as the colors and the gold leaf are applied by the iconpainter.  In the same fashion that a flower as it begins to emerge from the bud 'opens up' and blooms in all of its beauty. 

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Mary's Garden (Updated)

I was fortunate today to have the time to brush in the tracelines of the icon of Mary and Jesus for Mary''s Garden at our house. Imagine this icon in this location, but encased in a sturdy cedar shrine, with a pitched, shingled roof and attached to the fence with lag bolts and hurricane ties. (Necessary to resist the fierce winter winds that Doulas is famous for!)

It 's always a joy to put on my battered Carmelite apron - always a reminder to remember my friends at St.Joseph's monastery in Terre Haute, Indiana in prayer-- and paint. I 'm grateful to my wife Paula for giving me the time today to be in the studio by taking a long shift at the cooperative gallery where our work is on display. Thank you, sweetheart!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Mary's Garden

Last fall my daughter Phoebe and I constructed the garden box in the upper corner of our yard. With the help of her friend Sarah we filled it up with soil, planted it with bulbs and waited for spring. well, it's spring and the flowers are starting to come up and bloom. The plan for the month of May is to finish the icon of Mary and Jesus (which will go into a yet-to-be-built shrine in the upper corner of the garden). 

I've got the drawing on the panel -- now all I have to do is paint it, build the shrine, install the icon in the shrine and set it up in the garden. 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

True God from True God

Christ the Teacher
(Icon by Leonid Ouspensky)
The memorial today of St. Athanasius, the fourth century Patriarch of Alexandria and tireless defender of Nicean orthodoxy is an occasion for both great jubliation and a bit of trepidation.  Jubilation because Athanasius, against great opposition and enduring persecution upheld the true and complete divinity of Jesus vis a vie the Father over and against the supporters of the priest Arius who maintained that Jesus, was a creature, that is, was created by God at some point in time.  Semi-divine but not of the same divine being as the Father. 

The bishops of the first Ecumenical Council at Nicea (Athanasius was a deacon accompanying his bishop at Nicea) inserted language into the baptismal creed to make explicit the orthodox faith of the Church. 'God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, begotten, not made, one in being (consubstantial in the creed we pray each week at Mass) with the Father, through whom all things were made.'

The dominant Greek culture of the time believed that the invisible, spiritual world was superior to the visible material one.  The farther one got from the material the closer, they thought, to God (who was pure spirit).  Believing that the material and corporeal were an impediment to salvation, they had a very difficult time embracing mystery of the Incarnation and salvation in Christ.   That the Logos, who is pure spirit, would completely assume our human nature was contrary to their deepest convictions of what was good and holy and true.

The trepidation comes with the knowledge that the revelation of God in Christ inevitably clashes with the cultural norms and received wisdom of every culture, including (even especially) our own.  What the Church believes about Jesus at times contradicts certain aspects of modern culture, which deny revealed truth and  the possibility of a personal God but uphold as absolute values individual autonomy and self-determination, personal freedom, religious skepticism and radical, reductive equality.  

Our age-old temptation as Christians is to be conformed, not to Jesus Christ and to the gospel, but to the world and to the spirit of the age.  St. Athanasius, despite denunciation, persecution and exile, remained steadfastly orthodox.  May we follow his example in our own time.

St.Athanasius, pray for us! 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

St. Joseph the Worker, pray for us!

Icon of the Holy Family
(St. Paul's Catholic Church, Juneau)
About fifteen years ago I worked with a group of boys and girls on a fresco at their middle school in Juneau.  For two weeks the students and I (along with my collaborator Kathy Sievers, an iconographer from Portland, Oregon) worked together.  It was a true fresco, that is, we painted on wet plater applied to the wall.  The students worked hard: they dryed and cleaned sand, mixed troughs of lime plaster and applied in layers to the wall and ground and mixed colors and applied paint to the fresh plaster.  It was a wonderful project and together we created a beautiful mural.  We invited parents to come by and visit while we were working and observe the progress we made each day.  We attracted a lot of fathers who worked in the building trades.  They came in their work clothes and boots to watch their sons and daughters do in a school setting the kinds of tasks they did every day.  One father, who hung drywall for a living, picked up a float and patiently showed the students (and his son) how to get the final painting coat perfectly smooth on the section we were preparing to paint that day.  He stepped back to watch the students work and said to me that this week working on the fresco had been the first time he thought his son really understood and appreciated the work he did every day. 

It's no secret that the feast of St. Joseph the Worker was originally proposed by the Church in the middle  years of the 20th century as an alternative to MayDay out of concern that Catholic workers in Europe were joining militant socialist (and later, communist) trade unions.  Yet, this feast has also helped to underscore the dignity of work and of working people in an economic system that too often brazenly exploits manual workers and seeks everyway possible to cut costs (and boost profits) by outsourcing, automating or eliminating their jobs.   Catholic social teaching proposes that every form of work has dignity, not only because work is necessary to human survival and flourishing but because work is one of the key ways we participate in society and is an intrinsic part of what it means to be fully human.