26 August 2014

Bleeding on Salome’s Kitchen Floor



La Decollazione di San Giovanni Battista, Caravaggio, 1608


Very early this morning, I was sitting at my desk in the dark, going through the liturgical calendar as I do every morning after my prayers. Flipping through the pages, I see St. Monica (Aug 27th), St. Augustine (Aug 28th); The Passion of John the Baptist, (Aug 29th). Sometimes the beheading of the precursor is called the “Decollation”, and I’m not sure why, but I typed la Decollazione di San Giovanni Battista as an image search.  Caravaggio’s depiction of the sordid event, which graces San Giovanni Battista Cathedral in La Vallatta, Malta, popped up.

Still in the dark, I just stared at the painting’s stark violence and drama.  Two men, presumably servants, gawk at the gory spectacle from a nearby window.  Herodias holds her head in shock; Salome bends to scoop up the Baptizer’s severed head in her charger, as the executioner finishes his grisly work with a dagger.

In this gruesome display commissioned by the Order of St. John, the Knights Hosptialler, and completed by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio in 1608, I saw the barbarity of the present.  Wars, natural disasters, ignorant violence; my mind could not stop gazing at the blood gushing out of St. John’s passive neck, much as it happened last week to a fellow New Englander, James Foley, whose funeral Mass was held Sunday at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary in Rochester, New Hampshire.

There is no moral to my story, no pithy call to love one another.  We know what we are supposed to do. There is no reason for this kind of barbarity in this or any century.  There is no quick fix, political plan or ideology that will save us from the ultimate cruelty that lurks in the blinded hearts of men and women from here to Timbuktu.

If materialism denigrates those who covet as well as those who suffer deprivation, then bringing our half-blind judgment to bear on those we consider infidels to the gods of our hackneyed abstractions leaves both the heretic and the prophet pale and bleeding on Salome’s kitchen floor.  What difference does guilt or innocence make when we already have all the answers?  What god do we worship whose image we so easily defile with a stroke of our pitiless steel?

Some of my friends and colleagues probably wonder why I continue to cherish the corpus on the Crucifix.  Why celebrate the death of Christ and not his glorious resurrection or Gnostic Transfiguration into a Being of Light? He prevailed, after all.  I answer this way: Look at this painting closely and examine your heart. The Passion of John, like the Passion of his cousin, is a mark of our suffering and death as human beings, but it is also a rite of passage to the realm of liberation. 

It is important for me to remember that my God walked this earth; he could taste the fish that he caught in Galilee and the wine that he and his mother drank together at Cana. My God could feel the blade of an assassin’s knife rip through the delicate flesh of his neck out there in the desert last week.  He senses the fear and agony of poverty right here in Boston, and that of the children of Gaza, Israel, Syria and Iraq. As long as there is a human alive who is willing to judge and execute another person for his or her version of the truth, I will kiss the body of Christ on that horrific instrument of his torture and death, which we call the Tree of Life.



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20 August 2014

Momentary Gnosis



Christ Embracing St Bernard, Francisco Ribalta
How, why, and how often does gnosis happen to us? 

Many of us have experienced a special moment of clarity, a rush of wisdom, or an encounter with the Beloved. We perceive these little epiphanies of gnosis in as many ways as there are people to experience them. The experiential and transcendent nature of gnosis defies definition.

For many Christians, the idea of gnosis is quite foreign, which is ironic because the word was used hundreds of times in the New Testament.  Furthermore, "Gnostic" is a term which came to be a catchall for practically every opinion that deviated from a literal interpretation of early scriptures.   It is therefore little wonder that few theologians have discussed how gnosis occurs.  

In a sermon* given by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, we see one beautiful attempt to describe this wondrous gift. And while Bernard was no Gnostic, he was a Christian who perfectly illustrated the fragile and momentary experience of gnosis.


If then, any of us, like the holy prophet, finds that it is good to cling close to God, and–that I may make myself more clear–if any of us is so filled with desire that he wants to depart and to be with Christ, with a desire that is intense, a thirst ever burning, an application that never flags, he will certainly meet the Word in the guise of a Bridegroom on whatever day he comes.  At such an hour he will find himself locked in the arms of Wisdom; he will experience how sweet divine love is as it flows into his heart.  His heart’s desire will be given to him, even while still a pilgrim on earth, though not in its fullness and only for a time, a short time.  


In this very touching passage, St. Bernard clearly speaks from experience and not conjecture.  If we pay attention to the language that he used, we will come to realize that he is relating nothing less than a momentary gnostic experience with the Logos and Sophia, the Word and Wisdom.  This is why it is always better to strive for gnosis and not Gnosticism, just as the Gospel of Philip declares that we should not strive to be Christians, but christs. 

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*St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons, 32   

16 August 2014

A Prayer with the Prophet Micah

The Prophet Micah, Moretto da Brescia,1550.
Part of a good daily prayer life can include small readings on which to reflect and pray. In a general sense, this is what is called lectio divina. First we read (lectio), then meditate (meditatio) on the reading. Afterwards, pray (oratio); and finally contemplate (contemplatio) in light of your prayer. I keep this separate from my other prayers, which I say before lectio.

Sometimes I look at all the readings for the day during my devotional time in the morning.

This passage is from the afternoon (None) reading for today, and it comes from the very ancient words of the prophet Micah. (6:8)

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

That reading sounds like enough to keep me busy, how about you? 

Sometimes simple practices like this can yield incredible benefits.  For me, the morning is the best time because it frames the entire day in its proper context. There are many resources to find readings, but I usually consult Universalis and the Johannite Liturgical Calendar.


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13 August 2014

Per ardua ad astra: Through Adversity to the Stars


At St. Sarah’s Discussion Group last weekend, we reflected on the perception that often life’s most precious lessons are learned through adversity.  I've been trying to keep a personal journal of those discussions and what at least I learn from them, because they seem to be a valuable resource. That truth doesn’t make hard times any easier, but at least we can count on learning something that will last well beyond the immediate pain it inflicts.  On my desk sits a badge from the Royal Air Force that was given to me many years ago when I was in the Air Force Auxiliary. In lustrous gold thread, the motto urges its bearer onward: Per ardua ad astra, “Through adversity to the stars.” 

That motto can be applied to the current state of affairs the world round, because it doesn't take a Nobel Laureat to figure out that there is an unmistakable abundance of adversity.  One wink at the headlines and we become immediately aware of a hierarchy of woe, and the lamentable context that surrounds us at home.  

As we look around to our family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers, it can be very easy to slip into an overwhelming melancholy at the sight of their sufferings. Not all loss and pain is the same, but none of it is pleasant to witness in the eyes of those for whom we care. I’ve seen a lot of that lately, and some of it is probably a reflection of my own share of pain.

Anybody who has ever been the guardian of a dog knows what happens when the dog is hurt.  I remember one of my dogs was stung by a bee, and he yelped and ran into a corner, growling and baring his canines at me when I approached to help him. If I am honest with myself, I know that the animal in me reacts in very much the same way.  I might not bite, but I do the human equivalent.
Crucifix from Palazzo Madama e Casaforte degli Acaja

Yes, my fellow human beings and I are very good at rationalizing our pain, error and tragedy, by analyzing real injustices and pinning them on abstractions, scapegoats.  While we all know that there must be a certain amount of generalization to categorize and study the humanities and sciences, blaming conspiracies of injustice has a singularly dangerous effect. It jettisons personal responsibility, and lays our faults on the altars of history, social malady, or the institution of your choosing. Poverty, class, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, you name it. If we think hard enough, we can blame a lot of things for our collective errors, but it always begins with us as individuals to act on them.     

Those of you who have followed In puris naturalibus for a while know that I am a lifelong student of history. When I look back on the piles of books which I have joyfully waded through in my general interest, my mind fills with examples of things that I should do and things that I shouldn’t.  Don't have a tryst with Cleopatra or Charlotte de Sauve. If Léo Taxil asks to join your organization, just say no, and if you're related to Marino Faliero, don't mention it on your next trip to Venice. Never debate Theology with anyone. Ever. And if there is one thing the grim-faced powers of this world don't like, it's a human with a healthy appreciation for mirth.  So yuck it up.

That's the best bit about reading history. We can learn from its mistakes without hurting others or ourselves.  Recounting history in its broadest sense, is the original purpose of myth, plays and novels. The mythology may not have been historical fact in the physical realm, but more often than not the drama which unfolds among the many pages of myth is very real, indeed. This is how I have learned to deal with problems near and far. This is me taking the curtain down and looking behind the puppet show to see the human hands that make them dance this deathly myth we call existence.

A couple of days from now we celebrate the Feast of the Assumption, the day the Church has set aside to remember the Holy Mother’s passing to the realm of the Spirit.  A woman, a symbol, a blameless example; this bright and fearless God-bearer and her contemporaries knew real suffering.  A life of drudgery filled only with the light of her son and his promise to an ailing and decadent world of violence, misery and greed.  Not much has changed, and yet everything has been transformed. 

Every morning when I say my prayers, I look at Mary in bewildered awe, and I see that she and the anointed one to whom she gave life are truly a bridge for me to grasp onto.  Their pain was like ours; they could feel the loss of a beloved friend, and cry until their throats hurt. But the demonic thirst for blood is far greater than these everyday aches and pains.  Even though ignorance required a sacrifice, before their deaths, Christ and his Holy Mother showed a cruel and inhospitable world that there is a better way for us to live, and that is in the eternal Spirit of Love.  So, this Assumptiontide, I dwell in the knowledge that as painful as this life might be, we have been shown the way through adversity to the stars.

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10 August 2014

Where is the Righteous Indignation?


Mosul's Cathedral Torched by ISIS

The persecution of Christians and Yazidis in Iraq has become genocide.  The self-proclaimed "Islamic Caliphate", rejected by the living inheritor of that title in Turkey, has torched the Chaldean Cathedral in Mosul and threatened death to any and all non-Muslims who will not pay their "tax" or convert.
 
Like many of you, my heart is in terrible condition.  I don’t suffer from heart disease, but my eyes have given me the ability to see the horrific violence going on in Gaza, Israel, Syria and now Iraq, yet again.  But there is a noticeable lack of interest in the plight of hundreds of thousands of Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities in “Islamic State” (ISIS) controlled Iraq.  “Convert to Islam or die.”  Some of you may have seen the barbaric executions of children, women and men at the hands of these self-proclaimed arbiters of “justice.”  I am wondering why all of you who have been posting for Gaza have nothing to say about Iraq.  It’s disturbing, and frankly disheartening.  For example, Oxfam International doesn’t even mention this crisis on their web page as of August 10, 2014 at about 7 o’clock p.m. US Eastern Time.  Why?

In a few months’ time, over one million people have been displaced by persecution in Iraq. In the past few days, 200,000 people have fled from the town of Sinjar. Around 50,000 Yazidis (members of one of Iraq’s oldest religious minorities) are trapped in the mountains with no access to food or water. As many as 100,000 Christians have fled their homes as fears of an ISIS advance grow. 

So why is this our problem? The US-led war in Iraq is directly responsible for destabilizing Iraq.  The Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako of Babylon, who is based in Baghdad, estimated that there were about 35,000 Christians in Mosul before it was taken by ISIS, down from 60,000 before the 2003 U.S. invasion. There are now none.

In such terrible times, we must focus our attention on the plight of all people who suffer.  So I ask you now to join me in supporting the refugees and other persecuted populations in Iraq. As some of you know, we at St. Sarah’s Parish AJC, dedicated our prayers and Mass last night to peace in the Middle East.  But we are reminded daily that divine peace and mercy is in our hands, too. 

Here are some things that you can do to help.

1. Attend Mass or religious services as often as you can, pray there, and pray for peace at home every day before you start your day.

2. Give generously to one of many agencies which are on the ground and have experience delivering much needed assistance.  These include: Fraternité en Irak, Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), Christian Aid, Catholic Relief Services,  Open Doors. 

3. Bring this humanitarian crisis to the attention of others in a respectful and loving way. 

To my sisters and brothers fleeing ISIS at this moment, no matter what religion they might hold, may the peace of God which surpasses all understanding keep and restore you. 

Amen