Real Heroism: No Dragons Required

As I watch my social media feeds, I confess I’m a tad jealous of two friends of mine who just so happen to be visiting Barcelona.  Today is the Feast of St. George – “Sant Jordi” in Catalan – and he is the patron saint of both the city of Barcelona and the region of Catalonia, of which Barcelona is the capital. My friends really lucked out on their trip corresponding with the celebration of local traditions about the city’s favorite hero.

Of course, old stories about St. George fighting a dragon are not to be taken literally.  Most scholars believe that George was born in what is today Palestine to Greek Christian parents sometime around 275 A.D.; his father was a well-respected and wealthy army officer, but both George’s parents died when he was in his teens.  Like his father before him, George decided to join the army, and eventually rose through the ranks to become an officer.  He was later imprisoned, tried, and finally executed on April 23, 303 A.D., under the mass persecutions and purges of Christians carried out by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in the early 4th century.

Even though he was never in Catalonia – whatever the charming old medieval legends may say – St. George does have a more important, spiritual connection to the Christian community in Barcelona.  St. George was part of a huge wave of martyrs, created just before Christianity was finally legalized under Diocletian’s successor Constantine.  In Barcelona, within 12 months of St. George’s execution in what is now Turkey, the city had a number of its own Christian martyrs, as a result of Diocletian’s murderous paranoia.

St. Eulalia, a young girl martyred as part of this persecution near Barcelona’s old Roman Forum, is now entombed in a magnificent shrine beneath the equally magnificent Barcelona Cathedral, just a few hundred feet from where she met her untimely end. St. Severus, Bishop of Barcelona during Diocletian’s reign, was also executed during the same time; today his remains lie in the only perfectly preserved Baroque church in the city, a beautiful, peaceful spot for contemplation.  And the ancient Basilica of Sants Just i Pastor, which served as the Pro-Cathedral in the Middle Ages while Barcelona’s present Cathedral was being built, was constructed over the catacombs containing the remains of two Christian schoolboys, Justus and Pastor.  They were beheaded near the spot where the beautiful church named for them now stands, during the same period, for refusing to recant their faith.

This gives us a sense not only of how the Church attracts people of all ages and backgrounds, but also how quickly and widely it spread from its humble beginnings in Jerusalem.  George serving in the army out in Turkey would never have known or heard about Eulalia, Severus, Justus, and Pastor living in a small colonial town on the Iberian Peninsula.  However all of them, as well as the many others who met their end for their Christian faith, knew that they were part of something much larger than themselves, and chose to act heroically, when faced with either confessing the truth or saving their own skin.

In the present age, examples like that of St. George are good ones for us to keep in mind.  Here was a real hero, dragon or no dragon.  He chose the fork in the road that lead to his death, but which also led him to life, and to the respect of thousands of Christians down the centuries who have named their children in his honor.  Would that if and when our time comes, we would be heroic enough to make the same choice that he did.

Detail of St. George from "The St. George Triptych" by Jaume Huguet (1460) Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Barcelona

Detail of St. George from “The St. George Triptych” by Jaume Huguet (1460)
Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona

 

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Ring Some Bells!

The latest guest post in aid of Friends of Little Portion Hermitage (“FLPH”) today comes from the lovely Sarah Reinhard, whom I suspect many of my fellow Catholics read on a regular basis. Now full disclosure, Mrs. Reinhard disputes my categorizing her as “lovely”, but I’m going to do it anyway because this is my blog and not hers. So there you are.

I’m truly grateful Sarah was able to contribute a guest post in aid of our effort, talking about how the significant ringing of different kinds of bells has marked her daily life and called her to prayer and to take action.  We have more guest posts coming in the weeks ahead from Catholic writers and speakers you know, to add to those already so generously contributed by Teresa Tomeo, Mike Aquilina, Shane Kapler, and Matthew Leonard. You can go back and read all of the guest posts so far on the FLPH site.

While you’re there, please consider donating whatever you can toward getting Brother Rex a permanent home. As I mentioned in a previous post, it’s looking increasingly likely that the small place he is renting is going to be sold out from under him in the coming weeks, leaving him literally nowhere to go.  This prayer warrior asks for so little, and we have so much.

To date we’ve had over 31,000 people visit the FLPH site to learn more about Brother Rex, this project, read both his posts and the guest posts, and leave prayer requests for Brother Rex regarding intentions they have. That is a tremendous blessing for sharing the good work of prayer that he does.  We would so like to move on to the task of finding Brother Rex a place to live, but we really do need your prayers and your financial generosity to make that happen!

When you heard the bells rung again at Mass after the weeks of silence during Lent, both by the acolytes and up in the bell tower of your local church, didn’t you feel just a little spiritual joy in recalling the Resurrection of Christ? Please consider sharing a little of that Easter joy, to help give our friend the hermit – who has given up everything to follow Christ – a home for living out his vocation.  Ring some bells in Heaven through your charitable prayers and, yes, donations, to make sure this prayer warrior can continue his life of prayer and self-sacrifice on behalf of all of us.

Detail of "The Homage of a Simple Man" by Giotto (c. 1300) Upper Basilica, Assisi

Detail of “The Homage of a Simple Man” by Giotto (c. 1300)
Upper Basilica, Assisi

 

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Comic Book Colors and Western Culture

Contemporary artists and designers often pride themselves on the use of bright colors and bold patterns to attract us, the consumers of their products.  Whether it’s a piece of sculpture or a rug, a pair of socks or a cocktail dress, we like to think of ourselves as living in a world where we are daring if we pick a color that is not a neutral.  Those bright red trousers you’re wearing to work now that Spring and warm weather have finally arrived might make you think that you’re a bold, outspoken sort of fellow.

Except, of course, for the fact that this has all been done before: you were just never told about it.

If your visual experience of Western Civ 101 in high school or college was limited to viewing some grainy slides via a poorly lit projector, or paging through some hazy illustrations in a textbook, you could reasonably be forgiven for thinking that Western culture up until the 20th century was pretty murky and dark.  Yet when we look at a cleaned and restored work of art from our past, brought back as near as possible to its original state, we can appreciate how people who lived centuries ago not only loved to use color, but were just as bold as we are in the use of it, if not more so.  They surrounded themselves with domestic objects, buildings, and works of art that were brightly colored.  And they themselves dressed in those almost garishly bright colors which we associate with things like cartoons and comic books.

A perfect example of this is what I’m using for my wallpaper at present, appropriately for Easter, a painting of the Resurrection by the Florentine Renaissance artist Raffaellino del Garbo (c. 1476-1527).  Most of us today associate the Easter season with very bright colors after the months of dull, late winter grays and browns.  When it comes to public celebrations, ladies’ hats, and decorations such as Easter eggs, Easter grass, baskets full of colorfully wrapped candies, etc., we love to get out the virtual box of crayons and go a bit off the deep end in an explosion of color.  However this particular artist’s image of Easter is about as Easter Parade-y as you can get.

Look at the figures of the Roman soldiers and Temple guards reacting to Christ’s Resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday morning.  It is a bright, sunny day, well past sunrise, and as Jesus rises from the grave dressed in white garments, the soldiers are falling down like dead men and running away, just as Scripture tells us.  One poor fellow in the lower left foreground has even had the stone slab from the tomb land on top of him.

Now take a moment to notice what incredible colors these fellows are wearing.  We see these tough soldiers dressed in salmon pink, coral red, periwinkle blue, spring green, dusty rose, saffron yellow, and midnight blue.  There’s no camouflage here: even the very few gray, brown, and white articles of clothing worn by these fighting men only serve to enhance the bright colors of their other garments.

It’s worthwhile to take a look at what the painting looked like before it was cleaned of its old varnish, and notice how dark and yellowed it was.  I think oftentimes this is the sort of image which misinforms our impression of Western civilization.  We’re taught, whether intentionally or not, to see the past and the people who lived centuries before us as collectively dusty, yellowed, confused, ignorant, and unexciting.  One look at this picture as restored should permanently dispel that badly-learned lesson from your mind, and this is but one example among many.

The truth is that there is always something heroic, fresh, and invigorating about Western culture.  This image neatly sums up that fact, for del Garbo clearly believed that he was living in an exciting, vibrant time when he created this work of art.  He chose to depict the boldness of his own day, in the figures of the soldiers he painted, rather than sticking strictly to an historical interpretation of what 1st century Judea probably looked like.  In doing so he preserves, almost like a snapshot, what people who lived 500 years ago thought of themselves, their faith, their culture, and their world.  Theirs is not some dark and gloomy, scary place, but an attractive, bright and cheerful spot worth a visit.  Who wouldn’t want to picnic beside the Roman ruins in the background of this picture, under the trees on a bright Easter Sunday?

Perhaps it’s time we get out some of the varnish stripper, ourselves.  Let’s try to wipe away some of the jaundiced coloring that has been shading our eyes to the bright, heroic achievements of those who came before us.  We are part of a long tradition in Western culture, if we would but recognize it.

"The Resurrection" by Raffaellino del Garbo (c. 1500-1510) Accademia, Florence

“The Resurrection” by Raffaellino del Garbo (c. 1500-1510)
Accademia, Florence

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Good Friday: Be the One

Regular readers may recall my review of Dr. Edward Siri’s book, “Walking with Mary”, which I read while spending the day over at the Dominican House of Studies.  One section of the book which particularly struck me was a story about Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta.  It’s not only related to Scripture, but I think appropriate for this Good Friday.

Mother Teresa had a prayer card with an image of Jesus in suffering on the front.  Below the image it bore a verse from one of the Psalms which we often hear during Lent, particularly on Good Friday or at Stations of the Cross.  Psalm 69 is one of those prophetic Psalms foretelling the “Suffering Servant”, as described more fully in the Book of Isaiah; verse 21 of the Psalm, says, “I looked for one that would comfort me, and I found no one.”

Underneath the image and the quote from the Psalms, Mother Teresa wrote, “Be the one.”

There is something disarmingly simple, but also profound about this juxtaposition.  The call from the Cross, as contained in the Psalm, is answered in the to-the-point response of Mother Teresa. Hers is not simply a pious reaction, but a command to herself.  I liked the combination so much, that I created a Lenten laptop wallpaper with both quotes on it, to remind myself on a regular basis during this season of fasting and penance what I ought to be doing more often all the year through.

Maybe you aren’t called to go out into the slums of a faraway place like Calcutta.  Yet there are people you know who could use some love, some attention, and some comfort from you.  Be the one to bring it to them.

Detail of "Christ Crucified" by Diego Velázquez (1632) The Prado, Madrid

Detail of “Christ Crucified” by Diego Velázquez (1632)
The Prado, Madrid

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Holy Thursday: Eating in Silence

Over on the Friends of Little Portion Hermitage (FLPH) site today we have another terrific guest post in aid of the hermitage, this time from Matthew Leonard, author, speaker, and Executive Director of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Studies, on the sacredness of silence.  I hope you’ll take the time to drop by and read his really thoughtful post, on how it’s not just enough to be quiet or place ourselves in quiet surroundings to pray: we also have to quiet ourselves down on the inside, as well.  If you’re enjoying these guest posts from Catholic writers over on FLPH, please be sure to share them, and also please prayerfully consider a donation to help us establish a permanent Franciscan hermitage. We’re happy and grateful for any donations!

Tonight many of us will be going to church to commemorate Holy Thursday, celebrating the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper.  For those who have never attended a Catholic Holy Thursday Mass, it is an evening full of symbolism, from ringing of bells to washing of feet, stripping bare of the altars to the procession with the Eucharist to the altar of repose, where it will remain until the Easter Vigil.  At my parish of St. Stephen’s, during the procession around the church the altar boy holding the censer is in the lead, but interestingly he walks BACKWARDS in front of the priest holding the ciborium containing the Blessed Sacrament, so that he is constantly censing the Eucharist.

One of the points Matt Leonard raises in his piece for FLPH is that “the sights and sounds we take in are food for the imagination.”  This is something the Church has always understood.  It’s why we have particular, traditional rituals occur on Holy Thursday which do not occur at other times of year.  It’s also why for centuries the Church commissioned beautiful art and beautiful buildings, to put us into a frame of  mind where we can focus more on heavenly things rather than earthly concerns.

However it’s also why when we take in the Food of God Himself, we do so quietly, rather than boisterously. When we receive Communion, we go back to our seats and remain in silence, rather than standing around chit-chatting like one would do at a normal meal.  We are sharing in a different kind of meal together, which though communal, simultaneously each of us is experiencing in a very personal, intimate way, differing from person to person in its impact.

At the conclusion of Holy Thursday Mass tonight, all will depart in silence. There will be no music, no bells, and indeed no Mass again until the Easter Vigil on Saturday evening, when the Church erupts in song and the ringing of bells to mark the Resurrection.  So for those of you able to make it to church this evening, consider how that exterior silence, as you receive Communion and as you leave to go home, is something you can keep with you over the Triduum, to allow God to speak to your quieted self in a way that perhaps is impossible for Him to do in your busy, everyday life.

Detail of "The Last Supper" by Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret (1896) Private Collection

Detail of “The Last Supper” by Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret (1896)
Private Collection

 

 

 

 

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Spy Wednesday: There’s No Place Like Hell

In the classic 1900 children’s book and 1939 film, “The Wizard of Oz”, there’s a lot of rubbish.

For example, the Wizard tells the Tin Man, “A heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.”  Really? Christ was jeered all the way to his execution on Calvary by crowds of people who, only a few days earlier, were crying out how much they loved him.  What an utter failure He must have been.

Or then there’s Dorothy’s “lesson”, which she learns after getting bumped on the head.  “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again,” she vows, “I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”  What sort of lesson is that? Enjoy suffocating in the Dust Bowl, Dorothy.

Frank L. Baum, author of the “Oz” books, abandoned Christianity in 1892 to join a sect known as the “Theosophical Society”.  Originally founded for the purpose of studying the occult, it expanded to become one of those mutual admiration societies, where people with more money than sense sit around congratulating themselves on how much more enlightened they are than the rest of us.  Among other things, it mixed the study of dead religions with universalism, racial theories, cosmic evolutionary potential, and so on.

I say all of this because we are at Spy Wednesday of Holy Week, when Judas strikes his bargain to betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.  We know this is coming, because Judas has been listening to the bad voices in his head for a while now.  The next night, at the Last Supper, we learn from the Gospel of St. John that instead of changing his mind at the last minute while he still could, Judas allowed Satan to enter into his thoughts and actions, and he went off to arrange Jesus’ betrayal that evening.  We also know that Satan hung around long enough to persuade Judas to commit suicide over what he had done, instead of seeking forgiveness.

In his magnificent series of panels “Four Visions of the Hereafter” in the Palazzo Grimani in Venice, the great Hieronymus Bosch depicted scenes of what happens after we die.  Two of the paintings deal with Heaven, and the other two with Hell.  In the latter, I’ve always thought that the demons dragging the souls of the damned to their eternal punishment are reminiscent of the Flying Monkeys from “The Wizard of Oz”.  The difference of course, for Christians, is that unlike Baum’s characters, these fellows are all too real, as Judas found out.  And for that matter, so is the place where they reside, which is where they want us to end up.

With the Easter Triduum beginning tomorrow, you still have time to get to confession. Many dioceses, such as here in the Nation’s Capital, will have confessions tonight through programs like The Light Is On For You.  Check with your local chancery, or call your parish priest to make an appointment.

And for pity’s sake, don’t listen to those trying to tell you that Hell is just an old, scary story, like something Frank Baum might have dreamed up for one of his fairy tales.  Ignore such talk, even if those doing the talking have a bunch of impressive-sounding letters after their name or – even worse – are sporting clerical garb.  Such people are not going to be accountable to you, when it turns out they were wrong.  Because in the end, there’s no place like Hell – and we really, REALLY don’t want to end up there.

Detail of "Hell" by Hieronymous Bosch (1500) Palazzo Ducale, Venice

Detail of “Hell” by Hieronymous Bosch (c. 1486)
Palazzo Grimani, Venice

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Tuesday of Holy Week: Give Us Your Lattes, Please!

Today over at the Friends of Little Portion Hermitage (FLPH) site, we have our next guest post from author, scripture scholar, and well-known Catholic television and radio host Mike Aquilina, explaining how to go about developing a richer, more fulfilled prayer life: it’s full of terrific ideas that are worth taking to heart.

This is the third in a series of terrific posts, which we’ve asked Catholic writers to donate in aid of establishing a permanent Franciscan hermitage up in Maine.  If you missed the great pieces we had last week from Teresa Tomeo and Shane Kapler, you’ll find those as well as future guest posts archived under the “Guest Posts” tab on the FLPH site.  While you’re there, be sure to check out Brother Rex’ daily thoughts and reflections under the “Inspirations” tab, or ask him to remember your special intentions under the “Prayer Requests” form.  He has been thrilled with all the people asking him to pray on their behalf or on behalf of those whom they know need a constancy of prayer before God.  You can also follow all of this on Twitter and on Facebook.

We were looking at some of the FLPH site stats yesterday, and nearly 25,000 people have already visited the FLPH since we started this campaign and Brother Rex was on EWTN last week.  This is tremendous, and we’re really grateful for all of the visits and messages of support!  From a practical standpoint, if each one of those visitors had donated $2.00, we would have met our startup fundraising goal on this campaign! Unfortunately, we’re nowhere near that yet, and some recent news from Maine is a little troublesome.

So I’m now going to add a little note of urgency, and ask if you can, to please make a little act of self-sacrifice this Holy Week.

Brother Rex is currently living his life of prayer in a small rental property up in Portland.  It’s looking increasingly likely that sometime within the next couple of months, the place is going to be sold out from under him.  We’ve also just learnt that the parish rectory he was hoping to be able to stay at temporarily, to do some couch surfing if the sale of his current, temporary hermitage went through, is now no longer available.

Where do you come in?

Well if you’ve got a little house up in Maine to donate, or some lottery winnings just sitting around gathering dust at the bank waiting for a good project to donate to, we’d love to hear from you.  However barring that, during this season of self-sacrifice and seeking humility in imitation of Christ, I’m going to shift a bit to a more mendicant, Franciscan position.  Which quite frankly, is rather unusual for me given my Dominican tendencies, but needs must.

Could you consider giving up a latte this Holy Week, and sharing what you would have spent on that temporary caffeine high, with someone who will be praying for you and your intentions in gratitude for the rest of his life?

That’s not such a terrible Lenten give-up, it seems to me, particularly since we all have to fast on Good Friday anyway.  Of course, if you want to donate a latte a week, or a month, that would be swell too. On the FLPH site, you can click to donate by PayPal, or find out where to send a check.

We would be really grateful for your support, and please keep us in your prayers!

Detail of "Errand Boy Drinking Coffee" by Christian Krohg (1885) Göteborg Art Museum, Norway

Detail of “Errand Boy Drinking Coffee” by Christian Krohg (1885)
Göteborg Art Museum, Norway

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