An Invincible Woman

Somehow it seems fitting that today is not only the birthday of Friedrich Nietzsche, but it’s also the Feast of St. Teresa of Ávila.

Nietzsche, of course, not only proclaimed that “God is dead”, but he also gave us the concept of the “Übermensch” or “Superman”.  In his book, “Also Sprach Zarathustra” – which, if you ever studied advanced German, you probably had to struggle through at one point – the Superman was a kind of new human, brought about through a rejection of Christian hope in the next life.  The materialism espoused by Nietzsche sought a perfection of the physical and mental capabilities of human beings in this life, since he believed that there was no afterlife to follow, and that whatever creator-god there may once have been, he had faded away leaving only a cloud of dust, like the remains of a supernova.

In creating the post-religious superman as a goal for mankind to strive toward, Nietzsche laid the groundwork for all sorts of monstrosities, from eugenics to Nazism. In fact, when the comic book character of the same name was first conceived back in the 1930’s by two Jewish kids in Cleveland, he was actually a super-villain, along the lines of the materialist, amoral ideas of Nietzsche then being championed by Hitler, et al.  It was only later that Superman was changed to become an anti-Nazi champion and the world’s biggest goody-two-shoes.

St. Teresa of Ávila was probably just about as opposite a thinker to Nietzsche as you can get. A woman whose childhood piety was muffled in young adulthood as she was drawn to seek the material pleasures of this world, she later rejected those comforts in order to draw herself and others closer to God through her life of prayer, her many writings, and her work.  She also gave us something far better than the concept of the Superman: an encapsulation of her thinking which today is referred to as “St. Teresa’s Bookmark”, so called because it was found written on a prayer card which she kept in her breviary, the book of daily prayers centered around the Psalms still used to this day in the Church.


Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing;
God only is changeless.
Patience gains all things.
Who has God wants nothing.
God alone suffices.

I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve shared this counsel of St. Teresa’s with others, particularly non-Catholics who have never heard of it, and there’s always a positive reaction.  It’s really a reflection of what Christ told His listeners in the Sermon on the Mount (St. Matthew 6:25-34) about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. It’s also a reflection of St. Paul’s exhortation in his Letter to the Philippians: “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:6-7)

We all have choices to make in this life. We can conform ourselves to this world, saying that this is all there is, as Nietzsche did, so let’s all have a good time.  I can then put on the rather tight tights and the cool (if admittedly pointless) cape, and go around pretending that I’m invincible, but in the end suffering and death are my kryptonite just as they are yours.  Sooner or later I’ll be made painfully aware of the fact that I’m not invincible after all, and material satisfaction is just as much a passing fantasy as leaping tall buildings in a single bound.

If however we choose to see this life as a kind of training ground for the life to come, as St. Teresa did, then we can find meaning even in our suffering.  She demonstrated how invincibility comes not through a reliance on material ends, but rather through spiritual means.  If the goal becomes obtaining eternal life in Heaven, and not the finite, ultimately futile effort to conquer the world rather than ourselves, then we realize that there, at last, lies the permanence we are seeking.

This only happens, as St. Teresa came to understand, through the surrender of our will to God.   “Christ does not force our will,” she observed. “He takes only what we give him. But he does not give himself entirely until he sees that we yield ourselves entirely to him.”

On her Feast Day then, let’s try to exercise that real superpower, by making the same choice to show our invincibility through our surrender.

"The Holy Spirit Appearing to St Teresa of Avila" by Rubens (c. 1612-1614)  Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Rotterdam

“The Holy Spirit Appearing to St. Teresa of Ávila” by Rubens (c. 1612-1614)
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Rotterdam


“The American Catholic Almanac”: Four Centuries of Incredible Stories

I’m honored to be the next stop on the blog tour for the new book, “The American Catholic Almanac” by Brian Burch and Emily Stimpson, which was just published by Image.  If you’re a Catholic interested in learning about the contributions of your brothers and sisters in the Faith to the building up of this country, you need a copy of this book.  If you’re not a Catholic, but appreciate the huge sweep of American history and cultural life, you also need a copy of this book.  For Catholics, as it turns out, have had a far earlier, deeper, and more lasting impact on this country than many of us were taught in school.

Given that I live in Washington, DC and often write about architecture and design on this blog, I wanted to take one example from the “Almanac” as an example of the wealth of fascinating material in this book.  The name James Hoban may be known to you from pub quiz trivia – or indeed, from the pub named after him in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of the Nation’s Capital – as the architect who designed the White House.  What may not be known to you is the fact that Hoban was a devout Catholic.

In the “Almanac” the authors detail how Hoban, the son of a poor tenant farmer in Ireland, managed through talent, hard work, and being in the right place at the right time to land what even today would still be considered the most prestigious of all home design competitions in America.  His chance meeting with George Washington in South Carolina led to a prosperous career, where Hoban not only built the White House, but was one of the principal architects working on the Capitol, as well as designing homes, churches, banks, and hotels around DC and for other parts of the young country.

Perhaps Hoban’s most famous commission apart from the White House was the State House in Columbia, South Carolina, which was burned to the ground by Sherman during the Civil War.  Fortunately, his elegant County Court House in Charleston still stands.  That said, even the White House did not escape the meddling of others, for Thomas Jefferson, who had himself entered the competition to design the President’s House and lost to Hoban, modified a number of Hoban’s designs when he moved into the Executive Mansion. Ironically, as the authors point out in the “Almanac”, Hoban later had a second crack at the White House, which is why their entry about him appears on August 24th.

During the War of 1812, the British invaded Washington and burned the Capitol, the White House, and many other buildings on August 24, 1814,  When reconstruction began, then-President James Madison approached the now 64-year-old Hoban and asked if he would supervise the residence’s rebuilding and restoration.  “Proving himself a more gracious loser than Jefferson,” the authors write, “Hoban replicated the third president’s modifications in his restoration.”  Given Jefferson’s tendency toward the experimental, which was not always successful, this was a true mark of respect, indeed.

For Catholics across the Capital City, Hoban’s efforts remain a visible reminder of his legacy to this city and the country, even when the buildings themselves were later replaced.  From Georgetown University to St. Patrick’s in the heart of downtown to St. Peter’s on Capitol Hill, the communities that still support these institutions owe a tremendous debt of thanks to Hoban for helping to make the Catholic presence in Washington a visible and lasting one.  He is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery here in DC, overlooking the city which he helped turn from a dream of the Founding Fathers into a reality.

The entry on James Hoban is just one of the stories contained in the “Almanac”, one for every day of the year.  There is such a wealth of material, that it is hard to imagine the sheer amount of work that went into this volume.  Spanning over 400 years of history, the “Almanac” provides daily reading on the lives of Catholic men and women, both Americans and those with an important tie to America, as well as non-Catholics who made an impact on the lives of American Catholics.  Often, the stories contained in these pages may come as a complete surprise to the reader.

For example, the original Mary “Mother” Jones, after whom the famous left-wing magazine is named, was a devout, pro-life Catholic, who thought mothers ought to stay at home and raise their children rather than work.  Joseph Warren Revere, the grandson of Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere and himself a celebrated hero of the Civil War, converted to Catholicism as an adult, much to the surprise of his New England family.  So too did Fanny Allen, daughter of the very anti-clerical Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen; she actually went one step further and became a nun.

Athletes, criminals, entertainers, politicians, writers, and yes, clergy and religious fill the pages of the “Almanac”.  Some of these individuals were pious believers, and some of them were absolute scoundrels. And yet we would not have the America we know today without them.

Catholics have been part of the story of America from the very beginning.  This book is not only proof of that fact, but provides that proof in an engaging, well-researched, but never heavy style, making it easy to read cover to cover, or to pick up and put down as the mood takes you.  It will also provide, particularly for educators, writers, and politicos, a picture of just how significant the Catholic contribution to this country has been in the past, and will continue to be into the future.

Whether for those new to American history, or for those who think they already know it well, there is much to savor and enjoy here, at any level: in fact, I already know which college professor friend I’m giving a copy to for Christmas.

American Catholic Almanac

Waiting with Mary

We spend a great deal of time in this life waiting around for things to happen.  When something we’re waiting for is particularly urgent or critical, many of us get more nervous and more upset the longer we have to wait for it.  It’s very easy in these moments to come to sympathize with the Psalmist.  “How long, O Lord,” we read in Psalm 13, “will you utterly forget me? How long will you hide your face from me?”

Yet how often do we stop to think about the fact that He is asking us the same question: “How long do I have to wait for YOU?”  Prayer, of course, is the way back, when we’ve forgotten that He is not our plaything, to be put down or taken up as we wish.  And one of the most powerful forms of prayer there is comes in the form of a set of beads.

Today Catholics celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary.  The rosary is, of course, an object which Catholics and non-Catholics alike are very familiar with.  It is not some sort of amulet or talisman, nor is it simply “worry beads” to numb the consciousness.  Rather, the rosary is a tool for remembering and meditating on the love that God has for all of us, in recalling the Incarnation of God the Son through some of the major events of His life and that of His Mother.  It has been a lifeline for Christians for centuries, and today’s feast day recalls one particular instance of that.

On October 7, 1571, as the Ottomans were conquering their way into Europe, they were defeated by a naval armada led by Spain and a coalition of smaller Christian kingdoms at the Battle of Lepanto.  Knowing that the Christian forces were hugely outnumbered, and recognizing the implications for Christianity if the Ottomans were to invade Italy,  Pope St. Pius V called for all of Europe to fast and pray for the success of the effort, particularly encouraging people to pray the rosary and ask the Virgin Mary to intercede with Her Son.  In thanksgiving for the defeat of the Ottomans, Pius dedicated October 7th on the Church calendar to Our Lady of Victory; his successor, Pope Gregory XIII, changed the name of the feast day to honor Our Lady through prayer of the rosary.

This is all very grand and heady stuff, of course.  Saints having visions, popes issuing decrees, battling imperial forces, and so on are enough to fire anyone’s imagination.  Yet we have to remember that a lot of what went on here, albeit on an international scale, was waiting, and then waiting some more.  Because of this, the rosary was absolutely the right tool for the job at that time, as indeed it is on both an international and personal level today.

Most of us are not sitting around waiting to be conquered and slaughtered by the hostile armies of a different religion, although in fact many of our Christian brothers and sisters actually are, at this very moment.  For them, the rosary provides protection greater than any number of drone strikes or missile launches (let alone a politician’s misguided speech in rather poor taste.)  It reminds them that God’s promise works its way out in God’s time, not in the time we might like it to, and often not without great suffering.  Sometimes amazing things may happen, as at Lepanto on this day 443 years ago; other times, the outcome is not so obviously joyful.

For those of us whose suffering-while-waiting is more personal rather than geopolitical in nature, the rosary is just as powerful a reminder that we are loved, but also that we have to accept God’s Will whatever it may be, and whenever it may be revealed.  As we anticipate news of the job or school application, the mortgage approval, or the biopsy report from the oncologist, the rosary reminds us that this, too, is just a passing moment, even if it seems to be taking a long time to pass.  The rosary can accompany us in those moments, as we wait for the phone to ring, the letter to arrive, the person to come down the hall and tell us the news that we’re waiting on.

The real example for Christians to take from reflecting on the life of the Virgin Mary through praying the rosary is two-fold.  First we must accept that our life as Christians, like that recalled in the rosary, must have Christ at its center.  All that Mary does and witnesses, which we recall in the prayer of the rosary, is centered around her relationship with Him.  If we do not get that, then we do not “get” the point of the rosary.

Second, the rosary serves as a reminder of how we must humbly accept God’s Will in our life, even when things are not as we would necessarily like them to be, or when we don’t see how everything is going to work out in the end. It took Mary but a moment to say yes to the invitation to become the Mother of the Messiah brought by the Angel Gabriel.  It took her a lifetime for her to see how God’s promise to her, and indeed to all of mankind, would be fulfilled.

Whatever you are waiting on, then, no matter how great or terrible the news, or how long it takes to arrive, consider allowing the rosary to be your way of remaining close to God, as you await the outcome of His Will.

Detail of "Our Lady of the Rosary" by Caravaggio (1607) Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Detail of “Our Lady of the Rosary” by Caravaggio (1607)
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.