Category Archives: Scandinavia

>Thoughts for the Memorial of St. Henry of Finland

>Today is St. Henry of Finland’s Day, which is celebrated particularly by the faithful in Sweden and Finland. According to medieval legend Henry was born in England, later became bishop of Uppsala in Sweden, and subsequently became the first bishop of Finland in the 12th century; he was later martyred in Finland. The problem is, Henry was locally recognized as a saint long before the formal process of canonization as we understand it was put in place. As a result, it is very difficult to prove much if anything about Henry’s life, other than the fact that the first documentation of him dates from about a century after he was killed, and there is no official declaration of his sanctity from Rome, other than a tacit acknowledgment by Pope Boniface IX in a letter written more than 200 years after his martyrdom. Yet the story of his life has proven intensely important to the development of Finland as a nation, even apart from its adoption of Christianity.

So does it matter when, as a culture, we forget these legends, and St. Henry means nothing more than, for example, an excuse for celebrating a name day party? This question has been in my mind for some time, but came back into the front of my thinking last evening as I was researching the history of a rather obscure church in Barcelona for CatholicBarcelona.com, and continued subsequently when I listened to the most recent episode of Catholic In A Small Town [N.B. Thank you to Mac and Katherine Barron for both their kind remarks about this blog and in directing their listeners to visit it.] When do we fall into the mere estoteric curiosity in our understanding the meaning of the things around us?

Later this week I will be posting a new entry in my ongoing project to catalogue the interesting religious sites in Barcelona, which in this case will be about the church dedicated to Sant Cugat in that city. Sant Cugat – or Saint Cucuphas as he is known outside of Catalonia – was martyred under the Emperor Diocletian during the last Roman persecution of the Christians in about 304 A.D. According to ancient legend, he was heavily tortured by his captors, including being roasted in an oven. Admittedly some of the tales of the early saints have what our scientific-skeptical minds in the present age seem to regard as improbable, but oftentimes these stories have bases in facts that come to light through contemporary research. Saint Henry and Sant Cugat, in this respect, have certain aspects in common, despite living many centuries apart.

Whatever the case, the church dedicated to Sant Cugat in Barcelona has gone by several appellations, among them that of “Sant Cugat del Forn” or “Saint Cucuphas of the Oven”. In researching the history of the building, newer sources I consulted stated that this was likely a reference to the old city bakery which stood nearby in the 12th and 13th centuries. In the interest of fact-checking however, I dove deeper and discovered earlier sources, which indicated that the “of the Oven” reference was not to medieval commercial ventures, but rather the long-preserved belief that the oven in which the Romans burned Sant Cugat stood on or near the spot where the church was built, just outside the old Roman walls of the city. As the first document naming a church dedicated to Sant Cugat on the site dates from close to 1000 A.D., it would appear to my (admittedly amateur) mind that the earlier sources were correct, as the church predated the bakeries.

In further discussion with a friend – and a Protestant one at that – he pointed out the fact that it was probably appropriate to have the city bakeries built nearby the church, rather than have the church named for the bakeries. This makes perfect sense given the well-known medieval practice of placing trade guilds under the protection of a saint whose life had some connection to the trade which was being practiced. Nearby Sant Cugat for example, the ancient Romanesque chapel of En Marcús was dedicated to Our Lady the Guide, because it was located on the main Roman road out of the city, and beginning in the 12th century it became the chapel for the Guild of Mounted Couriers – the medieval equivalent of the Pony Express.

Why did present-day writers miss this connection between Sant Cugat’s church and the site of his torture, which was clearly understood in earlier sources dating from less than 100 years ago? Part of this has to do with secularization, of course, since once cannot expect Catholics who do not know Church history to understand these things. Yet on a wider level, it is also because those who are supposedly educated individuals and put in charge of researching and preserving our history, or in a broader context those who take it upon themselves to do so, are from a West that has become culturally lazy. Even on the average person level, far from the supposedly lofty heights of academic research, cultural laziness remains a problem.

In last evening’s Catholic In A Small Town episode for example, Mac and Katherine questioned the recent practice of young men in their school district wearing rosary beads around the neck. Those of us who grew up in the 1980′s are familiar with this practice among women, for Madonna made this sort of sacrilege fashionable back in the day. Apparently the wearing of a rosary as a necklace is considered in some instances to be symbolic of a gang affiliation, and it is why an 8th grader in Texas was recently suspended for wearing one to school. In this case, the teen complained that her recently-deceased grandmother was a devout Catholic and that she was wearing them to remember her; of course as a devout Catholic her late grandmother would have told her that a rosary is not a necklace and is not meant to be worn as such.

As pointed out in the podcast discussion, in this instance the practice is almost certainly not one of deliberately mocking the Church or the Blessed Virgin, for it is a reasonably safe assumption to state that the wearers are merely following a fashion, and they clearly do not know what they are doing. In fact, as suggested in the discussion, it might even be an opportunity for proselytization – or at the very least a discussion about the Church. Perhaps, the legend that the rosary was given to St. Dominic by the Virgin Mary could also be introduced. In other words, one should realize that a door has been opened, and thereafter take the other person by the hand and walk them through it. Part of that process, it seems to me, can involve the use of pious legends.

One of the wonderful things about being a Catholic is this ongoing celebration throughout the year of the communion of saints: that community that has gone before us and made it to Heaven. Every day the liturgical calendar gives us the opportunity to reflect on and learn about saints whose lives are well-known to us through their own writings and that of their contemporaries, such as St. Teresa of Avila or St. Thomas More, but also to learn about more obscure individuals such as Saint Henry of Finland or Sant Cugat, who never went through the formal process of canonization, but whom the Church entrusts to God and to the devotion of the local populace. These are great opportunities not only for the faithful to educate themselves, but also to reach out to those who do not know the Faith, as a way to discuss and learn about the Church in the context of the physical world – its place names, objects, holidays, and so on – that are already around us, but whose significance in many cases continues to be forgotten.

The Martyrdom of St. Henry of Finland by C.A. Eckman (1854)

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Filed under Barcelona, Catholic Barcelona, Catholic in a Small Town, Church, culture, Finland, rosary, saints, Scandinavia, St. Dominic, Sweden

>St. Bridget of Sweden: No Shrinking Violet

>Let it never be said that The Courtier fails to provide something, whenever possible, for his dear readers’ delectation. In the middle of the night he awoke feeling rather ill, with a sore throat, headache, and achy joints, and had difficulty in getting back to sleep. Yet upon rising at his customary hour after some fitful sleep, and considering the possibility of taking a sick day, he also thought that on such a miserable Friday, the gentle reader would appreciate having something at least marginally interesting to scroll through over their morning or afternoon beverage – depending on how quiet one’s office/home happens to be.

And so it is that this writer directs your attention to the fact that today is the Feast of St. Bridget of Sweden. Though The Courtier rarely if ever needs an excuse to go into panegyrics over anything Scandinavian, despite not being of viking stock himself, today is a particularly fitting occasion on which to do so, for two reasons. First, because St. Bidget is the patron saint of Sweden, and two, thinking about Scandinavia may prove to be something of a mental air conditioner unit – all of those lovely, cool and dark forests and fjords and so on.

Catholics and others who are devotees of praying the rosary may be interested to read and reflect upon St. Bridget’s “Fifteen Prayers”, revealed to her while in Rome and approved for the use of the faithful by Blessed Pius IX. However of particular interest to a broader audience may be the work known variously as the “Liber celestis”, “Liber celestis imperatoris ad reges”, or “Tractatus de summis pontificibus”, but more commonly referred to by their Spanish title, the “Revelaciones” of St. Bridget. Belying the oft-repeated myth (typically on the Left) that medieval Europe was a place of ignorance and provincialism, the Swedish St. Bridget entrusted the editing of the revelations made to her while deep in prayer at the Basilica of St. Paul’s-Outside-the-Walls in Rome to her confessor Alfonso Pecha, a retired bishop from Spain; indeed, St. Bridget herself made the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in NW Spain. She also spent a great deal of time, like St. Catherine of Sienna, trying to convince the Popes to leave Avignon and return to Rome – whether they wanted to hear it or not.

Because her private revelations are personal visions which St. Bridget experienced, and are not to be considered Church Dogma, the interested reader should take them with a grain of spiritual salt. However, there are many passages within them that should be profound points of reflection, in particular when one thinks of the state of Christianity today, and how tainted by moral relativism it has become. Even in St. Bridget’s day this was a problem, and her words from nearly seven centuries ago certainly ring as a call to action in our own time.

Take for example, this portion, in which the Blessed Virgin explains to St. Bridget why it is that Jesus continues to be crucified today by people within the Church itself:

But perhaps you ask: ‘How do they crucify him?’ Well, first they put him on the cross they have prepared for him. This is when they take no notice of the precepts of their Creator and Lord. Then they dishonor him when he warns them through his servants to serve him, and they despise this and do as they please.

They crucify his right hand by mistaking justice for injustice, saying: ‘Sin is not so grave and odious to God as it is said nor does God punish anyone forever, but his threats are only to scare us. Why would he redeem us if he wanted us to perish?’ They do not consider that the least little sin a person delights in is enough to send him or her to eternal punishment.

Since God does not let the least little sin go unpunished nor the least good go unrewarded, they will always have a punishment inasmuch as they have a constant intention of sinning, and my Son, who sees their heart, counts that as an act. For they would carry out their intention, if my Son permitted it.

They crucify his left hand by turning virtue into vice. They want to continue sinning until the end, saying: ‘If we say at the end, just once, “God, have mercy on me!” God’s mercy is so great that he will pardon us.’

This is not virtue, wanting to sin without making amends, wanting to get the prize without having to struggle for it, not unless there is some contrition in the heart, not unless a person really wants to mend his ways, if only he could do so were it not for illness or same other impediment.

They crucify his feet by taking pleasure in sinning without once thinking of my Son’s bitter punishment or without once thanking him from the bottom of their hearts and saying: ‘God, how bitterly you suffered! Praise be to you for your death!’ Such words never come from their lips.

The contemporary reader, if he has been paying attention to what has been going on in society in general over the past several decades, will no doubt be astounded in reading this passage to recognize the splintering and cracking of the universal Church, in part because of a substantial movement since the 1960′s to declare sin not to be sinful.

In naming St. Bridget as one of the six patron saints of Europe, Pope John Paul II wrote that:

She spoke unabashedly to princes and pontiffs, declaring God’s plan with regard to the events of history. She was not afraid to deliver stern admonitions about the moral reform of the Christian people and the clergy themselves (cf. Revelations, IV, 49; cf. also IV, 5)…Yet there is no doubt that the Church, which recognized Bridget’s holiness without ever pronouncing on her individual revelations, has accepted the overall authenticity of her interior experience. She stands as an important witness to the place reserved in the Church for a charism lived in complete docility to the Spirit of God and in full accord with the demands of ecclesial communion. In a special way too, because the Scandinavian countries from which Bridget came were separated from full communion with the See of Rome during the tragic events of the 16th century, the figure of this Swedish saint remains a precious ecumenical “bridge”, strengthened by the ecumenical commitment of her order.

Because Sweden has been Lutheran-Calvinist for such a long time, it is very easy to forget that it had a Catholic past which is still very much visible in its architecture and customs. Yet because of immigration from other parts of Europe and the rest of the world, the number of Catholics in Sweden is growing. With the passage of time, it may be that native Swedes themselves may want to reconsider their views on the Catholic Church and to come home to it; such a dream is by no means outside the realms of possibility. After all, did any of us think we would live to see the day when so many Anglicans would be coming home?

In an age when few Catholics anymore feel sufficiently convicted to call a spade a spade, perhaps the example of this strong and unafraid woman whose memory we honor today will inspire not only her countrymen but also many of us to witness to truth, rather than to remain silent.

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Filed under Church, Middle Ages, Scandinavia, St. Bridget, Sweden

>The Private World of Ingmar Bergman

>Thanks to my brother Alex for sending along this amazing story from W Magazine. In the November issue, Diane Solway details the life of legendary Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman at his country retreat on the remote island of Fårö in the Baltic Sea, where beginning in 1966 he spent long periods of time working and thinking. Solway deals with the somewhat complicated family life of a man who had many wives and lovers, as well as children from many of them, reminding this reader quite a bit of the rather convoluted private life of another 20th Century genius, Pablo Picasso. However the article also shares some of the unusual details of life in this isolated and spartan home.

It’s hilarious to read, for example, that the great Ingmar Bergman, iconic director of modern cinema, loved American popcorn films and popular television, and might spent the afternoon in his private screening room enjoying “Jurassic Park”, or the work of Jim Henson. “Bergman was a fan of the Muppets,” Solway writes, “particularly the out-of-control drummer, Animal.” One wonders what he thought of the Swedish Chef. It is also interesting to note in the article how Bergman, who always struggled with his agnosticism, came in some way to rely upon the local Lutheran church as he grew older.

Long before his death on the island in 2007, Bergman had sold the rights to his films, so upon his passing he willed that his home and all of its contents (save each of his children being allowed to keep one memento) be sold to the highest bidder. The photos which accompany Ms. Solway’s piece in W are the only ones ever to be published of how the residence appeared during Bergman’s tenure there. In this he was not unlike his contemporary Greta Garbo, who upon her death in 1990 also scattered her possessions to the winds. Prior to auction, her heirs allowed Patrick Stutz and Architectural Digest to visit the reclusive Swedish actress’ Manhattan apartment where she had lived since 1953.

We can often learn a great deal about the private thoughts of a public figure by examining how they spent their days. The great Philip II of Spain, for example, did not have a grand suite of rooms at the Escorial Palace, but rather a small and austere bedroom located just off the sanctuary of the monastic church of the imperial complex, where he could hear mass easily when ill. In Bergman’s case, it is somehow not surprising to find not only a spartan, but slightly sad place where he spent much of his time, particularly in his declining years.

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Filed under architecture, Bergman, cinema, design, film, Greta Garbo, Muppets, Picasso, Scandinavia, Sweden

>Review: "Brødre" in Arms

>As faithful readers of this blog know, I have a thing for Scandinavian cinema, and for Danish cinema in particular. The Danes have a dark but sensitive touch when it comes to examining the human spirit and the importance of family life. Susanne Bier’s film Brødre (“Brothers”), while set in the present-day, is a timeless exploration of the casualties of war, both in the field and at home: while dealing with the war in Afghanistan, it could just as easily have been set in the American Civil War, World War II, or the like.

The script, written by Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen, who previously worked with the film’s male lead Ulrich Thomsen on the interesting black comedy “Adams Æbler”, seems deceptively simple at first. Michael, played by Thomsen, one of the best actors working in cinema today, is a soldier returning to Afghanistan for a three-month tour. The day before leaving for the front he must go pick up his brother Jannik, played by Nikolaj Lie Kass, who is being let out of prison after assaulting and seriously injuring a bank teller in a robbery gone bad. The Cain and Abel roles of the two brothers are established quickly, and as Michael leaves, we suspect that Jannik is going to end up in some mischief.

That expectation is quickly altered however, when Michael’s helicopter is shot down over Afghanistan, and he is declared dead. The family mourns, altering all of their lives, but out of that sorrow Jannik begins to change. Meanwhile, unknown to all of them, Michael is in fact alive and has been captured by the Taliban, who hold him in a prison camp. As life evolves in subtle, new ways at home, Michael suffers at the hands of his captors, and is called upon to act on their behalf in an horrific fashion.

Eventually Michael is freed by British and American forces, and is returned to his family in Denmark. He is not the same man he was when he left, and cannot bring himself to face what went on in the camp. His family has also changed, and his relations with them become increasingly strained and difficult. As his character spirals out of control Thomsen’s portrayal recalls much of the same violence he so aptly demonstrated in Arven (“The Inheritance), of a man whose circumstances have left him hopeless.

Michael repeats, at the beginning and near the conclusion of the film, what at first seems an amoral, nihilistic self-view: “I will always love you. That is the only truth that remains. Life is neither right nor wrong, good or bad. But I love you. That’s all I know.” What the film shows us, however, is that there is right and wrong, good and bad. Even if Michael himself does not recognize it as such, he does recognize its effects. It is only in his confession of his sins that he finally finds peace and all can begin to heal. We feel deeply for him in the autumn light, sitting in a park with his wife, as her pressing of him to open up to her is finally accomplished.

However the real revelation in this film is Connie Nielsen’s performance. She is probably best-known to American audiences for her roles in “Gladiator” and “Rushmore”, as well as a recurring role on “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit”. Her turn as Sarah, Michael’s long-suffering wife in the film, is extraordinary. At several points during the film, particularly once Michael has returned home from the war, I found myself saying, “Now THAT is a wife.”

Nielsen won the Best Actress award at Denmark’s equivalent of the Oscars, as well as at the San Sebastian and Indianapolis film festivals, and received numerous nominations for her performance. She simply glows on screen. Beyond this, though, there is a wonderfully earthy, sensitive devotion to her portrayal of the imperfect wife who, whatever happens, does love her husband, and who realizes that there is more going on than meets the eye. Despite everything, she knows that her husband desperately needs her help if they are to go on together.

Brødre is a rich but simple film, full of almost Biblical parallels and yet surprisingly full of hope. We see that people are capable of change, both for the worse and for the better, but that ultimately salvation is possible for anyone, no matter what they have done. While definitely not something to watch with the little tykes, it is a highly recommended example of well-crafted family drama.

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Filed under cinema, Denmark, film, Scandinavia

>Robotarna Anfalla!

>As my regular readers know, I have an endless fascination with Scandinavian things, and hope to do some traveling there someday. Apparently one place to avoid however, is the town of Bålsta. My brother Alex sent me an article describing, according to the Swedish press, how a factory worker there was recently attacked by a robot:

The Local: Sweden’s News in English
April 28, 2009
Robot attacked Swedish factory worker

A Swedish company has been fined 25,000 kronor ($3,000) after a malfunctioning robot attacked and almost killed one of its workers at a factory north of Stockholm.

Public prosecutor Leif Johansson mulled pressing charges against the firm but eventually opted to settle for a fine.

“I’ve never heard of a robot attacking somebody like this,” he told news agency TT.

The incident took place in June 2007 at a factory in Bålsta, north of Stockholm, when the industrial worker was trying to carry out maintenance on a defective machine generally used to lift heavy rocks. Thinking he had cut off the power supply, the man approached the robot with no sense of trepidation.

But the robot suddenly came to life and grabbed a tight hold of the victim’s head. The man succeeded in defending himself but not before suffering serious injuries.

“The man was very lucky. He broke four ribs and came close to losing his life,” said Leif Johansson.

The matter was subject to an investigation by both the Swedish Work Environment Authority (Arbetsmiljöverket) and the police.

Prosecutor Johansson chastised the company for its inadequate safety procedures but he also placed part of the blame on the injured worker.

Thank goodness the man survived. It does give one pause to think of scenarios like in “The Terminator” and “I, Robot” where machines designed to do our bidding turn us. As robots are given greater autonomous programming by their designers, no doubt events such as this are only going to increase in frequency.

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Filed under robots. technology, Scandinavia, Sweden