Category Archives: Sweden

>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, 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

>Rebuilding Russia’s Capital

>There is a wonderful article in the Torygraph today about the restoration of an 18th century manor house in Sweden by art historian Lars Sjöberg, curator emeritus of the National Museum of Stockholm and a specialist in 18th century Swedish decorative arts. Frequent visitors to these pages know that I usually do not need much prompting to write about things Swedish, as Scandinavia is an ongoing pet interest of mine – my review of Maria Larssons eviga ögonblick being the most recent example. However as interesting as Mr. Sjöberg’s article is, in this instance it serves as a jumping-off point for something occurring further east which has probably escaped your attention, gentle reader, for it certainly did mine.

Many important Northern European cities are marked by exuberant Baroque, Roccoco, Neoclassical, and fantastical Victorian structures, as a result of their respective countries coming into international prominence beginning in the 17th century and continuing up into the First World War. St. Petersburg is probably the most obvious example, since it was a purpose-built capital and was lavished upon by successive generations of Romanovs. Yet even though St. Petersburg was the political capital of the Russian Empire during the imperial period, Moscow was still the spiritual center of the country, as indeed it remains today.

Since 1992 the Mayor of Moscow has been Yuri Luzhkov, a man who has placed an indelible stamp on the architecture of the Russian capital – and an often questionable one. I for one was very pleased when Mr. Luzhkov helped to bring about the reconstruction of several iconic Muscovite buildings completely destroyed by the Communists, including the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan, the Resurrection Gateway that marked the ceremonial entrance into Red Square, and the Cathedral of Our Savior. Mr. Luzhkov had the good taste to tear down some of the appalling Soviet-era buildings that marred many parts of the city, though truthfully I for one would love to see even more of this rot cut away from the urban fabric.

Unfortunately he also had the bad taste to erect the hideously ridiculous monument to Peter the Great which now dominates the waterfront along the Moskva River, and this was a preview of things to come. Despite the laudable efforts to bring back the historic core of the city, the burning desire to restore, demolish or build has become something of an obsession for Mr. Luzhkov and his wife, generally considered the wealthiest woman in Russia, who is the owner of a number of construction companies. Dozens of new high-rises are appearing in a haphazard fashion all over the city, rather than following the example of city planners in capitals like London and Paris, who try to keep modern skyscrapers in a centralized location away from historic districts whenever possible. Architects, preservationists and historians have become increasingly disturbed by projects over the past ten years which have seen the demolition of historic buildings in Moscow, which are sometimes replaced with poorly-executed copies in contemporary materials.

An example of this is the project to restore and finish Catherine the Great’s Tsaritsyno Palace, a curious 18th century interpretation of Gothic architecture which was never completed. By the late 19th century the structure had become, in essence, a roofless ruin, and the park surrounding it a popular excursion site for Muscovites. The Luzhkovs decided to restore the complex, even though they did not have planning approval when they began work, and only received it long after demolition and construction began. Not only does the structure now have a roof, but it has seen a number of additions, both to the interior and exterior of the building, as well as a great deal of re-landscaping of the site. The hope is that the completed structure will house an art museum to challenge the pre-eminence of the Hermitage, by collecting in one place all of the scattered collections of state-owned art in Moscow.

I do not hold to the school of thought that says all ruined buildings ought to be left as ruins – this strikes me as both very English and very Protestant. Wordsworth for example, may have found the ruins of Tintern Abbey to be romantic; I find them appalling. However, while it may have been a stroke of genius to seek the restoration and rehabilitation of the never-inhabited Tsaritsnyo Palace as a location for a grand new art museum, there does seem to be something of a Disney-like falseness about what is being done to the place (a similar fear for architectural heritage I have for when Castro finally dies and American businesses move back into Cuba.)

Urban planning, when handled well, can yield superb results. My beloved Barcelona’s rehabilitation in the lead-up to the 1992 Olympics is an often-garlanded example among architects and city planners, and here in Washington the re-development of our formerly blighted central city has been a remarkable transformation to observe. Yet at the same time as one demolishes in order to build, there has to be some sensitivity to the past, not only in the preservation but expansion of our cities, particularly in such an historic capital as Moscow. Stalin did his best to destroy and mar the Moscow skyline, but some of the new construction taking place there today is, arguably, just as deplorable as what Uncle Joe wrought.

Construction work on the Tsaritsyno Palace, Moscow

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Filed under architecture, art, Moscow, Russia, Sweden, urban planning

>Review: Maria Larssons eviga ögonblick

>Now that the home computer appears – APPEARS – to be back in working order, and my brief summer vacation is at an end, it is time to get back into the swing of things. For some of my readers, it is back-to-school, but even for those of us who are long out of school, September brings its own rewards with more pleasant weather than in the previous two months. It is time to turn back to serious books and films, if we have put those aside for the summer, and challenge ourselves once again.

A fit challenge for the changing of the seasons is the 2008 Swedish film “Maria Larssons eviga ögonblick”, entitled “Everlasting Moments” in the U.S. Maria Larsson is a working-class woman with a large and growing family, married to Mikael, an often drunk, philandering and violent man who, while physically strong, is temperamentally rather weak and unable to control himself or hold a job for more than a short stretch of time. Maria both cares for their brood and works as a seamstress and cleaning lady, in order to help put food on the table. Their lives have moments of joy and fun, but are often marked by episodes of betrayal and brutal violence. Her life is changed permanently as she discovers the world of photography, via a camera won in a raffle.

Director Jan Troell has examined the drama of everyday life at the turn of the previous century several times, and his understanding of the period gives great depth to the look of the film. In a different context admittedly, the palette and tonalities of the cinematography are very reminiscent of the work of Andrew Wyeth, particularly his Helga paintings. The images are often steeped in a mixture of wheat-like and gray tones, not unlike the early sepia and black-and-white pictures which Maria takes. The world created through these shades and hues is so complete that we often do not notice the absence of other colors during the filming. For example, although Mikael is a former sailor and significant portions of the film take place in the dockyards, the only noticeable elements of the color blue come not from the water or from the sky, but from the eyes of the actors.

Ostensibly “Everlasting Moments” is a film about a woman discovering new aspects to herself through the self-expression she is able to develop via the practice of photography. Based on a true story, we can see how Maria has an “eye” for the composition of an image and for capturing things which an average, amateur photographer might miss. A stunning example is the photograph we are shown of a dead girl, laid out on her bed, with her schoolmates peering through the windows in the background.

Interestingly however, for a film which intends to show us about the power of photography to bring about self-discovery, “Everlasting Moments” is not really a film about photography. We see some of the photos which Maria takes, during the course of the film, and they are lovely. But what we are really drawn to is an unanswered question, raised by the narrator (Maria’s eldest daughter): why does Maria stay with a perennially abusive and unfaithful husband? The viewer at first assumes that it is because we are seeing a different age and time, and that women simply did not leave their husbands no matter how abusive.

Yet as the film develops, even as her husband’s abuse takes sometimes horrific turns and Maria comes very close to the edge of total despair, she never completely goes over the edge. Finnish actress Maria Heiskanan, who plays Maria in the film, is something of a sphinx. The audience is not rewarded with a neat and tidy, all-wrapped-up-with-a-bow, explanation as to why this marriage does not disintegrate. Maria has the power to have it do so, as becomes clear, and yet for reasons which are left to the audience to decide, she never makes the final break with Mikael.

Many of the elements which regular viewers of Swedish cinema have come to expect are present in this film: i.e. long-buried family resentment and suicidal acts wrapped in sexual and physical violence. This is not a film for the kiddies, by any means, but unusually for a contemporary filmmaker, Troell has the restraint not to show such graphic images on screen – only hint at them. We know what has happened or is about to happen, but he does not need for us to see it, as Ingmar Bergman often did. Whether this is good taste on the part of a director telling an already difficult and painful story, or whether this is to allow the audience to imagine the worst, who is to say.

The end result is a film which takes advantage of light and shadow, both literal and figurative, as a great photographer does. The dramas of family life are sometimes very black-and-white, but sometimes they are middling shades, and no real distinction is possible to lead to a permanent resolution. In leaving the central question of his heroine’s life unanswered, Troell pays the audience the great compliment of allowing each member of it to draw his own conclusions.

Maria Heiskanan as Maria Larsson in “Everlasting Moments”

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Filed under cinema, film, Ingmar Bergman, movies, photography, 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

>Grattis ABBA!

>Regular readers of this blog know that I do not need much excuse to write about Sweden and its people, subjects I find endlessly fascinating despite my not having a drop of Nordic blood in me. So today I was pleased to read the announcement that the Swedish 70′s super group ABBA will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this spring. While dismissed by less sensitive souls as mere makers of pop-disco tunes, and only thought of by others as the performers of “Dancing Queen” at the end of a long night of boozing, the music of Frida Lyngstad, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Agnetha Fältskog is most definitely worth your reconsideration and exploration. The songs written and produced by this quartet showcase their incredible gifts for harmonization, composition, and lyrical balance that must be appreciated and enjoyed separate from the sparkly costumes and blue eyeshadow that usually come to mind when envisioning these mega-artists of the disco era.

For every fun, light-hearted ABBA song like their first big hit “Waterloo”, there are pieces in the group’s oeuvre which, despite their poppy sound, have a deep emotional resonance, belying the good time-feel that many associate with their work. A very poignant example is one of their later hits, “The Winner Takes It All”, from 1980′s “Super Trouper” album. The song not only provides a well-crafted analogy of romance to card-playing, but reflects in a frank way the personal conflicts between the members of the band at the time – experiences universal to anyone who has lost a love or a good friend. The resignation of the singer in the final verses is palpable:

I don’t wanna talk
If it makes you feel sad
And I understand
You’ve come to shake my hand
I apologize
If it makes you feel bad
Seeing me so tense
No self-confidence
But you see
The winner takes it all

Another example of the pathos which undercuts the commonly-held American misconception of ABBA as vapid, Scandinavian goofballs is their 1981 hit “One of Us” which, since it came at the end of their time together, remains less known to many. While “The Winner Takes It All” has a stoic quality in the midst of goodbyes, “One of Us” is unabashedly sorrowful, aided by an Italian mandolin section that evokes better times spent together. Who hasn’t spent time waiting for a telephone call of reconciliation that never comes?

One of us is crying
One of us is lying
In a lonely bed
Staring at the ceiling
Wishing she was somewhere else instead
One of us is lonely
One of us is only
Waiting for a call
Sorry for herself, feeling stupid feeling small
Wishing she had never left at all

Yet less I end on a somber note, I would also like to direct my readers’ attention to “ABBA Oro”, a greatest hits compilation of ABBA singing in Spanish. Some songs on this album are already well-known to pop music fans, including the Latin-flavored “Fernando” and “Chiquitita”. Both tunes are, to my ear, infinitely better in Spanish than in English, and the lyrics to both pieces were, oddly enough, re-written with help from Charo, that staple of 70′s celebrity talk and variety shows. Indeed, many are unaware of the fact that Charo is an accomplished musician, having trained with the legendary Spanish guitarist Andrés Torres Segovia.

The ability to write a good song in a language that is not your native tongue is a rather remarkable thing. The ability to re-write that song in a SECOND language that is not your native tongue is extraordinary. In the example of the lovely “I Have A Dream”, the singers tell us:

I believe in angels
Something good in everything I see
I believe in angels
When I know the time is right for me
I’ll cross the stream – I have a dream

In the re-written Spanish version, since it was not possible to translate word-for-word from the original and fit into the time signature, the lyrics are equally, if not more poignant:

Creo en angelitos
que me cuidan siempre de caer
Creo en angelitos
que la vida linda me hacen ver
Y llegare
yo lo sone

And so, for your enjoyment (and appropriately to the season), here is ABBA performing this charming tune about angels, in Spanish:

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Filed under ABBA, music, Spanish, Sweden