Tag Archives: Christian

Premiering Tonight: The Faithful Traveler in the Holy Land

Those who are regular perusers of these pages will remember my review of Diana von Glahn’s terrific series “The Faithful Traveler” on EWTN.  Well now, Diana is back with a new series, premiering tonight at 6:30 pm Eastern on EWTN, which she and her husband David talked about with us recently on the Catholic Weekend show.  In “The Faithful Traveler in the Holy Land”, the von Glahns take us on the pilgrimage of a lifetime, and you will most definitely want to come along for the trip.

Employing a mix of documentary-style footage, unscripted observations, and interesting interviews, with – I have to say – some beautifully photographed segments and well-designed, appropriately helpful graphics, this six-part series covers many of the places most of us only know from Bible stories.  From Mount Carmel, Bethlehem, and Nazareth, to Jericho, Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, we are shown all over Israel and Palestine.  Along the way we see many amazing things, we meet interesting people, we laugh, and we may even shed a tear.

We also come to appreciate why seeing these places is such a wonderful opportunity for Christians to understand their faith on a new level.  As Diana takes great pains to point out, we cannot know for certain, in most cases, whether a particular contemporary structure does in fact stand on the site of the original one from Biblical times.  Yet without focusing so much on that issue, she helps the viewer to consider the broader historicity of the Bible.  For example, St. Luke in his Gospel describes the Virgin Mary as proceeding in haste to the Hill Country in Judea, to visit the now-pregnant St. Elizabeth.  Well and there it is, on screen: the Hill Country of Judea, which as Diana shows us, is very hilly indeed.

Throughout this well-produced series, it is difficult to imagine a more engaging on-screen travel companion in the land of the Bible than Diana.  She has done her homework, as any good guide should, mixing a careful balance of providing information of interest to all, with offering some clarification for those who might not have heard of a particular term or concept before.  She is a charming, natural tour guide, never saccharine, and clearly enjoyed the experience – that comes through in spades during the series.  At the same time, she is also realistic about things, such as how exhausting all of the walking is going to be if you do go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

One technical aspect of the show I personally appreciated, and which a lesser producer would not have bothered to take the time to do, was the incorporation of subtitles when needed.  While someone on camera may well be speaking English, we have all been in a situation where we can understand what someone with a thick accent is saying when they are speaking *to* us, but not when they are recorded.  The show makes certain that if there is any question about whether the speaker can be understood, the subtitles go in to help the viewer.

I also appreciated the fact that Diana does not just visit the sites one would expect her to, like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, although of course she does so and takes part in the pious devotions associated with them to show us how it’s done.  However she also takes the time to visit some lesser-known gems in the Holy Land, which I might not otherwise have seen or heard about.  The beautiful little Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation for example, is much smaller than the Basilica of the Annunciation nearby, and yet to my mind is a far more beautiful structure.  And I was surprised to learn about the Church of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, with its beautiful blue and white azulejos and religious art from Spain, given that I have a particular devotion to his birthday and connection to that country.

The fact that there were these two beautiful churches, among many highlighted in the series, surprised me a great deal, as I have seen so many images of really hideous structures over there.  Of course, there is the sweep of history to consider, and Diana makes the point of explaining – and in some cases being able to show us – how layer upon layer of Christian buildings were built one atop the other, as styles changed and wars and time damaged older construction.  Moreover, when she likes something in a building, she likes it, and when she is not so fond of something, she is charitable about it, which is a virtue I could certainly get better at practicing.

Diana also takes time to draw attention to the fact that the native Christian populations in the Holy Land are declining, a phenomenon we are seeing throughout the Middle East.  One comes to understand and appreciate that in many cases, these pilgrimage shrines are not just historic sites, but people’s parish churches, and a part of their community fabric.  So often in these conflicts the plight of Christians caught in the middle are completely ignored by the outside world, while not-so-subtle threats are posted – as Diana shows us – against those who choose to practice Christianity.  The safety and well-being of these communities is something all of us ought to be keeping in our prayers.

You can watch a preview of “The Faithful Traveler in the Holy Land” below, and for air times for all six parts, as well as re-air dates, be sure to check the EWTN website.  You can also purchase copies of BOTH series from the von Glahns at their own site, and particularly for those of my readers who are homeschoolers, this might be something very much worth looking into.  It is a real pleasure to see my fellow Domer Diana back on television again with such a terrific series, one which I highly recommend to my readers.

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“Heaven and Earth” at the National Gallery

The National Gallery of Art’s current show on the art of Byzantium, “Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections”, gathers together a number of rare and interesting works which have never visited the United States before.  It is a comprehensive exhibition, covering nearly 1500 years of art from the pagan and Greco-Roman to the Christian and early Renaissance in the Eastern half of the Roman Empire, from icons and sculpture, to jewelry, textiles, and ecclesiastical objects.  Even if you are not a Christian yourself, for those interested in history and sociological exchanges between cultures, this show is well worth a visit.

To be frank, Byzantine art does not hold a great deal of appeal for me, generally speaking.  I say this as someone who owns about half a dozen reproductions of icons.  Perhaps being of a popish persuasion, although I appreciate the images as an aid to meditation, they do not speak to me in the same way they would to my Christian brethren in the East.

That being said, the intersection of Western and Eastern Christian art, particularly in the Early Renaissance and around the time of the Council of Florence, when there was a reasonable attempt at reuniting the two “lungs” of the Western and Eastern Churches, does hold a certain historical appeal.  Of all the pieces in the National Gallery’s show, the one which spoke most clearly to this cross-pollination, and which I made a bee-line to examine in person, is the “Crucifixion” by the Cretan painter Pavias Andreas (c. 1450-1505) on loan from the National Gallery in Athens.  Hung in the final salon of the exhibition, in a section appropriately entitled “Crosscurrents”, the collection of works in this room demonstrates just this sort of exchange of ideas, and this panel in particular makes it readily apparent, from the mixture of figures dressed in Western and Eastern fashions, and the fact that the artist signed his name in Latin, meaning it was most likely commissioned by an Italian patron.

In this “Crucifixion” we see many pieces of iconography related to the Passion. All three of the crucified have died, and if the viewer was in any doubt as to which of the two thieves crucified with Christ was the good one, we can see that Christ is oriented toward the thief on His right, whose tiny soul is being taken up into Heaven as Christ promised.  The soul of the bad thief, which is emerging from his eye socket – according to pious legend the bad thief’s eyes were plucked out by crows – finds a black, horned little demon waiting for him to take him to Hell.

The earthquake described in the Gospels as having taken place at the moment of Jesus’ death has revealed a skull at the base of Golgotha, “The Place of the Skull”, although the inclusion of a skull in the painting was not meant to be a pun.  It is commonly accepted that the term “Place of the Skull” refers to the shape of the hill of Mount Calvary itself, but there was an earlier tradition that Calvary was the place where the skull of Adam was interred.  This made Christ dying upon the spot where the first man was buried all the more significant.

One could spend hours studying all of the detail in the painting, and still come back to it to learn more.  The artist depicts the Crucifixion with a truly mesmerizing fusion of Eastern and Western ideas and stylistic elements, and a riot of activity and color.  It is the sort of work which the great, rather odd, Flemish painter Hieronymous Bosch, an exact contemporary of Pavias Andreas albeit working hundreds of miles away, would have acknowledged as being that of a kindred spirit to his own.

The piece is thusly described in this slideshow of some of the highlights of the exhibition in The Washington Post which, as usual in the “mainstream” media, entirely misses the point:

An icon of the Crucifixion, made in the latter half of the 15th century, qualifies as beautiful without reference to its religious content, critic Philip Kennicott says. “Never mind the stifling fear of hell promulgated in the lower register, where demons cavort beneath a skull at the base of the cross. Even without engaging with its religious particulars, one senses the presence of something calm and essential in a sea of details and a riot of activity.”

It is always amusing when secular art critics make value judgments on sacred Christian art which they do not understand, particularly since the point of the picture is not the “stifling fear of [H]ell”, but rather Christ’s triumph over it.  The “cavorting” described represents the terror of the demons in realizing that they have lost, and God has won.  Be that as it may, even though it is not the most prominently displayed of the many works in this exhibition, it is definitely worth seeking out, if you are able to catch the show.

“Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections”, is on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington until March 2, 2014.  Following its run at the NGA, it will travel to The Getty in Los Angeles from April 9 – August 25, 2014.

Detail of "The Crucifixion" by Pavias Andreas (2nd Half of the 15th Century) National Gallery, Athens

Detail of “The Crucifixion” by Pavias Andreas (2nd Half of the 15th Century)
National Gallery, Athens


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Ignorance Is Not Bliss

This Saturday on the Catholic Weekend show over on SQPN, we will be talking with guests Fawaz and Ehab Yasi, a rap duo originally from Iraq and now living in California.  I suspect the twist for many of the listeners will be the fact that these twin brothers just so happen to have been born and raised Catholics, and perform pieces whose lyrics are rooted in Christian spirituality.  If this makes you feel uncomfortable, good.  For it is about time that some of us start to feel more uncomfortable about what we are being told, or rather not being told, about the people who happen to hail from this troubled part of the world.

Over the past year or more of the Arab Spring, many Americans have been somewhat rudely awakened to the fact that the Middle East is not an exclusively Muslim bloc with Israel sandwiched in the middle.  Without question, Islam has been the predominant religion in the region for centuries, but students of history know that this was not always the case.

Even today, there are significant Christian populations in this part of the world which, thanks to the alleged mainstream media, you may have been blissfully unaware of until comparatively recently.  In this case, new media has forced old media to reluctantly shine a light on the fact that Christians are suffering in these places at the hands of radical Islamists.  This is one more reason, among many, why we ought to be grateful for the power that new media has to bring forward stories which might otherwise go untold.

And here is where things get a little messy, as international affairs often do, and much to the chagrin of those whose charge is to report the news to us.  Once we become aware of the existence of Christian populations in places like Syria, Lebanon, or Libya, we have to reconsider some of our fundamental assumptions about those countries.  One imagines that it makes liberals just as uncomfortable to learn that the Muslim Brotherhood is sacking and looting museums in order to destroy art and antiquities, as it does conservatives to learn that some of those Palestinian youths throwing stones at Israeli troops are in fact Christians, not Muslims.

When Pope Francis called for a day of prayer and fasting this coming Saturday on behalf of peace in Syria, he did so not simply to be nice.  Rather he first and foremost recognized the power of prayer, in turning to the Almighty with our pleadings and petitions.  Secondly, he is very much aware that Syrian Christians are particularly in need of help and ministry, but are incapable in many instances of receiving it.  As minorities, even if in some areas substantial minorities, they often do not have the resources which would protect them from reprisals on the part of those who seek to do them harm for simply existing.  By bringing awareness to the fact that there in fact are many Christians in Syria, the Holy Father is challenging many people’s assumptions about what Syria, and indeed the entire Middle East, happens to be.

Our nature being what it is, i.e. fallen and imperfect, we know that human beings have a regrettable tendency to pick on those weaker than themselves.  History is replete with examples of man’s inhumanity to man in this regard.  We can think of the treatment of the early Christians in ancient Rome, the Jews in medieval Granada, Catholics in 1970′s Belfast, or Copts in Cairo today.  Without wallowing in a scab-picking celebration of perpetual victimhood, which of course is the prerogative of the left, we can reasonably acknowledge that we do not always treat each other well.

However when we challenge our assumptions about the “other”, we realize they are actually more like ourselves than we might at first have believed.  Remaining ignorant of history allows the media, and by extension us as their audience, to stuff entire populations of human beings into convenient, one-size-fits-all categories.  This is not only inaccurate but intellectually dishonest.

In the end, by constantly seeking to educate yourself, and questioning what you are being told, you will come to a far greater awareness of the truth behind the broadly-brused headlines, whether in Syria, Egypt, or even in your own community.


War damage to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace
Homs, Syria


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Church and The Communal Christian

This past Saturday on the Catholic Weekend show, we had an engaging discussion with “Blessed, Beautiful, and Bodacious” author Pat Gohn, who in a recent blog post over on Patheos gave some of her own reflections on Pope Francis’ new encyclical, Lumen Fidei.  As Pat writes, “To assist me in not failing, Jesus has given me brothers and sisters in the church, along with the graces of the sacraments, to insure it.” I was similarly struck by the cooperative, community effort which Pope Francis was pointing to, which stands in stark contrast to many aspects of contemporary American experience.

One of the threads running through “The Light of Faith” is the embrace of the idea of the Church being a living, vibrant community. It is through this active practice of one’s faith, and not simply through the development of individual personal relationships with Christ, whereby one comes to truly be a part of the Church.  In order to do so however, there needs to be a bit of death of the old self, a putting away of things which we like but which in many cases cannot be turned to good ends.  And for contemporary Americans in particular, one of the most difficult aspects of this is the idea that physical objects are not actually going to help us build up the kind of Church which Christ is calling us to.

Sublimation of the self in order to be more fully a part of the whole is something which may seem at odds with the American experience, or rather, what Americans believe their experience to be.  We like to think of ourselves as people who could go it alone if need be, in the spirit of explorers and pioneers seeking new frontiers.  However more often than not we are glad to give over control of our lives to businesses and organizations whose ultimate goals are not salvation, but profit, where the ends of profitability justify the means of parting the fool from his money.  Like in all wealthy civilizations everywhere, Americans tend to enslave themselves to whatever their personal object of lust or gluttony happens to be.  And being Americans, we do so on a simply massive scale.  For surely there has never been so acquisitive a nation in the history of the world as this one, not just among elites but across all levels of society.  

In building our communities around things, rather than around people, we measure ourselves so cheaply as to link our personal value to products made out of molded petroleum products or pressed earth.  In truth, by doing so all we have done in creating communities centered around materialism is to provide further evidence that Madison Avenue has a greater hold on the American psyche than we care to admit.  And we revel in the self-perpetuating ignorance we have created, without even realizing we have done so.  I am reminded of a television news presenter who, shortly after Pope Francis was elected, held an online poll asking, essentially, whether Christians ought to proselytize.  It betrayed a stunningly embarrassing ignorance of basic Christianity which, unfortunately, has seeped into the culture.

In contrast to this, Pope Francis puts the community of believers squarely out in front, in defiance of those who say that Christians ought to keep their Christianity to themselves.  “Faith,” he writes, “is not a private matter, a completely individualistic notion or a personal opinion: it comes from hearing, and it is meant to find expression in words and to be proclaimed.”  Much of America and indeed the world today would say otherwise, putting comfort ahead of sacrifice and damning the consequences, without realizing that those consequences may very well damn us, in return.  

The community to which the Christian belongs must be something more than a cultural institution, if the word “Church” is to have some meaning beyond a place where Christians assemble.  If “Church” is nothing more than a building where a group of people like to get together and sing the same songs and listen to motivational speakers telling them what nice people they are, one can hardly call that a “Church”.  It is more like a social club, where a rather flat and blurry facsimile of the Jesus from the Gospels is the topic, instead of football, or politics, or comic books.

The challenge of being part of the Church, in a truly Christian community, is the challenge of losing the self in order to gain the other.  It does not mean that we never argue, for even the Apostles did that, both when Jesus was with them and even after His Death and Resurrection.  However they learned over time to work together to build their community and keep it together, without compromising the truth.  A community based solely on material gains and the enthronement of personal pleasures is little more than a mutual admiration society, and one which is destined to fail us all.

Detail of “Christ’s Charge to St. Peter” by Raphael (1515)
Victoria and Albert Museum, London


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Thank You, Governor and Mrs. Romney

As you might imagine, gentle reader, the avalanche of news of late has kept me away from blogging as often as I would have liked.  It is sometimes difficult to focus on interesting buildings, or discoveries in the art world, or considerations of trends in our culture, when there is so much information and opinion to sift through.  Now that the U.S. elections are over, it is time to get back to work.

However before I do so, I want to express my thanks to Governor and Mrs. Romney for all of the hard work they did to try to put this country back on the right track.  Of course no Presidential campaign goes it alone.  There are many hundreds and thousands of people who did their best, and they deserve many thanks also.

In this particular election, which was not the case for me in the previous one, I am genuinely sorry both for our country and for the Romneys personally that we will not have the chance to have them as President and First Lady.  We will not get to experience their devoted service to others, in response to how they themselves have been blessed – a fact which is well-known to those whom they have helped, and which sense of duty they have embraced all of their lives.  From the time I first got to know about the Romneys, way back in the previous Presidential primary cycle in 2007, I have been struck by what genuinely good people they are, models of both responsible citizenship and human decency.  By now all know how both of them have not only reached out to support those in need, but also to support each other through some very painful times.

Please do not mistake my reading, gentle reader, for I am not suggesting that the Romneys are saints, or some sort of embodiment of human perfection.  They are flawed and imperfect as we all are, because they are real people rather than celebrities created out of whole cloth.  Yet as models of marital/familial devotion, and of the active practice of the tenets of one’s faith, many of us could well do to take a lesson from them both.

The thought occurred to me this morning, as the impact of the election began to sink in more fully, that the example of St. Peter in the 6th chapter of the Gospel of St. John is particularly instructive in this regard, with respect to how one deals with disappointment, adversity, and loss.  This is a section of the Gospels which is often ignored or overlooked by many non-Catholics.  It particularly addresses how we Catholics understand the Eucharist, but it also tells us something about how we are to accept things which seem incredibly difficult or impossible for us.

After Christ tells His disciples that unless they eat His flesh and drink His blood, they will not have eternal life, many of them began to leave Him.  “This teaching is hard,” Jesus’ audience says, and they cannot accept what He has told them.  Jesus then asks the Twelve, those closest to Him, whether they are preparing to leave Him, also.  In response to this question St. Peter – in his inimitably Petrine way – makes a profound statement of  faith.  “Lord, to whom shall we go? For You alone have the words of eternal life.”

And that is really THE answer, in the end, for there is no other option.  Whatever comes, for those of us who practice the Catholic faith which comes to us from the Apostles (including St. Peter, the first Pope), whatever Providence brings or permits, we must hold fast to Him no matter how harshly the winds blow and the seas foam. And they most assuredly will, as our country appears convinced more than ever to embrace the culture of death.  Yet to do other than cling to Christ is to tie our colors to something floundering in the rocks, and which in the fullness of time is ultimately doomed to failure.

Whatever life holds next for Governor and Mrs. Romney, the last several years have undoubtedly been a tremendous burden and strain for both them and their family, and yet they have handled it all with grace, with hard work, and with love.  I thank them deeply for their service, and I hope that they will continue to work together to do good for their community and their country, as they are able.  May God bless them both.


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