Category Archives: Doctors of the Church

Good Friday

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“…Cyprian, Lawrence, Chrysogonus, John and Paul, Cosmas and Damian and all Your Saints: we ask that through their merits and prayers, in all things we may be defended by Your protecting help.  Through Christ our Lord.  Amen.”
-Eucharistic Prayer I, Communicantes

Early Christian persecution had recently spared northern Africa.  But, in 250 AD, the Emperor Decius, began a furious persecution of Christians.  St  Cyprian tells a group of Christian prisoners that their sufferings are earning them greater honors than the proud officials who confine them there will ever have.  They have missed a whole year of changing seasons in the outside world, but their suffering brings them far better rewards in Heaven.

“Forget the judges and governors.  Let them puff themselves up with the symbols of their dignity, which lasts for only a year.  The heavenly dignity in you is already sealed by the brightness of a year’s honor, and its victorious glory continues into another year.

The changing months have passed, and Winter is gone; but you, shut up in prison, suffered the winter of persecution instead of the inclement weather outside.  After Winter came the mildness of Spring, rejoicing with roses and crowned with flowers; but you had roses and flowers from the gardens of paradise, and heavenly garlands wreathed your brows.

Now the Summer bears its fruitful harvest, and the threshing-floor is full of grain; but you sowed glory, and are reaping the fruit of glory.  On the Lord’s threshing-floor, you are seeing the chaff burned with unquenchable fire.  Like grains of wheat, winnowed and precious, purged of chaff and gathered in, you see prison as your granary.

Nor  does Autumn lack spiritual graces for the tasks of the season.  The vintage is pressed outside, and the grape that will soon flow into the cups is pressed.  You, rich bunches from the Lord’s vineyard,  branches with fruit already ripe, pressed by worldly troubles, fill your wine vat in the torments of prison, and shed your blood instead of wine.  Standing up bravely to your suffering, you willingly drink the cup of martyrdom.

So the year rolls on for the Lord’s servants.  Thus we celebrate the changing seasons with spiritual honors and heavenly rewards.”

-Letter 15, St Cyrprian of Carthage, (200-258 AD), Bishop, Martyr, Father & Doctor of the Church

Blessed Good Friday!

Love,
Matthew

Jan 28 – St Thomas Aquinas, O.P., (1225-1274) – Doctor of the Church, Doctor Communis, Doctor Angelicus, “The Dumb Ox!”

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Also known as the “Common Doctor/Doctor Communis”, which is high praise, meaning his opine is universal, something for everyone, relevant in every situation.

Probably, for me, the highlight, liturgically, of the year is Holy Thursday, after communion has been distributed and the priest is enwrapped in cope, incense is lit, the Blessed Sacrament is placed in the monstrance, the procession to the place of reservation begins and Pange Lingua, attributed to St Thomas Aquinas, and not just because I am his wonk, is sung beautifully and reverently, nearly as chant…

“Sing, my tongue, the Saviour’s glory,
of His Flesh, the mystery sing;
of the Blood, all price exceeding,
shed by our Immortal King…

Faith for all defects supplying,
Where the feeble senses fail…”

It is very moving for me.  My mother always taught me to genuflect on both knees when the Blessed Sacrament is exposed.  The altar is then stripped and ornamentation in the sanctuary is removed in anticipation of the events remembered the following day.  There is such a peace, solemnity, silence, and profound meaning beyond words I look forward to each year.

I tried reading the Summa on my own, once, and only once.  Emphasis on the word “tried” and “once”.  I quickly gave up.  Calculus is easier, more self-evident.

There are a great number of erudite tomes way over my head which are best introduced to the novice, literally, with a well seasoned, compassionate guide to whom the bewildered, overwhelmed student can revert with great frequency, great frequency, receiving tender mercies of experienced instruction and wisdom, presuming these qualities are present in the teacher.  Thank God for merciful instructors.  We would never graduate without their encouragement and support.  I try to imitate that with my own students, who, too, are deeply grateful, usually, but there are some… 🙁  For those students, I have to pray even harder!!! 🙂

Don’t try the Summa on your own, boys and girls.  Fair warning.  Many of the original works of the Church Fathers fall into this category as well.  You have been fairly warned!  I have the intellectual scars from those “knowledge bombs”, a term one of my students recently introduced me to, to prove it!  Wanna see?  🙂

St. Thomas Aquinas was born January 28, 1225, in Aquino, a town in southern Italy from which he takes his surname. In his masterwork, Summa Theologica, he represents the pinnacle of Scholasticism, the philosophical and theological school that reconciles faith with reason and the works of Aristotle with the scriptures.

At the time Thomas lived, the works of Aristotle were being rediscovered in the West and great Christian thinkers of the day spent a good deal of attention and effort trying to unify Divine revelation with human philosophy.  In the East, intellectual life flourished.  The West was still recovering from the inertia of the “Dark Ages”, where little intellectual innovation occurred.  It is said St Thomas was the spark who prepared the the West for the Renaissance.  Aristotle had been preserved in Arabic, and Islam was producing great Aristotelian thinkers.  Western Christians needed to respond in kind.

The family of Thomas Aquinas was a noble one, his parents, the Count of Aquino and Countess of Teano, were related to Emperors Henry VI and Frederick II, as well as to the Kings of Aragon, Castile, and France.  He was the youngest of eight children.

During his early education, Thomas exhibited great acumen in the medieval trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Described as “a witty child”, who “had received a good soul”, even as a child student, he posed the question to his instructors, “What is God?”

Because of his high birth, Thomas’ entry into the Dominican order in the early 1240s was very surprising, and especially disturbing to his family. They especially opposed entry into “mendicant”, or begging orders, who beg for their sustenance, thinking it far below their family status.

Thomas’ family employed various means to dissuade him from his vocation, including kidnapping him and imprisoning him for two years.  Thomas spent his time tutoring his sisters, and communicating with other Dominicans.  His resolve was strong.  Family members became desperate to dissuade Thomas, who remained determined to join the Dominicans. At one point, two of his brothers resorted to the measure of hiring a prostitute to seduce him. Thomas drove her away wielding a fire iron. That night two angels appeared to him as he slept and strengthened his determination to remain celibate giving him a mystical belt of chastity.  He never faced sexual temptation again. (????!!!! Really? Wow? :< I guess. Mixed feelings on that one…. 🙂 [I DO like my sin, unfortunately. 🙁 Give me strength, Lord! :] Concupiscence.

Upon his escape, which was arranged by his mother, Theodora, as a face saving measure, rather than all out surrender to a religious order, Thomas returned to the Dominicans and his studies.  Since, “still waters run deep”, Thomas was a thoughtful, and hence, quiet student.  His taciturn nature was deceiving.  So much so, his classmates thought him dim-witted.  Possessing hefty stature, his classmates nick-named him “The Dumb Ox!”

After a stint as a student in Paris, Thomas made his way to Cologne to teach, receiving ordination to the priesthood in 1250. Soon after this, he was assigned to teach at Paris, where he also worked toward his degree of Doctor of Theology, which he received in 1257, with his friend St. Bonaventure, after some intramural political difficulty.

The remainder of his life was spent in prayer, study, and writing his great Summa Theologica, a systematic attempt to present the findings of scholasticism. Although Thomas is sometimes perceived simply as an analytical and methodical writer, he was, especially in his later years, given to periods of mystical ecstasy. During one such experience, on December 6, 1273, he resigned from his writing project, indicating that he had perceived such wonders that his previous work seemed worthless.  During the Feast of St. Nicolas in 1273, St. Thomas Aquinas had a mystical vision that made writing seem unimportant to him. At Mass, he heard a voice coming from a crucifix tell him, “Thou hast written well of Me, Thomas; what reward wilt thou have?” to which St. Thomas Aquinas replied, “None other than Thyself, Lord.”

When St. Thomas Aquinas’ confessor, Father Reginald of Piperno, urged him to keep writing, Aquinas replied, “I can do no more. Such secrets have been revealed to me that all I have written now appears to be of little value, as so much straw.” St. Thomas Aquinas never wrote again.

The Summa Theologica was left unfinished, proceeding only as far as the ninetieth question of the third part. St. Thomas Aquinas died a few months later, on March 7, 1274. Today, Thomist theology stands at the center of the Roman Catholic tradition.

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-The Temptation of St Thomas Aquinas, by Diego Velazquez, 1631-2, oil on canvas, Orihuela Cathedral Museum

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– artist anonymous, Cusco School, (1690 – 1695), “Saint Thomas Aquinas, Protector of the University of Cusco”, oil on canvas, H:1,610 mm (63.39 in), W:1,170 mm (46.06 in), Museo de Arte de Lima, Peru.

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“Joy is the noblest human act.” -St Thomas Aquinas

“Charity is the form, mover, mother and root of all the virtues.” – Saint Thomas Aquinas

“To love God is something greater than to know Him.” -St. Thomas Aquinas

“Almighty and ever-living God, I approach the sacrament of your only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.  I come sick to the doctor of life, unclean to the fountain of mercy, blind to the radiance of eternal light, and poor and needy to the Lord of heaven and earth.  Lord, in your great generosity, heal my sickness, wash away my defilement, enlighten my blindness, enrich my poverty, and clothe my nakedness.  Amen.”  -St Thomas Aquinas

“May I receive the bread of angels, the King of kings and Lord of lords, with humble reverence, with the purity and faith, the repentance and love, and the determined purpose that will help to bring me to salvation.  May I receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood, and its reality and power.  Amen.”  -St Thomas Aquinas

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Wonderful Theologian and Doctor of the Church, you learned more from the Crucifix than from books. Combining both sources, you left us the marvelous “Summa” of theology, broadcasting most glorious enlightenment to all.  You always sought for true light and studied for God’s honor and glory.  Help us all to study our religion as well as all other subjects needed for life, without ambition and pride in imitation of you. Amen.

Prayer

Father of wisdom, You inspired Saint Thomas Aquinas with an ardent desire for holiness and study of sacred doctrine. Help us, we pray, to understand what he taught, and to imitate what he lived.   Amen.

Love,
Matthew

Jan 13 – St Hilary of Poitiers, (315?-368 AD), Doctor of the Church, Doctor of Christ’s Divinity, Hammer of the Arians

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I love Pilate’s question.  “What is Truth?” (Jn 18:38), asked by so many in our own day, or not.  I have spent a VERY LONG TIME praying on THAT ONE!!!!  I still do.  I will until breath or thought are no longer mine.

Rather than seek out and admit to Truth, the burden of Which is tremendous in its implications and responsibilities for us, many shrink/cower in fear or laziness and become their own truth, their own god, saying falsely, “There is no God.” Or, “God is Whom I wish Him to be.”  In Gen 3:5, the effects of the deception of the serpent persist.  Not only did Adam & Eve not become like God, we still believe we know, inherently, as a matter of fact, of and from our own reference of ourselves, our own whims, preferences, fashions and passions, a self-idolatry, the difference between Good & Evil.  Untrue.  An intellectual idol if ever there was one, not of silver or gold, but of self-satisfaction and reassurance.  Safe, warm, self-satisfied, self-established, self-proclaimed, self-determined, self-assured, and false.  Heresy.  Psalm 135:15-18.

No.  One of the defining qualities of the True God is He is utterly transcendent.  We do not define Him, in any way, form, or iota, nor, be forewarned and wary, should we ever be tempted to try.  He defines us.  He does not need us.  We need Him, desperately.  Classical catechesis teaches us if God ever stopped thinking about us, we would vanish into nothingness.  All Creation exists because of and holds/remains because of the mindfulness of God.  He loves us, surely, but voluntarily loves us; the only true love, and utterly not out of some necessity.  That would be some sort of co-dependency.  And I am unaware God is co-dependent.

After the Resurrection, and even with the compilation, eventually, of the canon of Scripture, i.e., Council of Carthage, 397 AD, there were still many practical questions those wishing to live the Christian faith reasonably had.  Details, details, details.  Details are important.  If, as the conventional wisdom goes, it is all about relationships, then details matter.  How would your most important relationships fare without the intimate details/”history” those relationships are based upon?  Not so well, I confidently posit.

And so, it goes with God, in that most important Relationship, upon which all depends, details matter.  Don’t get the details right and the Relationship is askew, misdirected, misinformed, misshapen, misunderstood, ineffective, failing or failed.  You don’t “get It!”  The very definition of sin is being out of right Relationship with God, of not “getting it”, not rendering, as justice demands, as a creature of the Creator, just worship and love for the fact of even just being.

While the Church certainly faces its challenges in our own day, the first thousand years of Christianity were plagued by, among others, Arianism.  Arianism was a belief created by Arius, Bishop of Alexandria AD 250–336, in Alexandria, Egypt, concerning the relationship of God the Father to God the Son, essentially denying the equality in divinity of Jesus to His Father. Arius asserted that the Son of God was a subordinate entity to God the Father. Arius was condemned as a heretic.

The Arian concept of Christ is that the Son of God did not always exist, but was created by, and is therefore a creature/creation of God the Father. This belief is grounded in the misinterpretation of the Gospel of John passage “You heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.” (Jn 14:28)  Although condemned, the damage was done. The heresy spread rapidly. St. Jerome said “The world groaned and marveled to find that it was Arian.”

Hilary was a gentle and courteous man, devoted to writing some of the greatest theology on the Trinity, and was like his Master in being labeled a “disturber of the peace.” In a very troubled period in the Church, his holiness was lived out in both scholarship and controversy.  Hilary was born in Poitiers, France, at the beginning of the fourth century. In the early centuries of Christianity, paganism, of course, was prevalent.  Hilary’s family was pagan, as was Hilary, by birth.  He married and raised a family.  His daughter’s name was Apra.

Receiving an excellent education, Hilary, though, was drawn to the study of Scripture.  Hilary learned that, from studying Scripture, a person should practice patience, kindness, justice and as many good habits as possible. These good acts would be rewarded in the life after death. Hilary’s studies also convinced him that there could only be One God Who is eternal, all-powerful and good. He read the Bible continuously.

When he came to the story of Moses and the burning bush, Hilary was very impressed by the name God gave himself: I AM WHO AM. Hilary read the writings of the prophets, too. Then he read the whole New Testament. By the time he finished, Hilary was completely converted to Christianity, and he asked to be baptized.

Hilary lived the faith so well that he was appointed bishop, against his personal wishes. This did not make his life easy because the Roman Emperor was interfering in Church matters. When Emperor Constantius ordered all the bishops of the West to sign a condemnation of St Athanasius, the great defender of the faith in the East, Hilary refused and was banished from France to far off Phrygia (in modern-day Turkey). Eventually Hilary was called the “Athanasius of the West.” It was then when Hilary’s great virtues of patience and courage stood out. He accepted exile calmly and used the time to write books explaining the Catholic faith.

While writing in exile, he was invited by some semi-Arians (hoping for reconciliation) to a council the emperor called to counteract the Council of Nicea, where the true Catholic doctrine of the Trinity was affirmed and defined. Hilary predictably defended the Church, and when he sought public debate with the heretical bishop who had exiled him, the Arians, dreading the meeting and its outcome, pleaded with the emperor to send this troublemaker back home, where they hoped he would receive less notoriety.

Since he was becoming famous, Hilary’s enemies asked the emperor to send him back to his home in France. They hoped that people would pay less attention to him there. So Hilary was sent back to Poitiers in 360.  He was received at home with great joy by the people of Poitiers. He continued writing and teaching about the Faith. Hilary died eight years later, at the age of fifty-two. His books have influenced the Church right to our own day.

“To those who wish to stand in God’s grace, neither the guardianship of saints nor the defenses of angels are wanting.” – Saint Hilary, Commentary on the Psalms

Prayer of St Hilary of Poitiers

“I am well aware, almighty God and Father, that in my life I owe you a most particular duty. It is to make my every thought and word speak of You.

In fact, You have conferred on me this gift of speech, and it can yield no greater return than to be at Your service. It is for making You known as Father, the Father of the only-begotten God, and preaching this to the world that knows You not and to the heretics who refuse to believe in You.

In this matter the declaration of my intention is only of limited value. For the rest, I need to pray for the gift of Your help and Your mercy. As we spread our sails of trusting faith and public avowal before You, fill them with the breath of Your Spirit, to drive us on as we begin this course of proclaiming Your Truth. We have been promised, and He who made the promise is trustworthy: Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.

Yes, in our poverty we will pray for our needs. We will study the sayings of your prophets and apostles with unflagging attention, and knock for admittance wherever the gift of understanding is safely kept. But Yours it is, Lord, to grant our petitions, to be present when we seek You and to open when we knock.

There is an inertia in our nature that makes us dull; and in our attempt to penetrate Your truth we are held within the bounds of ignorance by the weakness of our minds. Yet we do comprehend divine ideas by earnest attention to Your teaching and by obedience to the Faith which carries us beyond mere human apprehension.

So we trust in You to inspire the beginnings of this ambitious venture, to strengthen its progress, and to call us into a partnership in the spirit with the prophets and the apostles. To that end, may we grasp precisely what they meant to say, taking each word in its real and authentic sense. For we are about to say what they already have declared as part of the mystery of revelation: that you are the eternal God, the Father of the eternal, only-begotten God; that You are one and not born from another; and that the Lord Jesus is also one, born of You from all eternity. We must not proclaim a change in Truth regarding the number of gods. We must not deny that He is begotten of You Who are the One God; nor must we assert that He is other than the true God, born of You, who are truly God the Father.

Impart to us, then, the meaning of the words of Scripture and the light to understand it, with reverence for the doctrine and confidence in its Truth. Grant that we may express what we believe. Through the prophets and apostles we know about You, the One God the Father, and the One Lord Jesus Christ. May we have the grace, in the face of heretics who deny You, to honor You as God, Who is not alone, and to proclaim this as Truth.”  -from a sermon On the Trinity (Lib 1, 37-38: PL 10, 48-49) by Saint Hilary of Poitiers.  This prayer is used in the Roman Office of Readings for the feast of St. Hilary of Poitiers.

Old English liturgical books have the following Preface for the Liturgy on the feast day of St. Hilary: “… that we should always and in all places give thanks, pay our vows, and consecrate our gifts to Thee, O Holy Lord, Father almighty, everlasting God. Who of old didst choose Thy blessed confessor Hilary for Thyself to be a prelate of sanctified confession, shining brightly with radiance vast, mighty in the meekness of his ways, burning with the fervour of his faith, flowing with the fountain of his speech. For the One in Whom his glory lay, is revealed by the multitudes thronging his sepulchre, the purification of those that hasten to it, the healing of the diseased there, the signs of astonishing miracles…”
-from the complete Old Sarum Rite Missal, (c) 1998 St. Hilarion Press

Prayer

O Lord our God, Who raised up Your servant Hilary to be a champion of the Catholic faith: Keep us steadfast in that true faith which we professed at our baptism, that we may rejoice in having You for our Father, and may abide in your Son, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit; Who live and reign for ever and ever. Amen.

Love,
Matthew

Nov 15 – St Albert the Great, O.P., (1206-1280), Doctor of the Church, Patron of Scientists & Engineers

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Kelly, Mara, and I have found our new parish home in St Albert the Great, O.P. of Sun Prairie, WI, stalberts.org; sister parish of Sacred Hearts of Jesus & Mary Parish also in Sun Prairie.  We have hopes Mara may attend Sacred Hearts School.  The fact I am a professional applied scientist and a former Dominican novice is not lost on me in this serendipitous coincidence.  The Midwestern Province of the Order of Preachers is dedicated to St Albert the Great, O.P.  We are happy and St Albert’s is a happy place of fellow pilgrims.

He was known as the “teacher of everything there is to know,” was a scientist long before the age of science, became the teacher and mentor of that other remarkable mind of his time, St. Thomas Aquinas.  St. Albert the Great was born in Lauingen on the Danube, near Ulm, Germany; his father was a military lord in the army of Emperor Frederick II. As a young man Albert studied at the University of Padua and there fell under the spell of Blessed Jordan of Saxony, the Dominican who made the rounds of the universities of Europe drawing the best young men of the universities into the Dominicans.

After several teaching assignments in his order, he came in 1241 to the University of Paris, where he lectured in theology. While teaching in Paris, he was assigned by his order in 1248 to set up a house of studies for the order in Cologne. In Paris, he had gathered around him a small band of budding theologians, the chief of whom was Thomas Aquinas, who accompanied him to Cologne and became his greatest pupil.

In 1260, he was appointed bishop of Regensberg; when he resigned after three years, he was called to be an adviser to the pope and was sent on several diplomatic missions. In his latter years, he resided in Cologne, took part in the Council of Lyons in 1274, and in his old age traveled to Paris to defend the teaching of his student Thomas Aquinas.

It was in Cologne that his reputation as a scientist grew. He carried on experiments in chemistry and physics in his makeshift laboratory and built up a collection of plants, insects, and chemical compounds that gave substance to his reputation. When Cologne decided to build a new cathedral, he was consulted about the design. He was friend and adviser to popes, bishops, kings, and statesmen and made his own unique contribution to the learning of his age.

He died a very old man in Cologne on November 15,1280, and is buried in St. Andrea’s Church in that city. He was canonized and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1931 by Pope Pius XI. His writings are remarkable for their exact scientific knowledge, and for that reason he has been made the patron saint of scientists.

St. Albert the Great, O.P., was convinced that all creation spoke of God and that the tiniest piece of scientific knowledge told us something about Him. Besides the Bible, God has given us the book of creation revealing His wisdom and power. In creation, Albert saw directly and undeniably the hand of God and His love of mankind.

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-Roman sarcophagus containing the relics of Albertus Magnus in the crypt of St. Andreas church in Cologne, Germany

“It is by the path of love, which is charity, that God draws near to man, and man to God. But where charity is not found, God cannot dwell. If, then, we possess charity, we possess God, for “God is Charity” (1 John 4:8)
-Saint Albert the Great

“Do this in remembrance of me.” Two things should be noted here. The first is the command that we should use this sacrament, which is indicated when Jesus says, “Do this.” The second is that this sacrament commemorates the Lord’s going to death for our sake.

This sacrament is profitable because it grants remission of sins; it is most useful because it bestows the fullness of grace on us in this life. “The Father of spirits instructs us in what is useful for our sanctification.” And his sanctification is in Christ’s sacrifice, that is, when He offers Himself in this sacrament to the Father for our redemption to us for our use.

Christ could not have commanded anything more beneficial, for this sacrament is the Fruit of the Tree of Life. Anyone who receives this sacrament with the devotion of sincere faith will never taste death. “It is a Tree of Life for those who grasp it, and blessed is he who holds it fast. The man who feeds on Me shall live on account of Me.”

Nor could He have commanded anything more lovable, for this sacrament produces love and union. It is characteristic of the greatest love to give itself as food. “Had not the men of my text exclaimed: Who will feed us with his flesh to satisfy our hunger? as if to say: I have loved them and they have loved Me so much that I desire to be within them, and they wish to receive Me so that they may become My members. There is no more intimate or more natural means for them to be united to Me, and I to them.Nor could He have commanded anything which is more like eternal life. Eternal life flows from this sacrament because God with all sweetness pours Himself out upon the blessed.” – from a commentary by Saint Albert the Great on the Gospel of Luke

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Prayer to St Albert the Great, O.P.

Dear scientist and Doctor of the Church, natural science and sacred science were for you the same Truth.  For you, and for all Catholic scientists, these are never in opposition, but always in harmony – one beckoning deeper understanding of the other, drawing humankind more deeply into the infinitely knowable mystery of the Creator and His Word.

Though you had an encyclopedic knowledge, it never made you proud, for you regarded it as a gift of God. Inspire scientists, theoretical and applied, to use their gifts well in studying the wonders of creation, thus bettering the lot of the human race and rendering greater glory to God. Amen.

Love,
Matthew

Dec 14 – St John of the Cross, OCD (1541-1591) – Doctor of the Church, Doctor of Mystical Theology

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-El Greco’s landscape of Toledo, Spain (ca 1596) depicts the priory in which John was held captive, just below the old Muslim alcázar and perched on the banks of the Tajo on high cliffs

One of the Great Catholic Reformers, Saint John of the Cross (San Juan de la Cruz) (b: 24 June 1542 — d: 14 December 1591), born Juan de Yepes Alvarez of a Jewish converso family, was a major figure of the Catholic Reformation, a Spanish mystic, and Carmelite friar and priest, born at Hontoveros, Old Castile.

John learned the importance of self-sacrificing love from his parents. His father gave up wealth, status, and comfort when he married a weaver’s daughter and was disowned by his noble family. After his father died, his mother kept the destitute family together as they wandered homeless in search of work. These were the examples of sacrifice that John followed with his own great love of God.

John was a reformer and re-vitalizer of the Carmelite Order and is considered, along with Saint Teresa of Ávila, as a founder of the Discalced Carmelites. He is also known for his writings. Both his poetry and his studies on the growth of the soul are considered the summit of mystical Spanish literature and one of the peaks of all Spanish literature.

Ordained a Carmelite priest at 25 (1567), John met Teresa of Jesus (Avila–October 15) and like her vowed himself to the primitive Rule of the Carmelites. As partner with Teresa and in his own right, John engaged in the work of reform, and came to experience the price of reform: increasing opposition, misunderstanding, persecution, imprisonment.

Yet, the paradox! In this dying of imprisonment, John came to life, uttering poetry. In the darkness of the dungeon, John’s spirit came into The Light, paper he used to write on passed to him by one of his guards.

There are many mystics, many poets; John is unique as mystic-poet, expressing in his prison-cross the ecstasy of mystical union with God in the “Spiritual Canticle”.

But as agony leads to ecstasy, so John had his “Ascent to Mt. Carmel”, as he named it in his prose masterpiece.  Thomas Merton said of John: “Just as we can never separate asceticism from mysticism, so in St. John of the Cross we find darkness and light, suffering and joy, sacrifice and love united together so closely that they seem at times to be identified together and inseparable.”

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-“The Ascent of Mount Carmel”, as depicted in the first edition of 1618 by Diego de Astor

The Church of England commemorates him, too, as a “Teacher of the Faith” on this same day.

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-In the iconography of St John of the Cross, you can see the words written in the book, which was St John of the Cross’ motto:  “Domine, pati et contemni pro te!”  “Lord, to suffer and be despised for You!”

“Live in the world as if only God and your soul were in it; then your heart will never be made captive by any earthly thing.” -St. John of the Cross

“The Lord measures out perfection neither by the multitude of our deeds, but by the manner in which we perform them.” -St. John of the Cross

“To saints, their very slumber is a prayer.” -St. John of the Cross

“In the first place it should be known that if a person is seeking God, his Beloved is seeking him much more.” -St. John of the Cross

Prayer of Peace

“O Blessed Jesus, grant me stillness of soul in Thee. Let Thy mighty calmness reign in me. Rule me, O thou King of gentleness, King of peace. Give me control, control over my words, thoughts and actions. From all irritability, want of meekness, want of gentleness, O dear Lord, deliver me. By thine own deep patience give me patience, stillness of soul in Thee. Make me in this, and in all, more and more like Thee. Amen.”-St John of the Cross

“Let Your divinity shine on my intellect by giving it divine knowledge, and on my will by imparting to it the divine love and on my memory with the divine possession of glory.

Let us so act that by means of this loving activity we may attain to the vision of ourselves in Your beauty in eternal life. That is: That I be so transformed in Your beauty that we may be alike in beauty, and both behold ourselves in Your beauty, possessing now Your very beauty; this, in such a way that each looking at the other may see in the other his own beauty, since both are Your beauty alone, I being absorbed in Your beauty; hence, I shall see You in Your beauty, and You shall see me in Your beauty, and I shall see myself in You in Your beauty, and You will see Yourself in me in Your beauty; that I may resemble You in Your beauty, and You resemble me in Your beauty, and my beauty will be Your beauty and Your beauty my beauty; wherefore I shall be You in Your beauty, and You will be me in Your beauty, because Your very beauty will be my beauty; and therefore we shall behold each other in Your beauty.

O abyss of delights! You are so much the more abundant the more Your riches are concentrated in the infinite unity and simplicity of Your unique being, where one attribute is so known and enjoyed as not to hinder the perfect knowledge and enjoyment of the other; rather, each grace and virtue within You is a light for each of Your other grandeurs. By Your purity, O divine Wisdom, many things are behold in You through one. For You are the deposit of the Father’s treasures, the splendor of the eternal light, the unspotted mirror and image of His goodness.

Awaken and enlighten us, my Lord, that we might know and love the blessings which You ever propose to us, and that we might understand that You have moved to bestow favors on us and have remembered us.

O Lord, my God, who will seek You with simple and pure love and not find You are all he desires, for You show Yourself first and go out to meet those who desire You?

My spirit has become dry because it forgets to feed on You.”

Prayer of a Soul Taken with Love

“Lord God, my Beloved, if You remember still my sins in suchwise that You do not do what I beg of You, do Your will concerning them, my God, which is what I most desire, and exercise Your goodness and mercy, and You will be known through them. And if it is that You are waiting for my good works so as to hear my prayer through their means, grant them to me, and work them for me, and the sufferings You desire to accept, and let it be done. But if You are not waiting for my works, what is it that makes You wait, my most clement Lord? Why do You delay? For if, after all, I am to receive the grace and mercy which I entreat of You in Your Son, take my mite, since You desire it, and grant me this blessing, since You also desire that. Who can free himself from the lowly manners and limitations if You do not lift him to Yourself, my God, in purity of love? How will a man begotten and nurtured in lowliness rise up to You, Lord, if You do not raise him with Your hand which made him? You will not take from me, my God, what You once gave me in Your only Son, Jesus Christ in Whom You gave me all I desire. Hence I rejoice that if I wait for You, You will not delay. With what procrastinations do You wait, since from this very moment you can love God in your heart? Mine are the heavens and mine is the earth. Mine are the nations, the just are mine, and mine the sinners. The angels are mine, and the Mother of God, and all things are mine; and God Himself is mine and for me, because Christ is mine and all for me.What do you ask, then, and seek, my soul? Yours is all of this, and all is for you. Do not engage yourself in something less, nor pay heed to the crumbs which fall from your Father’s table. Go forth and exult in your Glory! Hide yourself in It and rejoice, and you will obtain the supplications of your heart.

Oh, how sweet Your presence will be to me, You Who are the supreme good! I must draw near You in silence pleased to unite me to You in … I rejoice in Your arms. Now I ask You, Lord, do not abandon me at any time in my recollection, for I know not the value of my soul.”

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-reliquary of St John of the Cross, Convent of Carmelite Friars, Segovia, Spain

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-reliquary of St John of the Cross, Ubeda, Spain

“Never give up prayer, and should you find dryness and difficulty, persevere in it for this very reason. God often desires to see what love your soul has, and love is not tried by ease and satisfaction.” – St. John of the Cross, “Special Counsels: Degrees of Perfection #9”

“The Dark Night of the Soul”
-by St John Of the Cross

1. One dark night,
fired with love’s urgent longings
— ah, the sheer grace! —
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.

2. In darkness, and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
— ah, the sheer grace! —
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.

3. On that glad night,
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything,
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.

4. This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
— him I knew so well —
there in a place where no one appeared.

5. O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.

6. Upon my flowering breast
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

7. When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.

8. I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.

From the Proper for the Feast of St John of the Cross

Lord,
you endowed our Father Saint John of the Cross
with a spirit of self-denial and a love of the cross.
By following his example
may we come to the eternal vision of Your glory.

Love,
Matthew

Dec 21 – St Peter Canisius, SJ, (1521-1597), Doctor of the Church & the Catechism

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St Peter Canisius, SJ, is my patron saint and my hero of catechesis. When I am frustrated, I paraphrase him in a one line prayer: “Why don’t you try explaining it to them?” It REALLY helps ME understand it, too, first of all. 🙂

The Roman Catholic Church sees the divisions among Christians as scandalous.  It believes the Lord views these divisions similarly.  The Church seeks to heal these divisions.  Jn 17:21-23.  Divisions in Christianity are a disincentive to non-Christians to consider Jesus Christ and an impediment to Christian agape among Christians.

It is reported Gandhi read the New Testament every day.  Upon seeing this, a British reporter asked if The Mahatma, Great Soul, intended to become Christian.  Gandhi responded he would if he ever met one.  “You’re Christ I like” he said.

The energetic life of Peter Canisius should demolish any stereotypes we may have of the life of a saint as dull or routine. Peter lived his 76 years at a pace which must be considered heroic, even in our time of rapid change. A man blessed with many talents, Peter is an excellent example of the scriptural man who develops his talents for the sake of the Lord’s work. The restoration of the Catholic Church in Germany after the Reformation is attributed to his work.  He was one of the most important figures in the Catholic Reformation in Germany. His was such a key role that he has often been called the “second apostle of Germany” in that his life parallels the earlier work of St Boniface (June 5).

Both Holland and Germany claim him as their son, for Nijmegen, then in the Duchy of Guelders (until 1549 part of the Spanish Netherlands within the Holy Roman Empire) where he was born, Peter Kanis, May 8th, 1521, though a Dutch town today, was at that time in the ecclesiastical province of Cologne and had the rights of a German city.

“In an account known as his Confessions (c. 1570) and his Testament (c.1596), St. Peter Canisius accuses himself as a boy of contentiousness, fits of anger, jealousies, secret hatreds, arrogance, inconsiderate expressing of opinions on weighty matters, “like a blind man discoursing of colors,” and carelessness in resisting temptations against purity arising from thought, desire and the conversation of the boys he associated with. His intense humility can be expected to underscore his faults, but his words tells us that he did have a nature that needed to be tamed and controlled. In early youth he also had the inclination occasionally to be deeply stirred spiritually and to give signs of his future vocation by playing priest, acting out the Mass, preaching, singing and praying, all this sometimes before a group of playmates. He also liked to serve Mass. (Confessions, p. 12 of Braunsberger, Vol.1)”
-St Peter Canisius, SJ, as edited by Fr. Christopher Rengers, O.F.M. Cap., The 33 Doctors of the Church, (Tan Books: 2000)

Peter’s mother, Ægidia van Houweningen, died shortly after Peter’s birth.  His father, Jacob Kanis, a Catholic and nine times burgomaster of Nijmegen, sent him at the age of fifteen to the University of Cologne, where he met the saintly young priest, Nicolaus van Esch. It was he who drew Canisius into the orbit of the loyal Catholic party of Cologne, which had been formed in opposition to the archbishop, Hermann von Wied, who had secretly gone over to the Lutherans.  Canisius was chosen by the group to approach the emperor, and the deposition of the archbishop which followed averted a calamity from the Catholic Rhineland.

St Peter Canisius exerted a strong influence on Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I; he ceaselessly reminded Ferdinand of the imminent danger to his soul should he concede more rights to Protestants in return for their military support. When Peter Canisius sensed a very real danger of Ferdinand’s son and heir, King Maximilian, openly declaring himself a Protestant, he convinced Emperor Ferdinand to threaten disinheritance should Maximilian desert the Catholic Faith.

Although Peter once accused himself of idleness in his youth, he could not have been idle too long, for at the age of 19 he received a master’s degree from the university at Cologne. Soon afterwards he met Blessed Peter Faber, SJ, the first disciple of Ignatius Loyola, and underwent the Spiritual Exercises under his direction.  Faber influenced Peter so much that he joined the recently formed Society of Jesus.

At this early age Peter had already taken up a practice he continued throughout his life—a process of study, reflection, prayer and writing. After his ordination in 1546, he became widely known for his editions of the writings of St. Cyril of Alexandria and St. Leo the Great. Besides this reflective literary bent, Peter had a zeal for the apostolate. He could often be found visiting the sick or prisoners, even when his assigned duties in other areas were more than enough to keep most people fully occupied.

His obedience was tested when he was sent by St Ignatius to teach rhetoric in the comparative obscurity of the new Jesuit college at Messina, but this interlude in his public work for the church was but a brief one. In 1547 Peter attended several sessions of the Council of Trent, whose decrees he was later assigned to implement, as procurator for the bishop of Augsburg.  (I was the novice “procurator”.  I LIKED that job.  Tell you about it sometime.)

Recalled to Rome in 1549 to make his final profession in the presence of St Ignatius of Loyola himself who was his spiritual director and traveling companion and the founder of the Society of Jesus, he was entrusted with what was to become his life’s work: the mission to Germany.

At the request of the duke of Bavaria, Canisius was chosen with two other Jesuits to profess theology in the University of Ingolstadt. Soon he was appointed rector of the University, and then, through the intervention of King Ferdinand of the Romans, he was sent to do the same kind of work in the University of Vienna.

Called to Vienna to reform their university, he couldn’t win the people with preaching or fancy words spoken in his German accent. He won their hearts by ministering to the sick and dying during a plague. His success was such that the king tried to have him appointed to the archbishopric. Though he refused this dignity, he was compelled to administer the diocese for the space of a year.  During Mass one day he received a vision of the Sacred Heart of Jesus , and ever after offered his work to the Sacred Heart.  Winning! (in the good, healthy sense) 🙂

It was at this period, 1555, that he issued his famous Catechism, one of his greatest services to the Church. With its clear and popular exposition of Catholic doctrine it met the need of the day, and was to counter the devastating effect of Luther’s Catechism. In its enlarged form it went into more than four hundred editions by the end of the seventeenth century and was translated into fifteen languages.

For many years during the Protestant Reformation, Peter saw the students in his universities swayed by the flashy speeches and the well-written arguments of the Protestants. Peter was not alone in wishing for a Catholic catechism that would present true Catholic beliefs undistorted by fanatics. Finally King Ferdinand himself ordered Peter and his companions to write a catechism. This hot potato got tossed from person to person until Peter and his friend Fr. Lejay were assigned to write it. Lejay was obviously the logical choice, being a better writer than Peter. So Peter relaxed and sat back to offer any help he could. When Father Lejay died, King Ferdinand would wait no longer. Peter said of writing: “I have never learned to be elegant as a writer, but I cannot remain dumb on that account.” The first issue of the Catechism appeared in 1555 and was an immediate success. Peter approached Christian doctrine in two parts: wisdom — including faith, hope, and charity — and justice — avoiding evil and doing good, linked by a section on sacraments.

Because of the success and the need, Peter quickly produced two more versions: a Shorter Catechism for middle school students which concentrated on helping this age group choose good over evil by concentrating on a different virtue each day of the week; and a Shortest Catechism for young children which included prayers for morning and evening, for mealtimes, and so forth to get them used to praying.

As intent as Peter was on keeping people true to the Catholic faith, he followed the Jesuit policy that harsh words should not be used, that those listening would see an example of charity in the way Catholics acted and preached. However, his companions were not always as willing. He showed great patience and insight with one man, Father Couvillon. Couvillon was so sharp and hostile that he was alienating his companions and students. Anyone who confronted him became the subject of abuse. It became obvious that Couvillon suffered from emotional illness. But Peter did not let that knowledge blind him to the fact that Couvillon was still a brilliant and talented man. Instead of asking Couvillon to resign he begged him to stay on as a teacher and then appointed him as his secretary. Peter thought that Couvillon needed to worry less about himself and pray more and work harder. He didn’t coddle him but gave Couvillon blunt advice about his pride. Coming from Peter this seemed to help Couvillon. Peter consulted Couvillon often on the business of the Province and asked him to translate Jesuit letters from India. Thanks to Peter , even though Couvillon continued to suffer depression for years, he also accomplished much good.

In his fight with German Protestantism, Canisius requested much more flexibility from Rome. “If you treat them right, the Germans will give you everything. Many err in matters of faith, but without arrogance. They err the German way, mostly honest, a bit simple-minded, but very open for everything Lutheran. An honest explanation of the faith would be much more effective than a polemical attack against reformers.” He rejected Catholic attacks against Calvin and Melanchton by saying, “With words like these, we don’t cure patients, we make them incurable.”

From Vienna, Canisius passed on to Bohemia, where the condition of the church was desperate. In the face of determined opposition he established a college at Prague which was to develop into a university. Named Provincial of southern Germany in 1556, he established colleges for boys in six cities, and set himself to the task of providing Germany with a supply of well-trained priests. This he did by his work for the establishment of seminaries, and by sending regular reinforcements of young men to be trained in Rome.

On his many journeys in Germany St Peter Canisius, SJ never ceased from preaching the word of God. He often encountered apathy or hostility at first, but as his zeal and learning were so manifest great crowds soon thronged the churches to listen. For seven years he was official preacher in the cathedral of Augsburg, and is regarded in a special way as the apostle of that city. Whenever he came across a country church deprived of its pastor, he would halt there to preach and to administer the sacraments. It seemed impossible to exhaust him: ‘If you have too much to do, with God’s help you will find time to do it all,’ he said, when someone accused him of overworking himself.

Another form of his apostolate was letter writing, and the printed volumes of his correspondence cover more than eight thousand pages. Like St Bernard of Clairvaux he used this means of comforting, rebuking and counseling all ranks of society. As the needs of the church or the individual required, he wrote to pope and emperor, to bishops and princes, to ordinary priest and laymen. Where letters would not suffice he brought to bear his great powers of personal influence. Thus at the conference between Catholics and Protestants held at Worms in 1556, it was due to his influence that the Catholics were able to present a united front and resist Protestant invitations to compromise on points of principle. In Poland in 1558 he checked an incipient threat to the traditional faith of the country; and in the same year, he earned the thanks of Pope Pius IV for his diplomatic skill in healing a breach between the pope and the emperor. This gift of dealing with men led to his being entrusted in 1561 with the promulgation in Germany of the decrees of the council of Trent.

Shortly afterwards he was called on to answer the Centuries of Magdeburg. This work, ‘the first and worst of all Protestant church histories,’ was a large-scale attack on the Catholic church, and its enormous distortions of history would have required more than one mar to produce an adequate answer. Yet Peter Canisius showed the way by his two works,  The History of John the Baptist, and, also theologically defended Catholic Mariology in, The Incomparable Virgin Mary/Opus Marianum, or “De Maria Virgine Incomparabili et Dei Genitrice Sacrosancta Libri Quinque”, receiving high praise from St John Eudes as a Marian teacher.

Canisius taught that while there are many roads leading to Jesus Christ, Marian veneration is the best way to him.  His sermons and letters document a clear preoccupation with Marian veneration.  Under the heading “prayer” he explains the Ave Maria, Hail Mary, as the basis for Catholic Marian piety.  Less known are his Marian books, in which he published prayers and contemplative texts. He is credited with adding to the Hail Mary the sentence “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners.”  Eleven years later it was included in the Catechism of the Council of Trent of 1566.

In 1565, the Vatican was looking for a nuncio to deliver the decrees of the Council of Trent to the loyal bishops of Germany. What would be a simple errand in our day, was a dangerous assignment in the sixteenth century. The first envoy who tried to carry the decrees through territory of hostile Protestants and vicious thieves was robbed of the precious documents. Rome needed someone courageous but also someone above suspicion. They chose Peter Canisius, who had reformed German universities from heresy. At 43 he was a well-known Jesuit who had founded colleges that even Protestants respected. They gave him a cover as official “visitor” of Jesuit foundations. But Peter couldn’t hide the decrees like our modern fictional spies with their microfilmed messages in collar buttons or cans of shaving cream. Peter traveled from Rome and crisscrossed Germany successfully loaded down with the Tridentine tomes — 250 pages each — not to mention the three sacks of books he took along for his own university!

Renowned as a popular preacher, Peter packed churches with those eager to hear his eloquent proclamation of the gospel. He had great diplomatic ability, often serving as a reconciler between disputing factions. In his letters (filling eight volumes) one finds words of wisdom and counsel to people in all walks of life. At times he wrote unprecedented letters of criticism to leaders of the Church—yet always in the context of a loving, sympathetic concern.

At 70 Peter suffered a paralytic seizure, but he continued to preach and write with the aid of a secretary until his death in his hometown (Nijmegen, Netherlands) on December 21, 1597.  His body was interred before the high altar of the Church of Saint Nicholas in Fribourg.  His relics were translated to the Church of Saint Michael at the Jesuit College in Fribourg in 1625.

From 1580 until his death in 1597 he labored and suffered much in Switzerland. His last six years were spent in patient endurance and long hours of prayer in the college of Fribourg, now that broken health had made further active work impossible. Soon after his death, December 21st, 1597, his tomb began to be venerated, and numerous miracles were attributed to his intercession. He had the unique honor of being canonized and declared a doctor of the church on the same day, June 21st, 1925.

Peter’s untiring efforts are an apt example for those involved in the renewal of the Church or the growth of moral consciousness in business or government. He is regarded as one of the creators of the Catholic press, and can easily be a model for the Christian author or journalist. Teachers can see in his life a passion for the transmission of truth. Whether we have much to give, as Peter Canisius did, or whether we have only a little to give, as did the poor widow in the Gospel (see Luke 21:1–4), the important thing is to give our all. It is in this way that Peter is so exemplary for Christians in an age of rapid change when we are called to be in the world but not of the world.

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-by Franz Xavier Zettler, 1911, in Munich

“It was as if You opened to me the Heart in Your most Sacred Body; I seemed to see it directly before my eyes. You told me to drink from this fountain, inviting me, that is, to draw the waters of my salvation from Your wellsprings, my Savior. I was most eager that streams of faith, hope and love should flow into me from that Source. I was thirsting for poverty, chastity, obedience. I asked to be made wholly clean by You, to be clothed by You, to be made resplendent by You…So, after daring to approach Your most loving Heart, and to plunge my thirst into it, I received a promise from You of a garment made of three parts: these were to cover my soul in its nakedness, and to belong especially to my religious profession. They were peace, love, and perseverance. Protected by this garment of salvation, I was confident that I would lack nothing but all would succeed and give You glory.””
–St. Peter Canisius, SJ, before he set out for Germany, having received the apostolic blessing, describing the profound spiritual experience he underwent

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With sincere Marian devotion, St. Peter wrote the following words to his step-Mother:
“Dear Mother,
I am sending you a picture of Our Lady as a pledge of affectionate remembrance. May it serve you as a mirror and bring you comfort when sorrow floods into your soul. All her life long holy Mother Mary endured a thousand sorrows and anxieties on account of her dear Son, because even while He was still a child she saw clearly in the light of her heavenly meditations all the sufferings that awaited His tender limbs. Her tears used to fall on the little hands and feet that one day great nails would violently pierce, and she used to kiss the holy brow destined for its crown of thorns. So, dearest Mother, offer up all your affliction in union with the sorrows of the holy Mother of God. Place all your troubles and anxieties in the stricken heart of the Queen of Heaven, for she can protect you better than could all mankind put together. Do not take so much to heart what cannot now be changed.”
-St Peter Canisius, SJ, as edited by Fr. James Brodrick, SJ,  (Jesuit Way  — an imprint of Loyola Press) 62.

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Resolution:
St. Peter sent his mother an image of Our Lady and counseled her to turn all her troubles and anxieties over to the stricken heart of the Queen of Heaven. Today, when I see my image of Our Lady, I will follow the advice of St. Peter Canisius, Doctor of the Church, and turn my troubles over to Our Lady.

Marian Vow:
Consecration to the Immaculate is a daily process. St. Peter Canisius reminds us in his commentary on the Hail Mary that our Lady already watches over us in a daily way:

“To be sure, walking in the footsteps of the Holy Fathers, we not only salute the praiseworthy and admirable Virgin, who is as a lily among thorns, but we also believe and profess her to be endowed with such great power that she can listen to, assist and favor poor mortals as long as they especially commend themselves and their desires to her and suppliantly expect daily grace through her motherly intercession.”

-St Peter Canisius, SJ, as edited by Fr. Christopher Rengers, O.F.M. Cap., The 33 Doctors of the Church, (Tan Books: 2000), p. 473.

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Prayer

Saint Peter Canisius, you saw the good in even the most troublesome of people. You found their talents and used them. Help me to see beyond the behavior of others that may bother me to the gifts God has given them. Amen.

Love,
Matthew

Sep 3 – St Gregory the Great, (540?-604 AD), Doctor of the Church, Doctor of Tears, & First Great Catholic Reformer

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Gregory had to hurry.  He packed quickly.  He suspected the news even before receiving it in writing.  Justinian had confirmed Gregory’s election as Bishop of Rome.  Gregory had to flee the city before he could be ordained.  Gregory knew Justinian when Gregory was papal representative in Constantinople, and had therefore interceded with him, asking Justinian to withhold his consent from the election.  News travels fast in Rome, even in the sixth century.  The people of Rome intercepted Gregory before he could make his escape and carried him off to the Basilica of St Peter to be consecrated pope.

If you have ever heard the term or actually heard “Gregorian chant”, you have heard the echo and felt the effect, a millennia and a half later, of the life and papacy of St Gregory the Great.  The old empire in the West had collapsed, Italy had been invaded and Rome sacked once again, this time by the Lombards in 568.  It had taken Justinian twenty years to drive the Ostrogoths from Italy in the 5th century, his Byzantine army looting and pillaging their way as they pushed their enemy back, bringing plague and famine along with them.  And then the Lombards came.  By the end of Gregory’s papacy, one third of Italy had succumbed to the plague, and still more had died as a result of famine and war.  It must have seemed like the end of the world.

Even though legalized in 313 by Edict of Milan, Christianity still existed in a largely pagan, brutally repressive, and unjust world.  There was essentially no help for the poor.  Desperately poor parents either abandoned their children or sold them in to slavery.  Child prostitution was legal and accepted.  Criminals, political dissenters, slaves, military captives, and members of banned religious sects were routinely tortured for public amusement in the gladiatorial games.  Don’t feel like going out?  Torture one of your slaves to death at home.  It’s fun? And, it’s legal.

After Constantine’s conversion, some of these aspects of Roman culture began to be outlawed.  In the spring of 315, Constantine legislated that aid would be provided for hungry children, although their parents were still left to fend for themselves.  That summer, Constantine made child prostitution and pederasty illegal and punishable by death in the gladiatorial arena.  Constantine forbade the immoderate torture and murder of slaves in 319, but moderate torture was still allowed.  Slaves who denounced their masters, however, were subject to crucifixion according to a law passed in 320.  In 343, it became illegal to use Christian slave women for prostitution, but non-Christian slave women could still be used in that manner.  Although the Church began having a reforming effect on Roman society, progress was painfully slow.

Even the Church’s own moral teachings led emperors to legislate laws that were unjust.  On August 6, 390, Emperor Theodosius passed a law stipulating that men who committed homosexual acts were to be burned at the stake.  This is the world Gregory was taking responsibility for as Successor of St Peter.  We can clearly appreciate his hesitance, anxiety, and desire to get out of town.

When Gregory heard the bishops of Arles and Marseilles were forcibly converting Jews, Gregory demanded they stop.  The only true way to conversion, Gregory declared, was through the sweetness of preaching.  Tragically, not all of Gregory’s successors nor the Church herself always heeded Gregory’s sage advice in succeeding generations.

The legalization and adoption of Christianity in the Roman Empire was both a blessing and a curse.  It was a blessing in the sense a flood of wealth, including state money, poured into the Church allowing it to build institutions that would survive the collapse of the Latin West.  However, that same effect immediately drew to the Church those seeking office or position not necessarily for the holiest of reasons.  As a response to this ill effect, the first major reform movement, monasticism, developed in the Church.  It came from those seeking a greater purity in their pursuit of Gospel living.  It was from this nascent monasticism Gregory came.

We should recall the emperors had given the Church a near monopoly on social welfare in the Empire.  By the fifth century, the church in Antioch provided clothing, maintained hospitals and dispensaries, and fed three thousand people a day.  Naturally, this implied major sees in large cities were receiving and distributing immense amounts of wealth.

Gregory was direct and firm. He removed unworthy priests from office, forbade taking money for many services, emptied the papal treasury to ransom prisoners of the Lombards and to care for persecuted Jews and the victims of plague and famine. He was very concerned about the conversion of England, sending 40 monks from his own monastery. He is known for his reform of the liturgy, for strengthening respect for doctrine.

An Anglican historian wrote, “It is impossible to conceive what would have been the confusion, the lawlessness, the chaotic state of the Middle Ages without the medieval papacy; and of the medieval papacy, the real father is Gregory the Great.”

Gregory’s book, “Pastoral Care”, on the duties and qualities of a bishop, was read for centuries after his death. He described bishops mainly as physicians whose main duties were preaching and the enforcement of discipline. In his own down-to-earth preaching, Gregory was skilled at applying the daily gospel to the needs of his listeners. Called “the Great,” Gregory has been given a place with Augustine, Ambrose and Jerome as one of the four key doctors of the Western Church.

Gregory developed what can be called a spirituality of reform that balances the need to reform with the need to maintain the unity of the faith, which he called “the bond of love”.  The essential virtue for maintaining unity, according to Gregory, is patience.  Gregory insisted that people should not expect to bring the Church to perfection, because the reality is that the Church brings us to perfection by stirring us to reform ourselves, our communities, our leaders, and our world.

The imperfect and wounded nature of the pilgrim Church is not, for Gregory, a sign that the Holy Spirit has lost His way guiding the Church toward sanctification.  Nor did he believe it was the role of the reformer to separate wheat from chaff or sheep from goats.  Only the Son of Man has this right.

Largely due to the influence of Irish and Spanish clergy and missionaries, Gregory’s ideas gradually spread throughout Christian Europe.  By the end of the 9th century, Charlemagne had made the study of Gregory’s “Pastoral Care” obligatory for all bishops in his empire.

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-by Jacopo Vignali, Pope St Gregory the Great, ca. 1630, oil on canvas, the ceiling of the library in the Dominican convent of Santa Maria Novella in Florence.

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-tomb of St Gregory the Great, St Peter’s Basilica, Rome

“Perhaps it is not after all so difficult for a man to part with his possessions, but it is certainly most difficult for him to part with himself. To renounce what one has is a minor thing; but to renounce what one is, that is asking a lot” -St. Gregory the Great, Homilies on the Gospels

“Though our lips can only stammer, still we chant the greatness of God.” -St. Gregory the Great

Prayer of St Gregory the Great

“O Lord, You received affronts
without number from Your blasphemers,
yet each day You free captive souls
from the grip of the ancient enemy.

You did not avert Your face
from the spittle of perfidy,
yet You wash souls in saving waters.

You accepted Your scourging without murmur,
yet through Your meditation
You deliver us from endless chastisements.

You endured ill-treatment of all kinds,
yet You want to give us a share
in the choirs of angels in glory everlasting.

You did not refuse to be crowned with thorns,
yet You save us from the wounds of sin.

In Your thirst You accepted the bitterness of gall,
yet You prepare Yourself to fill us with eternal delights.

You kept silence under the derisive homage
rendered You by Your executioners,
yet You petition the Father for us
although You are His equal in Divinity.

You came to taste death,
yet You are The Life
and came to bring Life to us,
who are dead through sin.

Amen.”

The proof of love is in the works. Where love exists, it works great things. But when it ceases to act, it ceases to exist. – Saint Gregory the Great

If we knew at what time we were to depart from this world, we would be able to select a season for pleasure and another for repentance. But God, Who has promised pardon to every repentant sinner, has not promised us tomorrow. Therefore we must always dread the final day, which we can never foresee. This very day is a day of truce, a day for conversion. And yet we refuse to cry over the evil we have done! Not only do we not weep for the sins we have committed, we even add to them…. If we are, in fact, now occupied in good deeds, we should not attribute the strength with which we are doing them to ourselves. We must not count on ourselves, because even if we know what kind of person we are today, we do not know what we will be tomorrow. Nobody must rejoice in the security of their own good deeds. As long as we are still experiencing the uncertainties of this life, we do not know what end may follow…we must not trust in our own virtues. – Saint Gregory the Great, from Be Friends of God

“Scripture is read in public to feed even children, and in secret to suspend even sublime minds in admiration. It is like a river, both shallow and deep, in which a lamb may walk and an elephant may swim.” (Gregory the Great, Commentary on Job).

Love,
Matthew

Sep 17 – St Robert Bellarmine, SJ, (1542-1621): Doctor of the Church, Patron of Catechists & Catechumens

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When Robert Bellarmine was ordained in 1570, having entered the Society of Jesus ten years earlier, the study of Church history and the fathers of the Church was in a sad state of neglect. A promising scholar from his youth in Tuscany, he devoted his energy to these two subjects, as well as to Scripture, in order to systematize Church doctrine against the attacks of the Protestant Reformers. He was the first Jesuit to become a professor at Louvain.

His most famous work is his three-volume Disputations on the Controversies of the Christian faith. Particularly noteworthy are the sections on the temporal power of the pope and the role of the laity. Bellarmine took a fundamentally democratic tone, insisting power originated in God, was invested in people, and was entrusted to fit rulers.  In so doing, he incurred the anger of monarchists in England and France by showing the divine-right-of-kings theory untenable. He developed the theory of the indirect power of the pope in temporal affairs; although he was defending the pope against the Scottish philosopher Barclay, he also incurred the ire of Pope Sixtus V.

Bellarmine was made a cardinal by Pope Clement VIII on the grounds that “he had not his equal for learning.” While he occupied apartments in the Vatican, Bellarmine relaxed none of his former austerities. He limited his household expenses to what was barely essential, eating only the food available to the poor. He was known to have ransomed a soldier who had deserted from the army and he used the hangings of his rooms to clothe poor people, remarking, “The walls won’t catch cold.”

Among many activities, he became theologian to Pope Clement VIII, preparing two catechisms which have had great influence in the Church.

The last major controversy of Bellarmine’s life came in 1616 when he had to admonish his friend Galileo, whom he admired. Bellarmine delivered the admonition on behalf of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, which had decided that the heliocentric theory of Copernicus (the sun as stationary) was contrary to Scripture. The admonition amounted to a caution against putting forward—other than as a hypothesis—theories not yet fully proved. This shows that saints are not infallible.

Technically, all the Church told Galileo was not to teach his theories as fact, nor to publish them as so, which Galileo quickly and immediately flaunted the instructions from the Holy Office.  The only reason the Church instructed Galileo so was there was no practical way to prove them in a meaningful way to the illiterate masses, and the Church feared the social disruption this heliocentric new understanding, which on the surface, appears a literal contradiction of Scripture, would immediately cause.  A more nuanced understanding of Scripture, and there is no conflict or concern.  Galileo, however, was not, as the video below explains, was NOT the smoothest political operative ever, hardly, very badly so.  His hard headedness, his arrogance, his lack of political savvy, all make this NOT a scientific disagreement, but one of conflicting personalities and terribly mishandled politics, like ALL wars.

Trial of Galileo Galilei before the Inquisition, 1633. The scientist and astronomer proved Copernicus' and Kepler's theories of a sun-centered system, a theory the Catholic Church had declared erroneous.
Trial of Galileo Galilei before the Inquisition, 1633. The scientist and astronomer proved Copernicus’ and Kepler’s theories of a sun-centered system, a theory the Catholic Church had declared erroneous.  Please click on the image for greater detail.

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Galileo_before_the_Holy_Office

Bellarmine died on September 17, 1621. The process for his canonization was begun in 1627 but was delayed until 1930 for political reasons, stemming from his writings. In 1930, Pius XI canonized him and the next year declared him a doctor of the Church.

“Sweet Lord, you are meek and merciful.” Who would not give himself wholeheartedly to Your service, if he began to taste even a little of Your fatherly rule? What command, Lord, do You give Your servants? “Take My yoke upon you,” you say. And what is this yoke of Yours like? “My yoke,” you say, “is easy and my burden light.” Who would not be glad to bear a yoke that does no press hard but caresses? Who would not be glad for a burden that does not weigh heavy but refreshes? And so you were right to add: “And you will find rest for your souls.” And what is this yoke of Yours that does not weary, but gives rest? It is, of course, that first and greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.” What is easier, sweeter, more pleasant, than to love goodness, beauty, and love, the fullness of which You are, O Lord, my God?” Is it not true that You promise those who keep Your commandments a reward more desirable than great wealth and sweeter than honey? You promise a most abundant reward, for as your apostle James says: “The Lord has prepared a crown of life for those who love Him.” What is this crown of life? It is surely a greater good than we can conceive of or desire, as Saint Paul says, quoting Isaiah: “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it so much as dawned on man what God has prepared for those who love Him.”
– from “On the Ascent of the Mind to God”, by Saint Robert Bellarmine, SJ

O God, in order to defend the faith, You endowed St. Robert, Your Bishop, with wondrous erudition and virtues. Through his intercession, grant that Your people may ever rejoice in the integrity of that faith. Amen.

God our Father, You gave Robert Bellarmine wisdom and goodness to defend the faith of Your Church. By his prayers may we always rejoice in the profession of our faith. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Love,
Matthew

Oct 15 – St Teresa of Avila, OCD, (1515-1582) – Mystic, Doctor of the Church

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Kelly & I, ESPECIALLY Kelly, are learning A LOT about children, having a daughter of our own.  It used to be people would utter the number of children they have, and it would be a number.  And I would think or say, “Isn’t that nice!”, or pay some other innocuous compliment.  From the experience of one, now, my eyes ever widen wider and my jaw drops ever further given the same number!  And, I stop breathing. What a gift!  What a commitment!

With Mara, for me, one was easy, two was a breeze, THREE IS STILL GOING ON!!!! Whatever I say about my experience as a father multiply by a million, or more, for Kelly!  It is and always will be MUCH harder for her, as a mother!  Praise her! Praise YOU, Kelly!

My own respect for my own parents has reached unimaginably profound levels I never could have conceived of or fantasized about before.  Six! w/twins!  Life has many realities you have to actually experience to begin to appreciate.  Parenthood and marriage are some of those.

One child, alone, certainly MAKES an impression!  We can always immediately tell the waiters or waitresses who DO NOT have children!  They place the food immediately in front of Mara!  Yikes!  We HAVE TO create an area, a “buffer zone” around her, clearing away any possible projectile from within her reach!  Having children is a joyful, Divine gift and vocation!  Praise Him!  I love being a father and hope to be again, if I play my cards right! 🙂

At seven, Teresa and her brother Rodrigo loved to read the lives of the saints and martyrs. It seemed to them that the martyrs got to heaven an easy way. The two children set out secretly to go to a faraway land, where they hoped they would die for Christ, being beheaded by the Moors. But, fortunately, they had not gotten far when they met an uncle! He took them back to their worried mother at once. Next the children decided to be hermits in their garden. This didn’t work out either. They could not get enough stones together to build their huts!  Foiled, again!

Born 28 March 1515 at Avila, Castile, Spain as Teresa Sanchez Cepeda Davila y Ahumada, Teresa herself wrote down these amusing stories of her childhood.  She was born to Spanish nobility, the daughter of Don Alonso Sanchez de Cepeda and Doña Beatriz.

In 1528, when Teresa was 15, her mother died, leaving behind 10 children. Teresa was the “most beloved of them all.” She was of medium height, large rather than small, and generally well proportioned. In her youth she had the reputation of being quite beautiful, and she retained her fine appearance until her last years. Her personality was extroverted, her manner affectionately buoyant, and she had the ability to adapt herself easily to all kinds of persons and circumstances. She was skillful in the use of the pen, in needlework, and in household duties. Her courage and enthusiasm were readily kindled, as exemplified by her and Rodrigo’s adventures.  Seeing his daughter’s need of prudent guidance, her father entrusted her to the Augustinian nuns at Santa Maria de Gracia in 1531.

The fact is that when she became a teenager she changed. Teresa read so many novels and foolish romances that she lost much of her love for prayer. She began to think more of dressing up to look pretty. She gave some thought to marriage.  But after she recovered from a bad illness, Teresa read a book about the great St. Jerome. Then and there, she made up her mind to become a bride of Christ.  She entered the Carmelite Order in 1536.  Her father opposed this, but Teresa prevailed.

As a nun, Teresa often found it very hard to pray. Besides that, she had poor health. Teresa wasted time every day in long, foolish conversations. But one day, in front of a picture of Jesus, “the sorely wounded Christ”, she felt great sorrow that she did not love God more. She started then to live for Jesus alone, no matter what sacrifice had to be made. In return for her love, the Lord gave St. Teresa the privilege of hearing Him speak to her. She learned to pray in a marvelous way, too.  These mystical experiences caused much controversy.  Teresa’s conduct was more relaxed than the common ascetical practices of the time.  Many of her acquaintances and friends accused her visions of being occasioned by the devil.

One confessor was so sure that the visions were from the devil that he told her to make an obscene gesture called the “fig” every time she had a vision of Jesus. She cringed but did as she was ordered, all the time apologizing to Jesus. Fortunately, Jesus didn’t seem upset but told her that she was right to obey her confessor. In her autobiography she would say, “I am more afraid of those who are terrified of the devil than I am of the devil himself.”

I love Church technical terms:  exegesis, hermeneutical arch, etc.  One of Teresa’s most famous mystical experiences was the transverberation of her heart, immortalized by Bernini in marble in the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome.

“I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.” –Chapter XXIX; Part 17, Teresa’s Autobiography

Teresa felt that the best evidence that her delights came from God was that the experiences gave her peace, inspiration, and encouragement. “If these effects are not present I would greatly doubt that the raptures come from God; on the contrary I would fear lest they be caused by rabies.”

Sometimes, however, she couldn’t avoid complaining to her closest Friend about the hostility and gossip that surrounded her. When Jesus told her, “Teresa, that’s how I treat my friends” Teresa responded, “No wonder You have so few friends.”

St. Teresa of Avila is well known as a great reformer of the Carmelite order and for having opened sixteen new Carmelite convents. When plans leaked out about her first convent, St. Joseph’s, she was denounced from the pulpit, told by her sisters she should raise money for the convent she was already in, and threatened with the Inquisition. The town started legal proceedings against her.

She was called “a restless, disobedient gadabout who has gone about teaching as though she were a professor” by the papal nuncio. When her former convent voted her in as prioress, the leader of the Carmelite order excommunicated the nuns. A vicar general stationed an officer of the law outside the door to keep her out. The other religious orders opposed her wherever she went. She often had to enter a town secretly in the middle of the night to avoid causing a riot.

And the help she received was sometimes worse than the hostility. A princess ordered Teresa to found a convent and then showed up at the door with luggage and maids. When Teresa refused to order her nuns to wait on the princess on their knees, the princess denounced Teresa to the Inquisition.

To Teresa, spiritual life was an attitude of love, not a rule. Although she proclaimed poverty, she believed in work, not in begging. She believed in obedience to God more than penance. If you do something wrong, don’t punish yourself — change. When someone felt depressed, her advice was that she go some place where she could see the sky and take a walk. When someone was shocked that Teresa was going to eat well, she answered, “There’s a time for partridge and a time for penance.” To her brother’s wish to meditate on hell, she answered, “Don’t.”

In another town, they arrived at their new house in the middle of the night, only to wake up the next morning to find that one wall of the building was missing.

Why was everyone so upset? Teresa said, “Truly it seems that now there are no more of those considered mad for being true lovers of Christ.” No one in religious orders or in the world wanted Teresa reminding them of the way God said they should live.

Teresa looked on these difficulties as good publicity. Soon she had postulants clamoring to get into her reform convents. Many people thought about what she said and wanted to learn about prayer from her. Soon her ideas about prayer swept not only through Spain but all of Europe.  She also left a significant legacy of writings, which represent important benchmarks in the history of Christian mysticism. These works include the “Way of Perfection” and the “Interior Castle”.
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“God, deliver me from sullen saints”. – Saint Teresa of Avila

“It is love alone that gives worth to all things.” -St. Teresa of Avila

“To be humble is to walk in truth.” -St. Teresa of Avila

“Oh my Lord! How true it is that whoever works for You is paid in
troubles! And what a precious price to those who love You if we understand its value.” – Saint Teresa of Avila

“There is more value in a little study of humility and in a single act of it than in all the knowledge in the world.” – Saint Teresa of Avila

“We need no wings to go in search of Him, but have only to look upon Him present within us.” – Saint Teresa of Avila

“Let nothing trouble you, let nothing make you afraid. All things pass
away. God never changes. Patience obtains everything. God alone is enough.” – Saint Teresa of Avila

“Dream that the more you struggle, the more you prove the love that you bear your God, and the more you will rejoice one day with your Beloved, in a happiness and rapture that can never end.” -Saint Teresa of Avila

“Hope, O my soul, hope. You know neither the day nor the hour. Watch carefully, for everything passes quickly, even though your impatience makes doubtful what is certain, and turns a very short time into a long one.” – Saint Teresa of Avila

“Truth suffers, but never dies.” -St. Teresa of Avila

“Prayer is an act of love; words are not needed. Even if sickness distracts from thoughts, all that is needed is the will to love.” -St. Teresa of Avila 

“The important thing is not to think much but to love much; do, then, whatever most stirs you to love.” -St. Teresa of Avila

“Christ has no body on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours.” -St. Teresa of Avila

“If Christ Jesus dwells in a man as his friend and noble leader, that man can endure all things, for Christ helps and strengthens us and never abandons us. He is a true friend. And I clearly see that as we expect to please Him and receive an abundance of His graces, God desires that these graces must come to us from the hands of Christ, through His most sacred humanity, in which God takes delight. All blessings come to us through our Lord. He will teach us, for in beholding His life we find that He is the best example.

What more do we desire from such a good Friend at our side? Unlike our friends in the world, He will never abandon us when we are troubled or distressed. Blessed is the one who truly loves Him and always keeps Him near. Whenever we think of Christ we should recall the love that led Him to bestow on us so many graces and favors, and also the great love God showed in giving us in Christ a pledge of His love; for Love calls for love in return.

Let us strive to keep this always before our eyes and to rouse ourselves to love Him. For soon the Lord will grant us the grace of impressing His love on our hearts, and all will become easy for us and we shall accomplish great things quickly and without effort.” – Saint Teresa of Avila

“While in a state like this the soul will find profit in nothing, and hence, being as it is in mortal sin, none of the good works it may do will be of any avail to win it glory; for they will not have their origin in that First Principle, which is God, through Whom alone our virtue is true virtue. -St Teresa of Avila, “Interior Castle”, about when the soul is in mortal sin.

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-Ecstasy of St Teresa, (1647-1652), Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome

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Teresa of Ávila, 1827, by François Gérard (1770−1837)

Prayer to Saint Teresa of Avila

Dear wonderful saint, model of fidelity to your vows, you gladly carried a heavy cross following in the steps of Christ, Who chose to be crucified for us. You realized that God, like a merciful Father, chastises those whom He loves – which to those who love this world seems silly indeed.  Grant to those who suffer like you relief from their affliction, if this be the will and the plan of God.  Amen.

Love,
Matthew

Sep 17- St Hildegard von Bingen, OSB, (1098-1179), Doctor of the Church

Museum - Hildegard von Bingen

Saint Hildegard of Bingen, O.S.B. (German: Hildegard von Bingen; Latin: Hildegardis Bingensis) (1098 – 17 September 1179), also known as Saint Hildegard, and “Sibyl of the Rhine”, was a German writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, Benedictine abbess, visionary, and polymath. Elected a magistra by her fellow nuns in 1136, she founded the monasteries of Rupertsberg in 1150 and Eibingen in 1165. One of her works as a composer, the Ordo Virtutum, is an early example of liturgical drama and arguably the oldest surviving morality play.  She wrote theological, botanical and medicinal texts, as well as letters, liturgical songs, and poems, while supervising brilliant miniature Illuminations.

On 10 May 2012, Pope Benedict XVI extended the liturgical cult of St. Hildegard to the universal Church, in a process known as “equivalent canonization”.  On 27 May 2012, the Pope announced that, on 7 October 2012, he will declare St. Hildegard to be the 35th Doctor of the Church.

Hildegard’s date of birth is uncertain. It has been concluded that she may have been born in the year 1098. Hildegard was raised in a family of free nobles. She was her parents’ tenth child, sickly from birth. In her “Vita”, or brief biography often written for saints, Hildegard explains that from a very young age she had experienced visions.

Perhaps due to Hildegard’s visions, or as a method of political positioning, Hildegard’s parents, Hildebert and Mechthilde, offered her as an oblate to the church; their “tithe” to the Church. The date of Hildegard’s enclosure in the church is contentious. Her Vita tells us she was enclosed with an older nun, Jutta, at the age of eight. However, Jutta’s enclosure date is known to be in 1112, at which time Hildegard would have been fourteen. Some scholars speculate that Hildegard was placed in the care of Jutta, the daughter of Count Stephan II of Sponheim, at the age of eight, before the two women were enclosed together six years later.  There is no written record of the twenty-four years of Hildegard’s life that she was in the convent together with Jutta. It is possible that Hildegard could have been a chantress and a worker in the herbarium and infirmary.

In any case, Hildegard and Jutta were enclosed at Disibodenberg in the Palatinate Forest in what is now Germany. Jutta was also a visionary and thus attracted many followers who came to visit her at the enclosure. Hildegard also tells us that Jutta taught her to read and write, but that she was unlearned and therefore incapable of teaching Hildegard Biblical interpretation.  Hildegard and Jutta most likely prayed, meditated, read scriptures such as the psalter, and did some sort of handwork during the hours of the Divine Office. This also might have been a time when Hildegard learned how to play the ten-stringed psaltery. Volmar, a frequent visitor, may have taught Hildegard simple psalm notation. The time she studied music could also have been the beginning of the compositions she would later create.  Upon Jutta’s death in 1136, Hildegard was unanimously elected as “magistra” of the community by her fellow nuns.

With regard to her visions, Hildegard says that she first saw “The Shade of the Living Light” at the age of three, and by the age of five she began to understand that she was experiencing visions. She used the term ‘visio’ to this feature of her experience, and recognized that it was a gift that she could not explain to others. Hildegard explained that she saw all things in the light of God through the five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch.  Hildegard was hesitant to share her visions, confiding only to Jutta, who in turn told Volmar, Hildegard’s tutor and, later, secretary.

Throughout her life, she continued to have many visions, and in 1141, at the age of 42, Hildegard received a vision she believed to be an instruction from God, to “write down that which you see and hear.” Still hesitant to record her visions, Hildegard became physically ill. The illustrations recorded in the book of “Scivias” were visions that Hildegard experienced, causing her great suffering and tribulations. In her first theological text, “Scivias” (“Know the Ways”), Hildegard describes her struggle within:

“But I, though I saw and heard these things, refused to write for a long time through doubt and bad opinion and the diversity of human words, not with stubbornness but in the exercise of humility, until, laid low by the scourge of God, I fell upon a bed of sickness; then, compelled at last by many illnesses, and by the witness of a certain noble maiden of good conduct [the nun Richardis von Stade] and of that man whom I had secretly sought and found, as mentioned above, I set my hand to the writing. While I was doing it, I sensed, as I mentioned before, the deep profundity of scriptural exposition; and, raising myself from illness by the strength I received, I brought this work to a close – though just barely – in ten years…And I spoke and wrote these things not by the invention of my heart or that of any other person, but as by the secret mysteries of God I heard and received them in the heavenly places. And again I heard a voice from Heaven saying to me, ‘Cry out therefore, and write thus’

Hildegard’s Vita was begun by Godfrey of Disibodenberg under Hildegard’s supervision. It was between November 1147 and February 1148 at the synod in Trier that Pope Eugenus heard about Hildegard’s writings. It was from this that she received Papal approval to document her visions as revelations from the Holy Spirit giving her instant credence.

Before Hildegard’s death, a problem arose with the clergy of Mainz. A man buried at the convent in Rupertsburg had died after excommunication from the Church.  Hildegard saw to it the man had received the last rites. But, the clergy wanted to remove his body from the sacred ground. Hildegard did not accept this idea, replying that it was a sin and that the man had been reconciled to the Church at the time of his death.  She claimed she’d received word from God allowing the burial. But her ecclesiastical superiors intervened, and ordered the body exhumed. Hildegard defied the authorities by hiding the grave, and the authorities excommunicated the entire convent community. Most insultingly to Hildegard, the interdict prohibited the community from singing. She complied with the interdict, avoiding singing and communion, but did not comply with the command to exhume the corpse. Hildegard appealed the decision to yet higher Church authorities, and finally had the interdict lifted.

On 17 September 1179, when Hildegard died, her sisters claimed they saw two streams of light appear in the skies and cross over the room where she was dying.

Hildegard’s musical, literary, and scientific writings are housed primarily in two manuscripts: the Dendermonde manuscript and the Riesenkodex. The Dendermonde manuscript was copied under Hildegard’s supervision at Rupertsberg, while the Riesencodex was copied in the century after Hildegard’s death.

Attention in recent decades to women of the medieval Church has led to a great deal of popular interest in Hildegard, particularly her music. In addition to the Ordo Virtutum, sixty-nine musical compositions, each with its own original poetic text, survive, and at least four other texts are known, though their musical notation has been lost.  This is one of the largest repertoires among medieval composers. Hildegard also wrote nearly 400 letters to correspondents ranging from Popes to Emperors to abbots and abbesses; two volumes of material on natural medicine and cures; an invented language called the Lingua ignota; various minor works, including a gospel commentary and two works of hagiography; and three great volumes of visionary theology: Scivias, Liber vitae meritorum (“Book of Life’s Merits” or “Book of the Rewards of Life”), and Liber divinorum operum (“Book of Divine Works”).

In December 2010, BXVI quoted a long passage from one of Hildegard’s visions to assess the damage done to the church by the sex abuse scandal, and to invite the Vatican hierarchy to accept this “humiliation” as an “an exhortation to truth and a call to renewal”.

“In the vision of St. Hildegard, the face of the church is stained with dust. … Her garment is torn — by the sins of priests. The way she saw and expressed it is the way we have experienced it this year,” the Pope said.

A few months earlier, he had referred to Hildegard to address calls for reform inside the Church, sparked by the “abuses of the clergy.” Benedict recalled how the saint had “harshly reprimanded” those who in her lifetime wanted “radical reform,” reminding them that “true renewal” comes from “repentance” and “conversion, rather than with a change of structures.”

In Hildegard’s lifetime, Pope Eugenius III, who needed help fending off the Cathar heresy that rejected the Church’s worldly power, recognized the authenticity of her visions and authorized her to preach in public — something that Church doctrine had officially forbidden until that time and that nonetheless remains controversial in Catholicism.  Hildegard used her unprecedented role to publicly rebuke the emperor and to call on the Pope and bishops to reform the Church’s ills.

In 2006, Benedict XVI himself drew on Hildegard to expound his thinking on women’s role in the Church: not as priests but as bearers of a “spiritual power” that enables them to, yes, even “criticize the bishops.”

In space, she is commemorated by the asteroid 898 Hildegard.

“Listen: there was once a king sitting on his throne. Around him stood great and wonderfully beautiful columns ornamented with ivory, bearing the banners of the king with great honor. Then it pleased the king to raise a small feather from the ground, and he commanded it to fly. The feather flew, not because of anything in itself but because the air bore it along. Thus am I, a feather on the breath of God.” – St Hildegard of Bingen

O leafy branch,
standing in your nobility
as the dawn breaks forth:
now rejoice and be glad
and deign to set us frail ones
free from evil habits
and stretch forth your hand
and lift us up.

-St Hildegard von Bingen

O ruby blood
which flowed from on high
where divinity touched.

You are a flower
that the winter
of the serpent’s breath
can never injure.

-St Hildegard von Bingen

O Shepherd of souls
and o first voice
through whom all creation was summoned,
now to you,
to you may it give pleasure and dignity
to liberate us
from our miseries and languishing.

-St Hildegard von Bingen

O eternal Lord,
it is pleasing to you
to burn in that same fire of love,
like that from which our bodies are born,
and from which you begot your Son
in the first dawn before all of Creation.

So consider this need which falls upon us,
and relieve us of it for the sake of your Son
and lead us in joyous prosperity

-St Hildegard von Bingen

O Great Father we are in great need;
Now therefore we implore, we implore you
Through your Word, by which you have
Filled us with [those things] we need;
Now it may please you Father for it befits you
To consider us with your help,
So that we might not fail and lest your name
Might be blackened in us
And through your name, deign to help us.

-St Hildegard von Bingen

“You are encircled by the arms of the mystery of God.” -St. Hildegard of Bingen

Prayer for the intercession of St Hildegard von Bingen:

O God, by Whose grace Thy servant Hildegard, enkindled with the fire of Thy love, became a burning and shining light in Thy Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and may ever walk before Thee as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Who with Thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, liveth and reigneth, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

In 2009, Zeigeist Films released “Vision”, a film on the life of St Hildegard von Bingen:  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0995850/

Love,
Matthew