Category Archives: Saints

Jul 19 – St Macrina the Younger (330-19 Jul 379 AD) – sister of Sts Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great & Gregory Nazianzus

Her father arranged for her to marry but her fiancé died before the wedding. After having been betrothed to her fiancé, Macrina did not believe it was appropriate to marry another man, but saw Christ as her eternal bridegroom.  Instead, she devoted herself to her religion, becoming a nun.

When all her siblings had grown, including Sts Basil the Great & St Gregory Nazianzus, and left the parental home, Saint Macrina convinced her mother, Saint Emilia, to leave the world, to set their slaves free, and to settle in a women’s monastery. Several of their servants followed their example. Having taken monastic vows, they lived together as one family, they prayed together, they worked together, they possessed everything in common, and in this manner of life nothing distinguished one from another.

After the death of her mother, Saint Macrina guided the sisters of the monastery. She enjoyed the deep respect of all who knew her. Strictness towards herself and temperance in everything were characteristic of the saint all her life. She slept on boards and had no possessions. Saint Macrina was granted the gift of wonderworking. There was an instance (told by the sisters of the monastery to Saint Gregory of Nyssa after the death of Saint Macrina), when she healed a girl of an eye-affliction. Through the prayers of the saint, there was no shortage of wheat at her monastery in times of famine.

Macrina had a profound influence upon her brothers and her mother with her adherence to an ascetic ideal. Her brother Gregory of Nyssa wrote a work entitled Life of Macrina in which he describes her sanctity throughout her life. Macrina lived a chaste and humble life, devoting her time to prayer and the spiritual education of her younger brother, Peter. Gregory presents her as one who consciously rejected all Classical education, choosing instead devoted study of Scripture and other sacred writings.

In 379, Macrina died at her family’s estate in Pontus, which with the help of her younger brother Peter she had turned into a monastery and convent. Gregory of Nyssa composed a “Dialogue on the Soul and Resurrection” (peri psyches kai anastaseos), entitled ta Makrinia (P.G. XLVI, 12 sq.), to commemorate Macrina, in which Gregory purports to describe the conversation he had with Macrina on her deathbed, in a literary form modelled on Plato’s Phaedo. Even on her deathbed, Macrina continued to live a life of sanctity, as she refused a bed, and instead chose to lie on the ground.

Saint Macrina is significant in that her brother, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, was able to set standards for being a holy Early Christian woman. He believed that virginity reflected the “radiant purity of God.”

Universalism

Universalists, including Hosea Ballou and J. W. Hanson, claim Macrina as a Universalist in her teachings, citing works which they believe demonstrate Macrina’s belief that the wicked would all eventually confess Christ.

Troparion — Tone 8

The image of God was truly preserved in you, O Mother, / For you took up the Cross and followed Christ. / By so doing, you taught us to disregard the flesh, for it passes away, / But to care instead for the soul, since it is immortal. / Therefore your spirit, O Holy Mother Macrina, rejoices with the Angels!

Love & faith,
Matthew

Hopeful Universalism? – St Macrina the Younger (330 – 19 Jul 379 AD) – sister of Sts Gregory of Nyssa & Basil the Great

-by Rt. Rev., Matthew Gunter, 8th Bishop of the Diocese of Fond du Lac, the Episcopal Church in Northeast WI

“Today is the feast day of Macrina (330-379), older sister and theological/spiritual mentor of Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa, two of the most formative theologians and leaders of the early Church. Both of these great theologians pointed to their sister as their mentor in the faith. She was the theologian behind the theologians. Another brother, Peter of Sebaste, also became a bishop and saint.

In his book, On the Soul and the Resurrection, Gregory recounts a dialogue with Macrina in which he asks his sister and teacher a series of questions about the nature of the soul and the resurrection and related things. It might be that Gregory uses Macrina as a literary device to convey his own thoughts similar to the way Plato sometimes uses Socrates in his dialogues. Or maybe this really conveys things he learned directly from Macrina. In any event his respect for her is clear. Towards the end of On the Soul and the Resurrection, Macrina says this:

“To evaluate the way a person has lived, the judge would need to examine all these factors: how he endured suffering, dishonor, disease, old age, maturity, youth, wealth, and poverty; how through each of these situations he ran the course of the life allotted to him either well or badly; and whether he became able to receive many good things or many evil things in a long lifetime or did not reach even the beginning of either good or evil, ceasing to live when his mind was not yet fully developed. But when God brings our nature back to the first state of man by the resurrection, it would be pointless to mention such matters and to suppose that the power of God is hindered from this goal by such obstructions.

He has one goal: when the whole fullness of our nature has been perfected in each man, some straightway even in this life purified from evil, others healed hereafter through fire for the appropriate length of time, and others ignorant of the experience equally of good and of evil in the life here, God intends to set before everyone the participation of the good things in Him, which the Scripture says eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor thought attained.

This is nothing else, according to my judgment, but to be in God Himself; for the good which is beyond hearing, sight, and heart would be that very thing which surpasses everything. But the difference between a life of virtue and a life of wickedness will appear hereafter chiefly in allowing us to participate earlier or later in the blessedness which we hope for. The duration of the healing process will undoubtedly be in proportion to the measure of evil which has entered each person. This process of healing the soul would consist of cleansing it from evil. This cannot be accomplished without pain, as we have discussed previously.”
– On the Soul and the Resurrection, pp. 115-116

Note that Macrina and Gregory are not soft on the reality of death and judgment – this cannot accomplished without pain. We will be judged.There is reason to bear in mind the “Time of Scrutiny” (Sirach 18:20). There is still good reason to take our own piety with utmost seriousness and to invite others to participate now in “the blessedness which we hope for.”

They do seem, however, to understand The Judgment as having more to do with purgation and healing than final eternal punishment and torture. It is unclear whether or not they believed it is possible that some souls might hold out eternally against blessedness. But, they seem convinced that God, in His relentless love, will never give up on anyone – even beyond death and forever.

This hopeful universalism is quite different from an “all-y, all-y in come free” complacent universalism. Macrina anad Gregory are not alone in expressing some version of this. One could add Isaac the Syrian (7th century), Maximos the Confessor (7th century), Frederick Denison Maurice (19th century), C. S. Lewis (20th century), Karl Barth (20th century), Hans Urs von Balthasar (20th century), and many others…”

Love & faith,
Matthew

Dec 26 – Lá Fhéile Stiofáin/Lá an Dreoilín


-Wrenboys on Wren Day in Dingle, Ireland, please click on the image for greater detail

The wren, oh the wren; he’s the king of all birds,
On St. Stephen’s Day he got caught in the furze,
So it’s up with the kettle and it’s down with the pan,
Won’t you give us a penny for to bury the wren?

Well it’s Christmas time; that’s why we’re here,
Please be good enough to give us an ear,
For we’ll sing and we’ll dance if youse give us a chance,
And we won’t be comin’ back for another whole year!

We’ll play Kerry polkas; they’re real hot stuff,
We’ll play the Mason’s Apron and the Pinch of Snuff,
Jon Maroney’s jig and the Donegal reel,
Music made to put a spring in your heel!

If there’s a drink in the house, would it make itself known,
Before I sing a song called “The Banks of the Lowne”,
A drink with lubri-mication in it,
For me poor dry throat and I’ll sing like a linnet!

Oh please give us something for the little bird’s wake,
A big lump of pudding or some Christmas cake,
A fist full o’ goose and a hot cup o’ tay (Tea),
And then we’ll all be goin’ on our way!

The wren, oh the wren; he’s the king of all birds,
On St. Stephen’s Day he got caught in the furze,
So it’s up with the kettle and it’s down with the pan,
Won’t you give us a penny for to bury the wren?

December 26 is one of nine official public holidays in Ireland, in English, Wren Day. This name alludes to several legends, including those found in Irish mythology, linking episodes in the life of Jesus to the wren. People dress up in old clothes, wear straw hats and travel from door to door with fake wrens (previously real wrens were killed) and they dance, sing and play music.

Depending on which region of the country, they are called “wrenboys” and mummers. A Mummer’s Festival is held at this time every year in the village of New Inn, County Galway, and Dingle in County Kerry. Mumming is also a big tradition in County Fermanagh in Ulster. Saint Stephen’s Day is a popular day for visiting family members and going to the theatre to see a pantomime. In most of Ulster in the north of Ireland, the day is usually known as Boxing Day, especially in Northern Ireland and County Donegal.

Irish further appended St Stephen’s Day with the hunting of wren. At some point during the Feast of St. Stephen, the children from each family would find a wren and chase it until it was captured or died from exhaustion. After “going on the wren,” the children would tie the dead bird to the end of a pole or put it in a cage and parade around town singing.

Each group would stop at homes around the neighborhood, show their bird and collect some money. At the end of the day, the money the town’s children gathered was pooled and used to host a huge city-wide dance.

There are two tales why the wren became the unfortunate victim of the day. In one version, St. Stephen had all but eluded his capture when a singing wren betrayed his hiding place. The other explanation is that during the Viking raids on the Emerald Island in the eighth century, wrens betrayed the Irish soldiers’ location and foiled a potential ambush.

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-Cardinal Miloslav Vlk with the skull of Saint Wenceslaus during a procession on September 28, 2006, please click on the image for greater detail

“Good King Wenceslas” is a Christmas carol that tells a story of a Bohemian king going on a journey and braving harsh winter weather to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen (December 26, the Second Day of Christmas). During the journey, his page is about to give up the struggle against the cold weather, but is enabled to continue by following the king’s footprints which are warmed by the saint’s holiness, step for step, through the deep snow. The legend is based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia or Svatý Václav in Czech (907–935). The name Wenceslas is a Latinised version of the old Czech language “Venceslav”.

Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night, tho’ the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gath’ring winter fuel.

“Hither, page, and stand by me, if thou know’st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain;
Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

“Bring me flesh, and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither:
Thou and I shall see him dine, when we bear them thither.”
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together;
Through the rude wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.

“Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, good my page. Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage freeze thy blood less coldly.”

In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.


-by Br Paul Marich, OP

“Today is known as Boxing Day in England, where the wealthy would traditionally give gifts to their servants and to the less fortunate. Interestingly enough, there is a link between this secular commemoration, today’s liturgical feast of Saint Stephen, and the message of the mid-nineteenth century English carol, Good King Wenceslaus. While both St. Stephen and Wenceslaus wore the martyr’s crown, they were also known for their service to the poor, which they undertook for the sake of Christ. Their mutual witness shows us how the mystery of Christmas can transform us into loving disciples of the newborn Savior.

In the Acts of the Apostles, we find Stephen, a young man “full of grace and power” who “did great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). As one of the first deacons, he was committed to serving the poor and widows, so that the Apostles could freely fulfill their preaching mission. He defended the Faith against those who were trying to silence the followers of Christ, eventually succumbing to death by stoning. We celebrate him as the first martyr on the day after Christmas, because he reminds us of the ultimate mission of the newborn savior, who came to earth in order to die for our sins.

With St. Stephen as his example, it was quite fitting that “Good King Wenceslaus looked out on the feast of Stephen.” Who was this good “King Wenceslaus”? Wenceslaus I—more precisely, the Duke of Bohemia—was born around 907. His path to holiness was inspired by his grandmother, Saint Ludmila, who was one of the first to be baptized in Bohemia. He succeeded his father as duke when he was only a teenager, and was known for his devotion and virtue. Like Stephen, Wenceslaus assisted the poor with alms as a young man. In 935, he was killed by his brother, who resented Wenceslaus’ allegiance to both the Church and the German king. Saint Wenceslaus has been venerated as a martyr ever since his death.

It is the charity of St. Wenceslaus that is the major theme of the carol that bears his name, but we must carefully read each verse in order to unlock this message. We find the first clue at the end of verse 1: “When a poor man came in sight gath’ring winter fuel.” In verse 3, Wenceslaus and his page feed this poor man and provide him with firewood for the wintry night. By verse 4, the page is spent, unable to go further due to the cold. Wenceslaus commands him to follow in his steps, as “Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.” The presence of the saint radiates the love of Christ in the midst of the winter’s cold. It was Christ Whom Wenceslaus proclaimed, for His coming into the world scatters the darkness and warms the hardened hearts of sinners. All of us, regardless of status, must serve Christ in the poor and helpless, for in doing so, we proclaim the good news of salvation with the hope of eternal life. The final words of the carol teach such a lesson:

“Therefore, Christian men, be sure,

wealth or rank possessing,

Ye who now will bless the poor,

Shall yourselves find blessing.”

Saint Wenceslaus lived this lesson eminently, humbling himself from his throne to help the poor and downtrodden.

Christmastime can prompt us to help those who are needy, yet such sentiments for good deeds should not be a mere formality or come by way of social obligation. Rather, they must be rooted in a love for the Infant lying in the manger. Christ’s lowly birth shows us our own poverty and weakness, as He descended among us to raise us out of the poverty of sin. Saints Stephen and Wenceslaus are venerated as martyrs, yet their witness includes a love for Christ in the poor, which preceded their ultimate sacrifice for Him. Their example inspires us to bring the love of the newborn Christ to all those we encounter, both at Christmas and throughout the whole year.”

Love,
Matthew

Dec 25 – “Timete Deum et date illi honorem quia venit hora iudicii eius”, “Fear God, for the hour of His judgment is coming.” (cf. Apoc. 14.7)


-please click on the image for greater detail.


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-please clock on the image for greater detail.

June 26, 2019, Barneby’s Auction House, London, UK

On 22 June, a painting by Renaissance painter Nicolas Cordonnier, which was discovered in a French apartment, sold for £84,200 – almost ten times its estimate.

The Preaching of St. Vincent, an oil on board painted between 1515-20, was found after it had been collecting dust in an apartment in downtown Pau, a city in southwestern France, for many years. Presented on 22 June at auction house Carrère and Laborie, the work sold to a French collector for €94,000 (£84,200) including fees, against an estimate of €10,000- 15,000 (£9,000-15,200).

More than a success for the auction house, this painting is also a great discovery for art historians. As explained by Old Master’s expert Patrick Dubois at the Gazette Drouot, this work was known only from a photocopy. The art historian and curator of the Louvre from 1929 to 1961, Charles Sterling, had made a photocopy of the work to insert it in the ‘Burgundy-Champagne’ section of the museum’s archives, while another reproduction appeared more recently in the research of specialists Frédéric Elsig and Dominique Thiébaut. The location of the original work remained unknown, until today.

The painting’s artist, Nicolas Cordonnier, known as the ‘Master of the Legend of the Santa Casa’, in reference to his eponymous triptych of 1525-30, now preserved in the museum of Vauluisant in Troyes, was a prominent painter in the Champagne region of France during his time. Coming from a family of artists, his style was influenced by the work of Provencal painter Josse Lieferinxe, whom he discovered in Marseille during a visit to his brother Jean.

“Its owners did not suspect that they held one of the few works of the most important painter from Troyes of the early 16th century” reported the Gazette Drouot. This major period in the history of French painting saw artists embark on the path of the Renaissance.

The work depicts Vincent Ferrer, a Dominican preacher who travelled to France, Italy and Spain to warn the population against the end of the world. His audience was said to be captivated, terrified and seduced by his words, although he spoke only in Spanish and Latin. In Cordonnier’s painting, St. Vincent is preaching from a pulpit to a mixed reaction from the audience. In fact, several men wearing turbans, visible to the left of the composition, show their disapproval.

The painting’s auctioneer Patrice Carrère, who orchestrated the sale, immediately noticed the work when he visited the apartment in Pau. He said of the work, “It is a painting whose patina made me say that it was probably 15th century.”

This discovery will allow historians to deepen their research and knowledge about the Troyes-born artist, who is still somewhat unknown. The difference between the estimate and the final auction price of the work can be explained not only by the rarity of this kind of painting, but also because, according to Carrère, “it is the first time that this artist’s work went to a public auction.”


-by Br Vincent Antony Löning, OP, English Province

“My Dominican patron, S. Vincent Ferrer, especially liked preaching about the end of the world. In the picture above, he is doing precisely that. With his finger he points to the sky: just as Christ has ascended into heaven, so He will also come down from heaven! We even see a little Christ, floating on some clouds, as if ready to come back. And out of his mouth issues S. Vincent’s stark warning: “Fear God, for the hour of his judgment is coming.” (cf. Apoc. 14.7). This is almost a mediaeval comic-strip! This painting by Nicolas Cordonnier dates to the early 16th century, and was rediscovered only as recently as this summer in Pau, in southern France. As apocalyptic prophecies might do, Vincent Ferrer is clearly getting a pretty mixed reaction from his audience… His enthusiasm for this kind of preaching even earned him the nickname ‘the Angel of the Apocalypse’.

Although we might often be tempted to leave to one side such doom-and-gloom warnings, the crux of this message is ever-relevant. Christ wants to save us, and has already come once to do that, and yet He will still come again to usher in His  reign of glory—and our own, if we will follow Him. Before then, it is never too late for us to repent: we all have to recognise that we only ever follow Him imperfectly at best, and cannot even begin doing that without God’s grace. If we do, the promise of judgment becomes a promise of glory. And then, perhaps we can await the last days a little more joyfully and eagerly!”

Love & joy, Come Lord Jesus!  Maranatha!  Come!
Matthew

Dec 25 – Joseph, Dreams, & Christmas

I have a medical condition which causes me terrible nightmares. Not a guilty conscience or some unresolved issue, my soul is at peace; just a medical condition. I had no idea this being awakened from sleep first three to four, and then five to six times a night by these nightmares had anything to do with an otherwise known condition for which I was being treated. Oh, a year before this began, I read a story about Pope Francis having a sleeping St Joseph on his desk. I fell in love with the devotion immediately, and ordered one; St Joseph, the Protector, silent and attentive.

The idea, although I have never done this, I believe God already knows my cares and concerns better than I do and therefore does not need to be told, but the idea is to write down your cares, concerns, intentions, etc. and place those underneath the sleeping St Joseph and he will attend to them while you sleep. This comes from Scripture, where St Joseph received his revelations from God in his sleep.

With medication and understanding, my condition is much improved, although I still have unpleasant dreams. I have no doubt the nightmares would return if I stopped taking the medicine, but I am more able to sleep through the night, and I am not passing out at 8pm from lack of sleep which I thought was just getting older. I’m much more awake in the evenings, now. Deo gratias.


-“Joseph’s Dream” by Rembrandt 1645 or 1646, oil on mahogany panel, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, Germany. Please click on the image for greater detail.


-by Br Joseph Bailham, OP, English Province

“The person of St Joseph is not generally the focus of a great deal of attention during this Advent and Christmas period, though admittedly he receives a great deal more attention now in the Mass readings than at any other time of the liturgical year!

There a few paintings around which depict St Joseph dreaming, a trait characteristic of him, but also of the Patriarch Joseph in the Old Testament. Having taken the name Joseph in religion, I have always felt somewhat obliged to embrace the yoke of this particular charism of sleeping and dreaming!

Unlike my dreaming, the dreams of St Joseph in Scripture are far more poignant. In the Gospel of Matthew we have four mentioned: in the first, ‘an angel of the Lord appeared to him… and said, “Joseph, son David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the One conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit;’ the second, when ‘an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream [and said], “Get up!… Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt… for Herod is going to search for the Child to kill Him;’ the third, when he is told to go back to the Land of Israel for Herod was now dead; and fourthly, being afraid to go back to the Land of Israel after he learned that the son of Herod, Archelaus, was now reigning in Judea, he was warned in a dream to withdraw to Galilee.

St Joseph is presented as the earthly guardian of Our Lord and Blessed Mother. In the Litany of St Joseph, he is referred to as ‘Head of the Holy Family,’ ‘Chaste Guardian of the Virgin,’ and, ‘Diligent Protector of Christ.’ His headship is intimately bound up with his guardianship of Our Lord and Lady. This is reflected in the dreams that St Joseph has: protecting and guarding Our Lord and Lady are at the heart.

I have a soft spot for St Joseph because he was much like us: he did not have two natures like Our Lord, nor was he immaculately conceived like Our Lady. But he was a just person, a good person, a holy person, all the things we can be if we but cooperate with God’s grace.

Paintings of St Joseph dreaming vary slightly, sometimes with Our Lady and the Christ child in the background, and other times just Our Lady alone (presumably representing the initial dream of taking Mary as his spouse). But when I look at these paintings of St Joseph dreaming, I often let my imagination run a little free and imagine what else he might be contemplating. Maybe he is pondering on the reality of what he has entered or is about to enter into: this rather unusual and wonderful family set-up. Maybe he is contemplating the weight of responsibility on his shoulders, and how he will best live up to his newfound vocation. What I see in these depictions of St Joseph dreaming is his pondering and meditating on the mystery before him, and its implications for his conduct in life. In this regard, I think he is a great model for us, especially in this season of Advent. Maybe like St Joseph, we can stop, close our eyes, and just ponder of the mystery before us, that the Eternal God has visited us; he has taken to himself a human nature and become incarnate as a child, born of a woman, in order to save us from our sins. Like St Joseph, we can ponder on the significance of this event for our own lives and conduct. What does this all ask of us?

We might do well at this holy time of the year to ask St Joseph to pray for us, that we, like him, may be able to protect and safeguard Our Lord and Lady. Of course, we have no need to protect them from historical Herod, but we do need to carve out a place in our hearts for them both, to be that inn with doors wide open. We need to protect their place in our lives from those ‘spiritual Herods’ which seek so often to kill them, to push them both out our view, offering us alternative and apparently easier paths in life, or things which inevitably fall short of what God actually offers us.

Joseph most just, most chaste, most prudent, most strong, most obedient, most faithful, pray for us in this holy season, and help us to ponder on the significance of the Incarnation of your foster Son, Our Lord Jesus, and help us to be, like you, guardians of Our Lord and Lady in our own lives and in the wider world today.”

St Joseph, Guardian of Jesus and Mary, pray for us!

Love,
Matthew

Dec 4 – St John Damascene (of Damascus) (675-749 AD), Icons = The Eyes of God

Mortal, you are living in the midst of a rebellious
house, who have eyes to see but do not see, who have
ears to hear but do not hear.
—Ezek. 12:2

Jesus said to [the disciples] . . . “Do you have eyes, and
fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?”
—Mk 8:17–18

“Both Jesus and Ezekiel recognized the parallel between having ears to hear and eyes to see, but in the Protestant tradition of my childhood, the emphasis was always on having ears to hear (the words of the Bible) to the loss of eyes to see. My earliest spiritual formation focused on the hearing part and omitted what became apparent later as effective avenues for engaging the seeing part. Symbolic images within worship began to inform my spirituality only when I chose the Episcopal Church as a teenager. I do not know if an increasing awareness of symbolism was due to natural maturation or to the richness of symbolic images so available in Episcopal liturgy. However, I vividly remember saying at age seventeen that my reason for converting was, in part, because my previous church was just “so plain.” As with many other seekers, I had a hunger for something more tangible. There was the longing to see God and live…

…icons provide a vehicle for our participation in God’s redemptive work. Icons are no less than the “dynamic manifestations of man’s spiritual power to redeem creation through beauty and art.”

If this were a book about icons simply as religious art, it would not be worth writing, let alone publishing. If Orthodox Christianity did not claim icons are essential for seeing the holy, I would not be motivated to try to inform non-Orthodox Christians about icons. God embodied, in the human and historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth—who is, for all Christians, also the Christ—the mystery and doctrine on which salvation depends. But finding Jesus incarnate in today’s world is the struggle of faith for many, me included. The words and images I encounter every day need to be countered, challenged, and balanced against words and images whose purposes are edifying, redemptive, and healing. ”
-Green, Mary E., (2014), Introduction, Eyes to See: The Redemptive Purpose of Icons, Morehouse Publishing, New York

Icons, to the believer, and properly understood, are incarnational, just like Christmas.  Acheiropoieta, are icons not made by human hands.

In cinema involving Russian characters, you will see the Russian, typically, but it could be Greek, someone of Eastern Orthodox sentiment, cover any icon with a cloth just before performing some heinous act such as suicide. There is a reason for this.

Jesus Christ is the first eikon (alternative spelling, Greek for image) of God. Icons are a symbolic and allegorical composition of: “Behold, the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear Him, on those who hope in His mercy.” (Ps 32:18). Christian tradition dating from the 8th century identifies Luke the Evangelist as the first icon painter. There is a Christian legend that Pilate made an image of Christ.

In the icons of Eastern Orthodoxy, and of the Early Medieval West, very little room is made for artistic license. Almost everything within the image has a symbolic aspect. Christ, the saints, and the angels all have halos. Angels (and often John the Baptist) have wings because they are messengers. Figures have consistent facial appearances, hold attributes personal to them, and use a few conventional poses.

Color plays an important role as well. Gold represents the radiance of Heaven; red, divine life. Blue is the color of human life, white is the Uncreated Light of God, only used for resurrection and transfiguration of Christ. If you look at icons of Jesus and Mary: Jesus wears red undergarment with a blue outer garment (God become Human) and Mary wears a blue undergarment with a red overgarment (human was granted gifts by God), thus the doctrine of deification is conveyed by icons. Letters are symbols too. Most icons incorporate some calligraphic text naming the person or event depicted. Even this is often presented in a stylized manner.

In the Eastern Orthodoxy, there are reports of particular, Wonderworking icons that exude myrrh (fragrant, healing oil), or perform miracles upon petition by believers. When such reports are verified by the Orthodox hierarchy, they are understood as miracles performed by God through the prayers of the saint, rather than being magical properties of the painted wood itself. Theologically, all icons are considered to be sacred, and are miraculous by nature, being a means of spiritual communion between the heavenly and earthly realms. However, it is not uncommon for specific icons to be characterized as “miracle-working”, meaning that God has chosen to glorify them by working miracles through them. Such icons are often given particular names (especially those of the Virgin Mary), and even taken from city to city where believers gather to venerate them and pray before them.

In the Book of Numbers it is written that God told Moses to make a bronze serpent, Nehushtan, and hold it up, so that anyone looking at the snake would be healed of their snakebites. In John 3, Jesus refers to the same serpent, saying that He must be lifted up in the same way that the serpent was. John of Damascus also regarded the brazen serpent as an icon. Further, Jesus Christ himself is called the “image of the invisible God” in Colossians 1:15, and is therefore in one sense an icon. As people are also made in God’s images, people are also considered to be living icons, and are therefore “censed” along with painted icons during Orthodox prayer services.

According to John of Damascus, anyone who tries to destroy icons “is the enemy of Christ, the Holy Mother of God and the saints, and is the defender of the Devil and his demons.” This is because the theology behind icons is closely tied to the Incarnational theology of the humanity and divinity of Jesus, so that attacks on icons typically have the effect of undermining or attacking the Incarnation of Jesus himself as elucidated in the Ecumenical Councils.

Thus to kiss an icon of Christ, in the Eastern Orthodox view, is to show love towards Christ Jesus Himself, not mere wood and paint making up the physical substance of the icon. Worship of the icon as somehow entirely separate from its prototype is expressly forbidden by the Seventh Ecumenical Council. Catholics traditionally have also favored images in the form of three-dimensional statuary, whereas in the East, statuary is much less widely employed.

Icons are often illuminated with a candle or jar of oil with a wick. (Beeswax for candles and olive oil for oil lamps are preferred because they burn very cleanly, although other materials are sometimes used.) The illumination of religious images with lamps or candles is an ancient practice pre-dating Christianity.

Windows to Heaven

Icons look different to us because they are meant to be heaven looking at us, not us at heaven, hence the Eastern Orthodox covering the icon before some unholy act, which the character does not want Heaven to see.

The eyes of an icon are meant to look into the viewer — with what has been called inverse perspective. Most Western artwork has a vanishing perspective point that draws the viewer into the painting. With an icon, the icon seems to move toward the viewer, bringing Heaven close. If you pray with an icon properly, it will seem as if heaven were drawing into you. As Franciscan Fr. Michael Scanlon wrote, “For Eastern Christians, the icon is a representation of the living God, and by coming into its presence it becomes a personal encounter with the sacred, through the grace of the Holy Spirit.”

An icon, which we would most likely refer to as a painting, the correct verb for creation is “writing an icon”. An iconographer must be prepared for this work and receive permission from the bishop or abbot to begin an icon. He or she must spiritually prepare to write an icon with prayer and fasting. As the great modern Byzantine iconographer Photios Kontoglou wrote, “The art of the icon painter is above all a sacred activity…Its style is entirely different from that of all the schools of secular painting. It does not have its aim to reproduce a saint or an incident from the Gospels, but to express them mystically, to impart to them a spiritual character…to represent the saint as he is in the heavenly kingdom, as he is in eternity.”


-by Br Cornelius Avaritt, OP

“Icons are a gift of the Church. They are beautiful images that represent Christ and the mysteries of his life. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says the following regarding icons:

The sacred image, the liturgical icon, principally represents Christ. It cannot represent the invisible and incomprehensible God, but the incarnation of the son of God has ushered in a new “economy” of images. Christian iconography expresses in images the same Gospel message that Scripture communicates by words. Image and word illuminate each other. All the signs in the liturgical celebrations are related to Christ: as are sacred images of the holy Mother of God and of the saints as well. They truly signify Christ, who is glorified in them. (CCC 1159-1161)

Praying with icons allows us to behold the face of Christ, and to catch a glimpse of his love for the world while meditating on his humanity. The representation of Christ’s humanity through an image allows us to understand more fully the gospel message and to grow in knowledge of him. Just as the sacred words of Scripture signify the events of Christ’s life, so do the images reveal a glimpse of God’s plan of salvation for the world through depictions of the life of Christ. Because the Son of God was made incarnate, he became depictable. Icons depict his humanity, and we can pray with icons to deepen our love for Christ.

Today, the Church celebrates the feast of St. John of Damascus, a monk and Doctor of the Church, who was a strong proponent for the use of icons. He says the following in favor of the practice of venerating icons:

“We use all our senses to produce worthy images of Him, and we sanctify the noblest of the senses, which is that of sight. For just as words edify the ear, so also the image stimulates the eye. What the book is to the literate, the image is to the illiterate. Just as the words speak to the ear, so the image speaks to the sight; it brings us understanding.” (On the Divine Images,1, 17)

Icons captivate the eye, but they are not merely pieces of art that hang on walls. They bring “understanding.” The image “written” on an icon is meant to draw us into the mystery of Christ’s humanity, to engage our senses in prayer, to help us catch a glimpse of Christ’s face and through that prayer come to know him more. One feature of sacred images that helps bring such understanding is their rich symbolism depicted in the choice of colors of the scene. Gold often represents Christ. White represents purity and divinity. Red represents the humanity of Christ, while green represents earth and temporality. Purple is used to represent nobility. The different colors engage the eye, as to draw one into a meditation of the mystery that is depicted. Because of this, our prayer is made more fruitful and we come to recognize more fully the love Christ has for us.

Advent is a great time to grow in knowledge and understanding of our Lord. The use of icons for prayer during Advent is one way to grow in this knowledge and understanding. Icons helps us to catch a glimpse of salvation, and aid our belief in Jesus Christ. So, during this Advent season, as you are awaiting the arrival of our Lord, consider spending time in prayer with an icon, meditate on the mystery depicted in the scene, and may you come to know Christ’s love for you.”

Love,
Matthew

Dec 3 – St Francis Xavier, SJ (1506-1552), Priest, Missionary, Co-founder Society of Jesus, “Simple Ain’t Easy”


-by Br Bartholomew Calvano, OP

“Sometimes God works in mysterious ways that we can’t understand. We may not be sure what exactly it is God wants us to do. At other times God’s will for us can be painfully simple. I say simple because what God wants us to do can often be quite obvious. I say painfully because that obvious task is not necessarily easy. Sometimes, we would rather have God’s will for us be mysterious rather than pay the cost that the obvious task demands of us.

Saint Francis Xavier, one of the first members of the Jesuits, provides an excellent example of someone who followed God’s will for him when it was simple and straightforward. He did this despite the pains he would have to undergo. At the direction of St. Ignatius, St. Francis Xavier left Europe to accompany the Portuguese explorers and preach throughout India and eventually even Japan. It was not a complicated task to do as he was told. Saint Francis Xavier simply had to go to those people who had never heard the Gospel and preach to them. St. Ignatius’s instructions were nothing more than a reissuing of the Great Commission which Jesus gave to the Apostles: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20). The task could hardly be simpler: preach the Gospel to those who have not heard it.

Yet, this was not an easy task even if St. Francis Xavier knew what he had to do to accomplish it. He had to learn multiple languages in order to translate the Creed and other basic prayers, which he would use to catechize these foreign peoples. He traveled far and frequently. He was often on his own during these travels. The trials were even physically demanding. We can see this from one letter he sent back to the Jesuits in Rome:

“As to the numbers who become Christians, you may understand them from this, that it often happens to me to be hardly able to use my hands from the fatigue of baptizing: often in a single day I have baptized whole villages. Sometimes I have lost my voice and strength altogether with repeating again and again the Credo and the other forms.” (quoted in The Life and Letters of St. Francis Xavier by Henry James Coleridge, S.J., 153)

Saint Francis Xavier, SJ, exemplifies the heroic virtue that allowed him to carry out day in and day out the simple, repetitive, sometimes even monotonous tasks to which God called him. Tasks that cost him a great deal of suffering. Sometimes, this is precisely the reminder that we need. God has called each and every one of us to do certain, simple tasks, most of which are not glamorous. These tasks are, nonetheless, the foundation of the Kingdom of God. The pain of these tasks for us may not be physical, it may be the pain of stepping out of our comfort zone or doing the job no one else wants to do. By being faithful in the obvious, repetitive, and sometimes distasteful tasks given to us, we can spread God’s love to the world one person at a time.

Eventually, St. Francis Xavier would die at the age of 46 from a fever while waiting for a boat to take him to China. This seems like a rather prosaic death for a saint who had served God so fervently. He did not die a martyr’s death. Instead, he bore witness to God by his arduous labor at a task he could never hope to complete in his lifetime. It was a task that wore him to the bone and ate away at his health, but he embraced it joyfully.

Most of those he preached to were eager to receive the Gospel and only needed someone to preach it to them. Likewise, there are many people in our lives who are ready to hear the Gospel if they only had someone to bring it to them. What will preaching the Gospel cost us?Are we, like St. Francis Xavier, willing to embrace the attendant hardships with joy? Can we be like Jesus who “for the sake of the joy that lay before him . . . endured the cross”(Heb 12:2)?


-Pilgrims pray by and view the body of St Francis Xavier during an exposition of the saint in December 2004.  Please click on the image for greater detail.


-missionary journeys of St Francis Xavier, SJ, (1541-1552).  Please click on the image for greater detail.

Love,
Matthew

Relics

The sixteenth-century Church endured an outbreak of new ideas and teachings contrary to the one true Faith. The Protestant Reformation had a slow start, but decades after Martin Luther’s first discourses against the Church, more ideas of reform and biblical interpretation began to arise. Soon, these ideas became infestations, and the mass spread of this fever became an ideological and spiritual plague.

In addition, many actual plagues were popping up in corners of Europe. Crops were decimated, food supplies spoiled, and water was poisoned. In the 1570s, the metropolitan city of Milan in northern Italy suffered a plague that drove out the wealthy, the influential, and the learned, leaving it nearly barren for leadership. It was left to one person to take charge and drive out the pestilence.

As if Charles Borromeo was not busy enough being archbishop of the city, he was also a highly influential cardinal tasked with executing the decrees and reforms resulting from the recently concluded Council of Trent. Finding the time to drive out a plague from one of the busiest and politically layered cities in the world would have seemed unthinkable. But nothing ever stopped Borromeo from accomplishing something when he put his mind to it. Through his managerial savvy he was able to influence the mayor to cordon here, prevent entry there, and direct traffic elsewhere, choking off the transport and transmission of the plague within the city walls.

Borromeo was not only a gifted administrator; he had a heart for the pastoring of souls. His applied his desire for personal holiness and reform to the lives of all his flock. During the plague and immediately afterward he applied one kind of pastoral care that may seem a little antiquated in our time: public demonstration of our faith through relics.

What is a relic? The word comes from the Latin term relinquo, meaning to leave behind, and fittingly, in their highest classification relics are the physical remains of saints or venerated persons. These remains consist of everything from hair to muscle tissue to vials of blood, with the most common being pieces of bones. These are known as first-class relics and they are usually kept in cathedral crypts, reliquaries in certain locations, and in altar stones in parishes (or in the floor immediately under where an altar would go).

Second-class relics are items that were used or owned by the saint, such as the cassock St. Charles was wearing when he was shot in an assassination attempt. (The blood on the cassock is first class.) Third-class relics are items that have been touched to a first-class relic. So, crucifixes, medals, and rosaries often become third-class relics.

Relics have an important place in the Church for several reasons. First, because the body is sacred, a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16-17).These temples belong to God, and we are to honor God with them (1 Cor. 6:19). It follows that the bodies of the saints, who in their lives honored God to an extraordinary degree, are worthy of our special respect. We can also note how the bodies of numerous saints have remained uncorrupted even centuries after death, a miracle that compels us to marvel at the power of this temple in which the Holy Spirit dwelt.

Furthermore, there relics and their veneration can be instruments of God’s power. We see this in Scripture. The Israelites took the bones of Joseph when they departed Egypt (Ex. 13:19). Elisha’s bones came in contact with a dead person who then was resurrected to life (2 Kings 13:21). Elisha also took the mantle of Elijah and fashioned a miracle with it (2 Kings 2:13). The Christians of Ephesus, by using handkerchiefs and cloths touched to St. Pauls skin, effected the healing of the sick (Acts 19:12). And Christian history is chock-full of occasions of miracles involving contact with and veneration of relics.

In Borromeo’s time many Catholics were succumbing to the ideas of Calvin, whose stronghold in Geneva was just 200 miles away. Protestants were destroying relics and even some incorruptible bodies. St. Charles understood this challenge and, in an effort to rekindle hope and faith the hearts and minds of the people of Milan, decided to do something about it: show the people these relics, first-hand, and preach about their power. Most famously, he led a Lenten procession of one of the holy nails from the Crucifixion, displayed in a crystal enclosure. Thousands of people took part in the forty-hour veneration, each receiving a replica of the nail as a solemn remembrance of the Passion.

Even when a sizable portion of his city had doubts about their power, Borromeo marched these relics straight down the busiest boulevards for all to witness. Imagine that happening today. Imagine if at the March for Life, or on All Saints Day, or on Good Friday, our bishops and pastors marched the relics of our martyrs and saints right down Park Avenue in New York City, Lakeview Drive in Chicago, the National Mall in Washington D.C., or the main thoroughfare in your city, right to the cathedral for a solemn Mass. Imagine taking our faith to the streets during the next crisis, the next natural disaster, the next holy day. Imagine the faith that can still be stirred up by this act of Christian piety and tradition.

It worked so well for Borromeo during the plague that when the pestilence was driven out and the Lombardi and Piedmont regions were clear of signs of disease, his pastoral use of relics did not end—it only increased. When he was confident of the end of the epidemic, he wrote the dukes of Savoy in Chambéry, France to inform them of his intention to make a pilgrimage of thanks over the Alps to venerate the sacred burial cloth that covered Christ in his tomb.

In their excitement to meet the famous cardinal, they met him halfway: in the city of Turin, where the Shroud and other relics were displayed for three days of city-wide spiritual exercises and devotions. Before his departure, Borromeo met privately with the duke and his sons. We don’t know exactly what they discussed, but we do know that the Shroud never went back to Chambéry. It remained in Turin, and that city has been part of its name ever since.

Five hundred years after the Reformation’s beginnings, we still have the trustworthy and wise voice of the Council of Trent that responded to the Reformers’ claim that veneration of the saints and their relics is contrary to Scripture. As the council taught, “The holy bodies of the holy martyrs and of the others who dwell with Christ . . . are to be honored by the faithful.” Let us follow that exhortation—and St. Charles Borromeo’s example—in the Church today.”

Love,
Matthew

Nov 1 – Reality


-for more detail, please click on the image

“How shining and splendid are Your gifts,
O Lord which You give us for our eternal well-being
Your glory shines radiantly in Your saints,
O God, in the honor and noble victory of the martyrs.
The white-robed company follow You, bright with their abundant faith;
They scorned the wicked words of those with this world’s power.
For You they sustained fierce beatings, chains, and torments, they were drained by cruel punishments.
They bore their holy witness to You Who were grounded deep within their hearts; they were sustained by patience and constancy.
Endowed with Your everlasting grace, may we rejoice forever with the martyrs in our bright fatherland.
O Christ, in Your goodness, grant to us the gracious heavenly realms of eternal life.”
-10th century

Not only do those in heaven pray with us, they also pray for us. In the book of Revelation, we read: “[An] angel came and stood at the altar [in heaven] with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God” (Rev. 8:3-4).

And those in heaven who offer to God our prayers aren’t just angels, but humans as well. John sees that “the twenty-four elders [the leaders of the people of God in heaven] fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Rev. 5:8). The simple fact is, as this passage shows: The saints in heaven offer to God the prayers of the saints on earth.


-by Br Vincent Mary Bernhard, OP

“Reality is not always something we can choose for ourselves, and oftentimes we neither understand nor acknowledge it. So what is reality, properly speaking? Reality speaks to the truth of an objective state of affairs in which we exist, forming our perceptions about ourselves and those around us. In light of this “objective state of affairs,” we often speak of people needing to “wake up to reality” and to live in a way that is “realistic”—and the Church invites us to do the same. She does just this through the feast days and solemnities of the liturgical year. By reflecting on the events of Christ’s life and the witness of the saints, we are shaken from our mental slumber and spiritual routine to ponder anew the reality that is the Christian life.

Today is the day that the Church awakens us from our spiritual lethargy, so that we may recognize the reality of sainthood. Far from being a “catchall” for the unknown saints in heaven, this solemnity is a final and dramatic reminder that the Church gives us as the liturgical year draws to a close. There is a multitude of saints in heaven, and we are called to join them before the face of God.

The Church upholds the example of the saints, not only showing how they attained heaven but that they attained heaven; the glory of resting in the heart of the Father is not only possible but within reach. Further, these saints are still united with us in the Mystical Body of Christ, and the same divine life sustaining them in glory is perfecting us here and now. “Exactly as Christian communion among our fellow pilgrims brings us closer to Christ,” we read in Lumen Gentium, “so our communion with the saints joins us to Christ, from Whom as from its fountain and head issues all grace, and the life of the People of God itself” (LG 50). We are called to the same glory as the saints in heaven and are united with them right now as their brothers and sisters.

As Jesus Christ intercedes on behalf of the human race in heaven, so also do those who participate in His glory share in His intercessory prayer before the Father. The saints remain before the face of the Father as those transformed into the likeness of the Son, and because they exist in this reality, they pray on our behalf for our salvation. Their prayers are efficacious inasmuch as their wills are perfectly united to the divine will, and their power is evident inasmuch as they are united to us through Christ. We are, therefore, existing within a reality that transcends space and time, intimately connected with the saints in heaven through our life in Christ.

We are reminded today of this reality: our call to sainthood and the intimate relationship we share with those who have entered eternal glory before us. Let us call upon the aid of the saints in heaven as we are renewed in our vigor and zeal, that we may take heaven by storm. May the saints, through their witness and prayers, help us surrender to the reality of the Father’s love for us, the Son’s call to us, and the Holy Spirit’s saving work within us, so that we may be more perfectly conformed to Christ’s image and come to participate in his glory with the saints in heaven.”

Love,
Matthew

Jul 26 – Bl Robert Nutter, OP, (1550-1600) – Priest & Martyr


-Bl Robert Nutter, St Dominic’s Church, Washington, DC


-by Br Titus Mary Sanchez, OP

His demeanor was uncharacteristic of a man to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. An eye-witness to Robert Nutter’s execution wrote that he went “to the gallows, with as much cheerfulness and joy as if he had been going to a feast, to the astonishment of the spectators” (Modern British Martyrology, 197).

Cheerfulness and joy? In the face of death? Did he not know that in a few moments he was to have his beating heart torn out of his chest? Surely he had gone mad! The execution of this subversive and treasonous Englishman was supposed to extinguish his hope, not cause it to burst forth in euphoric praise of God!

“Blessed are you when men hate you … Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold your reward is great in heaven.” (Lk 6:22-23)

Blessed Robert Nutter is counted among the Douai martyrs, a group of English Catholic priests martyred in 16th and 17th century England. Each of these men was trained at a single English seminary in Douai, a city in northern France. It briefly relocated to Rheims for about 15 years, at which time Nutter received his theological formation. Why France? In an effort to eradicate Catholicism from the country, the English crown had forcibly closed and repurposed all churches, schools, and seminaries. In effect, they attempted to abolish the Catholic Church in England—no small feat.

The Douai seminary was established for the purpose of training Englishmen to be diocesan priests so that they could return as missionaries to their homeland, where the Church was enduring severe persecution. Indeed, during this time, agents of the British crown systematically hunted down, arrested, tortured, and executed Catholic priests, charging them with high treason. Before being put to death, these priests could spend years in prison; interestingly enough, it was during this time that Nutter professed vows as a Dominican friar.

Of the 300 priests ordained at the Douai seminary during this period, 158 were put to death for bringing the sacraments back to their fellow countrymen. One could be so bold as to say that Robert Nutter and the Douai martyrs were not only ordained to be priests, but martyrs as well: they knew that their priesthood would likely culminate in the shedding of their blood. In perfect conformity to Jesus Christ—the Eternal High Priest—priests like Robert Nutter knew the stakes, but counted them as nothing compared to possessing the heart of Christ and bringing the sacraments to souls.

It is difficult to imagine the mindset of men like Nutter. In the depths of his heart, he desired to be a priest of Jesus Christ. He knew that he would be despised by his own government. He knew that while living out his priesthood, he would do so secretly, always aware that someone—anyone—could betray him. He realized that this could very well mean his own death, a death that would come only after gruesome periods of torture. If he survived, there would be no recognition or thanks from those he served.

Therein lies the aim of priesthood: to forget yourself, to become another Christ, and to mount the cross for the salvation of souls—so as to make present once again the saving mysteries of God. Nutter knew that the ultimate reason for his priesthood and martyrdom was the salvation of the Englishmen he served.

What can the priest of today learn from a man like Nutter?

Without hesitation, he ought to learn that as a priest, his life and his heart are no longer his own. Instead, his life and his heart belong to Christ alone. Conversely, in an abundantly generous grace, Christ offers his own Sacred Heart to his priest, so that he may live and love as another Christ. The priest who does not have the heart of Christ approaches “in sheep’s clothing, but underneath is a ravenous wolf” (Jn 7:15). Pray and fast often that our priests’ hearts would be conformed to the crucified heart of Christ!

Given the nature of being hanged, drawn, and quartered, it is quite plausible that Nutter would have actually seen the hands of his executors reaching into his chest to cut out his heart. Every priest, martyr or not, should cry out the words: “I give you everything Jesus! I give you my very own heart! You may have all!”

Bl. Robert Nutter, pray to the good Lord for us, and ask him to send holy priests who, by an interior martyrdom of the heart, are willing to make as their only desire the salvation of souls.”

Love,
Matthew