saint cecelia: music and martyrdom


Posted By on Nov 22, 2017

I know it sounds quite close to a heresy, but I don’t like Rome very much, especially all the overblown triumphalistic architecture and overwrought sculpture and art. But there is one little place, one church, that I really loved. It’s at the Abbey of Saint Cecelia in Trastevere, still inhabited by a community of Benedictine nuns. It was built on the site that is by tradition where Cecelia’s family home was. And one of the most remarkable understated statues I saw anywhere in Italy is there, sculpted in 1600 by the sculptor Maderno. In the account of her martyrdom it is said that the executioner struck her neck three times, but she continued to live for three days yet, preaching the gospel! This simple white marble statue has her lying on her right side on the ground, with her head turned in the opposite direction and three axe strokes on her neck. Her grave had been opened in 1599 and her body was found to be incorrupt, with some congealed blood still on the neck. Apparently the sculptor was present at that disinterment because on the ground in front of the statue is a marble slab on which the sculptor himself has etched a testimony that this is exactly how he saw the body in the tomb. I wanted to see the statue because St. Cecilia is the patroness of music (and also of poetry). The reason she is the patroness of music is because during her wedding ceremony, at which she told her husband she had taken a vow of virginity and had an angel protecting her, she was said––it’s told both ways––either to have sung to in God her heart or to have heard celestial music in her heart. She is often represented in art with an organ or organ-pipes in her hand. I have a story to tell about myself. Though the Monastic Catalogus records our vows according to simple vows, the anniversary I always remember is the day I made my solemn vows, which was on this day in 1997, the feast of Saint Cecelia. Even as a junior monk I was already in charge of the liturgy, including choosing all the readings for Vigils and the other Liturgies of the Hours. Well, since it was going to be the day of my solemn vows I was trying to subtly orchestrate just about every single detail of the liturgy. I remembered that there was a beautiful reading by Saint Augustine in the Roman Rite Office of Readings about singing the psalms. And I thought that I could sneak that in as the second reading at...

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mary: familiar, concrete and real


Posted By on Nov 22, 2017

  The celebration of the Presentation of Mary (November 21st) is a pious tradition, based on the proto-Gospel of James, that Mary was presented in and educated near the Temple in Jerusalem, just like Jesus was. What it lacks in historical verifiability it makes up for in devotion, and in real faith––faith that God wanted this to happen, faith that God really wanted to take flesh in Mary and be God-With-Us. I’ve been reading a book about Teilhard de Chardin recently, by the late theologian (and future cardinal) Henri Du Lubac. It just so happened that as I was preparing for my homily I ran into some of Teilhard’s writings on Mary. As would be typical of any Catholic, especially a religious, a priest, in his time, Teilhard had a devotion to Mary. He referred to Mary as the one who “God chose to set above the World and the Church as a never fading nimbus.” In her heart, he wrote, we “relive the mysteries––so that the whole of dogma becomes familiar, concrete and real in Mary.”[1] In Mary dogma becomes familiar, concrete and real; concrete and real not only because it is incarnate and human in the Word made flesh in Mary, but also because the event of her life and Jesus’ life become blatantly historical. So Paul says in the Letter to the Galatians that when the fullness of time came, God sent his son born of a woman.[2] It’s so important to acknowledge and not lose sight of the historicity of Christ, the divinity of the historical Jesus, because if we do, Teilhard says, “all the mystical energy [that has] accumulated during the last two thousand years in the Christian phylum” instantly evaporates. Our mysticism is tied to that historicity, that reality of those real human beings. “[Jesus] born of the Virgin, and the risen Christ: these two form an indissoluble whole.’”[3] If you’ll excuse such a pedestrian example, feasts such as this one, the Presentation of Mary in the Temple, in some way are like the prequels that we see in films, such as “The Godfather II,” where we’re offered the backstory of how Vito Corleone (now in the person of Robert De Niro instead of Marlon Brando) became the padrone of the family. Or maybe even better, how the Star Wars franchise opens up the back history to let us know how Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker get their start. So memorials like this, or celebrating Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anne (about whom we have no idea, not even their names!) are trying to show us Mary more and more as a real historical...

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worthless slaves-memento mori


Posted By on Nov 15, 2017

We have spoken of death as the absolute obstacle, the final stop; but this is only what it appears to be … through Faith, death is in reality the perfect passivity: it is the door that opens to transfiguration. (Henri de Lubac) When I started meditating on this gospel (Lk 17:7-10)––‘“We are just worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”’––I thought I might reflect a little on humility, on knowing our true place in the world, in the universe, based on that line. But then I looked back at the first reading (Wis 2:23-3:9) and I changed course. This lesson from the Book of Wisdom is one of the readings that is used often for funerals, and what greater spur to humility is there than death! November of course is the Month during which we commemorate and pray for the dead, beginning with All Souls’ Day on November 2nd, and then stretching on into remembering our deceased Camaldolese monks and nuns, and carrying the dozens of prayer requests that come pouring in. So I thought a few words on remembering death were in order. There’s that ancient Latin phrase, which seems to be pre-Christian, memento mori–“remember death.” In ancient Rome, so they say, when a general was either about to march into battle, or was parading through the streets after a great victory in battle, a slave would stand behind him saying just loud enough for him to hear and murmur: Memento mori––“Remember death!” Those are both great occasions for it: “Remember that all this fame is going to end,” and “Remember how fragile you are.” According to legend, Trappist monks used to greet each other this way too: Frater, memento mori––to inspire their meditation. “Remember you’re going to die! Have a nice day!” St. Benedict doesn’t use the exact phrase memento mori in the Rule, but he does have the same thought when he teaches, “Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die­­.”[i] I think that goes with the conversatio morum, the conversion of our ways, because he follows that up with, “Hour by hour keep careful watch over all you do…”[ii] What’s most telling about this is that St. Benedict includes this in Chapter 4 among the “tools for good works.” This is a tool for good works––to keep death before our eyes, to keep careful watch over all we do! Remember you are going to die and what? Often memento mori is associated with memento vivere––Remember death and remember to live! No one knows how to live so well as someone who is ready to die. No meal...

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carrying the suffering


Posted By on Nov 3, 2017

Such a beautiful saint that we celebrated today, St. Martin de Porres. He was born in Lima, Peru, of mixed race (Spanish father, African-Peruvian mother), which probably gave him a unique outlook on life during the colonial era. He must have been a bright young man since he studied medicine at first, but he decided to join the Dominicans instead of being a doctor. He had a great love for the Eucharist and devotion to the Passion of Christ and that resolved itself in a great love for the poor, putting his medical knowledge to use, going to, as Pope John XXIII wrote, the dregs of society. If there is a thread that runs through the two readings we heard proclaimed today and the life of St. Martin de Porres, it’s suffering––not necessarily our own suffering, but the virtue, the ability, the spontaneous tendency the we find in spiritually enlightened and holy people to share the suffering of others. Let’s start with Jesus and the gospel today. Both the Songs of the Servant from Deutero-Isaiah which we hear in Holy Week each year and the Letter to the Hebrews paint a picture of Jesus as the one who carries others sufferings. Isaiah 53, which we hear on Good Friday, says that he was a man of suffering and acquainted with iniquity … he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases … he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities. The Letter to the Hebrews instead says that Jesus was heard because of his reverent submission … he learned obedience through what he suffered, and so is the high priest who is able to sympathize with our weakness. And so when he sees this man with dropsy (Lk 14:1-6), a painful disfiguring disease, his first instinct is to forget everything, even Sabbath observance, and heal him. How often do we hear of Jesus having compassion on the crowds, for example, Mt 9.36––for they were like sheep without a shepherd. And then here in the middle of our journey through the Letter to the Romans (Rom 9:1-5) we hear of Paul’s great sorrow and constant anguish (I do not think he is exaggerating) about his own Jewish brothers and sisters, almost ready to be cut off himself if only they could find Christ, like a parent offering their life so that the child could live. It reminds me of his sentiment too in the Letter to the Colossians, that mysterious line about completing in his own being what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of the body. And then here are some quotes from John XXIII’s...

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all saints: already and not yet


Posted By on Nov 1, 2017

Jesus came proclaiming the reign of God, or the kingdom of heaven, and he says it is “at hand.” There are all kinds of different translations and understandings of those few words––“the reign of God is among you, the kingdom of heaven is within you.” But any way you slice it, it’s now somehow. The reign of God is now. Heaven is already here. In the beatitudes of Matthew Jesus says, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, the kingdom of heaven is yours.’ How can that be when all evidence points to the contrary? Many days it’s still hard for me to believe that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The explanation that gives me consolation is the little phrase that our Fr. Joseph Wong always used about heaven and the reign of God: “already and not yet.” The reign of God is already and not yet. And the same applies to holiness, our holiness. Paul uses the words “saints” almost 40 times in his epistles, but he is never talking about the saints in heaven. Paul uses it to refer to members of the church, of the churches to whom he is writing: how the Spirit intercedes for the saints; how we ought to contribute to the needs of the saints, especially the poor among the saints; how he himself is ministering to the saints; how the followers of Christ ought to take grievances before the saints instead of bringing lawsuits. Paul is not speaking about the saints in heaven. He is speaking about the saints on earth, the holy ones in the church. He also uses that word when he’s talking to the members of the church, as in the Letter to the Romans when he says he is writing To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints or to the Corinthians––those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints. There too is a kind of “already and not yet.” You are saints; you are called to be saints; you are called to be what you are. Lumen Gentium (The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church from Vatican II) chapter five is entitled “The Universal Call to Holiness.” What’s remarkable about that chapter, actually about that whole constitution, is that there is a concerted effort to bring holiness down to earth, you might say. It had been the tendency of the Church to venerate first just martyrs as saints. Then around the time of the Peace of Constantine more bishops and teachers, confessors were added to the list, and then the ascetics, some of the early monks. By the medieval times...

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