Carrying the cross of history

One of the greatest artistic evocations of the grittiness of Lent is Peter Bruegel the Elder’s 1564 painting The Procession to Calvary, which is housed in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum [Museum of Art History]. The Procession to Calvary is a large work, five and a half by four feet, featuring hundreds of small figures, with the equally small figure of Christ carrying the cross in the center of the painting. Bruegel included certain familiar motifs in rendering the scene: the holy women and the apostle John are in the right foreground, comforting Mary; the vast majority of those involved, concerned about quotidian things, are clueless about the drama unfolding before their eyes. What is so striking about The Procession to Calvary, however, is that we are in sixteenth-century Europe, not first-century Judea: Christ is carrying the cross through a typical Flemish landscape, complete with horses, carts, oxen, and a windmill. Christ is carrying the cross through history—right through the grittiness of everyday life.

A man who could see things as they are, like Peter Bruegel the Elder, would want us to understand that the “procession to Calvary” is taking place in our midst, too. He would be right to do so. Lent is a privileged time for recovering the sight that lets us see and enter the passion play going on around us.

The Procession to Calvary (1564). Oil on oak. Pieter Brueghel the Elder

The Procession to Calvary (1564). Oil on oak. Pieter Brueghel the Elder.

Sail on

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It is faith without sight. When we can see, it is not faith, but reasoning. In crossing the Atlantic we observed this very principle of faith. We saw no path upon the sea, nor sign of the shore. And yet day by day we were marking our path upon the chart as exactly as if there had followed us a great chalk line upon the sea. And when we came within twenty miles of land, we knew where we were as exactly as if we had seen it all three thousand miles ahead.

How had we measured and marked our course? Day by day our captain had taken his instruments and, looking up to the sky, had fixed his course by the sun. He was sailing by the heavenly, not the earthly lights.

So faith looks up and sails on, by God’s great Sun, not seeing one shoreline or earthly lighthouse or path upon the way. Often its steps seem to lead into utter uncertainty, and even darkness and disaster; but He opens the way, and often makes such midnight hours the very gates of day. Let us go forth this day, not knowing, but trusting.

The Awful Difference

meditationsanddevotions_bookcoverOn my nightstand I keep a copy of Meditations and Devotions by Cardinal John Henry Newman. It’s a smallish 4″x6″ book published by Baronius Press in 2010. Every now and then I will reach for this book instead of one from the pile sitting on the floor next to the nightstand. Each time I do I find something to chew on before falling asleep and this last time was no different. What struck me is the last sentence, boldfaced below (by me). You see, I’m going through a particularly rough transitory time right now in a few matters in my life. I’m 48 years old and I still recognize with great frustration that I am no where near where I ought to be.

I thought this a wonderful paragraph for us all as we begin Lent for 2016.

O my God, I confess that before now I have utterly forgotten this, and that I am continually forgetting it! I have acted many a time as if I were my own master, and turned from Thee rebelliously. I have acted according to my own pleasure, not according to Thine. And so far have I hardened myself, as not to feel as I ought how evil this is. I do not understand how dreadful sin is—and I do not hate it, and fear it, as I ought. I have no horror of it, or loathing. I do not turn from it with indignation, as being an insult to Thee, but I trifle with it, and, even if I do not commit great sins, I have no great reluctance to do small ones. O my God, what a great and awful difference is there between what I am and what I ought to be!

Meditations and Devotions, Part III: Meditations on Christian Doctrine, Chapter IV: Sin, Section 1: Against Thee only have I Sinned, paragraph 3.

*It appears that Baronius is not currently publishing their edition, but I found a few paperback editions on Amazon as well as this online text.

Love is a mighty power

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Love is a mighty power, a great and complete good; Love alone lightens every burden, and makes the rough places smooth. It bears every hardship as though it were nothing, and renders all bitterness sweet and acceptable. The love of Jesus is noble, and inspires us to great deeds; it moves us always to desire perfection. Love aspires to high things, and is held back by nothing base. Love longs to be free, a stranger to every worldly desire, lest its inner vision become dimmed, and lest worldly self-interest hinder it or ill-fortune cast it down. Nothing is sweeter than love, nothing stronger, nothing higher, nothing wider, nothing more pleasant, nothing fuller or better in heaven or earth; for love is born of God, and can rest only in God above all created things.

Love flies, runs, leaps for joy; it is free and unrestrained. Love gives all for all, resting in One who is highest above all things, from whom every good flows and proceeds. Love does not regard the gifts, but turns to the Giver of all good gifts. Love knows no limits, but ardently transcends all bounds. Love feels no burden, takes no account of toil, attempts things beyond its strength; love sees nothing as impossible, for it feels able to achieve all things. Love therefore does great things; it is strange and effective; while he who lacks love faints and fails.

~Thomas à Kempis, The Inner Life

The Eyes of Faith

oasis

But let no one ever speak to you of “blind” belief. Faith opens your eyes; it does not close them. Faith gives vision; and without vision men die, for they become nothing more than cattle. Faith is that gift of God which allows you to see through appearances and to focus on substance; it is that special God-given grant which gives you evidence of things that cannot be seen. That is exactly how God the Holy Spirit once described faith through this same St. Paul. “It is the substance of things to be hoped for,” He said, “the evidence of things that are not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) Faith is a gift and a grant that defies evaluation, for it enables you to see beyond that last horizon where burning sand and flaming sky blur into one and to rest your eyes on the only Oasis where exiled man will find the water that will let him live. It is no mirage. It will never induce desert madness: for it is God.

from Spiritual Secrets of a Trappist Monk. Father M. Raymond, O.C.S.O. Page 32.  Boldfaced emphasis is mine.

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Life’s Tapestry

Behind the tapestry

Behind the tapestry

When a life comes to an end, perhaps we may think something like a candle has gone out. But we should also see death as the time when something like a tapestry has been completed. We have watched this tapestry being made from the reverse side where the design of the artwork is blurred and the knots and twisted loops of the needlework are prominent. Our Father God contemplates the tapestry from the good side. He is pleased to behold a finished work that manifests a life-long effort to make good use of time.

From In Conversation with God: Meditations for Each Day of the Year, Vol. 5: Ordinary Time, Weeks 24-34, by Francis Fernandez. Thirty-third Sunday: Year A, page 475.

The Road

The path on The Stations of the Cross at Broom Tree taken by  the author in Sept. 2014.

The path on The Stations of the Cross at Broom Tree taken by the author in Sept. 2014.

… That’s one of the things that fairy tales teach us: that we are all heroes or princesses in disguise. And if that is so, then we must all set out to discover who we truly are: not so we can become rich or successful in the debased modern, consumerist sense, but so that we can step into our true inheritance.

The Road is not a one-size-fits-all proposition, but it offers to those who embrace it the rare and precious gift of self-knowledge. It forces us to step outside that which is known—outside of our “comfort zone” we would say today—and, by doing so, strips us of all our masks and disguises and alter egos. It forces us to look unswervingly into the face of fear, of confusion, of loneliness, reduces us to our naked essence. And then, slowly, it makes us stronger and wiser.

[snip]

On the Road, we cannot escape from ourselves, but we also cannot escape from our companions—at least without risking grave peril. The temptation to abandon the path to which we have been called is often a strong one, but we must nevertheless trust that the Lord of the Road knows what He is doing. All we can do is press on with faith, hope, and perseverance.

That is one of the rules of the Road.

(from On the Shoulders of Hobbits: the Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis, by Louis Markos. [Moody Publishers: Chicago. 2012])

The Three Characters of Romance

Back in January of 2014 I came across this quote in a lecture by Dale Ahlquist and have been saving it to write goodness-knows-what anymore. It’s been so long and I failed to make notes.

Mostly I just wanted to share this wonderful quote by Chesterton about the manner in which Charles Dickens created his characters and the world they inhabited.

Ahlquist writes:

The Dickens novels also have a universal appeal because they are driven by the “ultimate and poetic paradox” that everything that loves, fights. Chesterton explains that this universal truth is also the universal plot device of any good novel:

All romances consist of three characters… For the sake of argument they may be called St. George and the Dragon and the Princess. In every romance there must be the twin elements of loving and fighting. In every romance there must be the three characters: there must be the Princess, who is a thing to be loved; there must be the Dragon, who is a thing to be fought; and there must be St. George, who is a thing that both loves and fights. There have been many symptoms of cynicism and decay in our modern civilization. But of all the signs of modern feebleness, of lack of grasp on morals as they actually must be, there has been none quite so silly or so dangerous as this: that the philosophers of today have started to divide loving from fighting and to put them into opposite camps. [But] the two things imply each other; they implied each other in the old romance and in the old religion, which were the two permanent things of humanity. You cannot love a thing without wanting to fight for it. You cannot fight without something to fight for. To love a thing without wishing to fight for it is not love at all; it is lust. It may be an airy, philosophical, and disinterested lust… but it is lust, because it is wholly self-indulgent and invites no attack. On the other hand, fighting for a thing without loving it is not even fighting; it can only be called a kind of horse-play that is occasionally fatal. Wherever human nature is human and unspoilt by any special sophistry, there exists this natural kinship between war and wooing, and that natural kinship is called romance. It comes upon a man especially in the great hour of youth; and every man who has ever been young at all has felt, if only for a moment, this ultimate and poetic paradox. He knows that loving the world is the same thing as fighting the world.

St. George and the Dragon, by Raphael (1504-1506)

St. George and the Dragon, by Raphael (1504-1506)

Why I pray the Rosary

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(The aim of this post is not to teach about, talk about or describe the different facets, origins or scriptural basis for the rosary. Perhaps another time. I merely felt compelled to write down and to share my “why”.)

The first time I can recall praying a rosary occurred on a lonely stretch of Nebraska highway. I was driving alone in a car heading west towards Blue Hill to attend the funeral of a fraternity brother from my college days which themselves were only a few years behind me in my rearview mirror. Steve had died much too young due to complications from diabetes if I recall correctly.

I do not believe I was yet a Catholic though I was attending weekly RCIA classes with my fiancé at St. John the Apostle which is today my home parish. When I set out that morning from Omaha I just felt that praying the rosary for Steve was the right thing to do. I also wanted to practice this newly discovered method of prayer and devotion.

Since that day two decades of married life have passed. I have prayed the rosary many times, though not as often as I should. I say “should” not because of it being a requirement for Catholics, but for the sake of my own peace as I navigate through this noisy and hostile world.

I have many favorite memories of this prayer. Most occurred while I was a member of an informal prayer group of men at St. John’s. They had been meeting for a year or two before inviting me to join and every Tuesday night from 1999-2005 we’d gather together. Sometimes it was all six or seven of us; at other times it was just two. But every week we would meet, talk, confide, counsel and most importantly pray for one another. This “cenacle” as we called it was very important to me and one of the highlights of my life.

Rosaries have been prayed in front of Planned Parenthood and along O Street during the Life Chain in Octobers passed. During such occasions I have been been yelled at, screamed at, and have witnessed nasty gestures. But at each time I have felt an amazing peace.

Rosaries have been prayed before many a Mass with hundreds of parishioners or alone in a darkened church before the Blessed Sacrament during a Holy Hour. I have prayed them on my commute downtown to work in and on my return home. I pray the rosary for my family, my wife, my children, my children’s children and their future spouses. I pray for my vocation as a husband and a father. I pray for my friends, co-workers. I pray for my priests, religious sisters, bishops and Pope Francis. I pray the leaders of our nation and those who lead other countries. I pray for our world. I pray for you.

sacredheartrosary

In my hand to the right I hold my Sacred Heart rosary. It is the rosary I was holding one night last week. As I sat down to pray I received a private message through Facebook from a friend of mine describing a troubling situation. She closed by asking for my prayers and they have become my own. Tonight as I was about to publish this blog I learned that one of my favorite people from my childhood lost her mom today. I immediately sent her an e-mail and we have made arrangements to talk tomorrow. Tonight her prayers are my own as well.

Among my favorite times in prayer with a rosary has been those prayed with friends and their families on New Year’s Eve. We men that met on Tuesday nights used to have progressive dinners that involved our wives, children, and our priests. We would travel from house to house: for example one year we’d drive to John’s for appetizers, then to Doug’s for the main course, and to our house for dessert. (This would rotate among all of the men and their families each year.) Without a word being said the group would voluntarily stop drinking their wine or beer around 11pm-ish. Around ten minutes to midnight the adults and their children began to pull out their beads and find places to sit. This would include children as young as three as well as teenagers or college-aged kids who would find their way to whichever home was hosting the dessert and rosary that year so they could join in. Midnight would find us holding our beads as well as each other in prayer as we rang in the new year. It is a truly marvelous experience that I wish everyone could enjoy at least once. It is a very satisfying way to begin the new year.

We meditate on the mysteries of the rosary (the events in Christ’s life) in union with the prayers of Mary because she was Jesus’ mom and because she was a model of discipleship. Mary, more than anyone who ever lived, knew Christ. She listened to God’s Word and she trusted that He would bring about the salvation that He promised. She pondered all of these things in her heart.

In everything that Mary does she points the way to her son. She is always guiding us to Jesus. By uniting my prayers with hers and meditating upon the events in Christ’s life in which she has intimate knowledge I am better able to place myself before Jesus. I want to be with Him you see. I want to be transformed by Him, to be in imitation of Him. By uniting myself to Him through His mother Mary I am placing myself in the same sanctified place as countless men and women, sinners and saints, have done before I drew my first breath in this life. In this knowledge I find peace.

That is why I pray the rosary.

*****

Two recent rosary purchases that I highly recommend

The first is a replica of the military rosary issued to soldiers by the U.S. government (by request) during WWI and now available though churchmilitant.com. I purchased this one with a Marine Corps medal for my son who enlisted on his 18th birthday in January. It was his Christmas gift. He had it blessed by the assistant pastor at our parish, took it with him to Washington DC and used it to pray during the March For Life. The folks at this site provided excellent and timely customer service and aided me greatly when I forgot to include the USMC/St. Christopher medal with my initial order. Learn more about these terrific service rosaries here. It won’t go to boot camp with him but I’m confident that he will take it with him going forward.

military_rosary

The Church Militant Combat Rosary with USMC medal

The second one arrived in the mail today. It is the Four Last Things rosary and it is made by a wonderful woman named Gloria. You can learn more about her and her rosaries by visiting her website at rosacarmel.blogspot.com and I heartily recommend her services. For reasons I cannot explain I was drawn instantly to this rosary. The carved Howlite skull helps me to keep in mind memento mori. Perhaps because I have meditated upon the Four Last Things (death, judgment, hell and heaven) a lot since making a retreat in the fall of 2012 and have read an excellent book on the subject. I’m not really sure. I love the feel of this rosary. It’s strong…solid…weighty. I’m having it blessed over the weekend and it will be the one I use tonight once I publish this blog.

Addendum: after using it last night I think this is probably the last rosary I’ll ever purchase. I love it!

four_last_things_rosary02

My brand new Four Last Things rosary setting on top of the first pages of the Gospel of Luke from our Baronius Press Douay-Rheims & Clementina Vulgata bible.