Tassel of the Cloak

Morse and Marconi

The first electric communication ever dispatched read, "What Hath God Wrought."  It was tapped out by Samuel Morse on May 24, 1844.  He was sitting amidst an audience in the United States Supreme Court building.  The message was delivered within moments to Baltimore. 

Morse obtained the passage from Numbers 23:23. The Scriptural context is the story of Balaam, a pagan prophet sent to curse the Israelites. When Balaam sees the people he is so impressed he instead blesses them.  He prophesies that this people will not die out but will spring up like a lion and people will say of them, "Behold, what hath God wrought!"

Morse, the inventor of the single-wire telegraph system, had seen the transformation of the United States in the first half of the 19th Century, arguably the greatest period of growth and progress in our nation's history.  The US expanded from shore to shore and had revolutions on a communications, market, transportation, and religious level, all of which inaugurated new systems that are, in many ways, still in place in our nation.  Morse saw God at work, and the leading figures of the country in the chambers of the Supreme Court that day would not have disagreed. Communications technology led to the cohesion of the expansive land.  Yes, the Civil War would shortly ensue, but the outcome of that war addressed our core wound (slavery) and eventually united the nation further.  God was at work not just in America, but in technology.

A century later, Guglielmo Marconi, the Novel Prize winner and inventor of mobile devices, echoed Morse's sentiments when he said, "I declare with pride that I am a believer. I believe in the power of prayer. I believe in it not only as a believing Catholic but as a scientist."

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux is the last of the ancient church Fathers.  He founded the Abbey of Clairvaux and was renowned both for his own personal sanctity and for his theological and spiritual writings.  He also is called the "Troubadour of Mary," as he had an incredibly deep devotion to the Blessed Mother.

A monk who lived before Bernard, named Radbertus, once wrote this: "Mary is your sister." Bernard read this and must have pondered the relationship with his own sister, Humbeline, in his contemplation and exposition of Mary.

Bernard loved his little sister, Humbeline, though for a while he was disappointed in her.  Married to a wealthy nobleman of Lorraine, it was said Humbeline "was more notable for dancing than devotion." Bernard refused to see her until she changed.  One day he wrote a simple note to her: "Remember our mother's virtue." 

So moved by this comment, Humbeline persuaded her husband, Guy de Marcy, to let her become a nun. She entered the convent, was elected abbess, and lived a great life of prayer and penance.  In fact, when her sisters thought her self-denial and asceticism too extreme, she responded, "That is all very well for you, my sisters, who have been serving God in religion all your lives. But I have lived so long in the world and of the world that no penance can be too much for me."

Humbeline's four brothers were all incredibly proud of their sister. None was prouder than Bernard, who held his little sister, eventually canonized a saint, as she died in his arms.

Brothers have a fatherly care for their sisters and take great pride in them.  A sister can prompt an individual to holiness.  Saint Humbeline did for Bernard, as Mary, our little sister, can for us.

 

The Cedar of Lebanon

The Cedar of Lebanon is the most referenced tree in the Bible. It is considered "the first tree" (1 Kings 4:33).  Cedars are strong, durable, fragrant, tall, and graceful.  Where gold was not used in Solomon's Temple, cedar was instead used. Solomon also built his personal chariot out of the noble wood. Eagles built their nests on the tops of cedar trees.  The tree's roots dig deep into the soil, reaching the water bed.  Hence the psalmist's wisdom: "the cedar tree is planted by God" (Psalm 104:16).  The container of water used to purify leprosy was also made of cedar.  The aromatic resin of the cedar was used for embalming, as it is resistant to decay, and also used to repel snakes.  We could go on. 

In the middle ages, the "Cedar Tree" or "The Cedar of Lebanon" became a well-known epithet for Mary.  Her roots tap deep down into Christ, and she can withstand anything, like the branches of the cedar endure all seasons.  Mary is the cedrus exaltata (exalted cedar).

There is one more quality of cedar I must mention.  The wood is absorbent.  Water will not build up on the wood itself and mildew or mold will not form.  Yet, it will retain humidity.

If you know me well, you can guess where I am going with this.  Because of the particular qualities of this softwood, cedar is used to build humidors for cigars.  Cedar will prevent the cigar from drying out. 

And so I have been able to achieve something I have been wanting to do for quite some time: connect the Virgin Mary with smoking cigars!  A relationship with the 'Cedar of Lebanon' will assist our relationship with Christ and make us strong, graceful and relaxed individuals.

The Lily of the Valley

"The Lily of the Valley" is an epithet for the Blessed Virgin.  In simply describing this May flower we can see a few attributes of Mary. 

The lily, with its white petals, symbolizes purity.  The Easter Lily's flower, atop the straight stem (honesty), is in the shape of a trumpet, pointing up to heaven, as if it is announcing the good news of the Resurrection.  But it is also in an open position, able to receive the gifts and love of God.  Inside the flower are seven gold (in some cases, red) seeds.  The seven sacraments and gifts of the Holy Spirit come from God.  And in connection to purity, the red seeds symbolize the fire of love for God that burns within the virgin's heart.  The Blessed Virgin is no shrinking violet.  She is a burning bush.

The posture of lily of the valley species is slightly different.  The bell-shaped flower on the wilted stem points to the ground, symbolizing a teardrop and the virtue of humility.  Mary, in saying "I am the handmaid of the Lord," has no ounce of pride.

The lily is the first of the spring flowers to bloom, sprouting from the cold earth around March 25th (the Annunciation).  These hardy and fragrant perennials grow abundantly, rapidly and in any environment, be it a valley, plain, manicured garden or a wild field.  Wherever they be, they beautify the landscape.  Hosea, prophesying the growth of Israel, said, "he shall grow as the lily, and cast forth his roots as Lebanon" (Hosea 14:5).

"Consider the lily of the fields," Jesus himself told us. "Even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these" (Matthew 6:28-29).  We should consider Mary, the Lily of the Valley and greatest flower of all.

Notre Dame and the Pieta

From the homily on Good Friday

Michelangelo's pietà—the image of Mary holding her dead son at the foot of the cross—was perhaps the most famous depiction of the subject until this past week.  Now, I argue, it is the pietà underneath the high altar of Notre Dame in Paris.  Two images of the sculpture just after the monumental fire stand out.  One is of three French firefighters looking into the smoke-filled nave of the church.  The statue can barely be seen, other than the brilliant gold cross above Mary.  The other image is of the statue with a pile of charred rubble before it.

Yes, the pietà at Notre-Dame de Paris is a symbol of resilience, just like the cathedral itself.  The 800-year-old church survived the Black Plague, the 100 Years War, the French Revolution, Napoleon, the Kaiser, and Hitler, who wanted to burn it.  But Notre Dame is something more, which is why this fire made the front page of every town's newspaper in the world.  A church is, fundamentally, our gift of worship and praise to God.  Sure, we celebrate community and even the sacraments in a church, and we are inspired by the art, the preaching and the music.  But a church building is not about us.  It is about God.  The cross is God's gift to us.  Our gift in reciprocation is a church.  And Notre Dame—the most beautiful church in the world—is the best we as a human race can give. 

And it burned.  It is up for us now, individually, to give as a gift to God our hearts.  Lay your burned heart before Christ when you venerate the cross, and your gift will be greater than Notre Dame.

Mothers Not Only Can Be Saints, They Can Make Saints.

On this Mother's Day it is worth examining several saintly women. 

Joan of Aza was the wife of Felix de Guzman, a Spanish official.  She had already borne two sons and was praying for a third. She had a vision, while praying in church, of St. Dominic of Silos.  He told Joan not only would she have a son, but that her son would be a source of enlightenment for the world.  Joan then had a dream of a black and white dog carrying a torch in its mouth.  Joan gave birth to a son, whom she named Dominic. Her son, the St. Dominic we all know, would go on to establish the Dominicans, or the domini canes, the watchdogs of God.  And Joan's other children? Two became priests, one of whom was also beatified (Blessed Mannes). And Joan's daughter sent two of her sons into the Dominic Order as priests to follow their uncle.

Elisabeth Leseur was an incredibly spiritual woman.  The great suffering in her life was her husband, Felix, whom she loved but who was also an atheist.  Elisabeth died in her atheistic husband's arms on May 3, 1914.  Less than a decade later Felix Leseur was ordained a Catholic priest. 

And who could forget the greatest mother saint of all (besides Mary)? St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine!  Monica was a devout Catholic married to a pagan.  Her son Augustine had fallen astray.  But Monica did not lose hope. She prayed and wept abundant tears.  Monica died in Augustine's arms and her son went on to be baptized, ordained a priest and then bishop, a doctor of the Church, and a saint. 

Mothers not only can be saints, they can make saints. 

Let's Go Fly A Kite

The movie Mary Poppins ends with the song, "Let's Go Fly a Kite."  As the title character looks on through the window, George Banks, the father, sings the beautiful medley, leading his family out to the park for the activity.  It is a sign of Banks' conversion, his redemption.  He has come to realize what is most important in life—not being successful and maintaining a proper lifestyle (see his earlier song, "The Life I Lead"), but being a present, loving father to his children. He was able to do this because of Mary Poppins' influence.

The lyrics of the song speak to a deeper reality, however. The kite transports the individual to another realm.  The person holding the string feels as if he is flying.  He is a 'bird in flight.' He is 'lighter than air,' dancing 'on the breeze over houses and trees.' 

When we pray and are united to God, like the kite flyer, we are taken off this earth and into Heaven.  Our attachments and constructs are burned away.  We dethrone ourselves and experience agape, where we love with God's love.

When we are in this contemplative prayer, we may appear to be sitting in a pew in a chapel in our parish, but we are actually at the right hand of the Father.  The prayer has fused us to God, the way the kite fuses the child to the sky.

As Mary Poppins helped Banks, the Virgin Mary will lead us to plunge into the Light.  She will purify us and exhilarate our lives.  We will hold to the string alongside Jesus with the Father behind us, the Holy Spirit the wind in the kite, all whilst Mary looks lovingly on.

She Dies Out of Love

First Holy Communion is received around this time of year by second graders, and it is inspiring to hear stories of saintly First Communicants.  For example, we have that of Blessed Imelda Lambertini from the 1300s.  The age to receive First Communion back then was twelve.  Imelda was nine.  She begged to receive the Eucharist, and though she prayed daily with the nuns in the nearby church and exhibited an understanding of the sacrament, she was denied.  One night, on the eve of the Feast of the Ascension, the young girl was praying in the chapel after Mass.  The nuns present smelled roses and saw a bright light.  Suddenly, a consecrated host floated in the air and hovered above the girl.  The priest was immediately summoned and, placing a paten underneath the host, he gave Imelda her First Communion.  The girl proceeded to enter into an intense, ecstatic prayer.  Her First Communion was her last.  When the nuns lifted her up, she was dead.  Imelda was known to have said in the past when arguing her cause, "Tell me, can anyone receive Jesus into his heart and not die?"  She died out of love.

Saint Gemma Galgani was born in the late 19th Century.  The seven-year-old begged her pastor to give her communion.  He finally relented, saying, "there was no alternative but to admit her to holy Communion; otherwise we will see her die of grief."  He had learned from Imelda's case.  Gemma received her communion and would treat each communion until her death eighteen years later at age twenty-five as if it was her first and last.  "Oh, what precious moments are those at Holy Communion!" she said. "Communion is happiness that seems to me cannot be equaled even by the beatitude of the saints and angels."

Neurogenesis, Prayer, Resurrection

The recent advancements in the field of neurobiology are a fascinating compliment to prayer and the Resurrection.  The firing of neurons in the brain determines our feeling or reaction to an event.   For example, if we were embarrassed in front of the entire class when we were in 6th grade about answering a question incorrectly, when we are in a situation where we have to perform in front of an audience, we may be anxious or we may shut down.  This is because of the neurocircuitry in our brain.

We need not, however, be enslaved by our core wounds. It is possible for us to change these negative neural firing patterns, hence changing our internal state in the midst of an experience.  The key is awareness, which is also called interoception.  If we are attuned to our thoughts and feelings, and open to acknowledging the past, we can change.  When we simply notice we grow agitated in a particular scenario, or are consoled by something else, we create new neurons, as well as neural firing patterns.  Myelin, which is a coating around the neuron that allows the electrical pulse to pass to the next neuron, is also enhanced.  With more myelin, we can catch ourselves more quickly in an experience and not fall into the default state of anxiety, accusation, shame or whatever else is negative inside us.  This whole process of re-creation is named neurogenesis.  We could also label it conversion or healing. Something new is created from something old.  Neurogenesis happens, fundamentally, in prayer.

Prayer is the best opportunity to sit in this awareness with Jesus, the Divine Physician.  We lift our history and our emotions to the Lord, and he will literally rewire our brains.  Then, we will be fully alive—sons and daughters of the Resurrection.  

Adauctus - the added man

We do not know much about the life of Saint Felix, other than he was martyred in the year 303 during the persecution of Emperor Diocletian.  The shrewd administrator forced all Christians to turn in their Bible and other sacred texts to be burned.  Felix refused and was ordered to be beheaded. The story has it that a man observed Felix on his way to the spot of execution in Carthage and was so inspired that he yelled out that he too was a Christian.  The man was quickly enchained next to Felix and beheaded alongside him.  No one ever discovered the martyr's real name, so he was called "Adauctus," which means "the added man."  Saints Felix and Adauctus share a feast day.

There have been other Adauctuses throughout the history of the church.  The latest was a West African named Matthew.  He was taken hostage by ISIS in February 2015 alongside 21 Egyptian Christians, construction workers on a job site in Libya.  Though he may not have been Christian, Matthew refused to be separated and had his throat slit along with the others.  He is listed as one of the 'Coptic Martyrs of Libya.' 

Speaking of Libya, who could forget the first Adauctus, Simon of Cyrene?  Cyrene was a Greek town in Libya.  Simon had either lived there or his ancestors had come from that part of Northern Africa.  Returning from the fields to Jerusalem, he happened upon Christ carrying his cross.  For whatever reason, Simon was singled out from the crowd to help.  He may have been unwilling at first, but he made the way of the cross alongside Christ.  To literally help Christ redeem the world by carrying the cross—is there no more saintly action possible?

Let us listen (audire) for our chance to be the next Saint Adauctus.

 

God is Beauty

One of the ways we encounter God is beauty.  Our hearts can be elevated to the transcendent when we see a stunning mountain landscape, gaze upon a priceless work of art, or hear a magnificent piece of music.  Encountering beautiful people (not physically, but on the level of the soul) can also inspire us. It happened in the case of Malcolm Muggeridge, a British journalist who described himself as a "religious maniac without a religion." While working as a producer for BBC he came across Mother Teresa and, after researching her story, interviewed her.  He was mainly responsible for introducing this future saint to the world, thanks to his 1968 documentary "Something Beautiful for God."  The documentary covered the heroic lives of the Missionaries of Charity, who served the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta.  Muggeridge then wrote a book about Mother Teresa.  Author Robert Spitzer writes about the impact of the woman on the 'avowed atheist',

It was at once the beauty of [Mother Teresa's] actions toward the poor, the beauty of her genuine love for them, the beauty of seeing Christ in them, the beauty of her defiance when Muggeridge tried to suggest that it didn't make much difference amid the sea of poverty in India, the beauty in her eyes, and the beauty of her spiritual discipline.

Mother Teresa prompted Muggeridge to become Catholic.  He wrote, "it is impossible to be with her, to listen to her, to observe what she is doing and how she is doing it, without being in some degree converted." The formally-socialist reporter became a defender of Humanae Vitae, opposed abortion, and produced documentaries on prayer.  He titled his autobiography, Chronicles of Wasted Time.

May our simple holiness spur the conversion of those around us.

 

The Prodigal Son

This posture of the prodigal son in prayer, from John Macallan Swan's 1888 painting, is one no person should be ashamed to make.  It is a posture of authenticity.  The boy is in "dire need" (Lk 14:14). He has hit 'rock bottom.'  Does he suppress his agony?  No.  He admits his life has become unmanageable and enters into the depths of the abyss.  He bundles his darkness, shame, and uncertainty into a little gift the outline of his fists, and lifts that gift to God.  He cannot see it, as he raises his meagre offering in trusting torment, but the Father delights.  A heavenly light shines on the prodigal son's exposed back.  In the desolate, early spring landscape, flowers have bloomed.  There is beauty in the vulnerability.

The prodigal son "comes to his senses." He makes the decision, in the words of the Third Step, "to turn his will and his life over to the care of God."  He does not know how his story will end, but he trusts God.  There is no greater experience of love than remaining with the Father in pain.  This sets him on the path to awakening—to resurrection.  He will journey home.

It was only because the prodigal son entered into the fullness of pain in prayer that he could be healed.  We might not have 'watershed moments' on the level of the prodigal son or a recovering alcoholic, but there are experiences of darkness we all face.  The choice is to suppress the situation or embrace it.  When we embrace it, we turn it over to God.  He will accept our gift.  What exactly he will choose to do with it and make of it, we are not sure.  It turned out well in the prodigal son's case.

 

The Edge of Sadness

The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O'Connor won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1962.  Set in a New England town, it is a story of priesthood and an Irish-American family scenario with which most people could probably resonate.

Father Hugh Kennedy is the protagonist of the story.  He and his best friend, Father John Carmody, are middle-aged pastors.  They battle their demons of darkness, both related to their fathers.  Kennedy slipped into alcoholism after his father's slow and painful death, and Carmody a general misanthropy stemming from his father's challenging nature that meant a difficult upbringing.  You might already be thinking, 'This sounds depressing. Why would I read this?' Because it is a beautiful story that provides profound psychological insights.

Kennedy realizes that a genuine prayer life was non-existent in his active life as a young priest.   He was not tapped into the "continuing current of love," as he describes it.  Kennedy says:

What the priest may not see is that he stands in some danger of losing himself in the strangely engrossing business of simply 'being busy'; gradually he may find that he is rather uncomfortable whenever he is not 'being busy.' 

The problems of priesthood are not all that dissimilar from the married or single life.  The heart of a priest's identity is his love of God.  Everything else in his ministry comes second.  If he falls away from his heart, his life will begin to disintegrate.  Likewise, if a married couple falls away from the essence of their love and is swept up into the current of 'busyness', their relationship will deteriorate. 

The story is hopeful, for Kennedy is able to re-center himself in God and persevere in the priesthood.  If we find ourselves on the edge of sadness, may we do likewise.

 

Create Your Own Prayer

It can be beneficial, every now and again, to create your own blessing or prayer.  We do not always need to rotely recite the ones provided by the Church.  Creating your own prayer, which is certainly a valid thing to do, puts you in the company of the Trinity.  God, of course, is a creator and a ‘blesser’.  If we are called to be like God, then we can create our prayers.

Here is an example of someone's created prayer.  Maybe it can inspire you.  It is "A Blessing for March's Saints" by Andrew Greeley:

May you dance a reel for St. Paddy's sake

And toast the many united in one

May St. Joseph guard you as soon as you wake

And safely lead you home when day is done

From Aquinas may you learn wisdom and truth

And from Gregory tradition's faithful way

May Casimir teach you courage and hope

And Gabriel surprise you each new day

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Or, "A Blessing for March Seventeenth" by the same:

May it be a grand day for all of you

Be ye Irish or as Patrick as you'd like to be

May your jars be limited to just a few

May you revel in God's great diversity

In a land where Moslem, Protestant, Catholic, Jew

Enjoy a constitutional variety

Modestly raise a quiet cry and hue

To give thanks for peaceful ethnicity

And praise for pluralism's brightest jewel

Drink joyous toasts, in all sobriety

To the one from many ‘neath red, white and blue

And may God bless you this glorious day

The Father who holds the world together

The Son who walked among us

And the spirit who makes each of us unique