Tassel of the Cloak

Tassel of the CloakGod is in everything, be it sports or music or history or business or wine-making or church or whatever. Everywhere we look there is a spiritual metaphor to be found. Some metaphors may be hidden, some overt. I will attempt to point them out to you. That is the purpose of these laconic reflections. They are mostly intended to be fun and interesting. Perhaps, though, the reflections will provide you some guidance. Perhaps they will lead you to see everything through a spiritual lens, thus appreciating Catholicism all the more. When Jay Cutler throws a Hail Mary at the end of the half, might you move beyond your frustration with the Bears' offensive ineptitude and think of the Blessed Mother? Just an example.

These reflections will only be an introduction to deeper spiritual and theological truths. Hence the title, The Tassel of the Cloak. When David cuts off the tassel of Saul's cloak and shows it to him (cf. 1 Sam 24), Saul realizes that David is not his enemy. That moves them into a new relationship. Likewise, the hemorrhaging woman's grasping of the tassel on Christ's cloak in Luke 8:44 opens the door to her healing and conversion. The tassel was merely an entryway. The mundane anecdotes and simple spiritual lessons I provide are, in my opinion, the tassel. There's much more to Christ's Cloak. I hope you will experience it. So, please, go ahead and "Touch the Hem of His Garment." That is, by the way, the title of a Sam Cooke song.

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."

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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