May 21 – St. Philip’s Tenderness of Heart

On this fifth day of the novena to St. Philip, we meditate on his tenderness of heart.

Reviewing the thoughts of Bl. John Henry Newman, the three “juh’s” that may help us understand what it means to be tender of heart after the model of St. Philip.

First, Philip’s tenderness was marked by Justice – Justice is that virtue by which we are disposed to give each person his/her due.  The ultimate foundation for justice is our identity as children of God.  That identity means that we are due absolute dignity, we are due love.  Whenever Philip saw the lack of this, especially among the poor, the sick and imprisoned, his heart was moved with pity and he sprang to action.  What’s the difference – one might ask – between “justice” and “sympathy” in this case?  Justice brings an objectivity to sympathy… sometimes it moulds our sympathy to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people.  Justice, in a sense, grounds sympathy in reality lest we get carried away to the point that no one benefits from our sympathy.

Second, Philip’s tenderness was marked by Generosity – When his cause for sainthood was being considered thousands of people came forward witnessing to Philip’s generosity.  During a famine he gave away a day’s worth of his own food to the poor and fasted.  When his own purse was empty he would assign penances to his wealthy penitents so that they would pay the dowries of poor girls who could not otherwise afford to marry or enter a convent.  When others received credit for good works that he himself had done, Philip rejoiced and reinforced the misperception to give glory to others rather than himself.  In these and a hundred other ways our saint imitated the generosity of God from whom all life flows generously.

Finally, Philip’s tenderness was Gentle – Philip’s preaching, his teaching and his general encounters were all in the context of his awe at the beauty of God and God’s Creation.  For as much ‘building up’ as he did Philip’s demeanor was more that of one walking in awe through a beautiful structure.  He was always humbled by the experience of being in the world ad this brought a gentleness and inspiration to even his most fervent preaching.

 

On the Purity of St. Philip

On this fourth day of the novena to St. Philip Neri we consider how he manifested the virtue of purity.

Let’s expand on three thoughts offered by Bl. John Henry Newman about this virtue in the life of our saint-of-the-city.  Also, consider checking out the “Exercises for Purity” Menu at the top of this page.

First – Philip’s purity began in childhood and was something he was very open about.  As a child, St. Philip was known as Pippo buono (“Phil the good”).   Research into Florence’s city records, diaries, and even criminal proceedings has shown that for all of the city’s medieval piety, it was a cosmopolitain place full of secular influences of every stripe, including temptations of the flesh.  Growing up in the streets of the metropolis, Philip was – like his neighbors – subject to all of this, but never victim to it.  From an early age he was taught to fear ever losing his relationship with the Lord (i.e. the virtue of “Fear of the Lord”).  He was also very open about his desire to remain close to God always.  As a result, he was known throughout the city as “The good”.  What can we learn from this?  For all of our day’s sexual license, polite society still speaks in hushed voices about things carnal. We also speak in all too hushed voices about fighting against such temptations.  Philip spoke openly about both ends of this equation and, consequently, equipped himself more effectively to handle it.  Strong Christian families and strong Christian friendships are great foundations for purity in city living.

Second – Philip’s purity was evangelical.  Biographers of his time describe St. Philip as beaming with purity.  They say that the virtue darted from his eyes, shone in his skin and even gave an odor of sanctity to his breath (no small feat in a time before toothpaste!).  Whether these are literal or figurative descriptions we can’t know, but we can listen to the testimony of those who were brought to conversion by Philip’s manifest purity.  He lived it so beautifully that others changed their lives as a result.  While many such stories were given by witnesses in his case for canonization, one famous one demonstrates the point.  Philip was once tricked by a jealous nobleman into rushing to a deathbed.  He was shocked to find the bed belonged to a brothel and that the people in it were certainly not dead.  As they attempted to stain him, Philip begged and pleaded with them describing how he would hate even for one moment to be distanced from God’s grace.  His pleading was so sincere that not only did they leave him alone, the were brought to confession!  The jealous noble so set on ruining the simple priest would one day become an important member of Philip’s circle of friends.  Purity is evangelical.

Finally – Philip’s purity was humble.  Two phrases froths life demonstrate the point: “In the battle for purity the victory goes to him who flees the field fastest.”  and “Lord do not trust me, if you do I shall surely betray you.”  Man is ill equipped to fight the devil; history teaches as much.  But… God is very good at it.  Flee to him in temptation and he will save you.

The Health Consequences of Porn: It’s hurting us, and science proves it

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Since her first days, the Church has preached in favor or healthy physical relationships among men and women.  The word used by St. Paul for UNhealthy sexual relationships is porneia.  From this root, we get a modern term, “porno-graphy,” for unhealthy sexual images.

It’s surprising to me how often I interview couples for marriage and discover that one or both don’t think that pornography is necessarily detrimental to a marital relationship.  I use anecdotes from pastoral ministry and my own reading trying as I might to disabuse them of this notion… but sometimes I get the sense they’re just smiling and nodding.

Today the Washington Post Outlook section published a wonderful article (LINKED HERE) on the wide-spread and curiously silent scientific research proving that porn is hurting us as individuals and as a society.  Just a few highlights: The average age for a boy to view porn for the first time is 11.  Porn has been proven to dispose men to violence toward women, including sexual assault.  The porn industry hides statistics about the instances of STI’s among their performers.  Internet pornography is more frequented that major sites like Netflix, Hulu and Youtube… combined.

This is an insidious social ill that dwarfs the effects of its predecessors in ways we are only beginning to discover.  But the Church offers resources to begin breaking the porn cycle.  Check out some of the information / resources available form the Archdiocese of Washington’s Family Life Office at this LINK

Holiness, the end of our pilgrimage

Jesus, victorious over temptation in the desert
Jesus, victorious over temptation in the desert

Lent begins with the pleading of the Prophet Joel, “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole hear.” (JL 2:12-18)  echoed by St. Paul, “In an acceptable time I heard you, and on the day of salvation I helped you.  Behold now is a very acceptable time.  Now is the day of salvation.” (II Cor 5:20-6:2)  …two Beautiful calls to the actions of self-sacrifice commanded by Christ: fasting, prayer and almsgiving.  (Mt 6:1-6, 16-18)

And these all correspond to the first in a progression of graces (II Pt 1:5-7) from St. Peter: faith and virtue.  Faith and virtue are actions taken in response to the love of God.  Faith is a lived response to God, virtue, a disposition to do the good and avoid the evil.  As we take on these actions, Christ commands his faithful to do so joyfully.  “Do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.” (Mt 6:1-6,16-18)  So right off the bat, Lent, which is a microcosm for the Christian life, is a period of joyful self-giving.  We need only look to our great saints as examples.  The early martyrs gave their lives as a response to God and did so while singing hymns in the arenas.  St. Philip Neri, an ascetic of the 16th century was never seen without a smile on his face… Bl. Teresa of Calcutta faced the most horrifying conditions known to man and did so with a smile because she was on pilgrimage to heaven with those for whom she cared.

From these actions of faith and virtue, first undertaken with a sense of pedagogy or instruction the faithful begin to find enlightenment, “the word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart.”  (Rm 10:8-13)  We walk with God’s people through the deserts of self-giving and we learn how to relate to him an ongoing relationship/friendship develops (cf. Dt 26:4-10).  This is the same enlightenment Christ experiences in the desert.  He himself fasts and prays and by total dependence on the Father begins to realize – at the start of his public ministry – that rooted in the Father’s love, he can face any challenge.  And so he rejects the devil’s threefold appeals to human hunger, vanity and fear (Lk 4:1-13).  The light of the Father’s love shines brighter than the goods of this world.  Here our great example among the saints is Francis of Assisi.

Our faith and virtue grow through enlightenment from a matter of mere instructionalism to a self-propelling dynamic of growth… they become motivated from within as -like Christ- we rejoice in our new relationship with the Father.  And this is our next grace for a Lent: joy.  We need to pray for a joy… not an easy comfortable joy but a foundational joy that keeps us rolling through the hardest times.  It’s the joy of Abraham hearing from God… at the end of your journey I will make your descendants numerous…(Gn. 15:5-12, 17-18) …of Paul who proclaims “our citizenship is in heaven and from it we await the Savior, Jesus Christ.” (Phill. 3:20-4:1)   It’s the deep foundational joy of Peter a James and John who – terrified at the prospect of the crucifixion – were reassured by the Transfiguration on Tabor (Lk 9:28-36)… Each of these is a joy rooted in the future, rooted in the end of the pilgrimage, rooted ultimately in heavenly communion with God.   Such was the joy of St. Agnes.

Transfigurationraffaelo
Rafael, “Transfiguration”

Joy gives us the oomph… the boost… as it were, to move on to a higher plane of holiness and pray for the grace of continence.  Spiritual continence is, to be colloquial, the right ordering of all our spiritual insides.  The proper balancing of our desires, our needs, obligations… when it’s a choice between good and evil… and harder still when we have to choose between multiple goods.  It’s living out the justification we receive by faith (Rm 5:1-2, 5-8).  Justification: being set in “right-relationship” with God.  Continence is perfected in endurance, living out our newfound integration over a lifetime.  This is often where comfort begins to fade and the hard gritty work of growth sets in.  As St. Paul tells us, “now you are light in the Lord.  Live as children of light,  for light produces every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth. Try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness” (Eph. 5:8-14).  It’s the movement of Moses from the early heady excitement of the burning bush, up the mountain into the cloud of God’s presence.  It can be dark, the path can seem obscure… we may be afraid of losing ourselves but the balancing of continence is the only way forward.  Here our example is St. Pio of Pietraclina (Padre Pio)

Finally, we come at the end of Lent to the entry into the Promised Land… the Passion of the Christ as he enters his heavenly kingdom… we come to the grace of holiness.  Holiness is that quality which is most properly of God.  Our self-giving at first an act of simple obedience became and experience of enlightenment… filled with joy… prompting us to an enduring spiritual continence… now we reach our great goal of our striving.  Emptied of ourselves, we are filled with Christ, “if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is alive because of righteousness.” (Rm 8:8-11).  Here we take as our example a saint who canonized many saints, John Paul II.  John Paul picked up the invitation of the Second Vatican Council calling all men and women to holiness.  This Universal Call to Holiness, outlined in the epic teaching documents Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes reminded the Catholic world that entry into heaven is God’s desire for all people and that it cannot be achieved by riding on the coat tails of the vowed religious (priests, nuns, et al.)… The call to holiness must find its response in each Christian souls intentional discipleship (to use a contemporary term).  And this intentional discipleship requires intimate contemplative prayer with the Father, after the model of Jesus himself who raised Lazarus by prayer to the Father.

In closing, I hope this romp through the Lenten readings, as well as a series of saintly examples can dispel from our consciousness the culturally conditioned image of Lent as a time of blind misery.  It’s a pilgrimage… and pilgrimages are not easy, but even their challenges are couched in Gospel joy, the joy of being loved by the Father, inspired to self gift with the Son all offered up in the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Endurance, The Perfection Virtue

St. Perpetua and Felicity from their altar at the National Shrine - Washington, DC
Ss. Perpetua and Felicity from their altar at the National Shrine – Washington, DC

This fourth week of Lent we come to another grace for the Christian life according to St. Peter: endurance.

We all know that endurance means that something is sustained over time.  This grace becomes the perfection all the others we’ve mentioned.  It’s one thing to make one act of faith… one moment of humility… one period of continence… But to maintain these and the other graces on which we’ve meditated for a lifetime.  That is spiritual perfection.  Indeed, if we think of the ultimate state of perfection – heaven – we realize that is is marked precisely by endurance; it is everlasting.

So much for what endurance is… Now, how do we achieve it?  For that we turn the example of the early Church which endured three centuries of persecutions under the Roman Empire.  These first generations of martyrs are always a highlight of our Lenten journey because they endured  in faith even unto death.  Their endurance sprang from a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and with each other.  Only one who has been personally touched by God has the inspiration necessary for faith that endures martyrdom.  Only one who has personally known the martyrs can pass on their torch with lasting conviction.  Two saints exemplify the case: Felicity and Perpetua. 

They were young Christian women, and friends in second century Roman North Africa.  Felicity was, in fact, Perpetua’s maid-servant.  During the persecutions of Emperor Septimius Severus both women were separated from their husbands and children and sent to prison.  Perpetua’s father, a local [pagan] nobleman, pleaded with her to renounce Christ for the sake of her husband and child, but she refused.  Led to the center of the ring, Perpetua called out to the crowds, “Stand firm in faith, love on another and do not be tempted to do anything wrong because of our sufferings.”  Two women, personally touched by Christ… personally encouraged and affirmed by each other’s Christian friendship found the endurance needed to exemplify heroic virtue.

Such endurance is not just the possession of distant antiquity.  Just last week Muslim extremists in Yemen raided a convent of the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa’s nuns).  Four sisters and twelve of aged men and women they cared for (It was a home for the elderly poor) were brutally killed for their Christian faith (note: the patients were not necessarily Christian… they were killed simply for being in the care of Christians).  Only women deeply and personally in love with Jesus and each other would (a) go to a war-torn place of deep poverty to serve the poor, (b) stay there in the midst of a civil war, and (c) endure in  their faith unto death.  They are martyrs of today, saints in eternity.  May they and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta pray for their persecutors.

How deep does my relationship with Jesus go?  Do I have a network of Christian friendships that supports me in my faith? What would I be willing to endure for the sake of that faith?

Felicity, Perpetua and the Martyrs of Yemen… Pray for us who have recourse to thee!  -Amen

Excerpt from the Martyrdom of the Christians at Carthage

Perpetua was the first to be thrown down, and she fell prostrate.  She got up seeing that Felicity had also fallen, wen over and reached out to her and lifted her up.  Both stood together.  The hostility of the crowd was appeased, and the were ordered to the gate.  There Perpetua was welcomed by another Christian named Rusticus.  Rousing herself (so deeply had she been in spiritual ecstasy), she began to look around.  To the amazement of all she said, “When are we going to be led to the beast?”  When she heard she was already there, she did not at first believe until she saw the marks of violence on her body.  She addressed them in these words, “Stand firm in faith, love one another ad do not be tempted to do anything wrong because of our sufferings.”

 

A Lenten Pilgrimage with the Saints

St.-Philip-Neri
St. Philip Neri
Call of Andrew and Peter - at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Call of Andrew and Peter – at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Formed as we are by popular culture, most of us function under a terrible misperception: That Lent… and acts of penance are sad things.  This Lent we’re going to reexamine Lent and the concept of penance through eyes of faith.  What you’ll find – I hope – is that asceticism (i.e. Christian self-denial) can always be marked by joy.  To that end we’re going to take a pilgrimage through Lent in the company of two great saints: Peter the Apostle and first Bishop of Rome, and Philip Neri the great 16th century confessor and “Apostle of Rome” who evangelized the Eternal City for a great renewal of faith.

In the case of St. Peter, we’ll be meditating on the virtues for Christian development laid out in his Second Letter (Chapter 1 – translation by R. Knox).  To walk with St. Philip we’ll be examining the seven characteristics of his joyful asceticism presented in a great biography of him, The Fire of Joy (by, Paul Turks).  Our journey will follow (more or less) the Sunday readings through Lent.

Let’s start with today, Ash Wednesday.  In today’s first reading Joel, animated by God’s desire to save Israel, proclaims a holy season of renewal.

Even now, says the LORD,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.
For gracious and merciful is he,
slow to anger, rich in kindness,
and relenting in punishment.

It’s a joyous proclamation full of expectant hope.  Likewise Paul writes to the Corinthians that now, today, this very instant is a time for liberating oneself for goodness and holiness,

In an acceptable time I heard you,
and on the day of salvation I helped you.

Behold, now is a very acceptable time;
behold, now is the day of salvation.

Both Joel and Paul are resolute… both are serious about what needs to happen… but neither of them seems unhappy or miserable about they work that needs to be done.  Why?  Because all our works offered to the Lord (i.e. “Penances”) are predicated precisely on the fact of his LOVE… his desire that we be with him in heaven.  Hence, our asceticism is to be joyful.  The nearest thing I can compare this to is a couple preparing for the birth of their child.  They know that a time of unparalleled love and joy is on its way.  What do they do?  They tear apart their upstairs guest room to make it into a nursery.  In the process dad will probably hit his thumb with a hammer… ouch!  He’ll realize that he’s been putting together the crib all wrong, only to have to start all over again… ugh!  But he’s not miserable about either… not really, anyway.  The pain of the hammer fall the frustration of actually having to read the crib instructions are penances offered up… things done for the sake of the greater joy: the coming of the child.

St. Philip: be joyful ascetics
St. Peter: “supplement your faith with virtue.”

Faith and Virtue are both about action… things that we do in response to knowing we are loved by God (see I Jn. 4:10).   The actions we hear about in today’s Gospel: fasting, almsgiving and prayer are all things that we do not to cause ourselves pain… but to respond to the God who loves us.  So as we begin our Lenten pilgrimage, first thing’s first, “How is God loving me today?”  and how, in action, will I respond to that Love.  It might be challenging, but it’s far from sad.

The Second Phase of Holiness: The Cloud

Cloud-of-Glory

This week we continue our journey with St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Three Ways of Holiness.  Last week we joined Moses before the burning bush as he was illumined, made aware of his identity in relationship with God.  Now, we ascend with him up the mountain into the cloud of God’s holy presence.  The cloud is a great place to be because we know we are with God… but it’s also hard.  The cloud is dark.  It obscures our sight.  We may become frightened, unsure of our footing.

Why this cloud?  St. John of the Cross called the cloud, “the dark night of the senses.” (Note: St. John also speaks of a dark night of the soul, which is slightly different and which we won’t be covering here.) Having entered God’s presence in phase one… and having begun to experience his goodness perhaps even as a matter of habit/second-nature something happens.  The world of sensory perception begins to go stale.  It’s not that the good and beautiful things, relationships, experiences that provided those burning bush moments are any less good, but we perceive their limits, and our hearts yearn for more.  They want the invisible God behind the visible signs.  The sensory world that relies so heavily on our mortal selves doesn’t satisfy the way it used to and this becomes a kind of darkness.

How do we go forward? To begin with, this Sunday we learn that we are not alone.  Christ himself had a deep relationship with the Father.  At the Baptism in the Jordan he heard the Father’s voice, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” (Lk. 3:22).  Well, someone forgot to tell the people of Nazareth, because when Jesus gave them the Good News (as we hear this week) they tried to throw him off a cliff!  On his journey, Jesus too enters the cloud which obscures not only the way forward, but sometimes even our sensory perception of the Father’s love.  In the cloud we are tempted to say, “My God my God, why have you forsaken me?!”  

How do we function in this cloud?  The first two readings give us a clue: we dive into those gifts of God which define our humanity:  We recall with our intellect that God, as Jeremiah reveals, made us and that we are wonderfully made!  With intellectual conviction springing from both our own history and his revelation we make an act of the will, “I will go on confident that God never abandons his creation!”  Intellect and Rational Will… the two things that distinguish us from all the other animals on earth allow us to persevere in the cloud.  Related to these is a particular act of the will – noted in the second reading – LOVE.

Love (a.k.a. charity – caritas), as enunciated by Josef Pieper, is a virtue by which we affirm the life of another through self-sacrifice.  Love/charity is a choice we make.  Trained in the ways of charity (cf. I Peter 1, esp. verse 22) we get better and better at forging forward in the cloud.  Love takes on a deeper form than it did in Phase I.  Before, it was desire, before it was affection… it was easily sustained by the senses.  Now, love takes on a new character as it becomes an act of rationally chosen suffering sacrifice.  It matures from the “mother’s milk” of St. Paul’s first preaching to solid food that requires a more mature effort (cf I Cor 3:2 and I Pt. 2:2).  This understanding of love as something rationally chosen even to the point of self-sacrifice helps us understand why Love is the most human thing anyone can do… and thus the best way to fulfill our God-given identity…and thus move closer to heaven.

Where does this darkness/obscurity come from?  Sometimes it’s an honest test from God who allows us to be challenged in order to strengthen our faith.  History is replete with examples, most especially Job. There is another reason for the obscurity of the cloud.  Just as the bright side of our humanity helps us move forward, the darker sides hinder us. The limits of sensory perception, and human understanding are both forms of darkness.  Sin, likewise, obscures our view of the way forward; sometimes our own sins, sometimes the effects of others’.  Even here though, by tenaciously holding on to Jeremiah’s truth about our origins… and by choosing love, we move forward… so that, with Christ, we can pass through the midst of troubles and continue on the path laid out for us by the Father.

Art and the Illuminative Way

The Madonna and Child w/ Saints (Beato Fra Angelico)
The Madonna and Child w/ Saints (Beato Fra Angelico)

Thus far, meditating on St. Gregory of Nyssa’s First Phase of Holiness we’ve touched on some significant themes: 

  • That the first stage is illuminative, a burning bush moment when God reaches into our existence to lead us by a better more meaningful way.
  • That the first stage is ethical, inviting our humanity to grow and exercise itself for the sake of virtue
  • That the first stage is sensory, lived our preeminently through relationships of deep friendship (i.e. Sts. Paul, Timothy and Titus)

Today we consider another sensory dimension of the Illuminative Phase: ART

The reflection could not be more timely.  Just yesterday President Rouhani of Iran visited Rome.  Italians were shocked to find that their own Capitoline Museum had literally boxed off nude statues in deference to the Iranian president’s religious concerns during his tour.  Personal aside: As a lover of Roman/Art and a former resident of the Eternal City, I was deeply hurt by this decision on the part of the Italian authorities.  Perhaps if Italian President Mattarella ever visits Iran, the authorities their will consider our religious/cultural beliefs by unveiling their female citizens and serving a pork roast with a robust chianti for the state dinner.

Covered Nudes in the Capitoline Museum 1/26/16 (Giuseppe Lami/ANSA via AP) ITALY OUT
Covered Nudes in the Capitoline Museum 1/26/16 (Giuseppe Lami/ANSA via AP) 
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Greek Bronze Bust currently on view at the NGA’s “Power and Pathos” Exhibit

Art has been an illuminative part of human history from the beginning.  Our earliest ancestors recorded… and in some ways extended… the reach of their lives in cave paintings (for example).  Classical Western civilization had a love affair with art, to be sure.  Evidence of this is currently on display at the National Gallery’s exquisite exhibit of Greek bronzes, “Power and Pathos”   And of course Christian civilization inherited and extended this appreciation for art as God became visible entering into his own Creation, the revealed, incarnate image of the Father.  Art illumines the way to God and can play a significant role in the first stage of holiness.

The Cathedral of St. Matthew, Washington, DC
The Cathedral of St. Matthew, Washington, DC

All that said, the relationship between the West and art has not been without its critics.  Recognizing arts power for good and for evil, Plato recommended banishing certain artists from his ideal Republic.  The Byzantine Empire once tried to destroy all Christian art, latching on to the idea that art was idolatrous.  This iconoclasm was ended by the Church, which, without denying that one could sin by making an idol out of art, discerned that the holy goods that art could inspire were well worth the risk.  Later, proponents of the protestant reformation banished art from many of their communities for similar reasons.

How can we concisely describe the incredible illuminative power of art?  Regarding ethics (again, part of the illuminative way): what is it’s relationship with art?  Donald Beebe, in an insightful exploration of Florentine aesthetics at the time of the reformation had this to say,

“Art functions properly when it leads the beholder to worship and to emulate correct behavior.  It functions inappropriately when it exists for its own sake, when its didactic message goes unheeded or is the occasion of heterodoxy or sin.”  Beebe goes on, “As God’s creation, nature is the artist’s teacher.  In the same way, a sudden learns to draw by copying drawings produced by the master’s intellect.  Little by little, the student learns the style of the master, as the master learned to cry creation that in turn originated by the ingenio of God.”
(-Beebe, Donald.  Savonarolan Aesthetics and their Implementation in the Graphic Arts.  In: In No
Strange Land
, By: Jonathan Robinson, CO.  Angelico Press, 2015. pg.115)

Whether or not one subscribes to such an ethically-oriented sense of art is another conversation, but for our purposes, exploring the illuminative way, I think Beebe’s words are a great guide.  Along those lines, as a very practical resource, I highly recommend reading The Beauty of Holiness: Sacred Art and the New Evangelization by Jem Sullivan, PhD.  A local DC luminary in her own right, Dr. Sullivan offers a great review of the role art can play in spirituality, especially in terms of using art as a source of meditation (lectio divina).  It’s a useful essay to have in mind as you walk the streets of DC admiring our public art and architecture, hopefully drawing from it an inspiration to holiness.

For further rumination on the role of art as it inspires ethics and illumination, consider two secular reflections:

PBS’ American Experience: The Rise and Fall of Penn Station
and
Cinque Henderson’s article posted this morning on The New Yorker, “Anthem of Freedom: How Whitney Houston remade ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ ” 

 

The Illuminative Way In Detail: God Holds Our Hand

Sts. Paul Timothy and Titus
Sts. Paul Timothy and Titus

This first week of our “retreat in daily life” is dedicated to the first phase of holiness according to St. Gregory of Nyssa (see post below).  On Sunday we heard about three burning bush moments outlined in the readings (see Sunday homily).  Monday and Tuesday have, providentially, given us a holy trio ideal to this week’s meditation: Paul, Timothy and Titus.

On Monday Paul experiences his own burning bush moment when the Lord knocks him over with a blinding flash of light.  Paul’s spiritual blindness is manifest in his now physical blindness before the light… and yet “In your light we see light.” (cf Ps. 36:9).  Speaking with Jesus, Paul realizes the error of his way and accepts Christ as Messiah and Lord.  Baptized at Damascus, Paul’s conversion is complete and his sight is restored.  As we know, he goes on to a life of tremendous graces which allow him to undergo great trials even to the point of martyrdom.

The illuminative phase is a sensory thing.  Jesus reaches into our experiences and touches us.  Speaking to us through the human senses, it’s very comfortable… what Paul himself refers to as the “mother’s milk” of spirituality (I Cor. 3:2).  This is also why it’s associated with the pursuit of the virtues: things we can see and do, at first by following clear instructions then as a matter of habit.  One gets a sense of Paul passing this phase of holiness on to his disciples,  Timothy and Titus… Listen to these context phrases from the readings for their feast (today):

I yearn to see you again, recalling your tears,
so that I may be filled with joy, 
as I recall your sincere faith
that first lived in your grandmother Lois
and in your mother Eunice
and that I am confident lives also in you.
For this reason, I remind you to stir into flame
the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands. (cf. II Timothy 1:1-8)

and

…to Titus, my true child in our common faith:
grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our savior.
For this reason I left you in Crete
so that you might set right what remains to be done
and appoint presbyters in every town, as I directed you. (cf. Titus 1:1-5)

There’s a clear bond of trust… a familial connection even to Timothy’s mother and grandmother… These men met and knew Paul as students and eventually close co-workers, ordained by the apostle (“the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands” and “appoint presbyters”).  They were led by the hand of Paul their mentor who revealed to them all he himself had discovered in that first blinding flash of light.  Taught by the master, they went on to become saints themselves.

A reasonable comparison in our time might be college students in campus ministry.  When faith is (re)awakened during college it’s an exciting time.  Everything seems joyous.  There’s friends everywhere you look and easy opportunities to learn about prayer and service from college chaplains and their co-workers.  It’s a burning bush moment familiar to many here in DC.

A question for the day: Who has been a burning bush in my life?  How has that encounter encouraged/enticed me to pursue virtue?

Preview: Tomorrow we’ll visit another sensory dimension of the first phase: ART, it’s privileges and perils!