Great is the Lord and highly praised
in the city of our God:
His holy mountain,
fairest of the heights,
the joy of all the earth,
Mount Zion, the heights of Zaphon,
the city of the great king.
God is in its citadel,
renowned as a stronghold.
Sometimes we need little reminders that God is near us… our city’s churches are great examples of such reminders. If you ever feeling down or out of touch with the divine, take a walk down any street in DC and you’ll find a spire to raise your spirits back to the heights.
This past Thursday was a day curiously full of reminders. I don’t mean the sticky notes that frame my computer screen. No, I’m speaking of something more personal. Three examples:
First – Something in The Washington Post caught my eye early in the morning. “Georgetown chimney produces strange find: a 19th-century cannonball” by, Clarence Williams. Oddly the article was placed under the Crime section of the Local news page… but I digress. It seems a family in Georgetown wanted to use a long-dormant fireplace. Prudently calling a chimney sweep to make sure the hearth was safe, they discovered the reason it hadn’t been used in so long: A cannonball lodged in the flu! The article doesn’t specify to whom the munition belonged (U.S., British, Confederate), only that the family made an interesting conversation piece out of it.
Second – Later on Thursday I found myself at Strathmore Music Center with a colleague. We attended “An Evening With Jason Alexander,” (a.k.a. George from Seinfeld). It was a great night. Constant laughs and familiar tunes from my childhood made the event a great walk down memory lane. Among the music performed that night, the BSO presented the overture from Peter Pan, one of the first musicals I ever saw (albeit on VHS).
Finally – Coming home from Strathmore I knelt before a relic of St. Philip in my study. It’s one of the treasures I was blessed to bring back from studies in Rome. It was a great way to end the day in prayer and contextualize everything that had happened in terms of Christ.
Reminders can be tremendously important for us as people… not just to make our appointments but to remember who we are and where we’re going. Sometimes the reminders are solemn, even painful. The Georgetown cannonball was an instrument of war (Did I mention, it had to be taken away for army analysis to ensure it wouldn’t explode). Someone shot it with the intention of killing another human being… not something we like to remember, but it’s part of who we are. Hopefully it reminds us to pursue peace in our future. Other reminders are more affirming. The music at Strathmore brought me back to childhood, to memories of musical performances with my cousins and gifts from grandparents… a nice reminder that I come from a family, and a loving one at that. Finally there are sacred, eternal reminders: my relic of St. Philip. Macabre as it might seem to the uninitiated, these [literal] pieces of history are a beautiful way to aide and enhance the faith of the present generation in handing on our way of life to the next.
Catholics have a beautiful veneration for the past. The relics we keep remind us of our history, help us to remember who we are, and guide us in charting a future course. I feel sad for people who don’t have such a foundation. It’s hard to imagine navigating my life without such a constellation of reminders to guide me. Ultimately these reminders liberate us to move into the future with confident steps… and that’s a joy.
Thus it was Vincent’s body that suffered, but the [Holy] Spirit who spoke. And at his voice, impiety was not only vanquished but human frailty was given consolation. -St. Augustine
Today is the feast of my patron saint, Vincent, Deacon and Martyr. While serving the third-century Church in Zaragoza, Spain he was captured during the persecutions of the Emperor Diocletian. Refusing to give up the location of the Church’s holy books (Scriptures, liturgical texts, sacramental rolls, etc.), Vincent was tortured to death with a ferocity that shocked even the early Christians, already so accustomed to witnessing martyrdom. His name, which means “to conquer” took on special significance as he prayed for his persecutors to the end.
If you were to consider Vincent’s martyrdom only human endurance, the his act is unbelievable. But first recognize the power to be from God , and it ceases to be a source of wonder
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel afloat in the ocean of the world. Washington moves so quickly around us, life takes on an almost tidal force. It’s an awkward feeling, no floor beneath your feet, nothing to grab on to. Steadiness, direction, definition are not necessarily givens. One starting place especially dear to Catholics is our names.
Names define. Names, connect us to our families and launch us forward in the context of their hopes for us. Names can also connect us to heavenly patrons: saints whose examples we strive to emulate and who’s intercession before God aides our earthly cause. Preparing for today’s feast, I’ve been thinking about St. Vincent and taking as a daily motto, “Today’s another opportunity to conquer my life with Christ.” It’s been a great spiritual exercise that’s helped me over the last few days and lets me look with optimism toward the future.
Whether you’re Catholic or not, the saints love you and are there for you. Just about every name in the western lexicon has some connection to a saint. If yours doesn’t, that’s OK, pick a saint and start a relationship with him/her. You’ll be amazed at how the ground rises to meet you as you journey one with greater confidence than before. St. Vincent, pray for us.
Bringing light to big city culture has been a constant theme in the life of the Church, whether we’re talking about Jerusalem, Rome, or our own Washington, DC. And while the times and places change there are certain constants of how to approach ever-new evangelization.
Reading about Bl. John Henry Newman this morning, I found an amazing observation of his. He was applying the teachings of St. Philip Neri (16th century Rome) to his own circumstances (19th century Birmingham/London)… teachings that hold no less true in 21st century DC… check this out:
[St. Philip] preferred to yield to the stream, and direct the current, which he could not stop, of science, literature, art and fashion, and to sweeten and to sanctify what God had made very good and man had spoilt… He perceived that the mischief was to be met, not with argument, not with science, not with protests and warnings, not by the recluse or the preacher but by mean of the great counter-fascination of purity and truth…
Stay positive… meditate on the beauty around you… share that with others and baptize culture for Christ! Peace.
Following up on yesterday’s post here’s a few sainted examples of folks her seemed foolish to everyone around them and found greater happiness than they could ever have imagined before.
St. Francis – A medieval knight-warrior, heir to a wealthy family, Francis took life very seriously and it nearly killed him as a prisoner of war. Following his release he did something very foolish: he gave up everything and seeking friendship with Christ in the poor. He even stripped himself naked before the Bishop as a sign of his new poverty (WARNING: doing that in 21st century DC would be a BAD IDEA). That one excess aside, he found an immensely happy life in which he could bear up with failures, mistakes, and eventually his own death. Common ‘serious’ wisdom says he should’ve been miserable, but today he’s a patron saint of happiness. Chesterton calls him a jongleur de Dieu (God’s court jester). I like to think of Francis’ child-like simplicity as pleasing to the Father… Kids dance in front of their parents all the time and however foolish they may seem, they’re dancing brings a smile from mom and dad. God’s no different.
Another great dancer was St. Ignatius of Loyola… literally, he was a master dancer and ladies’ man at court when a canon ball hit him in battle. Ignatius would never leap to another quadrille, but he soon started dancing to God’s tune, seeking to please him by giving up courtly ways and adopting a life of radical discernment and obedience to the will of his Father. Ignatius lived out a life of hard work and struggle, but also of great joy. His disciples became the Jesuits and changed the world.
In this country, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton found glimmers of joy in the Catholic faith of friends… Chasing after that joy, she abandoned her Anglican heritage, her social position, and her home in New York to educate children in the wilderness of Maryland… no easy task for a single mom in the early 1800s, but she loved her newfound mission with reckless abandon. The order of nuns she went on to found (Daughters of Charity) built Catholic education in the U.S. for a century, helping all, and especially the poor to lift themselves by the light of knowledge.
Finally, there’s St. Bernadette… Born to poverty she heard the parleyed with the Blessed Virgin, which might seem crazy enough, but then she followed Our Lady’s instructions to dig in the mud and drink the water that she found. Everybody thought Bernadette was a total fool, but the spring she found was in a place called Lourdes, which has brought healing and hope to countless millions. Bernadette herself lived out her days in a monastery where she found great peace and joy in Christ.
Taking a queue from my last post’s saint, Philip Neri, and a nice encounter two days ago, I’m starting a multi-part reflection on joy in city life… I hope you’ll follow along:
It’s a basic tenet of nearly every school of human philosophy that happiness, true happiness is the universal goal of everyone… However one defines it, all of us seek to be “happy,” rather than, “sad.” The Greeks called this eudaemonia – a happiness that is tied up with goodness and living out one’s divinely given purpose. I’ve been praying about this search, and got input from an unexpected source this past week: my taxi driver. Commenting on the dichotomy between DC’s beauty and the anxiety of its residents he remarked,
“What’s the good of having the good life if you don’t live it? Seriously man, some people are never happy ’til they’re miserable.”
There’s something to the cabbie’s wisdom. It’s not just the classic, “If only Americans would be more European; working to live rather than living to work.” We take ourselves, our careers so seriously… as if they were eternal, galaxy-changing things. In the midst we find ourselves sad. Our dour demeanors might not be so bad if life promised to respond with security for each of us, but that’s not the case is it?
The most stone-faced pin-striped lawyer is just as likely to get caught in a smoke-filled metro tunnel as anyone else. Plans thrown off, an important deal ruined as a result… Where did all his seriousness get him? All of us know stories of friends who worked, planned, struggled for a promotion only to lose it, perhaps even a whole career, for reasons completely outside their control. At the end of the day, such a person doesn’t even have happy memories to enjoy… only stories of struggle sadness and a tragic end. Looking at the state of affairs through eyes of faith, what might we discern?
If gravity doesn’t necessarily get us happiness maybe a little foolishness, or at least some light-heartedness will? Dont’ get me wrong, I’m not proposing anyone be foolhardy (which Thomas Aquinas defines as a vice)… this isn’t about ignoring real responsibilities in order to go on a round-the-world cruise… or going skydiving with a heart condition. That’s just stupid. But if we have a child-like trust in God our Father, our joys reman just as strong as ever while our stumbles don’t bruise us as they used to. In tomorrow’s post we’ll consider some saintly examples of this lesson, but for now, consider praying about your own happiness… how’s it going? Do you feel truly FREE to be happy in your life?
Tomorrow we’ll consider some examples of saints who discovered the wisdom of foolishness…
When we think of holiness we often think of great ascetics, men and women whose acts of self-denial may seem – at first blush – bizarre. In a city as comfortable as our DC, is daily holiness possible? Is great asceticism possible? The answer is “yes.” More surprising is what the living of daily asceticism can actually look like.
Catholics believe that everyone is called to holiness by the imitation of Christ in ways particular to each individual’s life. The common denominator in so infinitely complex a formula of holiness is self-gift for the sake of others. As Christ offers up his whole self to the Father on the Cross asking that we might be forgiven our sins, we too offer ourselves. That’s what asceticism (from the Greek askesis) means: to do a physical act in pursuit of a spiritual result. Here we discover the wide reach of personal holiness.
Sometimes we offer ourselves through very overt acts of self-denial… a woman pushes a child out of the way of an oncoming truck, or a soldier throwing himself on a grenade to save his unit for example. Other acts are more implicit: the man who silently gives up alcohol asking God to give graces to his family… Christ himself holds up fasting prayer and almsgiving as the three classical forms of self-gift in daily life. He also warns that we should be cheerful givers How does that work?? This is where love comes into the picture. When we love the other we’re serving, that’s when “denial” becomes “gift.” And what can be more joyous than giving someone a gift?!?!
Consider for a minute Shakespeare’s character Falstaff. An ale-swilling party animal, to be sure, but he loved everyone of his friends and offered himself to them completely…literally to the point of passing out! A little foolish? Sure. Falstaff lacked in discipline, but generations of readers have fallen in love with this amiable rogue because in his heart he was a giver. If we think of Falstaff as one extreme of self-gift, and say… Blessed Mother Theresa as the other (a woman of exceptional discipline and overt self-denial)… we see that there really is a huge range of holiness out there in which each of us can find our niche.
One saint, a saint of the city who was especially adept at helping others find their own joyous and beautiful asceticism is St. Philip Neri. I like to think of him as an “aesthetic ascetic.” Philip lived in sixteenth century Rome and preached a matrix of virtues. He loved city-folk; never leaving Rome after his arrival there. He taught that acts of obedience and perseverance in love yield joy… as joy consumes the soul it leads us to be truly free, which disposes us to contemplate God’s presence. Contemplating God’s presence is the definition of heaven… not a bad goal. Philip created an environment where this process could unfold and called it the Oratory. What does this have to do with Washington? Well, as it turns out an oratory is in formation at one of our downtown parishes, St. Thomas Apostle in Woodley Park. If you’re a denizen of DC and interested in seeking personal holiness, you might check it out and see how you’re being called to be a aesthetic ascetic for the 21st century.
An article caught my eye in this past Sunday’s Washington Post Magazine (WPM), “Layers: Tattoos Go Deeper Than You Might Think”. This new old form of body art is present in so many ways… in your face: another guy walks by at the gym with a full sleeve tattoo extending from an A-neck undershirt. Other times it’s more of a, “wait, did I just see what I thought I saw?” moment, as with the woman I passed in a restaurant recently, a butterfly delicately traced just below the hairline of her neck seemed to be her ever-present wink at the world. There’s the repressed tattoo-bearer: the man who, extending his arm to check his watch, shows some wild ink beneath an otherwise docile oxford shirt. Finally, there’s the less-frequent “all-consuming” tattoo wearer, so covered in symbols that the tattoo is actually known as a “full-body suit.”
It would seem that tattoos and the reasons behind them are as individual as the people who get them. Some common themes from the WPM’s interviews seem to be:
Conscious self-assertion, “Hey world, this is who I am.”
A reminder or augmentation of one’s beauty.
A personal reminder of one’s own biography, especially moments of suffering.
Spiritual statements about one’s origins, conflicts, and feelings about good and evil.
Tattoos as ongoing hobby, “I keep adding them and they eventually connect with each other.”
Tattoos as a statement of individuality or independence from the norm of society.
To be sure, I would NEVER get a tattoo and I don’t recommend them for others… I believe the teachings of Christ, handed down by the Church – succinctly: God made his creation and called it good… We are born beautiful not by virtue of our appearance but by our very being itself. If I were horribly disfigured by an accident, penniless and incapacitated, God my Father would still find me beautiful because he made me, he gave me being. My existence, whether comfortable or filled with suffering is capable of serving Him if I offer it to him… and in this I find my dignity… no need for additions.
All that said, the article above really moved me. The people interviewed struck on tremendously important human themes:
I don’t judge anyone who strives after such themes in peace and integrity of conscience. Such striving is beautiful… but rereading the article several times, I’m moved with pity more than anything. If I need to add something (i.e. a tattoo) to myself to achieve those human categories, isn’t that a sort of a crutch… which presupposes a disability? If I cannot be fulfilled apart from painting myself, is that a sort of self-slavery? Then again, where’s the line between one who wears tattoos and a woman putting on discreet shades of makeup before work? Is it a slippery slope from one to the other? These aren’t rhetorical questions, I’d be very interested to discover more about what the thought/emotional process is in those who elect to get tattoos. In the meantime, the Washington Post Magazine’s editors certainly chose an apt title, “Tattoos Go Deeper Than You Might Think”
I visited the museum for the first time a few days ago, and while my only goal was to take in the Mary exhibit, I was impressed by the museum as a whole. The facilities are beautiful, the location ideal and (and this is always important) the gift shop was up to snuff. The NMWA’s raison d’être is to educate people about the role played by women in the arts. As the founder of the museum, Wilhelmina Cole Holladay acknowledges in her Forward to the gallery book on the exhibit, Mary is of such importance to the western artistic understanding that “Picturing Mary” was conceived at the same time as the museum itself. How beautiful then to see both come to fruition this holiday season!
Three reflections… First on the exhibit itself, second what I personally gleaned from the exhibit, third a brief response to the one critique I’ve read about the exhibit:
Vast libraries have been created to house people’s reflections on Mary, and the art inspired by her. There’s just too many good things to say about Mary and this wonderful exhibit dedicated to her. Briefly then… The quality of the pieces displayed was superb. I found myself beaming throughout… my only sadness being that eventually most of these exquisite works will have to return to their European homes. I was also happily surprised to find that the explanations for each piece of art were generally accurate in presenting Mary as she has always been loved by the Church. Everyone, and I do mean EVERYONE should take an opportunity to see this exhibit.
For myself, just having celebrated Christmas and preparing for today’s feast, this exhibit really hit home. I have an intense relationship with Mary. I’ve studied her in the Gospels, prayed with her in our chapels, visited her great shrines… Despite all this I’m always discovering new deep realities about her and consequently about my own relationship with God. What did I take away from the NMWA exhibit? Mary loved Jesus. It might seem obvious… but look to each work and see the Blessed Mother holding a mystery in her hands. She loved him, contemplated him, protected him… She drew her very being, her reason for life from him, and then something happened. At a wedding in Cana they ran out of wine. Mary directed the stewards to her son, the as yet little-known Jesus. She pushed him out of the nest… she gave him to the world knowing full well that one day “a sword would pierce her heart,”… and so it did. Two or three years after that wedding miracle, Mary held in her arms the dead body of the son she once nursed at Bethlehem. “Picturing Mary” taught me in a new and deeper way than before that the only way to show you treasure someone beyond all price is to share that person with the world, for the sake of others, even if it means you will suffer. Mary embraced such suffering because it allowed Christ to come to the fullness of his glory, and that joy was worth it for her and for us. As a human being it’ll be good for me to consider what treasures I have that I need to be more generous about… or question whether I really treasure them. As a Christian and a priest, I know my greatest treasure is my relationship with Christ (just like Mary)… How am I doing at sharing him with the world? What would I be willing to sacrifice in order to share him that much more effectively? How can I more effectively “Picture Mary” and so imitate her. Visiting this exhibit was a great start.
Finally… Philip Kenicott of the Washington Post and Kriston Capps of City Lab are both fine writers and commentators on art, architecture and all things urban. I often enjoy reading their articles and tweets. Both have [separately] reviewed “Picturing Mary,” and I concur with much of what they’ve written. Their one critique raised by Mr. Kenicott is that exhibit doesn’t consider a modern (19th-21st century) secular feminist critique of traditional depictions of Mary. Perhaps it wasn’t so much a critique as a reasonable question, “Why doesn’t the exhibit address the secular feminist critique?” It’s a reasonable question, partially answered: the curators simply weren’t concerned with it. I suppose if someone else wants to mount an exhibit on secular feminist critiques of Mary they’re welcome to do so… “It’s a free country.” Given the proliferation of ably supported women’s studies programs in schools, universities, think tanks and other institutions, It’s hard for me to question let alone fault the NMWA for leaving that worthy discussion to others at this time.
Separately from these two reviews, questions about Mary and feminism often lead back to a deeper root question, “What’s with Catholicism and women?” It’s a question that the Church has addressed with exhaustive energy over the last several decades. St. John Paul II wrote beautifully about the dignity of women in his letter Mulieres Dignitatem (and many other places). The reflections of two of our greatest intellectuals, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and Hans Urs von Balthasar are expressed beautifully in “Mary the Church at the Source,” (Ignatius, 1997). More broadly speaking, the Church’s universal teaching about her equal esteem for men and women can be found in the “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church” (Chapter 3) assembled by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and published by the Libreria Editrice Vaticana in 2005. Certainly Pope Francis has spoken beautifully on the subject. All are great reads, easily available, that might help those left with questions after visiting “Picturing Mary.” My only personal contribution to the conversation would be point out that among human beings there are only two before whom I would happily prostrate myself… one is the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ… the other his his totally human, totally woman, totally awesome mother, Mary.
Investigating Where We Live: DC Now and Next (IWWL):
It would be hard to find more contrast between two exhibits than between yesterday’s “The Architectural Image” and the subject of today’s reflection, Investigating Where We Live. A well conceived and beautifully executed project, IWWL asked thirty teens from around DC to explore set sections of our city using their smartphones/social media to photograph, share, and ask others about what they think characterizes Washington today, and what might define the city in the future. The results were an optimistic, energetic assessment that I can only describe as “contagious.”
Whereas yesterday’s exhibit was all about the buildings, the creations, students in the IWWL program were much more focused on the dynamic realities of their city: it’s living breathing people, the services that aide those people, the cultures that express their personalities. Words that keep popping up include: culture, diversity, politics, neighborhoods, history, crowding. If the youth involved in this project are any indication, we can reasonably ask if a shift has occurred from a 20th century focus on technology, efficiency and structures, to a 21st century focus on persons, and their well-being.
Photography at the exhibit was encouraged… so I’ll let the students speak for themselves. Below are a series of photos by the exhibit students, as well as some of their reflections that struck me as most profound.