Thursday, March 10, 2011

Women's History Month - Week Two - Hildegard von Bingen

My reflections upon strong women in the Catholic tradition would be tragically hollow without addressing one of the strongest women of the middle ages: Hildegard von Bingen.

Hildegard rose to prominence at the age of 38, when she was elected prioress of the nuns at the abbey of Disibodenberg. Though not formally educated, she was a well read scholar, a gifted administrator, and a talented writer/composer of hymns and antiphons. In addition, she had numerous visions, from which she dictated three volumes of theology, Scivias (Know the Ways of the Lord), Liber vitae meritorum (Book of Life's Merits), and Liber divinorum operum (Book of Divine Works). Pope Eugenius III endorsed these books at the behest of Bernard of Clairveaux, and granted Hildegard permission to preach up and down the Rhine, an incredible anomaly for a woman of her time and times beyond.

Hildegard's immense inner strength was predicated on her notion of womanhood. She saw woman as complimentary to, rather than lesser than man, a view that would nevertheless be kept from taking hold in European minds by the resurgence of Aristotle shortly after Hildegard's death, but that now dominates much of Christian thought. Consonant with the scriptural notion that God exalts the weak, Hildegard turned conventional theological conceptions of women on their head in her thought by highlighting the lesser place of woman in the scientific, cultural, and theological thought of the day, which thereby would allow women to experience incredible spiritual growth and be raised up by God. She felt this very personally, as in her own bodily experience, she was often ill, and it was often in these times of illness that she would experience her visions.

Tempered with this conviction, Hildegard saw herself as chosen by God to prophesy and preach, and with her fervor and love for the Church, preached against immorality and heresy. With her phenomenal (though informal) education, she made herself a teacher to her sisters, educating women about the world, and about their rights as women.

Meditations on St. Hildegard for Women's History Month:

1) Hildegard emphasized that to be a woman was to have an unique experience of the spiritual, a kind of "blooming" of the soul available only to women. How have women like Hildegard and others illuminated our knowledge of the spiritual?

2) Hildegard had a deep (though not overly-sentimental) Marian piety, writing over a dozen hymns and antiphons to Mary. She praised Mary's roles as both virgin and mother, and her magnificent holiness. In looking to Christian women of the past, especially Mary, what kinds of strength are most often seen? Are there strengths there that may go unnoticed in popular devotions?

3) Hildegard was a lover of nature, cataloging plants and herbs, and using metaphors often dealing with the local flora in her writings. In an effort to cultivate a conscious love for the environment, after women naturalists such as Hildegard, go hiking or take a walk in nature, contemplating the marvels of our mother earth.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Lent 40X

Ivan Kramskoy. 1872. Christ in the Desert.

Ash Wednesday is just a few days away, and just as Israel was prepared for the Promised Land, just as Christ prepared for his ministry, so must Christians prepare for Easter, symbolically coming alongside both the ancient Hebrews, Christ himself, and all the Christians that have gone before us.

Sometimes, however, there is a tendency toward the wrong sort of minimalism... an idea that "what I can get by with" should be in some way sufficient when it comes to giving. In reality, Lent is about the opposite. When the Israelites were in the desert, they relied upon God to sustain them. When Jesus went into the desert, he was sustained by the Father and the Spirit. By comparison, our sacrifices seem almost pathetic.

This Lent, I urge you to go beyond chocolate, and make a real life change. I urge you not merely to "give something up" on only one level, but to really seek to prepare your heart and mind and body for the coming of our Lord and Savior. In doing this, of course, there will still be sacrifice and fasting, but beyond that, there will be a sincere effort to move closer to God and increase in holiness. At the risk of sounding corny, at least in my mind, I've been calling this idea P40x - Penance 40 Xtreme. (after the amazingly challenging workout regimen).

Here's the basic idea: Anything that you would regularly do for Lent, say, the minimal stuff - Giving something up, and not eating meat on Fridays and Ash Wednesday - that still applies. Beyond this, however, I've made a list of suggestions, categorized as Mind, Body, and Spirit. Pick one or more from the list and do them. If you fail one day, no sweat, start again. It's about becoming a holy and living sacrifice... any positive change is better than where we start. At Easter, maybe some of these good habits will stick, maybe you'll want to continue them, maybe some won't be things you want to make part of your everyday life; either way, the discipline involved in this season of penance will build strength of character.


Thomas Aquinas believed that if one were to perfect the Intellect, all the rest of the you would follow. In that regard, perhaps try:

1) Select challenging reading material. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Flannery O'Connor, Augustine of Hippo, Henri Nouwen, and Thomas Merton are all great choices for Lent. If you need an even greater challenge, read Pope Benedict XVI, or even Thomas Aquinas. You don't have to limit your choices to the work of Christians or even spiritual reading. All knowledge is a participation in the wisdom of God.

2)Write often. Whether it's a journal, a blog, a poem, a story, or an academic paper, foster intellectual growth by taking a pen in hand.

3)Seek to learn something new every day. This sounds easy, and in truth, it's something we generally do without thinking about it. The purpose of placing it here is the intentionality. Use Google, Wikipedia, the Library... investigate things you're curious about.

Our bodies are temples for the Holy Spirit - taking good care of them is necessary for a life of holiness. I've noticed over the years that I am more susceptible to temptations of all kinds when my body is not being well-maintained.

1) Drink 8 glasses of water a day. That's the recommended amount. You might be surprised about what else you don't drink when you drink water, and you'll feel better for it, too.

2)Start exercising. I'm a busy guy, I rarely have time to go to the gym, but there are still things that I could have time to do. Exercising will ward off plenty of problems that naturally arise from living a sedentary lifestyle, and will help your mind stay sharp.

3)Cut out fast/fried foods. All fats aren't bad for you, but this sort isn't doing anything for you aside from taking the place of something that would be much better for you instead. By cutting out fast food, you'll likely save money, calories, and be better nourished than otherwise.

4) Get some sleep. Lack of sleep makes people cranky, uncharitable, and less mindful of their actions. If your tendency is to skip sleep and try to catch up on the weekends, try to maintain a regular 6 to 9 hours, depending on your body's needs.

The obvious one. When we speak of preparing our hearts, we primarly speak of our spirit, that which we most often think of as the part of us that we turn toward God.

1)Give Alms. Alms are works of mercy, they do not have to be a financial gift, but giving money to charity or giving beyond a tithe (or merely beginning to tithe) are great things. Thomas Aquinas delineates almsdeeds as either spiritual or corporal, saying that the corporal are feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, harboring the homeless, visiting the sick, ransoming the captive, and burying the dead. The spiritual almsdeeds are praying for others, teaching, giving advice, offering consolation, offering correction, forgiving wrongdoing, and bearing with those who trouble or annoy us.

2)Pray Regularly. If you don't pray before meals, start. If you don't pray before bed, start. If you don't pray when you wake up, start. If you don't pray on your way to work, start. If you don't pray the Divine Office, try to pick this up on the hours in which you can. Constant prayer will make a huge difference in your spiritual life.

3)Go to church. If Catholic, attend daily mass. If non-Catholic, attend an additional service, if possible. True worship is never something that can be done too much.

4) Confess your sins. Regularly. One doesn't have to develop scrupulosity, but rather a good, solid, daily examination of conscience will reveal to you in what ways you may seek to improve. If you aren't Catholic, confess them to your pastor, or to your accountability partner... or hey, most Catholic priests are happy to hear confessions of non-Catholics as well, and won't go blabbing about your problems - they are specifically bound not to! I always feel a feeling of great relief after I go to confession, and the prescribed penances are always beneficial to my spiritual life.


So, there are a few days left to think about Lent. In these remaining days, contemplate what God is calling you to, think about what sort of sacrifices you can make, and what sort of manner in which you hope to prepare for the Passion of our Savior this year. Remember that all growth in holiness is a result of grace - you can't do it without the help of God - when things seem difficult, trust that God is with you. If you fail in your goals, you can try again. Lent is not a test or an exam, it is a time of preparation, a time of prayer, fasting, and penance.

May God bless you and make you holy.


Thursday, March 3, 2011

Women's History Month - Week One - Miryam

She has been called Full of Grace, Blessed among Women, the Mother of God, the Cause of our Salvation, the Advocate of Eve, the Ever-Virgin, the Immaculate Conception, the Queen of Heaven, the Star of the Sea, Our Lady, The Ark of the New Covenant, and the Seat of Wisdom. She is the perfect starting place to begin the contemplation of women's history during Women's History Month.

James Martin, SJ, wrote at Slate in 2009:

Though I believe in all these titles, such lofty theological images can obscure Mary's earthy humanity and distance her from us. And that's lamentable. The human Mary has a lot to teach Christians—actually, everyone: men and women, from the devout believer to the doubtful seeker to the disbelieving atheist.

Just look at her story as recounted in the Gospel of Luke. Even if you doubt that the narrative is told accurately, you have to admit that buried within this supposedly pious and saccharine Bible tale is the vivid image of a strong, resilient, and self-possessed woman.
Martin continues by highlighting the favoritism toward Mary as opposed to Zachariah - Mary's questioning is met with an answer (Luke 1:34-38), Zachariah's is met with a censure (Luke 1:18-20) - and whose direct communication with God will see an echo at the empty tomb, as the women are tasked to bring to the disciples the good news of the resurrection.

Perhaps it is her place as a woman in se that puts her in a special relationship with God. Perhaps it is her stature as a woman that places her among society's marginalized and oppressed, and her status as oppressed in se places her in a unique way in God's special care. Whatever the case, it is obvious that Mary counted herself among the lowly when she sang:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children for ever.
In her Magnificat, Mary praises a God who has lifted her up despite her lowly status, a God who has special compassion on the downtrodden. She is a picture of one whose wisdom and insight is present even in times of distress... a true human, whose anxieties and sorrows coexist with her faith and her sense of peace. Again, from James Martin:

Mary's final words in the New Testament come at Jesus' traditional first miracle, the Wedding Feast of Cana, as recounted in the Gospel of John. When she suggests that Jesus help the host who has run out of wine, Jesus turns to her and says sharply, "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?" Placidly, his mother turns to the host and says, "Do whatever he tells you." Perhaps she understood Jesus' ultimate ministry better than even he did at that moment.

That wouldn't be surprising. After all, Mary had more time to think about her son's destiny. Moreover, she had the benefit of years of hard-earned wisdom gained from living a fully human life.

In her fully human life, Mary is the icon of womanhood. She endured in faith a questionable pregnancy while betrothed to an older man, she struggled to be mother to a boy who was, divine nature aside, fully able to worry her, she likely watched proudly as he grew into a prophet and a rabbi, and she suffered as he was executed in a most heinous way. She became a central figure in the earliest days of the Church, and her unique feminine strength has exalted her in not only Christian tradition, but also Islam - the only chapter in the Qu'ran to be named for a woman is named for Mary. She is strong, resilient, insightful, wise, interceding, transforming, patient, concerned, and motherly.

Meditations on Mary for Women's History Month:

1) In a time of great worry (Luke 1:26-56), Mary turned not to Joseph, not to priests or authorities, but to other women and to God. What unique insights have women (in our lives, or otherwise) offered us in times of crisis?

2) Mary was the first human being to know the Good News of the Incarnation, and she new it intimately, being indwelt with God's person. The very flesh of the Incarnate Word was given to God by a woman. What unique wisdom have we gleaned in our relationships with women, both personally and as a society?

3) As Advocate of Eve, Mary is truly the advocate for all women. Her complete surrender to the Divine Other marks her as uniquely holy among the holy, uniquely chosen among the chosen, and from this surrender is birthed the salvation for all humanity, and the vindication of Eve. What unique and admirable traits have women (in our own lives, and throughout history) modeled for us? How have they transformed our world?

*Clicking this link will take you to a free download of "The Canticle of the Turning," arranged and performed by Michael Iafrate.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A long time coming...

Wow! Has it really been so long? Being that my most of my readership knows me in person, perhaps it doesn't seem so, but as midterms approached, and thereafter finals, I have not had time to update until now.

Dear friends, my fall semester has finished and I am enjoying a small and greatly appreciated break before I embark upon what will be my third semester in my master's program. My past semester's research topics were the feminine person in the work of Hildegard von Bingen, liturgical inculturation, and psalms of lament and cursing, and while these were interesting, I must say that the knowledge I gained in regard to these topics pales in comparison to what I have gained through listening to the lectures of Eleonore Stump, reading Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain, talking with the Dominican student-brothers of the Central and Southern provinces, and preparing for my wedding alongside my fiancée. In these things I have been convicted of my own place as a pilgrim, and all the roles that are demanded of me: companion, preacher, seeker, student, and all the rest which call to compassion, contemplation, discipleship, love, and virtue. These themes, above all others, have I been convicted of.

This pilgrimage is far from easy, however. I feel like a small child, or even a small animal (a raccoon comes to mind), distracted by the newest shiny thing, even when I know something of surpassing brilliance is on the horizon. How I long to abide with that most shiny of shiny things! Yet, am I am constantly distracted by something much less brilliant, much less fulfilling, just a little off the path. As I struggle against my own sinfulness, I am astounded by the immense mercy of God, who is compassionate to his easily distracted child.

It is in this vein that I ask for help:

St. Jacob the Greater, Patron of Pilgrims, pray for me...
St. Thomas, Patron of Students, pray for me...
St. Gabriel the Archangel, God's messenger, pray for me...
Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, pray for me...

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Pope Benedict XVI catechizes on the Role of Women (a series):

This is the first in a series in which I will repost, for easy access, the Pope's addresses in this catechetical series.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How do you Adore?

"O inestimable charity! Even as You, true God and true Man, gave Yourself entirely to us, so also You left Yourself entirely for us, to be our food, so that during our earthly pilgrimage we would not faint with weariness, but would be strengthened by You, our celestial Bread. O man, what has your God left you? He has left you Himself, wholly God and wholly Man, concealed under the whiteness of bread. O fire of love! Was it not enough for You to have created us to Your image and likeness, and to have recreated us in grace through the Blood of Your Son, without giving Yourself wholly to us as our Food, O God, Divine Essence? What impelled You to do this? Your charity alone. It was not enough for You to send Your Word to us for our redemption; neither were You content to give Him us as our Food, but in the excess of Your love for Your creature, You gave to man the whole divine essence..." - St. Catherine of Siena

I was priveleged, this evening, to spend an hour with both my fiancée and Christ, in Eucharistic adoration. Her parish has a perpetual adoration chapel, and so there was no separate liturgy for the adoration... we were left alone with Christ and whatever means of prayer we might muster.

Adoration is a new practice for me, having grown up Protestant, and I found that I desired to stay very close to the theme of "adoration" in my prayers and mindset. This was difficult to do for an hour. I prayed the liturgy of adoration to myself, but found myself mostly silently singing songs of praise - every Eucharistic hymn in my book of Christian Prayer, and then every chorus of adoration I could think of - and that seemed to satisfy my conscious desire to devote this time to "adoration."

I'm incredibly new to this form of worship and spiritual devotion, so I'm asking the handful of you that might read this... how do you adore our Lord?

Recommended Listening: Christopher Tin - Baba Yetu

Oldie but a goodie - this is the Lord's Prayer in Swahili:

It's the menu music for the game Civilization IV, which explains the video.