Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Relics and Affirming the Body (Part I)

St Catherine's Monastery, Sinai Peninsula
The first relic I ever saw was at St Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai peninsula.  As an undergraduate student I was part of a class trip to Israel and Egypt to study early Christianity, and one of the highlights was a two day trip to the foot of Mt Sinai where the oldest continuously inhabited Christian monastery in the world sits.  Monks have been living at St. Catherine's since the fourth century; the walls surrounding the monastery and many of the buildings, including the Church of the Transfiguration, date from the sixth century.

One of the monks, an American from Boston, gave us a tour of the monastery; my professor-had-a-professor-who-knew-the-abbot, and somehow this garnered us special treatment.  He showed us the priceless collection of icons, the sixth-century mosaic of the Transfiguration covering the apse of the church, and the famous library where Codex Sinaiticus - an important fourth-century manuscript of the entire New Testament - was found, and promptly stolen in the nineteenth-century.

But it was the charnal house at St Catherine’s that fascinated me most.  A small building outside the walls of the monastery, the charnal house contains the bones of deceased monks (it is apparently difficult to bury the dead permanently in the sand of the Sinai desert; easier instead to bury them shallowly and exhume the bones later).  Skulls are piled neatly along one wall behind a chain-link enclosure, arm bones in another area, leg bones in another, etc.

St Stephanos the Hermit - St Catharine's Monastery
And sitting directly in front of one of the enclosures is St Stephanos the Hermit, a sixth-century monk mentioned by St John Climacus in The Ladder of Divine Ascent.

I had no exposure to relics before this, raised as I was in an Evangelical Protestant home.  When I took this trip to St Catherine’s at the age of 22, I still self-identified as an Evangelical Christian, but was really only hanging to the tradition by a thread.  I was well on my way to becoming a member of the Anglican Church of Canada, and for reasons I’ve described elsewhere on this blog, would eventually become a Roman Catholic.  So I knew about relics, but had never actually seen one.  And here was St Stephanos right in front of me, his corpse dressed in priestly vestments.

Sts Magnus & Bonosa at St Martin of Tours' parish
My ongoing fascination with relics started that day.  Since that time I've seen an assortment of relics - everything from (soon to be St) John XXIII's body in a glass casket at St. Peter's in Rome, to St.
Andre of Montreal's heart, to a finger from an Orthodox saint whose name I've forgotten, to the small fragments of cloth or bone that are to be found in the little reliquaries all over the Catholic world. Here in Louisville, St. Martin of Tours' Catholic Church has the skeletal remains of two third-century saints who are displayed in glass under side altars (the story of how these relics came to reside in Louisville is a fascinating one; this video provides some of the details).

Merton's collection of relics in the Merton Center
Even more interesting to me was something I learned only very recently about Thomas Merton.  Over beers at one of the Abbey of Gethsemani's hermitages, Br. Paul Quenon - who was a novice under Merton - told me that Merton was himself a "relic man" who had a collection of relics he acquired over the years from various people.  Turns out that Merton carried these relics with him on his final trip to his shaving bag.  (On a side note, the Merton Center here at Bellarmine University has these relics. Someone at the Abbey put them in a lovely wooden case before it was donated to the Center. One of my projects in the next year is to write an article about Merton's collection and to delve more deeply into why he appeared to value relics so much).

I often ask my undergraduate students to submit questions they would like to have addressed at some point during the semester, and one of the most common questions has to do with why Roman Catholics feel the need to keep relics.  Most of my students find the idea of relics a bit creepy.  Why, they ask, would anyone want to see the earthly remains of someone, let alone venerate those remains in some way?

It seems to me that the theology of relics has a great deal to do with affirming the worth and beauty of the human body, something Catholicism is not generally thought to do very well.  I'll write more about this in another post.

Photo of St Stephanos is from
Photo of Sts Magnus & Bonosa from
Photo of Merton's collection of relics by Paul Pearson, director of the Merton Center

Friday, March 14, 2014

Deepening Post-Vatican II Division & Learning to Live with One Another

There was a great deal of noise surrounding the anniversary of Pope Francis' election this week, but one article stood out to me.  Paul Baumann, editor at Commonweal, wrote a really excellent analysis that focused less on Pope Francis himself and more on the problem of papal infatuation.  The article is called "The Public Pope: Why the Intense Fascination Paid to Pope Francis - or any pope - Isn't Good for the Catholic Church".

Baumann makes the important argument that obsession with the pope draws us as Catholics away from the internal conversations we need to be having about that which divides us.  While the pope is the icon of unity, he is not a magician who can simply "alter the course of secular history or bridge the church’s deepening ideological divisions simply by asserting what in truth are the papacy’s rather anemic powers."  The vibrancy and unity of the church is not something that can be imposed from the top down.

Bishops at the Second Vatican Council
Baumann notes that the Second Vatican Council, despite all that it accomplished positively, also left a legacy of confusion and conflict.  The divisions have become more, not less, entrenched over time, and infatuation with Pope Francis does nothing to ease our internal conflicts.  "The church desperately needs to reclaim its cultural and spiritual equilibrium," Baumann writes, "it must find a density and richness of worship and mission and a renewed public presence, which far transcend mere loyalty to the pope."

Baumann argues that, instead of looking to the pope to solve our problems, we in the church need seriously to engage one another in such a way that we actually learn to live with one another despite our differences on such hot-button issues as "artificial birth control; homosexuality and same-sex marriage; divorce; the exclusively male, celibate priesthood; the possibility of electing bishops; the role of the laity, especially women, in church decision-making; the relationship between popes and bishops; religious pluralism; and clergy sexual abuse and the unaccountability of the hierarchy."

And we learn to engage with and live with one another, Baumann suggests, by practicing our faith with one another.  Instead of viewing our ideological opponents as 'other,' we need to understand them as fellow Christians whose ideas we may not understand but from whom we may actually learn.  Baumann's final paragraph beautifully expresses this point: 
Lex orandi, lex credendi is one of the church’s most venerable teachings. Roughly translated, it means that the church’s worship determines its theology, or as the catechism puts it: “The law of prayer is the law of faith: The Church believes as she prays.” Whatever their ideological disagreements, Catholics will find unity, and a less anachronistic relationship with the papacy, in practicing their faith together—or they will not find unity at all. That may mean that the same-sex couple in the pew next to you will provide a more faithful example of Christian witness than you might now imagine possible. Or perhaps the ardent piety of a Latin Mass enthusiast will lead you to reconsider parts of the church’s tradition you have long dismissed as irrelevant and sterile. In any event, the church’s unity and renewed vitality will be—must be—a gift that the faithful bring to the pope, and not the other way around.
Used with permission of The Merton Legacy Trust.
Baumann's article reminds me of something Thomas Merton wrote (yes, forgive me for referencing Merton yet again on the pages of this blog) in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.  Here, he correctly predicted that division was going to be the fallout of Vatican II:
"Along with the great work of the Council, there has been a concrete and very disturbing fact - that of the hardening division between progressives and conservatives...[O]ne of the great problems after this Council is certainly going to be the division between progressives and conservatives, and this may prove to be rather ugly in some cases, though it may be also a fruitful source of sacrifice for those who are determined to seek the will of God and not their own" (315).
Merton then proceeds to castigate both conservatives and progressives for their intransigence and their unwillingness to have their engagement with the other marked by charity.  He admittedly comes down hardest on the extreme conservatives, as is perhaps unsurprising, but his criticism of progressives is scathing and worthy of attention.  His words are worth quoting at length:
"The extreme conservatives seem to me to be people who feel themselves so menaced that they will go to any length in order to defend their own fanatical concept of the Church.  This concept seems to me to be not only static and inert, but in complete continuity with what is most questionable and indeed scandalous in the history of the Church: Inquisition, persecution, intolerance, Papal power, clerical influence, alliance with worldly power, love of wealth and pomp, etc.  This is a picture of the Church which has become a scandal and these people are intent on preserving the scandal at the cost of greater scandal.
...They are so convinced that they are the Church that they are almost ready to declare the majority of bishops to be virtual apostates, rather than obey the Council and the Pope.  At the same time, of course, their hysteria suggests that they are having a little trouble handling the guilty which this inevitably arouses in them.
On the other hand, the refusal of the extreme progressives to pay any attention to any traditional teaching which would give them a common basis for rational discussion with conservatives is surely scandalous also - especially when it is allied with an arrogant triumphalism of its own, and when it simply ridicules all opposition.  This is not only foolish, but seems to show a serious lack of that love to which they frequently appeal is justification of their procedures.  Though they are continually shouting about "openness" one finds them hermetically closed to their fellow Catholics and to the Church's own past, and there is some validity to the conservative accusation that these extreme progressives often are more open to Marxism, to positivism, or to existentialism than they are to what is generally recognizable as Catholic truth.
It has been remarked with truth that conservatives and progressives in the Church are so concerned with total victory over each other that they are more and more closed to each other.  If this is the case, one seriously wonders about the value and significance of the much touted "openness" to non-Catholics.  An ecumenism that does not begin with charity within one's own Church remains questionable" (316-317).
Photo of bishops at Vatican II is from Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

"White Smoke! White Smoke!"

My office on March 13, 2013
It was hard to work.  On my computer screen was a live video feed of a chimney, and I kept glancing up from my book looking for smoke.  For no reason at all I felt like we'd see a pope elected in the afternoon, though no one else I knew thought the same.  One of my former undergraduate students, Benjamin Siegel, was on spring break from law school and was in the Bellarmine University library studying.  I sent him a text at around 1:30 suggesting that he might want to pop by my office soon to watch for smoke together.  Two of my M.A. in Spirituality students, Carrie Meyer McGrath and Adam Quine (side note: take a look at their blogs), let me know that they were also on their way, though Carrie didn't think a pope would be elected today.

Benjamin and I watched the chimney and chatted; at 2:06 the first whiffs of smoke appeared.  The smoke looked black at first, but after a second or two white smoke started to billow out of the chimney.  I quickly sent a message to Carrie and Adam - "White smoke! White smoke!"  Carrie arrived quickly, and Adam came a few minutes after, breathless; the news of white smoke led him to race to campus, park his truck, slide Dukes-of-Hazzard-style across the hood, and run to my office.

Chills still go down my spine when I watch the video and hear the crowd react to the smoke and to the tolling of St. Peter's bells (0:45 and 2:05 of the video below).  There seems to me something very catholic about this event, and I mean this word in the broad sense to mean unifying and universal.  The crowd in St. Peter's Square was culturally diverse as well as theologically diverse, and those of all religious and cultural stripes watched the election from around the world.  In my office were three Roman Catholics and a Presbyterian seminarian.  At this moment I felt that we were all of us unified in anticipation and excitement as we awaited the announcement of the new bishop of Rome who would, regardless of our theological viewpoints, have an impact on our lives.

Along with most of the world, I had little idea who Cardinal Bergolio was.  When Pope Francis came onto the balcony of St. Peter's (1:16:00 of the video) and simply...stood there, he looked awkward to me and I briefly wondered what the church was getting herself into.  Then he spoke:

Brothers and sisters, good evening!
You know that it was the duty of the Conclave to give Rome a Bishop.  It seems that my brother Cardinals have gone to the ends of the earth to get one... but here we are... I thank you for your welcome.  The diocesan community of Rome now has its Bishop.  Thank you!  And first of all, I would like to offer a prayer for our Bishop Emeritus, Benedict XVI. Let us pray together for him, that the Lord may bless him and that Our Lady may keep him. 
Our Father...
Hail Mary...
Glory Be...
And now, we take up this journey:  Bishop and People.  This journey of the Church of Rome which presides in charity over all the Churches.  A journey of fraternity, of love, of trust among us.  Let us always pray for one another.  Let us pray for the whole world, that there may be a great spirit of fraternity.  It is my hope for you that this journey of the Church, which we start today, and in which my Cardinal Vicar, here present, will assist me, will be fruitful for the evangelization of this most beautiful city. 
And now I would like to give the blessing, but first - first I ask a favour of you: before the Bishop blesses his people, I ask you to pray to the Lord that he will bless me: the prayer of the people asking the blessing for their Bishop.  Let us make, in silence, this prayer:  your prayer over me. 
Now I will give the Blessing to you and to the whole world, to all men and women of good will.
Brothers and sisters, I leave you now.  Thank you for your welcome.  Pray for me and until we meet again.  We will see each other soon.  Tomorrow I wish to go and pray to Our Lady, that she may watch over all of Rome.  Good night and sleep well!

One year later, not all in the church are thrilled with Pope Francis' leadership.  Some are troubled by his popularity, fearful that it sheds a negative light on Francis' predecessor.  I frequently defended Pope Benedict XVI from criticisms I considered unfair, particularly those that stemmed from the misplaced notion that Benedict was an arch-conservative bent on taking the church back to the middle-ages.  Pope emeritus Benedict XVI was and is a tremendous theologian, far more complicated and nuanced of a thinker than his critics gave him credit for, and one of the most intelligent men ever to be bishop of Rome.  But Pope Francis is pastoral in a way Benedict never was, and this, I think, is what the church desperately needs right now.


Translation of Pope Francis' Urbi et Orbi speech is from the Vatican website.
The photo above was taken by Adam Quine.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Pope Francis' Theological Approach

An English translation of Pope Francis' interview with Corriere Della Sera came out yesterday.  It's worth reading, but if you're looking for a good, short synopsis, check out John Thavis.

As a theologian, I found the most interesting part of the interview to be the question about Cardinal Kasper's address on the church's teaching on marriage and the family at the last consistory and the cardinals' reaction to it:

Why did Cardinal Walter Kasper’s report in the last Consistory (an abyss between the doctrine on marriage and the family and the real life of many Christians) generate so much division among the Cardinals? Do you think that the Church will be able to go through these two years of toilsome journey to come to a broad and serene consensus?

Holy Father: Cardinal Kasper made a beautiful and profound presentation, which will soon be published in German, in which he addresses five points, the fifth of which is that of second marriages. I would have been more worried if there hadn’t been an intense discussion in the Consistory, because it would have been useless. The Cardinals knew that they could say what they wanted, and they presented different points of view, which are always enriching. Open and fraternal debate makes theological and pastoral thought grow. That doesn’t frighten me. What’s more, I look for it. (emphasis mine)
I'm taken with the last three sentences - "Open and fraternal debate makes theological and pastoral thought grow. That doesn’t frighten me. What’s more, I look for it."  There are some within the church who are very uncomfortable with allowing an atmosphere of open dialogue and debate, wanting instead a church that clearly and decisively mandates what is true and right. Pope Francis makes it clear here that he prefers a "messy church" in which ideas and perspectives are exchanged publicly (I'm quoting here Fr. Michael Rogers, SJ, someone I follow on Twitter who works at the Vatican).  This is a theological approach that I find very encouraging, and shows how Pope Francis envisions collegial church governance to operate concretely.

Image from the National Catholic Register

Monday, March 3, 2014

"Remember You are Dust": Lenten Lessons from a Monastic Funeral

Warning: At the very end of this post is a graveside photograph that some may find disturbing.

It was a surprise to enter the Abbey's church and see a body lying on the floor.  The body of the monk was lying, in fact, on a bier.  He was dressed in a pure white cowl, and his face bore no signs of having been made up by a mortician.  Br. Harold did not look like he was sleeping; no one could say, "He looks so peaceful, almost like he's sleeping".  No, he looked like what he was - dead.

But Br. Harold was not alone.  Two monks sat at his head and solemnly prayed the psalms, psalms that Br. Harold knew so well from decades of praying the divine offices.  The monks of the community took turns praying the psalms with Br. Harold one last time, and would do so right up to the moment of his funeral mass.

When the time came for his funeral, Br. Harold was carried closer to the altar and placed directly in front of it.  There was no casket, and Br. Harold's face was not covered; he simply laid there, participating in the Eucharistic feast with his community.

Fr. Louis Merton & Dom James Fox
At the conclusion of the mass, his bier was lifted once again and transported to the Abbey cemetery, located immediately outside the church.  Here is buried Thomas Merton - known in the community as Fr. Louis - and beside him is buried Dom James Fox, the abbot with whom Merton had a very complicated relationship.  Here are buried monks from over 160 years of monastic life at the Abbey, each of whom had distinctive personalities and gifts, each of whom played some part in the life of the community, a life that can be messy and difficult while simultaneously beautiful.  Dozens of white crosses bearing the names and death-dates of deceased brothers surround the church.

We processed with the bier outside where a new grave had been dug.  In addition to the monks, there were in attendance members of Br. Harold's family as well as those from the surrounding area who knew Br. Harold well.  I didn't know Br. Harold; he was already in the infirmary with Alzheimer's by the time I moved to Kentucky.  I understand that I missed out on knowing a beautiful and simple man who experienced God deeply, particuarly when looking at a flower in bloom.

To allow as many of Br. Harold's brother-monks, as well as his family and friends, to be near the graveside, I found a spot near the church that stood above the graveside where I was able to look directly into the grave itself.  Cistercians dig their graves very deep - 11 feet - and they bury their dead without caskets.  From my perch I could see that a pillow had been placed in the grave, on which had been placed a flower.  There was also a ladder leading into the grave.

After the graveside prayers, one of the monks descended the ladder while others lifted Br. Harold from the bier.  The sheet on which he had been placed had six long strings attached by which he would be lowered into his place of rest.  The monk on the ladder was there to help too.  As his brothers lowered Br. Harold down, the monk in the grave gingerly held Br. Harold's head.  There was love in the way he did this.  I was reminded of the care my wife and I took when we would try gingerly to place a sleeping infant into his crib, doing all we could to make sure that his sleep wasn't disturbed.  When Br. Harold reached the bottom of the grave, I could see his brother-monk almost tuck him in for his rest.  He carefully laid Harold's head on the pillow, placed a white shroud over Harold's face, and then ascended out of the grave, lifting the ladder out of it once he came to the top.

From my vantage point I could see Br. Harold at the bottom of the grave, lying there.  I then saw the dirt get shoveled down upon him.  It was, truth be told, disconcerting to see a human body - not a body in a casket, but simply a body - get covered in dirt.  But never before had the words said on Ash Wednesday - "Remember you are dust" - been as real to me as they were at that moment.

More importantly, never had I experienced death as something beautiful before this funeral.  It is true that I did not know Br. Harold, and so his death was not a personal loss for me.  But what I witnessed at this Cistercian funeral was the care and love of a community for one of their brothers, a care that extended to the depths of a grave.  Br. Paul Quenon's beautiful photograph of Br. Harold being lowered into the grave is a picture of communal love (I've pasted the photograph at the bottom of this post, with Br. Paul's permission).

On Ash Wednesday we will be reminded once again of our mortality; some of us need this reminder more than others.  But there is something about my experience at Br. Harold's funeral that leads me to contemplate my mortality, not as something to be feared, but as an invitation to give more completely of myself to those in my community - to my wife, to my sons, to my students and colleagues, to those in my parish, and to those in my neighbourhood and city.  Br. Harold lived out an ascetic life of prayer and devotion in the context of a community, staking his own existence to the existences of others.  And in his illness and in his death, the community cared deeply for him.  To be reminded of our mortality is to confront our own weakness, and so to come face to face with the reality of how deeply we truly need one another.

Photo by Br. Paul Quenon, O.C.S.O