Of Highlander, Pig Brains, and Easter: St. Beuno of Wales

21 Apr

Remember Highlander (1986)? It’s about a race of immortals who rattle around the centuries trying to wipe each other out. “In the end,” declaims one of them (played by the immortal Sean Connery), “there can be only one.” Plus there’s this: The only way to kill one of these guys is to lop off his head. And when I say lop, I mean lop – with a three-foot broadsword that looks like it weighs more than my Camry.

It’s a fun movie – really! – but don’t take my word for it. “People hate Highlander because it’s cheesy, bombastic, and absurd,” acknowledges the micro-review on Rotten Tomatoes. “And people love it for the same reasons.” Actually, I loved it as a teen because, well, it was about a bunch of tough hombres chasing each other around the world. Forever. With Medieval swords. What’s not to love?

And now, good news! On the off chance the Highlander species of perpetual peripatetics might actually exist, there’s late word that not even decapitation need hold them back. It seems that researchers at Yale obtained a bunch of pig heads from a slaughterhouse and perfused their brains with a special hemoglobin-rich fluid. The result? Detectable brain activity, even hours after the heads had been severed from their respective bodies.

Now, true, it wasn’t the kind of activity that you’d associate with cognition or awareness, but it was still actual, measurable cellular commotion in grey matter long deemed defunct – or at least theoretically defunct. I mean, what else could it be after an extensive detachment, in both time and space, from any blood-pumping heart or other vital organs? “Assuming always that this work is replicated,” commented Hank Greely of the International Neuroethics Society, “I think it’s going to force us to think harder about how we declare somebody dead or not.”

Right – mortals and immortals alike.

Anyway, it’s funny that the pig brain story was hitting my newsfeed just as Holy Week was getting underway because Easter this year happens to coincide with saint’s day that has beheading and resuscitation overtones. Today is the feast of St. Beuno, a holy monk who is said to have evangelized much of northern Wales in the 7th century. A benefactor set Beuno up with a tract of land in Gwynedd where the saint founded a monastic community, and where he served as abbot until his death on April 21, 640. The monastery is gone now, but the chapel where he was buried remains intact.

The story goes that Beuno’s own niece, St. Winifred, was intent on a life of religion herself in imitation of her pious kinsman. Yet, the comely Winifred had attracted the attention of Prince Caradog, an ardent suitor. When she rebuffed him, the prince flew into a violent rage, cut off her head, and fled. The spot where Winifred’s head landed came alive with a gushing spring – the famed Holywell which became known for its healing properties and which acquired a reputation as the “Lourdes of Wales.”

End of story? Hardly. Like the Yale researchers, Beuno was not to be outdone by a mere beheading. When the Abbot heard of his niece’s demise, he interrupted the Mass he’d been celebrating, hurried to put Winifred back together, top to bottom, and then resumed the liturgy, offering impassioned prayers for the young woman’s healing. Sure enough, Winifred revived, “as if awakening from a deep slumber,” according to the legend, and she “rose up with no sign of the severance of the head except a thin white circle round her neck.”

Ah, a thin white circle around her neck – a scar, as it were, after a miraculous healing. Couldn’t God have accomplished that healing through Beuno’s prayers without leaving a scar? Of course, but he didn’t. No doubt, Winifred was conscious of that scar the rest of her life, and it just may have played a part in her becoming the great saint that she did – someone remembered for having “lived in almost perpetual ecstasy and to have had familiar converse with God.” Maybe every time she felt it – every time she saw it when she was gazing into the waters of Holywell – she was prompted to new heights of gratitude and surrender to the Lord.

And that’s what lends a certain verisimilitude to Winifred’s tale despite its preposterous premise, for God has a tendency to leave scars behind for our own good.

Today we’re all celebrating the Resurrection, but next Sunday, we’ll hear St. Thomas cast doubt on the Easter outrage: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

The Lord was happy to oblige: “Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.’”

This Easter season, consider getting reacquainted with your own lingering scars that the Lord has seen fit to leave with you – he must’ve had a reason. And then, in the spirit of St. Winifred, perhaps use them as launching pads for ever grander gestures of fidelity and love. May every scar we retain and associate with our resurrections lead us to say with St. Thomas – through our words and our deeds – “My Lord and my God!”
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Why Confession is Always Worth It

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~ St. Jerome

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Glorious Exposure

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“All those who love must be known sooner or later as they are, without pretense, their souls stripped bare.”
~ Caryll Houselander

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Depressed and Desperate

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“Many people…find it hard to analyse, and even more difficult to express in words, what appears to be destroying them from inside.”
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King St. Brychan of Wales (5th century)

6 Apr

“St. Brychan. King of Wales, undocumented but popular saint. Brychan is credited with having twenty-four children, all saints” (Catholic Online).

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Our Stairwell Gallery: A Familial Experiment in Art Appreciation

31 Mar

“It is beauty, like truth, which brings joy to the heart of man and…which unites generations and makes them share things in admiration.”
~
Pope St. Paul VI

“I’ve been meaning to tell you,” said my wife, Nancy. “That new picture you got from the library? You hung it upside down.”

She was referring to “Goldfinch and Cherry Tree” (c. 1834) by Hokusai Katsushika. It’s the latest installment in our household gallery which features a solitary work of art, intermittently alternated, at the bottom of our main staircase. Our source is the main branch of the superb St. Joseph County Public Library, which has an extensive collection of framed prints that patrons can check out for a few weeks at a time.

I remember when I first made use of this unusual service after hearing about it from friends. I was outside the downtown branch’s children’s area on the third floor when I spied a framed print propped up on a tripod. It was something recognizable – maybe the “Mona Lisa” or something famous like that. “Can I really check this out on my card?” I asked a passing librarian.

“Sure,” she replied with a shrug. “And there’s more in that hallway around the corner.”

Indeed there was. Scores of framed prints of various sizes and shapes. Paintings, photos, drawings, and even retro promotional posters. The Becker Rotating Stairwell Gallery was born, and I’m told by the librarians that many in the community regularly swap out selections like we do. And since the checked-out items, like books, can be renewed twice, that means that there’s a steady flow of local domestic curators returning to the library every couple months to select something new to exhibit.

By default, I’ve become the curator of our own rotating display. I’ll turn in the previous selection at the circulation desk, and then head upstairs to browse the available collection. Sometimes I’ll search for a specific print, especially if someone at home made a request, but usually I’ll just go with my gut and choose something that catches my fancy at the moment. A big, bright Georgia O’Keefe flower is ideal in the middle of winter, for example, but something languid and light seems more fitting as the weather warms – like “The Siesta” (1890) by Van Gogh, one of Nancy’s favorites.

And that’s one of the joys of this routine now that we’ve been doing it for so many years. Some of the repeat picks have become familiar to us all, and we even have certain ones that stand out in our memories. Based on an informal survey of the fam and my own (albeit biased) impressions, here’s a few that rise to the top of the list.

  1. Andrew Wyeth, “Christina’s World” (1948): My daughter, Joan, herself a serious artist, particularly recalls that “we once had a copy of ‘Christina’s World,’ which I really liked.” Me, too. To view this poignant scene through Wyeth’s eyes is to be simultaneously unsettled and comforted. The lush, illuminated landscape is peaceful; the farmhouse, barn, and outbuildings on the horizon, reassuring. Yet, the young girl in the foreground appears to be lacking composure as she begins to crawl, leaning toward her home and yearning for shelter and solace. The fact that the painting’s subject, Anna Christina Olson, was in fact crippled from a childhood illness offers some insight into the painting’s allurement, but its power to conjure wistful reflection extends well beyond its historic origins.
  2. Andy Warhol, “Campbell’s Soup I: Tomato 46” (1968): If there’s one print that’s come to represent the spirit of our revolving collection, it’s this pop classic. “That one is clearly the family favorite,” writes my daughter, Meg, although my wife would demur – strongly. Even so, Nancy demonstrates a tremendous generosity of spirit in quietly enduring the soup can’s appearance in our stairwell about once a year. Personally, I think “Tomato 46” is hilarious, and it certainly challenges assumptions about what art can and should be – which was part of what Warhol was getting at. Plus, it prompts me to contemplate this thoroughly modern artist’s unusual interior topography, for he was a Mass-going Eastern-rite Catholic who respectfully, perhaps conscientiously, avoided the sacraments. “Warhol was bonding with a God and a Christ above and beyond the church,” said a priest who knew him, and we can hope that this visionary seeker made his peace with God before his death in 1987.
  3. M.C. Escher, “High and Low” (also known as “Up and Down,” 1947): This lithograph, like so many works by Escher, is abrupt and intellectually demanding. It’s also another consensus favorite in my family, and I think its occasional placement at the bottom of our staircase offers a subtle ironic counterpoint to the routine clambering of our daily lives. You have to pause when you see it, slow down and ponder its interlocking, yet conflicting perspectives, or else ignore it and pass it by. Its beauty is in its complexity, and while it is narrowly vertical, it nonetheless prompts the viewer to expand his mental horizons. Like the work’s two pairs of figures gazing at each other amid the convoluted angles, we’re invited to broaden our outlooks while attending to what’s right in front of us.

And that brings me back to Katsushika’s “Goldfinch” and Nancy’s admonition about its topsy-turvy placement. “That’s what Katharine said when I put it up,” was my reply. “But the hanging wire is positioned that way, and, besides, it looks even weirder the other way around.”

Kath chimed in. “Yeah, it’s not right,” she said, adding, “I don’t like this one.”

And yet, there it hangs in our stairwell – and it’ll stay there for another, oh, six weeks or thereabouts, despite Kath’s disapproval. When I snagged it off the wall at the library, I saw the graceful ascent of the cherry blossoms contrasted against the deep blue background – nice. Frankly, the finch escaped my notice at the time, but his awkward pose makes the painting all the more appealing to me now.

For, as curator (and dad), I’m not simply interested in adorning our stairwell with pretty pictures. I’m especially inclined to host images that rattle and rouse, confound and console. I think that’s what Pope St. John Paul II was driving at when he wrote about the “art of education” in his 1999 Letter to Artists (§4). He explained that “genuine artistic intuition goes beyond what the senses perceive and, reaching beneath reality’s surface, strives to interpret its hidden mystery” (§6). Thus, the Katsushika print is beautiful, but not only beautiful. The upturned bird catches our attention and imagination: Is the artist telling us something about himself? His community or society? The world?

Moreover, how can Katsushika’s vision inform our own? As St. John Paul notes, we might not all be artists, but all of us are called to make of our lives “a work of art, a masterpiece” (§2). For now, Katsushika is a resident mentor in that regard, and we can dwell for a time with his artistic expression. Who knows? Maybe “Goldfinch” will have even grown on Kath by the time it’s returned to the library. Even if it doesn’t, she, like the rest of us, will have benefited from the encounter.
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Saturday Mornings and the Discipline of Daily Mass

24 Mar

“It is necessary, above all in the beginning of our spiritual life, to do certain things at fixed times.”
~
Thomas Merton, OCSO

One of the challenges of getting to daily Mass is the illusion it creates of superior personal piety. Those of us who’ve adopted the practice, though, are under no such illusions. We don’t go to daily Mass because we’re holy; we go to daily Mass because we know we’re not.

Saturday mornings, for me at least, readily demonstrate this reality.

For decades now, I’ve done my best to work daily Mass into my schedule. It was one of the first lessons I learned from Jim, my sponsor, in the months leading up to my reception into the Church. Retired now, Jim served as a public high school teacher in Chicago for many years, which was exacting, exhausting work. He also ran an Uptown soup kitchen twice a week – he still does! – serving hundreds of guests and involving the coordination of scores of volunteers.

Yet, somehow or other, he still gets to church nearly every day. It has been the lifeblood of his spirituality, a foundational discipline that had both fed and formed him. I could see firsthand how the practice was central to who Jim was and what he did: nourishing him as he taught and cared for his students; strengthening him as he managed the controlled chaos of soup kitchen week in and week out; buoying him in the ordinary battles of faith.

Jim would’ve laughed if you’d called him a saint, but his hunger for sanctity was nonetheless palpable. He not only shepherded me into Catholicism, but also became himself a de facto template for how to take it seriously, and central to that was daily Mass. I wanted to be like him, and so I followed his lead. Plus, it just made sense. If it was true, as I’d read in the Council documents, that the Mass was “the fount and apex of the whole Christian life” (LG 11), then why wouldn’t I want to participate in it as often as possible? Sunday Mass was obligatory, I knew, but daily Mass, while optional, was optimal.

Every morning, then, even before I could receive the Eucharist, I’d trudge up Kenmore Avenue to St. Thomas of Canterbury for early Mass. It was like liturgical remediation for this lifelong Evangelical, a daily immersion in the wonder of the Eucharistic drama that I’d been on the edges of for so long. And it increased my hunger for the sacramental communion that awaited me at the Easter Vigil – an augmenting of the long Lenten fast I was experiencing before I could finally feast on the Lord on Holy Saturday.

Yet, it was a different story on all those preceding Saturdays. Herein lies my tale.

Heavily Catholic communities like Chicago are golden for those who frequent daily liturgies. Parishes dot the map everywhere, and each has its own sacramental schedule. Most will have Masses in the morning seven days a week – some at 7:00, some at 8:00 or 8:30, and school parishes will even have them at 9:00 or 10. Then there are the downtown churches (and Catholic hospital chapels) which will frequently feature midday Masses to accommodate the lunchtime crowd. Some parishes will also offer early evening liturgies to catch folks on their way home from work – or to accommodate those whose early morning schedules make it impossible for them to get to daily Mass otherwise.

Hence, getting to weekday Mass is less a matter of schedule coordination than it is a matter of the will. That’s especially the case now that I live in South Bend, which, like Chicago, is very Catholic. But in addition to all the variables I listed above, we also have the University of Notre Dame in our backyard, and there are daily Masses all over campus, morning, noon, and night. It’s an embarrassment of Latin-rite riches such that, if I’m determined to get to Mass Monday through Friday, there’ll undoubtedly be one that fits into my agenda. I just have to get myself there.

But Saturdays?

Saturday Mass is complicated by the fact that it is liturgically encroached upon by Sunday. That is, the Catholic sabbath, liturgically speaking, begins Saturday evening, so there’s no such thing as a true Saturday evening weekday Mass. Plus, priests and pastors have obligations in preparation for the Sunday celebrations – not the least of which is the preparation of a Sunday homily – and it seems fitting to leave a bit of a liturgical breather between Saturday morning and Sunday vigil Masses. Thus, even Saturday midday Masses are generally cut from weekday schedules.

That leaves Saturday mornings alone for daily Mass habitués, and, in Chicago at least, that was complicated by our frequent Friday night reveries following soup kitchen, often into the wee hours of the morning. So it was that, despite my best intentions, I tended to skip Saturday morning Mass when I lived in the city, which disrupted my daily Mass routine in imitation of Jim. That disruption was perpetuated after I married Nancy and God started blessing us with babies. By the time the end of the week rolled around, getting up early for Saturday morning Mass was a taller order than ever, and over time I simply gave up on the idea.

Recently, however, I’ve made a liberating discovery. It’s been a boost to my spiritual equanimity, and I want to share it with you: The 8:15 a.m. Saturday Mass at St. Anthony’s.

You see, while I don’t have babies around the house any more, my aging frame nonetheless groans mightily when I attempt to rise at the crack of dawn on the weekend. Try as I might (and I’ve tried), I just can’t seem to make it regularly to the Saturday 7:00 at my own parish, or even any of the 8:00 opportunities around town. Maybe that’s sloth, pure and simple, but there’s something about St. Anthony’s 8:15 that helps me get past my inherent indolence.

Perhaps it’s the psychological assurance of that fifteen minutes past the top of the hour – a trick my brain plays on my will to push me beyond my lethargy. “Let’s see,” I’ll tell myself if I roll out of bed at 7:30 a.m. “I can still shower and dress and get there before the Gospel.” That sounds shamefully crass, I know, but it’s enough to get me moving, and I almost always get there in time for the opening rites.

What’s more, I’m not the only one. It seems like the Saturday 8:15 is a magnet for all manner of daily communicants, and not all of them are St. Anthony’s parishioners. Routinely, I spy numerous faces I recognize from other daily Mass hotspots around town – folks who’ve I’ve come to know by sight (if not by name) because we regularly cross paths at St. Patrick’s or the med center during the week. I’ve no idea if their reasons for being there on Saturday morning are similar to mine, but it’s comforting to see them all the same. They’re like my comrades on the spiritual battlefield, and meeting them at St. Anthony’s is like a weekly reunion of yawning saints in the making.

Which is, of course, the point. Daily Mass, like any spiritual discipline, isn’t an end in itself. “The ultimate end of all techniques,” writes Thomas Merton, “is charity and union with God.” If my efforts to get to Mass every day (including Saturdays) should begin to overshadow my commitments to family or interfere with my work – or if, what’s worse, I begin to pharisaically imagine myself somehow holy because of those efforts – then, by all means, I’d best set them aside. Nonetheless, as Merton writes, we all have to employ spiritual discipline of some kind, and it must “have a certain element of severity about it.” He goes on:

If we do not command ourselves severely to pray and do penance at certain definite times, and make up our mind to keep our resolutions in spite of notable inconvenience and difficulty, we will quickly be deluded by our own excuses and let ourselves be led away by weakness and caprice.

For me, participating in Mass every day is that one spiritual discipline I’m resolved to follow whenever possible, and the Saturday 8:15 has become its keystone. Even if you’re not ready to take up a daily Mass discipline yourself, why not join me at St. Anthony’s next weekend and check it out for yourself – maybe adopt it as part of your Lenten discipline. If you’re not in the South Bend area, see if you can find something comparable in your own area. Trust me, you’ll be among friends who won’t think twice about your yawns, and you’ll definitely encounter our Eucharistic Lord no matter what.

Who knows? You just might become a regular.
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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