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A Bibliochaotic Encounter with 3 Celtic “M” Saints

24 Jun

“There is nothing Celtic about having legends.
It is merely human.”
~ G.K. Chesterton

“When are we going to get rid of some of these books?” is the complaint I hear from time to time at my house. “We’ll never read them all.” Yes, I know, that’s the point! There will always be something to read, always a new find, always something to surprise and delight.

I hear that complaint a lot, especially from my older kids. They grew up with our bibliochaotic interior decorating scheme, but they’ve come to appreciate that it’s nowhere near normative or typical – that it’s not even an infrequent alternative. Most of their friends don’t live with overflowing bookcases in every room; most families of their acquaintance don’t double-shelve their volumes to accommodate them all. Actually, even the word “most” there is generous. The truth is that their domestic experience of bookish squalor is pretty extraordinary.

But no apologies here. I’ve always been a big believer in quantity over quality when it comes to our home library. That’s the essential approach of big academic libraries, isn’t it? And the Library of Congress? So why should it be any different at home? It seems like our family book collections shouldn’t just be showcases for favorites, but more like dense jungles of the unfamiliar and surprising in which our kids can get lost, explore, and make discoveries of their own. A decent library less a museum than a magical meeting place.

And that goes for the grown-ups as well.

Case in point: I was rooting around in the living room for something or other recently, and there in the stacks was a bright orange picture book I’d never seen before – or else I don’t remember ever seeing it before. I snagged it off the shelf: The Saint and His Bees (2013), written by Dessi Jackson and illustrated by Claire Brandenburg. Where did it come from? How did we acquire it? Who knows, but here it was in my hands – providence! Serendipity!

The magic caught me and I dove in.

The book relates the tale of St. Modomnoc, a 6th-century Irish monk who studied in Wales under St. David, who put the young novice in charge of the community’s hives. Modomnoc’s enthusiasm for his vocation was such that he eagerly acquiesced to David’s directive and threw himself into his apiary role – something his skittish confreres in the Welsh community were all too happy to surrender to him.

The young monk and his bees developed a strong mutual affection, and when it came time for Modomnoc to return to his Irish monastery, the bees insisted on accompanying him. According to Jackson’s retelling, St. David gave way to the inevitable and happily bestowed his blessing on the departing Modomnoc and his buzzing friends. It’s the legendary flipside to St. Patrick’s role in ridding the island of snakes, for Modomnoc is credited with introducing the honey-producing insects to the Emerald Isle.

Reading through The Saint and His Bees was time well spent. It’s an edifying tale well told, and Brandenburg’s rough-cut illustrations capture the story’s primitive monastic ethos perfectly. Besides, I’d never heard of St. Modomnoc before, and I’m anxious to share his history with my beekeeping friends. Moreover, I made a mental note about this saint’s fearlessness in obedience and embrace of duty – and the unseen ramifications of such courage. With that in mind, I decided to track down a bit more about this new holy friend.

Since I was in a library frame of mind, I turned to the stacks instead of a screen, and I pulled down David Farmer’s Oxford Dictionary of Saints (5th ed., 2003). Not surprisingly, the entry on St. Modomnoc confirmed the basic outline of Jackson’s narrative, but there was no additional information – and so my eye wandered on the page.

More providence – more serendipity. More magic and meeting.

First, my attention was drawn to St. Modan, the entry immediately preceding St. Modomnoc. Modan, too, was a Celtic monk that hailed from the 6th century, but his life centered on Scotland instead of Ireland and Wales. It seems that St. Modan was given to long hours of prayer and solitude, but that didn’t prevent his being pressed into abbatial service at Dryburgh. He also had a knack for coaxing the rains during times of drought – which is ironic since his name means “little flame.”

Modan’s meteorological miracles led to some confusing associations with an 8th-century Scottish saint and bishop of the same name. The latter’s feast is observed on November 14, and on that date in Fraserburgh, according to Farmer’s Dictionary, “his silver head-relic was formerly carried in procession to bring down rain or improve the weather in other ways.”

Not exactly the honey-coated legacy of St. Modomnoc, but holy beggars can’t be choosers.

After Modan, I scanned the page for other curious hagiographic tidbits, and I came across the story of St. Mochta, another Irish abbot, but this time from the 5th century. “Reputed to be of British origin and to have become a disciple of Patrick in Ireland,” Farmer writes, “he is supposed to have been educated and consecrated bishop in Rome.” Not only was Mochta a close collaborator of St. Patrick, he is said to have founded a celebrated monastery at Louth.

But what I found especially diverting was a bit of Mochta lore from Farmer – that the saint “lived for 300 years because he doubted the ages of the Old Testament patriarchs.” Now, whether that actually happened or not is less important than the preservation of the suggestion that it had happened. I couldn’t help smiling when I read it. “It would be just like God to do something like that,” I thought to myself. “And it’s so great that the Irish would keep such a yarn alive over the centuries.” It’s an example of the kind of weirdness in our traditions that I’ve always found invigorating as a Catholic convert – not only diverting, but also reassuring. A religion of 300 yearlong object lessons, not to mention Pied Piper beekeepers and rainmaking relics, is a religion that enraptures and enthralls, and can accommodate even the likes of me.

The same goes for a voluminous pandemonium. How else would I have met such fascinating saints? We are blessed in our bookish bedlam.
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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Pentecost in Action: Saint Cristóbal Magallanes

20 May

Lex orandi, lex credendi, goes the ancient Latin motto – loosely translated: The rule of praying is the rule of believing. In other words, our liturgical life reveals our faith life. What we do on our knees points to what we hold in our hearts as well as how we’ll act in the world.

The liturgical calendar itself reflects this notion. In late December, for example, Christmas – a divine birthday given over to feasting and fa-la-la – bumps up next to St. Stephen the Protomartyr on December 26. One day, the candlelit Christ child in the crib; the next day, a vicious stoning and blood red vestments. It’s a liturgical juxtaposition that sends an unmistakable message: Follow this baby King and be ready for martyrdom.

And isn’t that pretty much our Catholic lex credendi?

As it turns out, there’s a parallel message this Pentecost weekend as we commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit. For nine days following the Ascension, Mary and the Apostles had anticipated Christ’s guarantee that they’d be “clothed with power from on high” (Lk 24.49). Then, in the Upper Room, there was wind; there were tongues of flame; there was a rush of exuberant speech in exotic languages. The Spirit had arrived in style, and his manifest intensity awed both the young Church and all the peoples of Jerusalem (cf. Acts 2.1-14, 36-40).

But the Spirit empowers for a purpose, and come Monday after Pentecost this year, we get a clear picture of what that purpose is. May 21 is the memorial of St. Cristóbal Magallanes and companions, martyrs in Mexico during the 1920s Cristero uprising in response to fierce anti-Catholic persecution.

Although St. Cristóbal himself eschewed violent rebellion and preached against it, he refused to allow official antipathy to interfere with his priestly ministry. When the government closed the seminaries, Fr. Magallanes opened one in his parish. And when falsely imprisoned for inciting revolt, he followed Christ’s example by forgiving his captors, absolving them and even giving them his few belongings. Before he was shot a few days later, Fr. Magallanes told his executioners, “I die innocent, and ask God that my blood may serve to unite my Mexican brethren.”

St. Cristóbal’s story of selfless sacrifice illustrates what the Church teaches regarding the Pentecost experience for us all. Christ “pours out the Spirit among his members to nourish, heal, and organize them in their mutual functions, to give them life, send them to bear witness, and associate them to his self-offering to the Father and to his intercession for the whole world” (CCC 739).

As we leave Church this Pentecost weekend refreshed in the Spirit, we do well to keep St. Cristóbal in mind as we claim the Spirit’s sevenfold gifts – especially fortitude – and head out to bear witness in the world.
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A version of this reflection appeared in the Sunday bulletin of St. Joseph Catholic Church, Mishawaka, IN. Fr. Cristóbal was executed on May 25, 1927. Pope St. John Paul II beatified him on November 22, 1992, and then canonized him on May 21, 2000. To read the Holy Father’s homily on the latter occasion, follow this link.

Of Bridgebuilding, Barriers, and Fatherhood

14 Apr

“In the breaking of bridges is the end of the world.”
~ G.K. Chesterton

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An Easter Quo Vadis: St. Hugh of Grenoble

5 Apr

“He closed his penitential course on the 1st of April, in 1132…. Miracles attested the sanctity of his happy death.”
~ Rev. Alban Butler

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A Criminal Companion for Holy Week

25 Mar

This is Passion Sunday, so you’ll already have a pretty good idea of what to expect: Red vestments, a “pre-Gospel” during the processional, the blessing of palm branches, and a dramatic reading of the entire Passion story. This year, it’ll be Mark’s version, which includes an account of the insults our crucified Lord endured and this telling detail: “Those who were crucified with him also kept abusing him.”

Mark is referring here to the two rebel convicts that were executed on Good Friday, but this is in contrast with St. Luke’s description of a “good thief” who did the exact opposite. “We have been condemned justly,” he tells his unrepentant counterpart, “but this man has done nothing criminal.” Apparently, the good thief had a change of heart as he hung there so close to our dying Savoir, and he gasps an implicit plea for mercy: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23.42).

“Amen, I say to you,” Jesus replies, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” The Church has interpreted the Savior’s words as an affirmation of the good thief’s ultimate heavenly destination, and he has long been regarded as a saint. Although St. Luke doesn’t name him, tradition settled on the moniker “Dismas,” which derives from the Greek word for “sunset” and “death.” Eastern Christians commemorate him on Good Friday every year, but Catholics remember Dismas on March 25 – the day we normally celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation.

It’s a curious liturgical overlap, you might think – a penitent criminal and the Mother of God – but tradition helps sort it out for us. In the Middle Ages, many conjectured that the actual crucifixion took place on the very same date as the Annunciation – that is, the day we annually mark the Incarnation, the beginning of our salvation that God hinged to Mary’s fiat, and its ultimate accomplishment on the Cross providentially align on our calendar. Consequently, although our celebrations of Holy Week and the Easter Triduum shift every year, the commemoration of the dying Dismas’s sanctifying confession became associated with March 25 and Mary’s pivotal acquiescence.

This year, that date – today – coincides with Passion Sunday, which results in an especially rich confluence of images. It’s the day we embark on a solemn liturgical journey with Jesus, from hosannas and acclamation to ignominy, torture, and execution – and, ultimately, Resurrection. Today is also the day that, at least in terms of human gestation, marks the hidden embodiment of the Savior in Mary’s womb. Death and new life; horrific end and new beginnings; calamity and tremendous hope – it all comes together today.

And it’s the day that we traditionally call to mind Dismas, a figure whose Gospel appearance is itself a summary – this rotten sinner who deserves to die and yet who surrenders himself to the One who is Life himself. Doesn’t that describe you and me? Dismas is us, in a sense, and we could ask for no better friend to accompany us this week as we trudge through tragedy to triumph.

If you have time today, you might want to visit Sacred Heart Basilica at Notre Dame. In the reliquary chapel off the main sanctuary, you can venerate the relics of St. Dismas, including with a small splinter from his cross. While there, you can also venerate a piece of the True Cross of Christ in a church so closely identified with Our Lady and her monumental “yes.”

St. Dismas, pray for us. Our Lady of the Assumption, pray for us. Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us.
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This meditation originally appeared in the Sunday bulletin of St. Joseph Parish, Mishawaka, Indiana. 

Blessed Maria Theresia Bonzel (1830-1905)

19 Oct

Toward the back of the Franciscan Sisters’ hilltop property in Mishawaka, Indiana, there’s a life-size bronze statue of their foundress situated near blooming flowers. “Mother always wanted the sisters to have a garden,” says Sr. Rose Agnes of Blessed Maria Theresia Bonzel, “and she herself regularly prayed the Rosary in a garden.”

Accordingly, the sculpture features a Rosary spread out in Mother’s lap, but there’s another, more memorable feature: The Blessed’s gentle grin. It might seem insignificant, but it’s a telling artistic detail. “As we pray, so we live,” Bonzel used to say, “and as our life, so our prayer.” The joy evinced in that bronze grin not only marked Bl. Maria Theresia’s life and prayer, but her astounding legacy as well.

Born in Olpe, Germany, in 1830, Aline Bonzel had a comfortable upbringing rooted in her parish and eucharistic devotion. Sent to study in Cologne with the Ursulines, Aline found the sisters’ life appealing, and her own religious calling took shape.

Although illness and her mother’s initial resistance delayed that aspiration, Aline persevered by taking incremental steps, including membership in the Franciscan Third Order (where she adopted the name Maria Theresia) and a private vow of chastity.

Once her health improved and her mother consented, Maria Theresia joined with likeminded friends to care for Olpe’s orphans. Such were the humble origins of the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration which was founded in 1863 with Maria Theresia as their first superior.

Bonzel’s foresight ensured that the numerous young women attracted to her ebullient congregation received sound formation, but also a proper education. “Let us joyfully spend…our strength in the service of God,” she wrote, and the sisters indeed had a far-reaching impact through their teaching and healthcare apostolates. Nonetheless, their first commitment was always to constant eucharistic prayer.

The 1870s ushered in an official effort to undermine Catholic influence in Germany, yet under Mother’s bold leadership, the community emerged from the persecution intact. What’s more, the coterie of sisters she sent to Indiana during this period flourished beyond all expectations. When Blessed Maria Theresia died in 1905, she left behind some 1,500 heirs throughout Germany and North America.

Today, this joy-filled community continues to attract young postulants around the world, and many of them happily attended the beatification of their spiritual mother in Germany in 2013.
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A version of this story originally appeared in Franciscan Magazine, Franciscan University of Steubenville.

When History Shrugs: Pope St. Urban I (d. 230)

1 Oct

“It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.”

“She seems to be…well, a person of particular importance?”

“Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.”

~ C.S. Lewis

My designated “Papa chair” is now located near a window, nestled between two bookcases. It had been in a different room altogether, but recent redecorating and refurbishing there required that my ratty old perch be shifted elsewhere.

Which is just fine. In fact, its new situation is ideal, particularly with reference to the wealth of analogue information within easy reach. I’m not a cell phone guy, and I’ll be the one they’ll have to jail someday when Big Brother decides that everyone has to have a smart phone. Consequently, when I’m sitting in my dad spot every morning, sipping my coffee and doing some meditative reading, I don’t fire up a gizmo to track down answers to fleeting questions. Instead, I grab a book – which, like my chair, is often enough ratty and old, and frequently requiring a quick puff along the top to disperse accumulated dust.

Recently, something in my early a.m. reading caused me to snag a weathered Encyclopedia of the Papacy off the shelf. Maybe it some oddball papal reference I’d come across and wanted to check up on; maybe it was my random church history cursor going off – who knows? In any case, I grabbed the Encyclopedia, blew off the dust, and thumbed through the pages, back to front. I made note of the earliest entries and their relative brevity compared to later ones. Indeed, some in St. Peter’s immediate line of succession only merited a line or two. “Stands to reason,” I thought. “The later the pope, the more likely there’d be surviving, solid documentation.”

Then my eye fell on the entry for Pope Urban I, who served the Church of Rome for eight years before his death in 230. Here’s the entry in its entirety: “Nothing of note occurred during Urban’s pontificate.”

Huh – really? How could that be? The first few centuries of the Church were filled with persecution and ecclesial wrangling, doctrinal division and staying one step ahead of imperial anti-catholic law. Eight years of petrine service in the chaos of pre-Constaninian Rome, but “nothing of note?” Nothing worth commenting on? I picture the faithful adorning Urban’s earthly remains with an “I sat in the throne of St. Peter, and all I got was this lousy t-shirt” covering before committing him to the catacombs.

I examined the Encyclopedia a bit further: Publication date, 1958; author, one Hans Kühner; publisher, The Philosophical Library out of New York. Ah, a secular treatment of papal history – I should’ve known. Maybe something a bit more Catholic could reveal some edifying tidbits about poor Urban I.

So I turned to the 1967 New Catholic Encyclopedia and read E.G. Weltin’s brief treatment of Urban. I was glad to find that Weltin provides a few more details than Kühner, but not much. It seems that Pope Urban dealt with lingering dissension and Christological heresies, but these seemed to be already on the wane by the time he was ensconced. Plus, Weltin points out that Urban’s pontificate coincided with the reign of Emperor Alexander Severus “who was favorably disposed toward Christians,” so the Pope probably died in his sleep – not martyred like so many of his predecessors.

Further investigations didn’t prove all that fruitful. The time-honored 1912 version of the Catholic Encyclopedia has a longish article on Pope Urban I by J.P. Kirsch, but little more in the way of solid facts. Kirsch provides context in terms of the controversies in play during Urban’s reign (namely those stirred up by the schismatic Hippolytus) and background on Emperor Alexander’s strikingly benign attitude toward Urban’s Church. Kirsch also reviews Pope Urban’s appearance in the legendary Acts of St. Cecilia and discusses various proposals regarding his burial location and associated inscriptions. Yet, even Mr. Kirsch has to conclude that “[n]othing is known concerning the personal labours of Pope Urban.”

In desperation, I even turned to Wikipedia, but the only additional info I came across there was that Urban I has a cameo in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Maybe the Kühner’s Encyclopedia of the Papacy is right after all.

Wrong. For although Kühner dismisses the business side of Urban’s papal tenure, he overlooks what we already know from the liturgy: Pope Urban I is a saint. And sanctification, as we all know from experience, is always noteworthy and hardly the stuff of insignificance. It’s the whole point of the Christian enterprise, and it’s, frankly, grueling – at least for most of us. It’s why we keep going to Mass and saying “Amen” when the Body of Christ is held up to us at Holy Communion. It’s why we strive to keep our disordered appetites in check and choose virtue over vice when it’s inconvenient, or even seemingly impossible. And it’s why we go to Confession, over and over again, surrendering our selfishness at the court of last resort – really, the court of only resort – and promise to try again.

No, Pope St. Urban I led a significant life, despite the historians’ inability to divine the details. He’s a saint, after all – a saint! To paraphrase Leon Bloy, becoming a saint is all that matters, but that “becoming” is wild – like a steeplechase in a puzzle in a whirling tumbler. And the vast majority of all that is interior – acts of conscience and intention and self-abandonment – so how could anybody keep track of anyone’s path to glory with all its hidden ups and downs?

So it will be for you and me should we realize, with God’s grace, the same heavenly prize as Pope Urban. Sure, he’s an obscure figure as far as the scholars are concerned, but can there be any doubt that he cares little about that now? Similarly, all those who’ll join him in Paradise won’t care a whit if their doings are recorded in a book – not even a single line. Nobody on earth will know about the extra prayers and fasting you undertook for your ailing grandma; nobody will know about the kindnesses you doled out on strangers in need; nobody will know when you didn’t do the wrong things you wanted to, nor right things you embraced when you were inclined otherwise. But God knows. God knows our doings, God knows our hearts, and that’s plenty. Indeed, it’s everything.

Oh, and if you do want to give Pope St. Urban I his due, consider marking his feast next May 25. I know I will be.
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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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