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Archive for March, 2014

Note: For part one of this series, click here.

Gundestrup_C

In part one, I expressed an interest in exploring the “seeds of the Word” in the Irish culture that St. Patrick encountered.  Without neglecting this, I would like to broaden my scope to include Celtic culture in general, not just Ireland.

The Celtic pagans — unlike their Germanic and Scandinavian neighbors, whose cosmologies were more or less mapped out so that different realms could be seen in their spatial relation to “Midgard,” or earth — believed in the interweaving of the natural and supernatural worlds.  Otherworldly realms of gods and spirits — including the realm (or realms) of the dead — were believed to have interacted with and even “touched” the everyday natural world, much as the ghostly mists of Ireland and Britain crept through the trees, cliffs, hills, and fields.

Samhain

Many are familiar with the fact that the spirits of the dead were thought to have reentered the world every year on the night of October 31, during the festival of Samhain (an “ancestor” of the modern day Halloween).

Mabinogion

And then you have stories of heroes such as Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed in Wales, which exemplify the “commerce” believed to be possible between our world and the otherworld (in the Welsh epic “The Mabinogion,” a hunting expedition into the woods brings Pwyll to the otherworldly realm of Annwn and back).

Finally, various supernatural entities (leprechauns, for example) were thought to have made their homes beneath the surfaces of streams, rocks, trees, hills, etc.  How’s that for eyeball-to-eyeball?

All this makes for fantastic storytelling.  But beyond that, for what might it have been paving the way?

Noel-coypel-the-resurrection-of-christ-1700

Like all other “seeds of the Word,” this points to the Word Himself, Jesus Christ.  By dying and then rising from the dead, He reunited God and man, heaven and earth, the spiritual and the material.  And in Him the faithful are united with one another not only across space and culture, but also across time and death itself.

Some of the great mystics of the Christian tradition have experienced this reality in a particularly profound way.  St. Maria Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun who died just before the outbreak of World War II, wrote in her world-renowned diary (“Divine Mercy in My Soul”) about meeting the souls of deceased friends, the Blesséd Virgin Mary, and Jesus Christ Himself in convent hallways on the way to performing her routine daily tasks…usually because they had requested a prayer or act on her part.

It must be noted that few people are granted experiences like this; they are indeed very, very rare — even, from what I understand, among saints.  But they are merely intensifications of a reality that is true for all the faithful: The Communion of Saints.

As members of the Body of Christ, we are united with our brothers and sisters in the glory of heaven and in the purification of Purgatory.  In Christ, we are united to the Virgin Mary, the Apostles, all the saints, the prophets and patriarchs of the Old Testament, and the great multitude of the redeemed from the beginning of the world up to the present.  We are surrounded not only by them, but also by all the choirs of angels, from the lowest choirs that are nearest to us all the way up to the fiery seraphim who minister to the immediate presence of God.  We are reminded of this reality every time we go into church and are surrounded by sacred images in stained glass windows, statues, etc.

Let me quickly mention two more components of the Christian life on which this “otherworldly” reality comes to bear:

1. Prayer

PrayerWhen we offer to God sincere prayer — that is, when we take the time to commune with the Thrice-Holy God, leaving our worldly baggage behind as much as we can in order to approach the holy mountain — we are in a certain sense bringing heaven down to earth.

2. The Mass

Mass_at_Lourdes

Last but not least, there is the Mass, which is quite literally where heaven and earth meet.  When we participate in Mass, we join the heavenly liturgy in which all the saints and angels praise God (for more on this, I’d recommend Scott Hahn’s book “The Lamb’s Supper”).

Five more days until St. Patrick’s Day.  Until then, I do have a few more items I want to talk about.  Thanks for reading, and stay tuned.

Image of “The Mabinogion” from www.amazon.com; remaining images from Wikipedia

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Prodigal SonThe process of conversion and repentance was described by Jesus in the parable of the prodigal son, the center of which is the merciful father: The fascination of illusory freedom(;) the abandonment of the father’s house; the extreme misery in which the son finds himself after squandering his fortune; his deep humiliation at finding himself obliged to feed swine, and still worse, at wanting to feed on the husks the pigs ate; his reflection on all he has lost; his repentance and decision to declare himself guilty before his father; the journey back; the father’s generous welcome; the father’s joy – all these are characteristic of the process of conversion. [T]he beautiful robe, the ring, and the festive banquet are symbols of that new life – pure(,) worthy, and joyful – of anyone who returns to God and to the bosom of his family, which is the Church. Only the heart of Christ Who knows the depths of his Father’s love could reveal to us the abyss of his mercy in so simple and beautiful a way.

-Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1439

Image from Wikipedia

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Into the Dance

Ramadan Our Muslim brothers and sisters completed Ramadan, a month-long period of fasting, yesterday.

From what I understand, this is a very strict fast.  Those observing may eat and drink before sunup and after sundown, but at no time in between.  And during this season of longer days, that must have been difficult indeed.

Such discipline and self-denial is vastly admirable, and is one of the traits in pious Muslims that my fellow Christians and I should be open to learning from.

The corresponding observance in Catholicism is, of course, Lent…as well as every Friday, which is designated as a special day of penance (contrary to popular belief, Vatican II did not do away with this — but that’s a subject for another post).

But why should anyone fast?  Isn’t there something puritanical and anti-body about it?  Doesn’t it betray a rather gloomy outlook on life overall?

Some have taken…

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Ash Wednesday

Happy Ash Wednesday all!  I had hoped to get to Mass for ashes tonight, but I’m feeling a little under the weather, so I had to lay low.

Having rediscovered my faith in the last several years, I have learned some surprising things about the Lenten Season.  Here are some misconceptions I hope to clear up, for anyone for whom they remain:

1. “Gotta get those ashes…”

Contrary to what some (including myself 12 years ago) suppose, Catholics are not required to go to Mass or receive ashes on Ash Wednesday.

It is a great practice to get into, of course.  But obligatory?  No.

Ash Wednesday does, however, require the faithful to abstain from meat and to observe the Church’s prescribed fast: One regular meal and two smaller ones that, when put together, still do not constitute a full meal.

2. “40 days to go…or is it 47?”

If you try to count the “40 Days” from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, you’ll notice it doesn’t add up.

So you gave up chocolate ice cream for lent?  Good News: You can eat it on any Sunday during the Lenten Season.  Sundays do not count as “Lent days,” because every Sunday is a celebration of the Lord’s victory over death.  As such, it is day of celebration, not mourning/fasting.  So during Lent, we can think of Sundays as “oases” in the desert.

Certainly, there is nothing wrong with sustaining your sacrifice into Sunday.  But if you don’t, you have not broken your Lenten resolution.

Along these lines, let’s proceed to #3…

3. “Gonna go to hell if I don’t give up chocolate…”

Perhaps the most popular misconception is that we have to give something up during Lent.  While it has been the practice in the Church for many centuries to make sustained sacrifices in observance of this part of the Liturgical Year, it is not something that we are obligated to do, strictly speaking.

But to give something up for Lent is a salutary practice, and one the Church strongly recommends.  Had to throw that in there, just in case you thought I might be discouraging the practice.

4. “No steak this Friday, but at least it’s only ’till Easter…”

It’s true that mandatory meatless Fridays are only during Lent, whereas prior to the Second Vatican Council every Friday was a day of abstinence.

Contrary to popular belief, however, Catholics are still asked to perform some act of penance on Fridays throughout the year.  This can entail giving up meat, but it doesn’t have to.

The reason the no-meat rule was changed was that our culture got to a point where giving up meat was no longer a sacrifice.  People could use Friday as an opportunity to enjoy fish fries, seafood buffets, cheese pizzas, etc., thereby eating better on Friday than on any other day of the week.

Obviously, this completely misses the whole point of penance.  The Church, like a loving mother, wanted her children to regain their understanding of this.

I won’t go into the nitty-gritty of such seemingly depressing subjects as penance, sacrifice, etc.  But I will say this: Penance is to be understood as something positive and life-affirming, not as something negative and indicative of an angry, grudge-bearing God.  I actually covered this subject in an August post — I will “reblog” that tomorrow or Friday, for those who are interested.

Anyway, these are some misconceptions that I once not only had, but took for granted.  And I suspect the same is true for a lot of other people.  Hopefully, this post has cleared up a thing or two 🙂

Image from Wikipedia

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Celtic_cross “Well,” says Sam Gamgee at the end of Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” “I’m back.”

And so am I, after a bit of an absence.  I wanted to kick off the month of March with some reflections on the “seeds of the Word” St. Patrick found and nurtured in my ancestors, the Irish people. Irish_cloverWe all know the famous story of how Patrick used the three-leaf clover to illustrate the Doctrine of the Trinity.  Just as the shamrock had three leafs and yet was but one flower, the Three Divine Persons of the Blesséd Trinity were one God.

Whether or not this actually happened is uncertain.  But it’s a great story, and wonderfully symbolic.  The shamrock was very important in Ireland’s ancient pagan religion, symbolizing life, rebirth, and immortality.  What better way to bring this notion to fulfillment than to use the very same plant as a “sacramental” pointing to the Author of Life? St. Patrick_Snakes And then of course there is the slightly more entertaining story about how Patrick singlehandedly banished all of the snakes from Ireland.  I have serious doubts as to whether this one happened (especially since there is no evidence for the presence of snakes in Ireland after the Ice Age).  But again, we have something wonderfully symbolic here.  After all, the serpent has been a key symbol of the devil, and of demonic influence, for thousands of years.

Between these two stories, we get a glimpse of what evangelization should be.  It is not a matter of going into someone else’s country and burning away their time-honored culture and traditions.  Rather, it is about:

  1. Finding what is good, true, and beautiful in said culture/traditions;
  2. Clearing away the weeds that are blocking their growth, keeping them from becoming all they can become; and
  3. Allowing the Sun (the Son) to shine upon them with healing and vivifying rays.

Sure, there were things that the Irish pagans had to give up (the worship of many gods, for instance).  But it may surprise many to know that the Gospel met with very little resistance among the people of good old Eire.  It appears that there was something in their culture that made them ready to embrace the Word.

Ronald_knoxNor were the Irish unique in this regard.  Monsignor Ronald Knox, a well-known mid-twentieth-century English priest, once said this:

…it seems to me, Almighty God didn’t want his revelation to reach the human mind as something quite strange, quite foreign to all its ways of thought, difficult to assimilate.  He would shape the human mind beforehand to receive it, as the bird, under some strange tuition of instinct, shapes the nest beforehand to suit its unimagined needs.

-“The Hidden Stream,” Chapter 7

So what were some of these “tuitions of instinct” on the Emerald Isle?  I plan to take a look at that in part two.

Images from Wikipedia

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PhilomenaI hope I’m not the only movie nerd on WordPress today.  Eagerly looking forward to the Oscars tonight!

Stephen Frears’ “Philomena,” starring Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, has gotten quite a bit of buzz, with four Academy Award nominations and over $84 million to its name.

There has, however, been some controversy surrounding the film.  I wanted to share just a little over 10 minutes of an interview with Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, with regard thereto.  I have to be clear that I have neither seen this movie nor done any research into it, so I can’t say much; but this is a perspective that I think deserves to be added into the mix for discussion.

Again, the relevant portion of the interview lasts just a little over 10 minutes.  You’ll know when it’s over:

http://youtu.be/3fG6aPoVI9c?t=8m54s

Image from Wikipedia

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