Contemplata aliis Tradere

A meagre contribution to the mission and work of the Order of Preachers: my reflections, thoughts, ideas and the occasional rant on matters mainly theological, philosophical and ecclesiastical, drawn primarily from my reading and experience of life and the world. Striving to be always Catholic, firmly Christian and essentially Dominican, flavoured with dashes of Von Balthasar.

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Location: Oxford, United Kingdom

A son of the English Province of the Order of Friars Preachers (Dominicans); born in Malaysia but have lived in the USA, Singapore, the UK & the Philippines for varying durations. A pilgrim and way-farer, a searcher for Truth on the journey of Life... "Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, There’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!" - Hilaire Belloc

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

A 1980s Meme for my Penance...

Enbretheliel at Sancta Sanctis has tagged me for an 80's meme, so just as a final indulgence before Lent begins, I shall accede... Beside, this kind of public humiliation is probably good penance!

Favourite 80's TV Shows:
(In no particular order)

1. Dynasty (only because my mum was watching it and forbade me so I sneaked downstairs to see what the big deal was!)
2. Transformers (this is the best thing ever!)
3. He-Man & She-Ra (What awful names!)
4. Full House
5. A-Team (my grandfather watched this with a religious intensity...)
6. Growing Pains
7. McGyver (because every little boy needs a hero!)
8. Knight Rider

Favourite 80's Movies:

1. Stand By Me
2. Big
3. E.T.
4. Splash
5. Return of the Jedi
6. Back to the Future
7. The Name of the Rose
8. Mission

Favourite 80's Music:
(In random order... and more like what I can remember!)

1. Wind Beneath My Wings - Bette Midler
2. True Colors - Cyndi Lauper
3. Karma Chameleon - Culture Club
4. Friends Forever - Michael W. Smith
5. Up Where We Belong - Joe Cocker & Jennifer Warnes
7. Wake Me Up Before You Go-go - WHAM!
8. Arthur's Theme - Christopher Cross

Pancake Day!

The Prior and our pancakes! They were absolutely delicious and came in four types - lemon, maple syrup, orange and Grenadine and plain (which could be embellished in whatever way one desired)! So fortified, we feel more prepared to "begin our Christian warfare with holy fasts..." (cf Collect for Ash Wednesday).

Have a happy Pancake day!

Shrove Tuesday traditions

The day before the start of Lent is renown for revelry and indulgence. Known variously as Carnival, or Mardi Gras, the day(s) of excess anticipate the rigours of the Lenten fast. Apparently there is a long tradition for this; Philip Crispin notes in this week's Tablet that there was an air of folly and gentle mockery of Church leaders in the run-up to Lent, as a means to "let off steam" and to bring "the proud and pious down to earth." Moreover the etymology of both these Continental terms suggest a feast in anticipation of the forty-day fast. 'Mardi Gras' comes from the French 'Fat Tuesday' and Carnival is said to derive from 'carne vale': farewell to flesh, meaning of course not just meat but other carnal pleasures!

Joanna Bogle also writes about Shrovetide in her book, A Book of Feasts and Seasons, and she explains that in the days when the Lenten fast was more strictly observed all meat, eggs and cream had to be eaten up before the fast began on Ash Wednesday. As such, in Britain, the Monday before Ash Wednesday is still known in some areas as 'Collop Monday'; Collops being bits of meat, which were consumed on that day. Until not very long ago, the merry-making associated with Collop Monday included the recitation of verses written as part of a farewell gesture to hilarity, rich food and wine until the end of Lent. As such, it is also known as 'Poets' Day' and the scholars of Eton used to compose valedictory verses to be recited on Collop Monday.

However, today is more popularly known as 'Pancake Day' even if the significance may be lost on many who do not keep the fast. I recall pancakes being served every year on this day when I was in Halls in University; similarly fish was always served on a Friday. Pancakes of course, have plenty of eggs, cream and milk as their main ingredient and later today, the Prior of Cambridge, Fr Richard Conrad, OP will make us some of his famous and delicious pancakes with a hint of lemon and orange. As a special treat, we shall also eat them with some maple syrup which was sent to us from the USA by a friend recently.

In some English villages, a pancake race (shown on left) is held as an event for mothers. Every woman taking part must wear a headscarf and an apron. She must bring along a frying pan with a half-cooked pancake in it. They then line up along a starting line, and set off when a bell is sounded. Before reaching the end-point of the race, each mother must toss the pancake three times (in honour of the Trinity). Failure to do so disqualifies the contestant. The winner is the first to reach the end with the pancake successfully tossed and still in the pan!

On a more sombre note, today is also called Shrove Tuesday, from the Middle English word, "shriven" meaning to receive absolution for sins. This of course is a reference to the Sacrament of Penance and in pre-Reformation England, a bell would beckon the people to church on Shrove Tuesday in order that they might confess their sins and thus be prepared to embark on the trials of the Lenten fast in a state of grace. Incidentally, the Church retains this practice by enjoining all Catholics (who are conscious of having committed a mortal sin) to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation at least once a year, particularly in this period before Easter. In parts of England, the church bells still ring out on this day but they are called the 'Pancake Bell'.

Of course, as our reflections on the last two days have noted, such feasting does not make sense without a fast and indeed, vice versa. The one presupposes the other. As such, the practice of eating pancakes on this day, the secular revelries of Mardi Gras and Carnival from Sydney to Rio de Janeiro to New Orleans, all make little sense if it is not followed by an authentic fast. Otherwise, it just become yet another meaningless ritual and an excuse for excess and (in some cases) wanton debauchery!

By all means, let us enjoy our pancakes and let off steam on this day but let us also remember that this feasting and revelry anticipates the great Lenten fast and ought to lead to our being shriven; to receive absolution for our sins in the beautiful Sacrament of Reconciliation is perhaps the greatest cause for laughter and rejoicing and indeed the best preparation for the great Paschal Feast.

Oh... and just because we still can, let's all shout to the Lord with joy singing: ALLELUIA!!

The illustration above shows penitents being absolved ('shriven') and is taken from an 1845 edition of the Pontificale Romanum.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Fasting makes clear the Paschal Mystery

Following on from yesterday's post on fasting, today I would like to add another voice to our understanding of the Lenten fast. About a week ago, I mentioned that joy underscores the Liturgy of Lent and this is again expressed in today's reflection by the American Trappist monk, Thomas Merton:

"The Paschal Mystery is above all the mystery of life, in which the Church, by celebrating the death and resurrection of Christ, enters into the Kingdom of Life which He has established once for all by His definitive victory over sin and death. We must remember the original meaning of Lent, as the 'ver sacrum', the Church's 'holy spring' in which the catechumens were prepared for their baptism, and public penitents were made ready by penance for their restoration to the sacramental life in communion with the rest of the Church. Lent is then not a season of punishment so much as one of healing. There is joy in the salutary fasting and abstinence of the Christian who eats and drinks less in order that his mind may be more clear and receptive to receive the sacred nourishment of God's word, which the whole Church announces and meditates upon in each day's liturgy throughout Lent...

It is not that food is evil, or that natural satisfactions are something God grudgingly allows us, preferring to deprive us of them when he can. Fasting is a good thing because food itself is a good thing. But the good things of the world have this about them, that they are good in their season and not out of it. Food is good, but to be constantly eating is a bad thing and in fact it is not even pleasant. The man who gorges himself with food and drink enjoys his surfeiting much less than the fasting person enjoys his frugal collation.

Even the fast itself, in moderation and according to God's will, is a pleasant thing. There are healthy natural joys in self-restraint: joys of the spirit which shares its lightness even with the flesh. Happy is the man whose flesh does not burden his spirit but rests only lightly upon its arm, like a graceful companion.

That is why there is wisdom in fasting. The clear head and the light step of the one who is not overfed enable him to see his way and to travel through life with a wiser joy. There is even a profound natural rightness in this fast at the spring of the year.

These reasons are true as far as they go, but they are not in themselves a sufficient explanation of the Lenten fast. Fasting is not merely a natural and ethical discipline for the Christian. It is true that St Paul evokes the classic comparison of the athlete in training, but the purpose of the Christian fast is not merely to tone up the system, to take off useless fat, and get the body as well as the soul in trim for Easter. The religious meaning of the Lenten fast is deeper than that. Our fasting is to be seen in the context of life and death, and St Paul made clear that he brought his body into subjection not merely for the good of the soul, but that the whole man might not be 'cast away'. In other words the Christian fast is somethinge essentially different from a philosophical and ethical discipline for the good of the mind. It has a part in the work of salvation, and therefore in the Paschal mystery. The Christian must deny himself, whether by fasting or in some other way, in order to make clear his participation in the mystery of our burial with Christ in order to rise with Him to a new life."

(Meditations on the Liturgy, pp100, 108-109).
The illustration above is taken from an 1845 edition of the Pontificale Romanum and depicts the reconciliation of public penitents by a bishop.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Fasting is for the Feasting

It is timely that today's Gospel mentions fasting, for we are about to enter a period of fasting in the Church, as we prepare for the nuptials of the Lamb. Indeed, the great Lenten fast begins this week on Ash Wednesday, which is itself a day of fasting and abstinence.

So, these next two days, it may be helpful to prepare for that day by considering these two elements - fast and abstinence - and ask with Fr Geoffrey Preston, OP: 'What should be the place and significance of fasting for us?' In his book, 'Hallowing the Time', Fra' Geoffrey writes on this topic of fasting and it sheds light on today's Gospel too:

"The question is frequently sidestepped by thinking of the ways in which fasting may be useful for some purpose other than its primary one. Fasting might be valuable, for instance, as a means to the practice of almsgiving. We go without something, skipping a meal perhaps or giving up smoking for Lent, and we give what we have saved to a good cause. In recent years we have been encouraged to keep family fast days and to give they money we save to some international charity. Clearly, this is a good thing to do. And more than that, if we fasted in any one of these ways and then proceeded to pocket the cash we had saved for our own self-indulgence in other ways, it is hard to see what virtue there would be in fasting. Pope Leo the Great, whose sermons have marked so profoundly the Christian understanding of Lent, is quite firm on this point: 'Let our times of Christian fasting be fat and abound in the distribution of alms and in care of the poor; let everyone bestow on the weak and the destitute those dainties which he denies himself.' Fasting without alms-giving, then, can be simply self-indulgence or meanness towards oneself. Fasting with almsgiving, on the other hand, can make a difference, and a Christian difference at that, to the one world in which we live... Yet this is to treat fasting as just a means to the practice of almsgiving, rather than as an eminent good work in its own right, that eminent good work it has been conceived to be throughout the tradition by Jews and Christians alike...

To clear the ground for a proper appreciation of fasting we need to mention some of the provisos that Christian tradition has set around it. Fasting is of no Christian value unless it is integrated into a Christian lifestyle that includes relationship with God and other people... There is a second proviso which inevitably comes up when fasting is under review: the warning against Manicheism, against any disparagement of the goodness of God's creation. Some spiritual writers appear to be saying that fasting is a good thing because food and drink are bad things. They give the impression that if we are going to love God more, we must love what he has made less. St Thomas Aquinas is quite clear that if people have that spirit in their fasting then it is without Christian value. Fasting for him is part of the virtue of temperance, which deals with right relationship to the concerns of the body. Temperance means doing our righteousness, acting just right, in the areas of food, drink and sexuality in particular. For Thomas, there is only one vice in this, the vice of insensibility, of not having a proper esteem for the goodness, delight and attractiveness of the world God has made for our own good. Insensitivity, or not being sensitive enough, is a vice not so much of the head as of the fingertips. It means that we are required to experience the world as good and delightful. We are morally obliged to take a proper pleasure from our senses, to be happily alive in our skins. Thomas would include here the touch of food and drink on our taste-buds, the touch of a perfume on our nostrils, and the specifically sensuous and genital pleasures of sex. Now clearly, he is not telling us that in order to be virtuous we must be libertines; but he is teaching that if we are not duly sensitive to the delights that creation gives to our skins, we are less virtuous than we ought to be. If I don't appreciate a malt whiskey there is something wrong with me. If I am not moved by a woman's body I am lacking in goodness. And so fasting out of disdain for food, for all that business of cooking and eating and digesting and evacuating, is not an eminent good work. On the contrary, it is heresy in action. The desert fathers, those great heresy-hunters, used to set little tests for their visitors along these lines.

Jesus, nevertheless, assumes that his disciples will fast. He assumes it on the basis of Jewish tradition, just as that tradition assumed it from a wider religious tradition. Fasting is a general religious custom. According to Thomas, indeed, it is part of the natural law: if we do not fast we somehow fail in our common humanity. On the opposite side of the golden mean from insensibility lies the temptation to grab and snatch at the world, to turn it into a source of our own satisfaction. The story of the Serpent tempting Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis is our best image of this temptation. The world is there for man to use: all the trees of the garden are for Adam to enjoy. Yet there are limits built into the world's order: not everything is to be enjoyed by our consuming it. There is a right way to enjoy the tree in the midst of the garden; but that right way is not to eat its fruit. Thomas talks of a lion looking at a gazelle and seeing only meat, none of the beauty of its line and form, none of the grace of its movement. Adam oversteps the mark by trying to grab everything for himself...

Fasting is about training ourselves to distiguish our needs from our wants. When we fast or abstain we give ourselves a chance to discover what our real needs are... Mark explains why Christians fast in an image of marital presence and absence. The days will come when the Bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast, on that day. Fasting as a response to the presence and the absence of Christ the Bridegroom belongs in the new covenant of grace. It undergoes a change of meaning, however, in the waters of baptism. For Christians, the material and bodily world is the world in which Christ has loved us so much that he sent his Son to it. This story of how God turned to us, finally and definitively, in love and mercy, is good news, good tidings of great joy. It means that the world is for feasting... And yet there is another, more sombre side to this picture. The world rejected the God who graciously accepted the world... So we cannot simply affirm the world as it is now... Our relation to the world is always nuanced...

Fasting from the food and drink of this present world is, for Christians, a sign of our expectation of the feasting in the new world, the world of the resurrection, on the food and drink of everlasting life. And just as you cannot pray without actually giving time to prayer, for it is nonsense to say that your life is a prayer if you never pray in the formal sense, so too you cannot learn to fast properly without some actual fasting from food. But the fasting is, ultimately, for the feasting."

(pp67 - 71)

Saturday, February 25, 2006

... And today is mine!

by Thomas Traherne (1637 - 1674)

"A learned and a happy ignorance
Divided me
From all the vanity,
From all the sloth, care, pain, and sorrow that advance
The madness and the misery
Of men. No error, no distraction I
Saw soil the earth, or overcloud the sky.

I knew not that there was a serpent's sting,
Whose poison shed
On men, did overspread
The world; nor did I dream of such a thing
As sin, in which mankind lay dead.
They all were brisk and living wights to me,
Yea, pure and full of immortality.

Joy, pleasure, beauty, kindness, glory, love,
Sleep, day, life, light,
Peace, melody, my sight,
My ears and heart did fill and freely move.
All that I saw did me delight.
The Universe was then a world of treasure,
To me an universal world of pleasure.

Unwelcome penitence was then unknown,
Vain costly toys,
Swearing and roaring boys,
Shops, markets, taverns, coaches, were unshown;
So all things were that drown'd my joys:
No thorns chok'd up my path, nor hid the face
Of bliss and beauty, nor eclips'd the place.

Only what Adam in his first estate,
Did I behold;
Hard silver and dry gold
As yet lay under ground; my blessed fate
Was more acquainted with the old
And innocent delights which he did see
In his original simplicity.

Those things which first his Eden did adorn,
My infancy
Did crown. Simplicity
Was my protection when I first was born.
Mine eyes those treasures first did see
Which God first made. The first effects of love
My first enjoyments upon earth did prove;

And were so great, and so divine, so pure;
So fair and sweet,
So true; when I did meet
Them here at first, they did my soul allure,
And drew away my infant feet
Quite from the works of men; that I might see
The glorious wonders of the Deity."

* * * * *

Twenty-nine years have passed since first mine eyes saw the light of this world, and each passing year the God who first called me into being and loved me has revealed still more abundantly His love and tender mercy for me. From the first love of my parents and family to the love of friends, teachers and His sacred ministers, He has shown me just how rich is His gift of life; how grace-filled is every moment. From shore to shore, He has been with me, closer than I can ever comprehend; most intimate Friend, opening mine eyes to new discoveries and cultures, only to find He is already there awaiting me. Time and time again, with the patience and care only a Father has, He calls me back to Him each time I stray and in weakness err from the path of righteousness. What wondrous grace! Reborn in the womb of the font, He has given me a Mother, His Holy Church, the Spouse of the Bridegroom, and through her, He fills my mind and heart with the wonder of Himself, the beauty of holiness in His saints and He calls me to greater fidelity, inspiring me with His very Spirit, my Comforter and Advocate. And O! Most glorious, He comes to me and lightens the darkness of my mind with His Living Word and nourishes my unworthy soul with His very Flesh. And the precious Blood which He shed for me upon the Holy Rood, He sheds still, in remittance of my sins by the ministry of His priest. And yet even so, He never fails, with a Lover's inventive desire, to reveal even more the infinite broadness of His love: in this past year He has deigned to lead me into the family of His Friars Preachers, there with brothers and sisters to praise Him, to bless Him and to preach Him to all nations.

And so, on this anniversary of my birth, I thank you, O Lord, for the wonder of my being and for the life you have given me. I offer you my life, my very self, as a thanksgiving sacrifice. May it be acceptable in your sight.

May the Blessed Virgin, my Mother and yours, teach me and guide my every step, for I am still an unruly child, ungainly of gait and in need of direction. And by your grace, may my pilgrimage attain at last to that heavenly homeland, where I may see you face to face, my Creator God.


Friday, February 24, 2006

Thank you

To all those who voted for this blog in the recent Catholic Blog Awards, thank you. This blog came Third in the "Best Blog by a Seminarian" category, something that would not have been possible without your nomination and your votes. It is a bonus when a hobby and a labour of love for the sake of the Gospel becomes something that people actually appreciate and enjoy! I am wondering who are among the 406 voters, as most of my readers are so silent... but anyway, thank you all and my congratulations to the winners in the various categories and thanks to the organizers of this annual event.

Soli Deo gloria!

It's Br Paul's Birthday!

Control of the passes was, he saw, the key
To this new district, but who would get it?
He, the trained spy, had walked into the trap
For a bogus guide, seduced with the old tricks.

At Greenhearth was a fine site for a dam
And easy power, had they pushed the rail
Some stations nearer. They ignored his wires.
The bridges were unbuilt and trouble coming.

The street music seemed gracious now to one
For weeks up in the desert. Woken by water
Running away in the dark, he often had
Reproached the night for a companion
Dreamed of already. They would shoot, of course,
Parting easily who were never joined.

W. H. Auden (1934)

I've posted Br Paul Mill's favourite poem for today, his birthday. Many happy returns of the day, Paul, and may your year be blessed!

Thursday, February 23, 2006

The 'Dies Natalis' of St Polycarp

St Polycarp, whose memorial is kept today, is venerated as a disciple of St John the Evangelist and he is regarded as one of the 'Apostolic Fathers'.The account of his martyrdom, the 'Martyrium Polycarpi', which was written by his congregation in Smyrna, of which he was bishop, occupies an important place in the corpus of early Christian writings and has been called "one of the most beautiful documents left to us from Christian antiquity."

The account by the Christians of Smyrna is a report on the death of their bishop, Polycarp, given in the form of a letter to the Christian community of Philomelium and, through them, to the whole Church. It tells how the pagan population of the town, who had killed a young man named Germanicus during a festival, demanded of the magistrates that all 'atheists' should be done away with, and they cried "Fetch Polycarp." What is fascinating is that the pagan Romans considered Christians to be atheists because they refused to worship the pagan idols and thus conform to the Roman way of life. This led to persecutions by local communities (as attested to by Polycarp himself in his letter to the Philippians) and would later lead to the criminalization of Christianity and state persecution. However, the date was c. 155 and in the early days of the Church, hence persecution and hostility was localised and sporadic. Thus, the pagans of Smyrna began to clamour for Polycarp's blood. Polycarp, meanwhile, was waiting calmly in a farm near the city and he was now an octagenarian. He was sought out at the farm and brought to trail. Arrested, he refused to deny Christ and was killed by the sword, despite his advanced years, and his body was then burned at the stake, in the town theatre.

Eusebius draws upon this account and sees in this Passion narrative of St Polycarp clear echoes of the Passion of Christ. The account of Polycarp staying in a farm and awaiting arrest mirrors Christ praying in Gethsemane, and the rest of the story provides the basis of the martyr as identified with Christ. Hence, Polycarp's death, in echoing the death of Jesus Christ, the king of martyrs, forms the pattern of Christian martyrdom for centuries to come; it is the archetypal martyrdom.

In addition, Eusebius writes: "To [Christ], as the Son of God, we offer adoration; but to the martyrs, as disciples and imitators of the Lord, we give the love they deserve for their unsurpassable devotion to their own King and Teacher: may it be our privilege to be their fellow-members and fellow-disciples" and he says "so later on we took up [Polycarp's] bones, more precious than stones of great price, more splendid than gold, and laid them where it seemed right." Thus it appears that in Eusebius' account there is a carefully elaborated theology of Christ's redemptive suffering, of Christian discipleship, and of the due devotion to be shown to the saints and their relics, those elements that are the heart of Christian understanding of martyrdom and the development of the cult of the martyrs.

It was the commemoration of Polycarp's martyrdom that established the custom of celebrating the anniversary of a martyr's death, seen as the dies natalis, the 'birthday into heaven'. Thus, this commemoration of St Polycarp was the first of all sanctoral' days in the Church's Liturgy. Polycarp's final prayer also forms a basis for the development of the Eucharistic Prayers of the Church, showing elements that are present in these great orations and ending with a doxology and the 'Amen' which had been taken over into Christian liturgy from Jewish practice:

"O Father of Thy beloved and blessed Son, Jesus Christ, through whom we have come to know Thee, the God of angels and powers and all creation, and of the whole family of the righteous who live in Thy presence, I bless Thee for counting me worthy of this day and hour, that in the number of martyrs I may partake of Christ's cup, to the resurrection of eternal life of both soul and body in the imperishability that is the gift of the Holy Ghost. Among them may I be received into Thy presence today, a rich and acceptable sacrifice as Thou hast prepared it beforehand, foreshadowing it and fulfilling it, Thou God of truth that canst not lie. Therefore for every cause I praise Thee, I bless Thee, I glorify Thee, through the eternal High Priest, Jesus Christ thy beloved Son, through whom and with whom in the Holy Ghost glory be to Thee, both now and in the ages to come. Amen."

The image above is a detail from 'The Christian Martyr's Last Prayer' by Gerome.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Consistory has been Announced!

His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI has announced that his first Consistory will be held on 24 March 2006 when he will add 15 new members to the Sacred College of Cardinals.

We have been asked to pray for those who are called to assist the Holy Father in governing Holy Church.

And of course, such news is a marvellous excuse for these pictures of the cardinal's hat, the galero, and Pope Pius XII bestowing the galero on a Cardinal!

The Cardinals-Designate are:

Archbishop William Levada, Archbishop-emeritus of San Francisco, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith;
Archbishop Franc Rode, C.M., Archbishop-emeritus of Ljubljana, Prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life;
Archbishop Agostino Vallini, Bishop-emeritus of Albano, Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura;
Archbishop Jorge Liberato Urosa Savino of Caracas;
Archbishop Gaudencio Rosales of Manila;
Archbishop Jean-Pierre Ricard of Bordeaux;
Archbishop Antonio Canizares Llovera of Toledo;
Archbishop Nicholas Cheong Jin-Suk of Seoul;
Archbishop Sean O'Malley, O.F.M. Cap. of Boston;
Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz of Krakow;
Archbishop Carlo Caffara of Bologna;
Bishop Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, S.D.B of Hong Kong;
Archbishop Andrea Cordero Lanza de Montezemolo, Archpriest of St. Paul's Outside the Walls;
Archbishop-emeritus Peter Proeku Dery of Tamale, Ghana;
Father Albert Vanhoye, S.J., former secretary of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

"Where Peter is, there the Church is."

Today's Feast of the Chair of St Peter, being an amalgamation of the Chair at Antioch and the Chair at Rome, is essentially a celebration of the episcopal dignity and universal primacy of the Prince of the Apostles, St Peter. It is a celebration of the divinely-instituted Office of the Successors of St Peter, the Bishops of Rome, whom we call Pope. For he who is called to the See of Peter ('see' being an anglicization of the Latin 'sedes', seat) continues and perpetuates the mission given to St Peter, which is to be a "shepherd of the whole flock" of God's Holy Church and to be "the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful" (Lumen Gentium, 22, 23). Therefore, today the Church celebrates the unity and the infallible teaching authority given by God to the Church, as entrusted primarily to the Bishop of Rome in the exercise of his Petrine ministry.

What follows is an excerpt from one of my favourite theologians, the Jesuit Cardinal Henri de Lubac, reflecting on the gift of the Petrine ministry. His book, 'The Splendor of the Church', is superlative in the realm of ecclesiology and this is one of the best parts of the book, when the Cardinal meditates on the qualities that an homo ecclesiasticus, a person of the Church, a child of Mother Church, ought to have.

It is perhaps fitting too that I offer this reflection by a Jesuit in recognition of my new friend the Jesuit Scholastic, Mark Mossa SJ, who has so deservedly won the 'Best Blog by a Seminarian' award. May all those who write Catholic web logs and all who read them grow to the full stature of Cardinal De Lubac's vision of the man of the Church and so draw more souls to Christ!

The following quotation is supplemented with the source of the citations because it shows the richness of De Lubac's exposition which is so firmly grounded in Scripture and Tradition. The book is published in translation by Ignatius Press from the French original 'Meditation sur l'Eglise' (1953). Highly recommended spiritual reading for our ecclesiology-impoverished age!

"The Roman Church is the object par excellence of accusations of tyranny; she is even sometimes - absurdly - put on a parallel with the various systems of political absolutism. And she is also the primary object of the objections of many Christians, who nevertheless recognize the necessity of a visible authority. Conversely, it is primarily of her that the Catholic thinks when he calls the Church his Mother. In common with tradition, he considers her as 'root and Mother of the Catholic Church' [St Cyprian], as 'Mother and Mistress of all the faithful of Christ' [Lateran IV]. He considers her head as 'the head of the episcopate' and 'father of the Christian people' [St Augustine], 'the master of the whole household of Christ', as St Ignatius Loyola puts it. For him, the See of Rome is the 'Holy See', the 'Apostolic See' par excellence. He knows that Peter was given the charge of not only the lambs but the sheep as well; that Christ himself prayed that the faith of Peter might not fail; and that he gave Peter the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven and the command to confirm his brethren [Mt 16:18-19]. He realises that Peter personifies the whole Church [St Augustine] and that just as each bishop is the bridegroom of his own particular Church, so Peter, the Bishop of Rome, may be said to be the Universal Church [Pius VI], the whole of which has in him its visible foundation [St Augustine; 1910 anti-Modernist Oath]. As against a frequently lodged objection (based on a misunderstanding), he will, of course, be be equally clear that this visible foundation in no way prejudices that unique Foundation which is Christ, any more than the visible chief shepherd puts into eclipse the Good Shepherd [St Thomas Aquinas], since here there is no question of duplication, the very name 'Peter' having been chosen by Christ to express this identity of submission, which is in itself the fruit of faith [St Augustine]. Believing as he does that the Church has received the promise of perpetuity and victory over death, and holding that it was she who was in Christ's mind in that scene on the road to Caesarea, he will naturally grasp the consequence that as long as the Church oes on building herself up and subsisting in her visible state - that is to say, as long as this world lasts [St Leo the Great; Vatican I] - she cannot be without a visible foundation for her building. Peter was not given his office simply in order to relinquish it almost at once; he was given it to hand on after him. 'In his successors - the bishops of the See of Rome, which was founded by him and consecrated by his blood - he lives, presides and judges perpetually' [The Roman legate, Philip, at the Council of Ephesus].

Finally the Catholic will not be content merely to grant and grasp that in the last analysis the Church is, so to speak, concentrated whole in Peter; the seeing of the fact will be an occasion of joy to him. He will not be worried by those who try to presuade him that he has 'lost the sense of the totality of the Church' and that in submitting himself to the power of the pope he has resigned himself to a belief that is, as it were, merely belief at the word of command - as if 'in Romanism properly understood' the whole doctrine and life of the Church resided only in the single person of its head. For we do not deny the existence of a circle when we know that it must have a centre; and it is no abolishment of the body when we say that it has a head. To superficial explanations of this kind, which are the result of what one might describe as an optical illusion, he will oppose the evidence of faith and reply, in the words of one of his bishops:

"When the pope makes an act of doctrinal authority, this is no exterior yoke imposed by a particular man on a religious society in the name of his own intelligence, even though it might be that of a genius. He is defining the faith of the Church. He is in no way subject to her consent; yet the truth he translates into our language and renders precise is the truth by which she lives; the belief whose meaning he confirms is our belief - he analyzes its content, counters its potential weaknings, and maintains its vigour. Thus, when we say to the Church, in the words which the Apostle used to Christ, who founded her: 'To whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life', this is not in the virtue of some fatigue of spirit, which seeks to place itself under an authority to escape the effort of thought and the labour of living; rather it is, as Newman put it, in virtue of a sense of coming to rest in the Catholic plenitude" [Mgr Blanchet (Nov 1950)].

He can also appeal in this matter to the declarations of the popes themselves, who, when they are preparing to define some point of faith, far from considering themselves as having to 'pronounce an oracle', weigh up not only Scripture but 'time-honoured tradition, the perpetual belief of the body of the Church, and the agreement of the bishops and the faithful' [Pius IX]. In this way the meaning of papal infallibility becomes clear - as well as the reason for it; it is an infallibility that is not something separate from that of the whole of the Church any more than it is derived from an infallibility of the bishops or other members; it is an infallibility that is in reality that of the Church herself, although, in the case of the man who gives it sovereign interpretation in order to bring all controversy to a close, it is personal and absolute.

That is why, in short, the Catholic recognizes Peter as he who has charge of the universal Church, without any of the petty reservations of Gallicanism. That is why he holds that he is - to quote the expression given authoritative status by the [First] Vatican Council - 'the supreme judge of the faithful' and he who holds the fullness of power in the Church; that is why he makes his own he words of St Ambrose: 'Where Peter is, there the Church is.' He will always see in Peter both the unshakeable rock upon which his own firmness is based [St Leo the Great] and the 'centre of Catholic truth and unity' [Pius IX], the one and only visible centre of all the children of God [Fenelon (July 1710)]. In the authority of Peter he sees the support of his faith and the guarantee of his communion. And thus his fidelity to the Christian faith finds concrete expression in his love for Peter, to whom he is bound, despite all exterior vicissitudes, by every fibre of his soul."
(pp267 - 273)

May God bless and protect Pope Benedict XVI, now seated in the Chair of Peter, that he may strengthen his brothers in unity!

The images above are of the Cathedra Petri in St Peter's Basilica, Pope Paul VI seated on the Lateran cathedra and Pope Benedict XVI after his Mass for the Inauguration of the Petrine Ministry last year.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Catholic Blog Awards VOTING

The long-awaited VOTING has begun for the 2006 Catholic Blog Awards.

It really is an honour to have received a Nomination for "Best Blog by a Seminarian"... There are many blogs I enjoy that to my surprise did not receive any nomination in the 21 categories.

It's a close race in the category I've been nominated for, and as God would have it, there's a time-honoured and traditional rivalry between the SJ and the OP in progress! Oh, He does have a great sense of humour and I love it! :)

Please vote for this site if you feel it is deserving of such an accolade... or even if you just love the Dominicans!! There are three other OP blogs up for Awards.

To Vote, click on this link, and then when you have been taken to the Awards Voting page, click on the circle next the listing for this blog, found in the bottom right box as "Contemplata Aliis Tradere - Lawrence Lew, OP", in the category noted above. Finally, click the 'Vote' button just below that.

Voting ends on Tuesday 21 February at 12 noon CST in the USA, so get cracking!

Thank you.

Oh... and I'm told you can vote again every 24 hours so if you're really keen be sure to do that!!

Br Paul says...

"VOTE NOW or cook me breakfast!!!"

Only 24 hours to go before voting ends in the
2006 Catholic Blog Awards

Beauty is of the Essence of Liturgy

Last week, the Church and the Order of Preachers rejoiced in the commemoration of Bl Fra Angelico, whose preaching was not exercised in word but by the brush, as he made visible for our contemplation the fruit of his contemplation of the true, the good and the beautiful. We often speak of God in terms of His goodness and His truth, but seldom do we engage in a theological aesthetic, finding God in Beauty, hence the particularity of Von Balthasar's theological project. I have touched upon aspects of Beauty and theology in this blog and I refer you to those posts for that is not my concern today. Rather, I would like to reflect on the need for Beauty in the Church which can, in turn, have such a profound effect on the world and our lives, as Beato Angelico's art did.

What can one say is special about Fra Angelico's art (above left, the Coronation of the Virgin) that gives it a religious, sacred quality? Pope Pius XII, speaking at the opening of an exhibition of paintings of Fra Angelico at the Vatican on 20 April 1955, explains:

"To encourage souls to pursue [holiness], Fra Angelico highlights not so much the effort of achieving virtue, as the bliss that comes from possessing virtue and the nobility of those adorned by virtue. The world of Fra Angelico's paintings is indeed the ideal world, radiant with the aura of peace, holiness, harmony and joy. Its reality lies in the future when ultimate justice will triumph over a new earth and new heavens. Yet this gentle and blessed world can even now come to life in the recesses of human souls, and it is to them he offers it, inviting them to enter in. It is this invitation which seems to us to be the message that Fra Angelico entrusts to his art, confident that it will thus be effectively spread.

It is true that an explicit religious or ethical dimension is not demanded of art as art. If, as the aesthetic expression of the human spirit, art reflects that spirit in total truthfulness or at least does not positively distort it, art is then in itself sacred and religious, that is, in so far as it is the interpreter of a work of God. But if its content and aim are such as Fra Angelico gave his painting, then art rises to the dignity almost of a minister of God, reflecting a greater number of prefections."

This is an extraordinary pronouncement because it accords to truly sacred art such a sublime potential and I would suggest that this refers not just to visual art but to music as well. Indeed, the Second Vatican Council pronounced that, "The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 112). Music has long been used in the service of the Liturgy, being instrinsically linked to the sacred texts of the Mass and Divine Office. When music and art in the Liturgy expresses the Beauty that comes from God alone, there is a raising of hearts and minds to God, to contemplate Him who is Beauty; an invitation to strive for holiness and that world where all is Beautiful. Thus, we ignore Beauty in the Liturgy at the risk of ignoring this vital means of drawing souls to Christ.

Martin Baker, Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral (photographed on the right) has an excellent article in the Tablet this week which reminds us that the Catholic choral tradition, such a key component of Beauty in the Liturgy, is "under threat and must be revitalised". In this article, he draws upon words written by fr Timothy Radcliffe, OP to support his argument and I think it is well worth adding his voice to the call for Beauty in our world:

"Jesus's sign at the Last Supper was beautiful. If it is to speak of hope in the face of death, then it must be re-enacted beautifully. Church teaching is often met with suspicion. Dogma is a bad word in our society. But beauty has its own authority. It speaks our barely articulated hope that there may be some final meaning to our lives. Beauty expresses the hope that the pilgrimage of existence does indeed go somewhere, even when we cannot say where and how. Beauty is not icing on the liturgical cake. It is of its essence"
(What is the Point of Being a Christian?, pp26-27).

Just to comment on the above, fr Timothy is absolutely right to say that Beauty is of the essence of Liturgy. This means that ugliness and banality in our Liturgy robs it of its essence and actually diminishes it. One may even ask: if Liturgy has lost its essence, if it is not beautiful, how much less efficiently does it fulfill its main purpose, which is the glorification of God and the sanctification of His People? Perhaps this is why many have lost interest in the Liturgy: because its contemporary celebration does not inspire, enthuse and fill with hope, because it is not beautiful and thus does not speak to the soul which thirsts for Beauty, for God. Is it not surprising then that people look elsewhere to slake this thirst? But of course, they find no actual satisfaction, for only Christ, the Fount of Life, the Living Bread, can fulfill our deepest desires and longings.

Moreover, fr Timothy suggests that Beauty in our Liturgy expresses our hope of a beautiful world to come, just as Pope Pius XII said that Fra Angelico's beautiful art was a reflection of the reality of the world to come, which was revealed to him in prayer and holiness of life. Hence, Michelangelo said of Beato Angelico: "One has to believe that this holy friar has been allowed to visit paradise and been allowed to choose his models there..." This suggests that the current drought of beauty in the Liturgy may be the result of what the Dominican Cardinal, Christoph Schonborn, calls "eschatological amnesia." Certainly, history informs us that when there was a great hope in the life to come, as in medieval Europe, the Church raised up great and beautiful Gothic edifices and performed a beautiful Liturgy that pointed to the Heavenly Jerusalem, the consummation of a Christian hope that was being expressed so eloquently in beautiful sacred art.

Returning to Fra' Timothy Radcliffe, he continues:

"C. S. Lewis wrote that beauty rouses up the desire for 'our own far off country', the home for which we long and have never seen... Beauty gives us a whiff of the Kingdom. George Steiner, in 'Real Presences', proposes that artistic creation is the nearest we can get to a sense of God's creativity... A beautiful work of art evokes that first 'Fiat' when God said, 'Let there be light'...

Often what we are offered at the Eucharist does not have the beauty that can speak of transcendent hope... If the Church is to offer hope to the young, then we need a vast revival of beauty in our churches. Most renewals of Christianity have gone with a new aesthetic, whether with plainsong in the Middle Ages, with Baroque music after the Council of Trent, or with Wesley's Methodist hymns in the late eighteenth century..."
(ibid., pp 27-28).

Fr Radcliffe is surely right to call for a renewal of Beauty in our Church and in our Liturgy for beauty testifies to God and our Christian hope continually. Fra Angelico's art, the music of Palestrina and a beautiful church like Westminster Cathedral (on left) still speak to us today, as eloquent a 'sermon' as ever, preaching the Beauty of God who alone satisfies us and pointing to the world to come where the virtuous are united with God forever. Beautiful art have a freshness and immediacy that go beyond what is written on a page, endures where memory of a spoken homily fades and makes God accessible to all people, whatever their race, language or creed.

Therefore, Vatican II teaches: "These arts, by their very nature, are oriented toward the infinite beauty of God which they attempt in some way to portray by the work of human hands; they achieve their purpose of redounding to God's praise and glory in proportion as they are directed the more exclusively to the single aim of turning men's minds devoutly toward God" (SC 122).

And that - turning the hearts and minds of people to God - is precisely what the Church needs to do in a world already marred by the ugliness of sin, violence and hatred. The Church, through her Sacred Liturgy, must apply the balm of Beauty to our wounded world, so as to form in us the beauty of holiness.

May Our Blessed Lady, the Beautiful Mother of God and Blessed Fra' Angelico aid us with their prayers in this regard. Amen.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Leo says...

Don't just lie there like me!
Get up and VOTE!
Voting for the Catholic Blog Awards closes in 48 hours
so please vote for us, and if you have,

Joy for our Time...

A group of young people and youthful Dominicans gathered yesterday in Blackfriars, Cambridge to consider 'Joy for our Time', using the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary as the focus of our prayer and study. Pope John Paul the Great reflected in his Apostolic Letter, Rosarium Virginis Mariae that: "To meditate upon the 'joyful' mysteries, then, is to enter into the ultimate causes and the deepest meaning of Christian joy. It is to focus on the realism of the mystery of the Incarnation and on the obscure foreshadowing of the mystery of the saving Passion. Mary leads us to discover the secret of Christian joy, reminding us that Christianity is, first and foremost, euangelion, 'good news', which has as its heart and its whole content the person of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, the one Saviour of the world."

Our discussion on joy, using an article from the Summa Theologiae of St Thomas Aquinas, very much echoed the truth of the late Holy Father's words. One member of the group reflected on the most joyful moments of her life which were found in doing the will of God and finding a deep contentment in having to sacrifice and transcend her own wants to do what God asked of her; in her case, of caring for a beloved and elderly aunt. This experience of hers reminded us that joy is not primarily about feeling happy but about God's will and peace and that it is found in those who act with truth and integrity, responding wholly to God's grace. Thus St Thomas Aquinas would define devotion, which contains joy, as "a ready willingness to give oneself to God" (ST IIa IIae 82, 1).

Moreover, as John Paul II said, "The final two [joyful] mysteries, while preserving this climate of joy, already point to the drama yet to come. The Presentation in the Temple not only expresses the joy of the Child's consecration and the ecstasy of the aged Simeon; it also records the prophecy that Christ will be a “sign of contradiction” for Israel and that a sword will pierce his mother's heart (cf Lk 2:34-35)." In saying this, the late Holy Father reminded us that joy is sometimes accompanied by sorrow and pain. Indeed, this is the witness of the Cross, wherein we find the joy of redemption mingled with our compunction for sins and Christ's sorrowful Passion.

This was a fitting reflection because we are now approaching Lent, that season of grace, penance and repentance which the Church in her Liturgy also calls "this joyful season" (Preface for Lent I). St Thomas Aquinas offers a way to understand how Lent - that annual season when we come to terms with the truth of who we are and how we stand before God and our neighbour - is marked by both sorrow for sin and deep joy. The Angelic Doctor says: "Consideration of God's goodness is the goal of devotion, and though in itself a cause of joy, can be accompanied by sadness because we haven't yet fully reached that goal. The consideration of our own inadequacies is the starting-point for devotion, and though in itself a cause of sadness, can be accompanied by joy in God's help. In Christ's sufferings there is cause for sorrow - the human weakness that needed such suffering to remove it - and cause for joy - God's loving kindness that provided this way to set us free" (ST IIa IIae 82, 4).

This joy in God's forgiveness and the grace of redemption is at the heart of the Christian's joy. As my Novice Master said to me recently, the love of Christ is so great that when we have sinned, He does not need excuses or justifications for our sins. Rather, he just wants us to come to Him, humbly acknowledging the Truth of who we are and He stands ready to forgive all our sins. But before He can do that, we have to examine ourselves, we have to know who we are and what we have done and we have to ask Him to forgive those sins; that is the hard, sorrowful part. Our temptation is to do what a fallen Adam and Eve did in the garden: run and hide. But with tender-mercy, gentleness and love, Christ summons us to life and truth, and He forgives us whatever we do, if only we have the courage to know ourselves and ask for His forgiveness; that is the joyful part.

And I am convinced that this unequivocal, free gift of forgiveness and reconciliation with God, whose only demand is that we acknowledge before Him what we have done, is a joy that can be found no where else. Only Christ gives such deep and lasting joy and the Church holds out this salvation in Him as Joy for our time, and indeed, for every time. This is the Good News the world longs to hear and we are the witnesses to this Truth. Timothy Radcliffe, OP puts it much better than I do, so let his be the final words: "So the challenge for the Church is to become the sort of community that can speak convincingly about God, which is to say a place of mercy and mutual delight, of joy and freedom..." (What is the Point of Being a Christian?, p210).

The photos that illustrate this post were taken at yesterday's Study Day.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Come to a Study Day at Blackfriars!


The Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary -
Joy for Our Time

ALL interested Young People are Invited to a Dominican-led Study Day at
Blackfriars, Buckingham Road, Cambridge CB3 0DD on
Sunday 19 February 2006.

The Day begins with the Conventual Mass at 11am and ends with Vespers at 5pm.
There will be a Talk on 'The Joy of the Martyrs - Edith Stein' and
a Workshop on 'Joy according to St Thomas Aquinas'.

There will be time for discussions, the Rosary, and refreshments.
Please bring your own packed sandwich lunch.

Suggested Donation: £5

Saturday, February 18, 2006

"To paint the things of Christ, one must live with Christ."

Sometime in the late 1390s, Guido di Piero was born near the village of Vicchio in the broad alluvial valley, known as the Mugello, that lies beyond the hills behind Fiesole, to the northeast of the city of Florence. Around 1415, he and his brother Benedetto were sent that great city of art where they trained in the manuscript industry. Benedetto was trained as a scribe and Guido was apprenticed as an illuminator. By 1417 his talent and fame had captured the attention of Battista di Baggio Sanguigni, a famed illuminator who sponsored Guido's entry into the lay confraternity of San Niccolo and Guido was already a noted painter and had commissions for altarpieces and miniatures.

Based on our knowledge of Guido's social and professional contacts in the manuscript industry and his own fame, we can surmise that he would have had a promising career ahead of him. However, sometime between 1417 and 1423 - possibly around 1420 when the Dominican convent of Santa Maria Novella was consecrated in Florence - Guido entered the strict Observance of the Dominican Order at their convent in Fiesole. The Observants were a reform movement of the Order of Preachers which had been instigated by St Catherine of Siena and her disciples. Upon taking the habit, Guido's name was changed to Fra' Giovanni da Fiesole, O.P., as a symbol of his having left the world behind. This was a custom introduced by the Observants in the early 15th-century. Interestingly, Benedetto also came to join the Order at San Domenico in Fiesole, but he retained his baptismal name; the two brothers were to collaborate on manuscripts which was the mainstay of their convent's income. It was in San Domenico that Br John met Fra' Antoninus Pierozzi who became prior of their convent and who would later become archbishop of Florence and subsequently canonised. It is noteworthy that Br John had actually been offered the See of Florence by Pope Eugenius IV in 1446 but he declined and suggested St Antoninus in his stead.

Around 1427, Br John was ordained a priest at San Domenico in Fiesole. Much of his early work was for the Dominican Order and his most important early commissions were for Dominicans churches and convents in Fiesole, Florence, Cortona and Perugia. By the early 1430s however he was working for non-Dominican patrons as well including the Medici of Florence. On top of his conventual duties - he was prior, subprior and syndic (bursar) at Fiesole - Fra' Giovanni da Fiesole also maintained one of the largest and most prestigious painter's workshops in Florence in order to cope with the demands for his work. Unlike his contemporaries, Br John's work was characterised by bright colours and a luminous quality, more often found in medieval illuminations; not surprising, given his initial artistic training. Pope Pius XII said that Fra Angelico's art was "radiant with the aura of peace, holiness, harmony and joy".

However, it seems that he was not motivated by ambition as an artist, which he could easily have fallen prey to, as he ran a highly successful and efficient studio. Indeed had he wanted success as an artist, he could have remained outside the Order. Thus, he was motivated by religious considerations and saw his art as a way to preach and to further the work of the Order. Fra' Giovanni is reported to have said: "To paint the things of Christ, one must live with Christ." Clearly he saw this as being accomplished within his religious life and his painting is a fruit of his contemplation, much as a scholar writes books and a preacher declaims a sermon as fruit of their study and meditation of the Word. Hence, Pope John Paul II said that Fra Angelico's art was "the fruit of that highest harmony which flowed from the combination of a holy life and a creative power."

In 1436 the Dominicans took possession of San Marco in Florence (which had been a Sylvestrine church) and it was then renovated for Observant use, an undertaking that was financed by Cosimo and Lorenzo de Medici. At the end of 1438, Br John arrived in Florence and was assigned to that convent which was then still legally joined to the Fiesole convent. Thus began his stupendous series of frescoes and paintings for the San Marco community, which was to comprise some of his most famous work, including the two pieces I have already discussed on this blog site. This work for San Marco has been described by John Saward as "a priceless gift for his brethren: he enabled them to have contemplative contact with the mysteries of the life of Jesus at every moment of their day." While at San Marco, Fra' Giovanni also served as conventual syndic under Fra' Antoninus, who was prior of San Marco from 1439 - 1444.

On 6 January 1443, the San Marco church was consecrated by a papal legate of Pope Eugenius IV who had just held an ecumenical Council in Florence. This same Pope celebrated the Mass himself and he so appreciated Br John's work that he summoned him to Rome to produce art for the Vatican palace and (old) St Peter's Basilica. So Br John set up his workshop in Rome, reaching the apogee of his artistic patronage as he served both Pope Eugenius IV and Pope Nicholas V who succeeded him in 1447. Sadly only the chapel of Nicholas V survives. While in Rome, Br John was assigned to the Dominican church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. After a short stay in Orvieto where he decorated the cathedral with the assistance of Benozzo Gozzoli, he was recalled to Fiesole where his brother Benedetto, now prior of Fiesole, was gravely ill. Upon Fra' Benedetto's death, Br John was elected prior of Fiesole and served until 1452 when he was recalled to Rome by Cardinal John of Torquemada, the ecclesiologist. Interestingly, his nephew was the more famous Torquemada, Grand Inquisitor of Spain.

Cardinal Torquemada asked Br John to decorate the cloister of the Dominicans at Santa Maria sopra Minerva, which he began but never completed. Called home to the Lord on 18 February 1455, Fra' Giovanni da Fiesole, O.P., was buried in Rome at that church, just metres from the body of St Catherine of Siena who lies under the High Altar. Within a decade or so of his death, the distiguished poet and Latinist, Fra' Domenico da Corella called him "pictor angelicus", 'angelic painter', and he has been called "Angelico" ever since. Italians have long called him Beato Angelico, Blessed Angelico, but it was only in 1982 that Pope John Paul II, acting motu proprio, on his own initiative, confirmed the cult and he beatified Bl Angelico on 8 July 1983, assigning today as his feast.

In that 1982 Apostolic Letter, the previous Holy Father wrote that Fra Angelico lived "a life graced by his outstanding art and made even more honourable by his religious and human virtues. In the estimation of his peers he was a 'man of complete modesty and religious life'. Moreover 'he was esteemed for possessing a combination of virtues: meek by natural temperament, upright in religion'." It was these virtues in the life of Fra Angelico that elevated him to the ranks of the beati (depicted on left by Bl Angelico) and also to be considered one of the great artists of his time. Therefore Pope Pius XII said in 1955: "The genuine piety of Fra Angelico is rightly considered an essential basis for his success as a painter... His profound religious sense, his serene and austere asceticism nourished by solid virtue, contemplation and prayer... provided the power and immediacy with which his art spoke to the minds of others and, as has frequently been noted, transformed it into prayer."

Let us continue to ask this patron of artists to pray for us and for all those who serve God and His Holy Church in the arts.

"God of eternal beauty,
you inspired Fra Angelico
as an artist at the service of your truth.
May we delight in the beauty of his work
and rejoice in the glory of your creation.
We ask this through Christ our Lord."


The depiction of Blessed John of Fiesole, O.P., above is by a student of the Dominican-run Holy Rosary College in Tala, the Philippines and formed part of their annual art exhibition.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Ad maiorem Dei gloriam!

My fellow nominee for 'Best Blog by a Seminarian', Mark Mossa SJ has posted on the 'traditional' rivalry between the Society of Jesus and the Order of Preachers. This was inspired by my comment above on the way the voting for the Catholic Blog Awards has panned out.

Do give it a read and then VOTE for one of us!

It's a close race but I'm just glad that this event has helped to extend our readership, to the greater glory of God, as the famous Jesuit motto puts it! At the end of the day, this blog exists to preach Jesus Christ and to make Him known; anything else is a blessing and a grace from the God of Consolation!

Mary's Fiat and Fra Angelico

Like many of the greatest painters, Beato Angelico had a predilection for depicting the Annunciation, that momentous event when Mary's Fiat opened the way to salvation. However, his was no mere compliance with an artistic convention, just as some music composers today write music for the Latin Mass, because it is something every great composer does, but do not themselves believe a word of it! Rather, Fra Angelico placed "his genius at the disposal of a badly needed renewal of evangelical preaching, through the beauty of his painting. It is not going too far to emphasize the fact that art was, for him, the prime medium of preaching, and that his painting should be seen in this light" (Guy Bedouelle, OP, In the Image of St Dominic, 75-76). As such, we ought to examine what one such Annunciation, from the San Marco North Dormitory and painted around 1450, has to say. Artistically, the composition of this scene is credited to Fra Angelico and it was to become typical of 15th-century Florentine Annunciation scenes. It's location is also unique - it was placed outside the enclosure of the convent and hence open to public view, as is fitting for something preached to the world.

For a Dominican friar, this scene has special significance, both in the sacra conversatio, the sacred dialogue between the angel and the Blessed Virgin, which is at the heart of contemplation and in the attitude of Our Lady who listens with humility to God's divine plan and makes herself entirely available to His will; Mary's total gift of self is an act of Love which every friar wishes to emulate. Moreover, she is the one who bears the Word in her womb, contemplating Him in herself, as it were, so as to give Him to the world. So too, the friar who contemplates the Living Word, Jesus Christ, does so in order to communicate Him on to others. For Mary is "the model of the creature living in perfect friendship with God in the midst of the joys and sufferings that mark salvation history" (ibid., 77). In addition, the Annunciation reminds us that God took flesh of the Virgin Mary for our redemption; the truth of the Incarnation is central for the Order established to preach the goodness of God's creation against the dualistic heresies that plague the Church. Indeed, Bedouelle states that Fra Angelico's painting "never ceases to speak of the Incarnation" (ibid).

The Blessed Virgin Mary obviously has a key role in speaking of the Incarnation, hence I mentioned yesterday that she is one of the main figures in Dominican art. We have seen too the Order's great devotion to Our Lady and this manifests itself in the Salve Procession, the tradition that she designed the Habit and the belief that the Order was the answer to her pleas with Christ to spare a sinful world by raising up an Order of Preachers and other customs. However, William Hood adds an interesting detail that I have not seen elsewhere: "the highest authority in a Dominican convent was not the prior, but the abbess, who was the Virgin Mary herself, the mother of all the brethren alike" (Fra Angelico at San Marco, 271). As such here, in the lay brothers' dormitory, was a figure of the Mother of the Order and the angel Gabriel kneeling before her would remind the friar of her pre-eminent position and also of his own homage made to Our Lady at his Profession.

In addition, the inscription below the painting (translated from Latin) actually says: "When you come before the image of the Ever-Virgin take care that you do not neglect to say an Ave." Thus, the friar who saw this painting would echo the angelic salutation and according to a Dominican custom, genuflect when saying the 'Hail Mary' and thus directly imitate the angel in posture and word. Hence, the painting in the north corridor had a quasi-liturgical function.

Yet, the Blessed Virgin is depicted here not as a Queen but a simple maid, seated on a stool. This is in contrast to the altarpiece we examined yesterday which has her seated in royal estate. Here, her countenance is open and expectant; this is the Virgin at the very beginning of becoming the Mother of God. She gazes at the angel with beauty and tenderness, a look of contemplation on her guileless face. It is noteworthy that the Virgin's body casts a small shadow on the ground behind her stool... however the angel casts no shadow. This is a theological point - for the angel is spirit and has no true body as such, but the Blessed Virgin is fully human and embodied, a reminder again that God takes flesh and humanity from her body. Note also how large she is in proportion to the angel and the buildings; after all, she is seated! This exaggeration is deliberate to emphasise her presence and her importance. Clearly Mary is the focus of this scene and rightly so, for all her attributes which I mentioned above. Bedouelle notes that Mary's size may also serve to show that she herself is the True House, the holy Dwelling place of God and Temple of the Living God. This latter point is emphasised by the inscription above the one already noted. It reads: "Salve Mater Pietatis et Totius Trinitatis Nobilis Triclinium", 'Hail Mother of Compassion and noble resting-place of the whole Trinity', a strophe from a sequence hymn by Adam of St Victor.

The scene takes place beside an enclosed garden which is again a Patristic symbol of Mary. The flowers of red and white "evoke the whole exegesis of the Song of Songs" (Bedouelle, 80). This is another innovation as the Annunciation was typically painted with Our Lady seated and (often) reading in her bedroom, the bridal chamber of the Virgin Spouse. However Fra Angelico depicts her in the porch next to the garden as if to suggest the cloister garden where contemplation and recreation took place. The garden also alludes to Eden, whence Eve's disobedience has now been overturned by Mary's Fiat. Leonardo da Vinci was to imitate Fra Angelico's composition in his famous Lourve Annunciation, although he does not place her in so clearly an enclosed garden.

It has been suggested by William Hood that Our Lady is dressed here in black and white, the colours of the Dominican habit. I am inclined to agree because Fra Angelico's depictions of Dominican friars in their habits in the San Marco frescoes all have the same blue-ish tint that is evident here and Mary is always painted elsewhere in the convent with a red tunic. The architecture of Our Lady's porch where she sits and the cell behind her also echoes the architecture of the Priory of San Marco. All these serve to indicate that the friar ought to identify himself with Our Lady and the Dominican is invited to see in her openness to God's will and her eagerness to serve God a perfect example for him to follow, even as he meditates in his cell and contemplates the Word of God.

Thus, Pope Pius XII said in 1955 that "as he narrates or expounds the sacred mysteries to his audience, Fra Angelico is ever the skillful 'preacher', seeking to elicit an immediate response with descriptive and decorative elements in order to speak more quietly to the inmost soul. On one hand his purpose is to teach the truths of the faith, convincing human minds by the very force of their beauty. On the other he aims to lead the faithful to the practice of Christian virtues by setting before them beautiful and attractive examples."

Clearly there can be no more beautiful an example than Our Lady and the Angelic Friar preaches her beauty and virtues with eloquence both in his paintings and in his holiness of life:

"God of eternal beauty,
by your ineffable grace Fra Angelico
studied and taught the mystery of your Word.
With the help of his prayers
may we be led at last to contemplate
the radiance of your mystery face to face.
Through Christ our Lord."


Thursday, February 16, 2006

A Triduum in honour of Fra Angelico

Our Dominican brother, Blessed John of Fiesole (c.1386 - 1455), has the privilege of being the only artist raised to the altars of the Church. There is no doubt that great art existed in Florence both before and after his time, but when a great painter is also a saint, his work is suffused with a holy light and a purity of style that points towards the One who is Beauty itself, the One who reveals the holiness of beauty.

Called 'the angelic friar', Bl John of Fiesole contemplated the radiant face of Christ and handed on the fruits of his contemplation in works of art which reflected the beauty of holiness. As such, the biographer and art historian Giorgio Vasari said that "the saints [Fra Angelico] painted have more the air and likeness of saints than those of anyone else." This was possible because he was a saint himself. To celebrate this saint and artist whose feast falls on Saturday, I shall be posting a Triduum of articles on Beato Angelico and I am indebted to Professor John Saward's 'The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty' and William Hood's 'Fra Angelico at San Marco' for much of the following.

We begin today by contemplating aspects of Fra Angelico's altarpiece for the Dominican Priory of San Marco in Florence where he lived and produced work for between 1438 and 1452. This altarpiece, Ruskin tells us, was intended by Beato Angelico to be his masterpiece and Vasari said it was "especially beautiful and marvellous". The Priory of San Marco was given to the Order by Cosimo de' Medici as an Observant Dominican house, this being a reform movement in the Order of Preachers to return a stricter observance of the Constitutions. After years of re-modelling, San Marco was ready for the Observant Dominicans to move in and the priory was dedicated on the Feast of the Epiphany in 1443. Nevertheless, Fra Angelico had already begun the altarpiece for San Marco in 1439 and was to decorate the walls of the newly renovated priory with frescoes for years to come. The priory was thrust into prominence in the 1490s when Fra Savonarola was prior there and it was the scene of a siege and his dramatic arrest by the mob on 8 April 1498.

Stylistically, Bl John's work stands at the cusp of the formal and stylized Byzantine iconographic style and the classical realism of the Renaissance. As such, it is particularly suited to religious art, often of a catechetical nature and Fra Angelico's art in San Marco represented the Observants' ideals of Dominican life. What is noteworthy about many of the paintings of Christ's life is the inclusion of a Dominican, kneeling in contemplation of the scene, a kind of visual representation of what the Dominican saw in his mind's eye as he meditated on and preached the Word and prayed the Rosary.

The altarpiece in the choir of San Marco, where the friars celebrated the Liturgy, was at the very heart of the priory's life. Here, the friars gathered for Mass and the Divine Office and they did so in the invisible presence of the saints and angels, made visible in the altarpiece. Moreover, from the late 13th-century, the Dominicans began to reserve the Blessed Sacrament in a tabernacle on or above the altar itself rather than in a side chapel or the side wall of the choir (in a 'sacrament tower') as was then the custom. This Dominican innovation centred the friars' attention on our Eucharistic Lord, making the altarpiece which surrounded the tabernacle a particularly important reminder of the Lord's Presence.

In many ways, Fra Angelico's altarpiece was rooted in the Dominican life and customs and reminded the friars of what they should carry with them into the priory when their work in the church was accomplished. However, it is also a radical departure from altarpieces that came before; there is no golden background (as one still finds in Byzantine icons), gothic gables and surrounds and the setting is naturalistic and the figures realistically proportionate. Sadly this exquisite and brightly coloured painting was devastated in the 19th-century when it was cleaned with caustic soda thus fading some of the colour and detail.

The saints of the altarpiece are all patrons: St John the Evangelist (patron of Cosimo de' Medici's father and of Bl John of Fiesole himself), St Mark (patron of the convent), St Lawrence (for Lorenzo de' Medici, Cosimo's dead brother), St Dominic, St Peter Martyr (protomartyr of the Order) and St Francis (our Seraphic Father and spiritual father of mendicant friars). It is noteworthy that the Dominican General Chapter of Budapest in 1254 mandated that images of Ss Dominic and Peter Martyr be placed in all Dominican churches. In the foreground kneel Ss Cosmas and Damian, patrons of the Medici family. These saints are in conversation, displaying a communion of saints and we are invited into this scene by St Cosmos who is gesturing us into their midst. Moreover, the curtains are pulled back fully to reveal this vision of Paradise. As we on earth enter into conversation with these heavenly patrons, there emerges a sacra conversazione (as art historians call it) between heaven and earth.

At the centre of the altarpiece is the Christ Child, nude and enthroned with His Mother and holding the orb, signifying his universal kingship. This orb, rather unusually, is actually painted with a map of the world with Jerusalem in the centre. The figure of Christ is surrounded by attendant angels holding instruments of the Lord's Passion by which He won Kingship of this world. This is significant as the priory was dedicated on the Feast of the Epiphany when the kings of the earth knelt before the sovereign Lord and San Marco was long a focus of the Florentine people's Epiphany celebrations. The saints and angels are gathered as at a royal court, the throne with its classical entablature (in tribute to Burnelleschi whose work was all the rage in Florence then) set on a lavish carpet and surrounded by sumptuous hangings and cloth of gold.

The Order of Preachers has always had a special devotion to Our Lady, seeing her to have founded the Order herself and to be its Protectress. In addition, she is the "vanquisher of heresy" and her presence and that of the Lord, naked and vulnerable, is a reminder of the reality of the Incarnation. Indeed, Guy Bedouelle, OP notes that "[Fra Angelico's] painting never ceases to speak of the Incarnation." Thus, through his art, the angelic friar preached the central message of the Friars Preachers. As the Order was founded to defeat the Albigensian heresy which was an extreme form of dualism that deplored the flesh and denied the Incarnation, it is only to be expected that the Our Lady and the Christ Child is at the centre of the altarpiece. In fact, she is a dominant figure in Dominican art and references to her permeates the San Marco altarpiece, like perfume fragrances the air.

The landscape behind her is actually a reference to Ecclesiasticus 24:13-16, where Wisdom - who is personified in Our Lady - is likened to cedars of Lebanon and cypresses, palms and olives, to fragrant and fruiting trees, all represented here. Moreover, the trees are in an enclosed garden and the Fathers referred to Mary as the 'hortus conclusus', a mark of her fecund virginity. This garden stretches down to the sea, a reminder of the Marian Office hymn wherein she is called the 'stella maris', the star of the sea. The roses that festoon the upper reaches of the painting are reminescent of the Rosary which is a famously Dominican devotion. But most explicitly, the altarpiece contains quotations from the Dominican Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary: in her mantle is inscribed "I am the mother of beautiful love... and of holy hope"; "Like a vine I caused loveliness to bud, and my blossoms became glorious and abundant fruit." And indeed there is a serene beauty about her that comes from the light of her Son and this beauty is reflected in the saints, her spiritual children, gathered around her.

Another element present in the altarpiece is the reference to preaching. Dominican altarpieces frequently had apostles or preaching saints present to show that the Order stood in the line of preachers stretching back to the apostles. The Dominican motto: "Contemplata aliis tradere", 'To pass on to others the things contemplated' is indicative of the raison d'etre of the Order of Preachers. Here in the San Marco altarpiece, the evangelist Mark is showing the Gospel he has written to the evangelist John; literally passing on his Gospel words to another. On this codex is written the text from chapter 6 of his Gospel in which Jesus sends out his disciples in pairs to preach the Gospel, bound to poverty and empowered by the Holy Spirit; a clear reference to the Dominican friars who follow in their footsteps. The posture of Ss Cosmas and Damian also indicate the twin aspects of the motto above, as one gazes upon the Holy Face and the other is turned towards us, exhorting us to look to Christ.

Finally, we ought to note the little crucifix at the bottom. This actually stood above the altar of sacrifice where the Holy Mass was offered. Taken in its complete context, it is another of Fra Angelico's visual sermons. He reminds us that in the flesh that He took from the Virgin Mary, Jesus truly suffered and died, in that flesh He rose again and ascended to the Father and with that flesh he now feeds us in the Eucharist at that altar.

As the friars of San Marco received and adored the Lord truly Present in the Eucharist, heaven was really present and this altarpiece enfolded the friars within the blessed company of Paradise with the saints and angels, with Our Blessed Mother and especially with the Lord who gave Himself to them in the Eucharist. The perpetual Presence of Christ in the tabernacle made a little heaven out of the company of his disciples gathered there in prayer in the choir of San Marco. Where His Body was, there was the king. And where the king was, there was his kingdom.

This was Beato Angelico's sermon, his holy preaching and he convey continues to preach Christ Incarnate through his sublime art. Thus, Pope John Paul II said in his Apostolic letter of 1982: "It is evident that Brother John, because of his rare gifts placed at the service of his art, has been of immense spiritual and pastoral usefulness to the people of God. And he continues to be so, for even today his art makes the way to God more accessible for us."

Let us pray:

"God of eternal beauty,
in your providence you inspired Blessed Fra Angelico
to reveal in images of earth
the tranquil harmony of heaven.
With the help of his prayers
and by following his example
may our lives reveal that same splendour
to the hearts of all our brothers and sisters.
Through Christ our Lord."