Category Archives: contemplation

St. Agnes, January 21


St. Agnes, Rome

Agnes is one of the most important saints of the early church.  She’s  among the seven women mentioned in the 1 Eucharistic Prayer: “Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia.” That prayer goes back to St. Gregory the Great in the 6th century. Some also say his mother and aunt may have promoted that list of women, all strong women who died for their belief. ( cf. Joseph Jungmann)

It’s interesting to see where those women come from. Felicity and Perpetual are from North Africa, Agatha and Lucy from Sicily, Agnes and Cecily from Rome, Anastasia originally from Greece. They’re holy women from all parts of the church of their time.

Agnes’ story appears in legendary 5th century sources, but historians today are more and more appreciative of these early stories, as they are of the infancy narratives of the gospels. They contain more history than legend.  

Agnes was a beautiful, wealthy 13 year old girl, probably chosen to be the wife of an influential Roman man, but she refused to marry him or anyone else, because she believed as a Christian she had the right to choose marriage or not.

That choice wasn’t an option for Roman women then. They were expected to marry young, to marry men chosen for them, and to have two or three children. Rome needed  soldiers then to grow and hold on to their empire. It preferred its own men and wanted its own women to produce them. Only reluctantly did Rome come to accept and depend on foreigners for its army.

.Agnes’ refusal to marry went against strong Roman expectations. She also lived during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, who was suspicious of Christians, so Agnes was made an example of what would happen to anyone who made a choice like hers.  

Tradition says that after much pressure the authorities brought her to the Stadium of Domitian in the center of Rome,  to a brothel of prostitutes there, to commit her to a life of prostitution, but God kept her from harm. She would not yield, and so they took her into the arena and killed her by slitting her throat. Those who saw her die marveled at her courage and her faith.

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Martyrdom of Agnes, Church of St. Agnes, Rome

Agnes was buried in the catacombs along the Via Nomentana outside the walls of the city. An ancient church stands over her grave there. A beautiful church to visit if you are in Rome. ( below) Another 16th century church honors Agnes in the Piazza Navona, where the Stadium of Domition once stood and the young girl suffered and died. 

The feast day of St. Agnes, January 21,  comes about the time prayer and demonstrations for legal protections for the unborn occur in the United States. Agnes is a good reminder of the important place women have in the issue of unborn life. The choices women make are crucial.

One of the prayers for this time speaks of the importance of unborn children and the role of women who bear them and care for them: 

God, author of all life,

bless, we pray, all unborn children; 

give them constant protection

and grant them a healthy birth,

for they are signs of our rebirth one day into the eternal rejoicing of heaven.

Lord, grant courage to all women

whom you have gifted with the joy of motherhood, 

and give them the determination to bring their children along the way of salvation.

Amen

st. agnes church
St. Agnes, Via Nomentana, Rome

Saint Hilary of Potiers

Hilary

Besides  the scriptures, the saints are companions on life’s journey, revealing  the wisdom of God from age to age.  “A cloud of witnesses,” the Letter to the Hebrews calls them.

January 13th we remember St. Hilary of Potiers, who lived in the early 4th century, a crucial time for the church, when the Emperor Constantine and his successors ended years of persecution and welcomed Christians as allies in governing the empire.

Hilary was born in Gaul into a wealthy family, but he wasn’t brought up in a Christian environment. He came to baptism (about the year 345 AD) through personal study of the scriptures. He was married and had a daughter. Then, about ten years after his baptism he was elected by the people of Potiers as their bishop. An unusual path to become a bishop!

A bishop’s role changed after Constantine gave the church freedom in 312 AD. More and more, they became agents of the emperor and his administration, and that brought temptation. Hilary and one of his friends, Martin of Tours, thought a good number of the bishops in Gaul were after worldly power and prestige rather than a spiritual ministry.

Many bishops closely associated with the emperors– both in the eastern and western parts of the empire– were also influenced by Arianism, which was favored by the emperors Constantius ( 350-361) and Valens (364-378). Arianism claimed that Jesus was human and not divine. He was only godlike.

Arianism is Christianity lite; it dismisses the claims of Jesus to be divine and makes him like us, only better and more powerful. Probably the emperors and  bishops sympathetic to the Arian doctrine felt it made Christianity more palatable for unbelievers. A good political option

Hilary strongly upheld the divinity of Jesus, basing his faith on the scriptures  he read and the sacrament of baptism he received. His stand brought him exile in Asia Minor, but he continued to teach and write in defense of orthodoxy and eventually he was restored to his diocese.

Hilary’s counterpart in the eastern church, St. Athanasius, was another big opponent of Arianism and imperial control of the church. Both bishops suffered exile and helped the church hold to the faith professed at the Council of Nicea in 321 AD. St. Jerome expressed the gravity of the situation: “The world groaned, amazed that it had become Arian.”

Hilary in Gaul and Athanasius in Egypt argued for Catholic orthodoxy from the scriptures and church tradition. They also strongly encouraged religious life in the church. Athanasius saw the spirituality of the desert, exemplified by St. Anthony ( we remember him later this week) as a remedy for the increasing worldliness of Christians. Hilary was the teacher of Martin of Tours, founder of religious life in Gaul.

The two saints promoted religious life which played an important part in promoting sound faith in the church. Christianity always needs communities of dedicated believers as well as sharp-minded leaders for its journey through time. Say a prayer for our religious communities, including my own. We need them in the church.

And let’s not forget to pray for good bishops too.

Reading Mark’s Gospel

Mark

Mark 1, 7-11-  Mark 8, 14-21

After the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus we read at Mass from the first 8 chapters of the Gospel of Mark until Ash Wednesday.

Mark’s Gospel makes no mention of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem but begins with the story of his baptism in the Jordan River. Then he describes his miracles and teaching in the towns around the Sea of Galilee– the Jewish towns first, then in the gentile region. Then he goes up to Jerusalem and his death and resurrection.

Until recently, Mark’s Gospel received little attention compared to the gospels of Matthew, John or Luke. It was hardly read in the liturgy. Early commentators thought Mark was simply a synopsis of Matthew’s Gospel. Commentators today, however, recognize Mark’s Gospel as the first to be written and appreciate the powerful way it tells the story of Jesus. It’s not just a simple portrayal of historical facts or a synopsis of Matthew. It’s rich in symbolism.

Mark’s Gospel, for example, begins in the waters of the Jordan River, where Jesus is called God’s beloved Son on whom the Spirit rests. Water is a recurring image in Mark’s portrayal of Jesus’ ministry.

John Donahue SJ, a recent commentator on the Gospel of Mark (Liturgical Press, 2002) , points out the symbolic nature of the various events in Jesus’ ministry around the Sea of Galilee. As the Spirit rested on the waters of the Jordan, so does the Spirit stir these waters, drawing more and more to Jesus, God’s Son. Crossing from its western to its eastern side – from a side largely Jewish to a side largely gentile – Jesus and his disciples bring the gospel to gentiles as well as Jews. 

The storms Jesus and his disciples face on the sea are more than historic storms; they symbolize the fearful challenge and rejection to be faced in bringing the gospel to others. (Mark 6:45-52)

“As he passed by the Sea of Galilee,” Jesus calls some fishermen, Simon, his brother Andrew, James and his brother John. He makes them “ fishers of men.” (Mark 1, 16-19) Along the sea, Jesus teaches the crowds in parables.

The journeys of Jesus and his disciples to Tyre and Sidon, seaports on the Mediterranean Sea, are more than historical markers. The Syrophoenician woman and the deaf man, both gentiles healed there, are signs that the gospel must be brought over the seas to the gentiles at ends of the earth. ( Mark 7:24-37) 

Jesus multiplies bread on both sides of the Sea of Galilee in Mark’s Gospel. The gentiles are to be fed and blessed as well as Jews. (Mark 6:31-44; Mark 8:1-10)

The Spirit moves in the waters of the Jordan, the Sea of Galilee and the waters beyond yet, as Mark’s Gospel indicates repeatedly, the Jewish leaders, the pharisees, scribes, Herodians, members of his own family, his disciples, do not understand. Neither do we.

Still, the Spirit works through the waters, softening, cleansing, strengthening, giving new life.

Our readings from Mark end on Ash Wednesday.

John Neumann, January 5

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Shrine of St.John Neumann, St. Peter’s Church, Philadelphia

Today’s the feast of St. John Neumann,. “The sacrament of Holy Orders is at the service of the communion of the church.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church). In his life as a priest and bishop John Neumann heroically served the church.

Born in Bohemia in 1811, John Neumann studied in the seminary there and was attracted to the new lands of the United States of America. Arriving in New York City in 1835, he was accepted for ordination by Bishop Dubois and sent to the northern parts of New York State which then was experiencing explosive growth because of the newly built Eire Canal.

The young priest, zealous and able to speak a number of languages, worked among the many new immigrants looking for work and a new life in the vast area opened by the canal. He worked tirelessly establishing churches and new parishes, and wore himself out in the immense task.

He joined the Redemptorist Order seeking the support and stability that a religious order provided. Still, he continued in the work of building up the church in a growing country; he traveled extensively through the northeastern United States establishing parishes, preaching and catechizing an immigrant people.

In 1852 he was appointed bishop of Philadelphia and worked vigorously in that diocese as its shepherd. He built over 100 new schools and 50 churches there, until his death in 1860. Convinced of the need for good instruction in the faith, he wrote two catechisms, preached continuously, administered the sacraments and established the Forty Hours Devotion in his diocese.

John Neumann was a priest at the service of the communion of the Church. He left his home and a well established church in Europe to build a new home and church in the United States. He was a true missionary of Christ.

We need priests like him today.

O God, who called the Bishop Saint John Neumann,

renowned for his charity and pastoral service,

to shepherd your people in America,

grant by his intercession

that, as we foster the Christian education of youth

and are strengthened by the witness of brotherly love,

we may constantly increase the family of your Church.

Through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Poor in Spirit

Christmas is a time of poverty. The Spirit of Bethlehem is one of smallness, of tiny new beginnings that open our minds to the infinite largeness of Incarnate Wisdom. The Christ Child heals us of our presumption. The New Born shows us that we simply don’t know what God has in store. His impoverished delivery stops us in our tracks. We stand like beasts in a stable, our knowledge, our understanding, our science, our facts, our truths stripped of eternal value. All that remains, whether we’re shepherds or kings or someone in between, is for us to nod along with the tiny beat of the drummer boy offering his seemingly meaningless gift. Let’s welcome Christ Jesus, Innocence itself, by being poor with Him. Let’s let go of preconceived notions of having control. To stand before the Lord in our nothingness is worth more to Him than any amount of gold, frankincense or myrrh. Our humility before the bright light is pure praise and prayer to the One Who offers us everything.

—Howard Hain

Mary’s Mother

by Howard Hain

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Albrecht Durer, “Virgin and Child with Saint Anne”, ca. 1519 (The Met)

Christmas is a time for grandmothers.

They bake and cook and decorate. Their homes become mini North Poles, diplomatic outposts of Santa’s Castle.

At its core, Christmas is of course all about Jesus. All about Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. All about the Holy Family.

The Holy Family is an extended family though. And it doesn’t stop at grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, or even cousins and distant cousins.

Just ask Saints Joachim and Anne, Zechariah and Elizabeth, or John the Baptist—not to mention all the unknown relatives whom the child Jesus surely encountered throughout His Galilean days. Ask any one of them about the far-reaching ripple effects of family grace.

Those touched by Jesus have a tendency to appear bigger than life.

Look at Santa Claus.

Most of us are aware that he is really Saint Nick.

But do we stop to wonder who Mrs. Claus really is?

I think she’s Saint Anne.

After all, Mrs. Claus is seen as everyone’s grandmother, especially when it comes to holiday cheer. But when it comes to truly celebrating the birth of Jesus, it is through Saint Anne that we approach the gates of Christ’s Nativity.

Mary’s Mother holds a special key. She is first among grandmas, first among those who pinch chubby cheeks, who pass along one more extra sugary treat.

———

Saint Anne help us. Speak to us. Show us how to be grand parents to all those around us, especially the little ones. Stir up the spirit of Advent. Bake away the holiday blues. Cook up a dish of Christmas love that only your hearth can serve.

———

Come one, come all, to the home of Saint Anne. Come with me to Grandma’s house for a holiday visit. Taste and see. Enter her kitchen, where the hot chocolate can always fit a little more whipped cream, where you hear the constant refrain: “eat…eat…eat…”

At Grandma’s your plate is never empty.

Her table is continually set.

She always sees Jesus as having just been born.

She is always wrapping Him up tightly in swaddling clothes.

It is simply grand.

To Grandma, Jesus is always an innocent child.

And she can’t help but see Him deep within both you and me.


(Dec/21/2017)

Howard Hain is a contemplative layman, husband, and father. He blogs at http://www.howardhain.com


Web Link: Metropolitan Museum of Art. Albrecht Durer, “Virgin and Child with Saint Anne”, ca. 1519

 

Broken Baby Jesus

by Howard Hain

(Note: This post was originally published on December 24, 2011.)

broken-baby-christ-2-1


We have not put up a tree in years.

For nearly a decade we have been moving—no longer than two years in any one house and no less than ten different not-so-humble abodes. Between and during the moves we were very much engaged with the world. A seemingly endless movable beast.

This December marks one year in our current house. I am happy to say it is our home. The Lord has blessed us with great peace. And with that peace comes a tree. A simple, well-shaped tree. Fittingly, a dear friend offered it to us as a gift.

Francesca could not be more ready to be initiated into the act of trimming. Before the tree arrived, her two-year-old fingers pointed out every tree, artificial or real, that graced the pages of a holiday flyer or the commercial floor of a Rite Aid or Dollar Store.

Up the stairs came the evergreen, into the old stand that has been in storage since my father last used it several decades ago. I cut off the mesh and out popped the branches.

We hung the lights and old glass ornaments that my mother-in-law washed a few days before.

The main attraction for Francesca was the Nativity.

Not since St. Francis of Assisi assembled the first Nativity in Greccio in 1223, has there been such admiration for each and every witness who Our Lord assembled to adore His Son that first Christmas two millennia ago. Francesca kissed and hugged every shepherd, sheep, donkey, angel, and king. Most of all she adored the Holy family, calling Mary and Joseph, Ma-ma and Da-da, respectively. And Jesus, He was simply called: “ba-be.”

She carried them around the apartment. I did not want to ruin her fun, but they are ceramic. I explained a few times to be very careful.

“Gentle, Francesca…gentle…”, I harked a host of times.

Boom. To the wood floor went the shepherd. Amazing, grace held him intact. I took that as a great sign to put an end to her carrying the animals, angels and representatives of mankind.

I was fixing my coffee when I turned to see Francesca with Baby Jesus in her tiny hands. But He is so small, so tiny, what harm could come from holding Him? So I let her get away with carrying the Savior.

As I stirred my spoon Christ crashed to the floor, the tile floor. Francesca immediately looked at me, as if expecting all hell to break loose. I think I sighed but that was about all. It is Christmas, right? And it is, after all, only a ceramic figure purchased at Target.

After assuring Francesca not to worry and guiding her toward a few coloring books in the living room, I bent down to retrieve the broken Christ.

———

St. Francis was told by a Crucifix in an old abandoned chapel: “Restore my Church.”

In my small one-bedroom apartment, I found Baby Christ, broken into exactly three: The Head, the Torso, and the Crossed Legs.

“Restore the Trinity,” was spoken to me.

———

For half of my forty years I can honestly say I have tried to pursue Truth, wherever it lie. In philosophy, in scripture, in literature, in art, in nature, in history…

Now, the entire Gospel of Christ lie naked on my kitchen floor.

We separate, we distinguish, we categorize, we breakdown. The Fall of Adam was a fall into denomination.

Christ’s body is One. His Church cannot be broken. Only mere men can get things so wrong.

I think of the great “Angelic Doctor” of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas, who after spending a lifetime in unparalleled pursuit of human understanding, said after glimpsing a vision of what Our Lord has in store for those who love God:

“All that I have written seems like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me.”

Yes… “straw”…my brother Thomas…merely straw. Straw that lines the manger within which Our Savior is laid bare.

———

It is tradition to leave the crib empty until Christmas morning. Only then do we place the figurative baby Jesus into the scene, after all until that moment he was not yet brought forth from Mother Mary’s womb.

This Christmas morning I will glue together a Broken Baby Christ. The Head, the Torso, and the Crossed Legs will again be One.

Like the world after the birth of Christ, I will never be the same.

For what has now been revealed to me, no fall can break apart.


 

Howard Hain is a contemplative layman, husband, and father. He blogs at http://www.howardhain.com

 

The Yet Empty Stable

by Howard Hain

There’s a little stable not too far from here.

It sits in a church that has seen better days.

The parish is poor and the people seem to disappear.

But a few persistent peasants won’t stay away.

I love it there.

The priest is wonderfully uncertain.

He is afraid of God.

He instinctively bows his head at the mention of the name.

He knows how little he is in front of the great star.

I imagine he was involved in setting the stable.

It is a good size, on the relative little-stable scale.

It is surrounded by ever-green branches.

Probably snipped from the few Douglas Firs placed around the altar and yet to be trimmed.

The stable itself is composed of wood.

A little wooden railing crosses half the front.

A single string of clear lights threads through the branches laid upon the miniature roof.

They are yet to be lit.

I love it there.

I kneel before the empty scene.

For as of yet, not a creature or prop is present.

Not an ox or a goat, not a piece of hay or plank of fencing.

Not even a feeding trough that is to be turned into a crib.

No visible sign of Joseph and Mary, nor a distant “hee-haw” of a very tired donkey.

I wonder if I could get involved.

Perhaps I could slip into the scene.

There’s a darkened corner on the lower left.

In the back, against the wall.

I could hide myself within the stable.

Before anyone else arrives.

I don’t think they would mind.

I’d only be there to adore.

To pay homage to the new born king.

I might even help keep the animals in line.

Yes, a stagehand, that’s what I can be!

I know there’s no curtain to pull.

That’s to be torn in a much later scene.

But to watch the Incarnation unfold from within!

That’s what I dream.

To see each player take his and her place.

To see the great light locate the babe.

To watch the kings and shepherds stumble onto the scene.

Hark! To hear the herald angels sing!

O the joy of being a simple farmhand.

Of being in the right place at always the right time.

Of course though I wouldn’t be alone.

In that darkened corner, also awaiting the entire affair, there are many others.

Most I don’t know by name.

Too many in fact to even count.

But a few I know for sure.

For certain, present are those few persistent peasants who won’t stay away.

And of course there’s that wonderful anonymous parish priest.

The one who helped set into place this yet empty but very expectant stable.

The one whose fear of God is so clearly the beginning of wisdom.


(Dec/16/2016)

Howard Hain is a contemplative layman, husband, and father. He blogs at http://www.howardhain.com

The Maccabees: Restoring the Temple

This week’s Mass readings from the 1st Book of Maccabees tell the story of the re-dedication of the temple of Jerusalem three years after its profanation  by Antiochus Epiphanes.  About the year 167 BC,  Jews under Judas Maccabeus re-conquered Jerusalem and restored the temple, the heart of their religion.

The first reading on Friday describes the rededication of the temple to its former glory. The Jews continue to celebrate it in the feast of Hannukah. (1 Maccabees 4,36-61}

The New Testament writers, certainly aware of this historic event, recall Jesus cleansing the temple.(Friday’s gospel) Entering Jerusalem after his journey from Galilee, “ Jesus went into the temple area and proceeded to drive out those who were selling things, saying to them, ‘It is written, My house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.’” Then, “every day he was teaching in the temple area” until he was arrested and put to death. (Luke 19,45-48)

Cleansing the temple was a symbolic act. By it,  Jesus signified  he is the presence of God, the Word made flesh, the new temple of God.

Luke says Jesus taught in the temple “every day.” As our eternal high priest, he teaches us every day and brings us every day to his Father and our Father.

Jesus is the temple that cannot be destroyed. At his trial before he died, witnesses gave testimony that was half right when they said he spoke of destroying the temple. When he spoke about the destruction of the temple, Jesus was speaking of the temple of his own body. Death seemed to destroy him, but he was raised up on the third day.

We share in this mystery as “members of his body.” Yet, we’re a sacramental people and need places to come together, to pray and to meet God who “dwells among us.” We need churches and holy places. We instinctively revolt when we see them go, or are not frequented.

Old stories carry lessons.

Wisdom

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Everyday this week, the 32nd week of the year, we’re reading at Mass from the Book of Wisdom. The wisdom literature in the bible–Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom, Sirach– is not primarily spiritual wisdom or the high-level learning of graduate school. It’s the wisdom there in the school of everyday.

Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish virgins from Matthew’s gospel offers an example.  Why didn’t the foolish virgins bring enough oil to the wedding like the wise virgins did? They didn’t learn from their own experience. It’s as simple as that. (Matthew 24, 1-13)

The wisdom tradition insists we need to learn from our own experience of life and the experience of others.  Yes, God’s help is there, but God expects us to help ourselves, and we have to do that everyday.

“The beginning of wisdom is: get wisdom;

whatever else you get, get understanding.” (Proverbs 4,7)

Keep learning, from childhood to old age; it’s imperative. The search for wisdom goes on daily, whether the day is easy or dark, whether there’s joy or suffering. (Book of Job)

The wisdom literature recognizes obstacles in the search for wisdom. We get fixated on things like success, careers, money, pleasure, health, politics, but the school of life is bigger than any of these.

The wisdom literature recognizes too that we’re drawn to a greater reality. “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” We’re made to wonder before what is greater than we are. We’re not satisfied with small things. “Our hearts are restless, till they rest in you.”

“Resplendent and unfading is Wisdom,

and she is readily perceived by those who love her,

and found by those who seek her.

She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her;

one who watches for her at dawn will not be disappointed,

for she will be found sitting at the gate.” (Wisdom 6, 12-14)