Tag Archives: pilgrimage

Visiting Elizabeth Seton’s New York

If you would like to visit Elizabeth Seton’s New York, start with a ride on the Staten Island Ferry. It’s free, and it offers a view of New York City that takes you back in time to its beginning

In New York harbor you can picture the city as the earliest European explorers did,   it’s a gem at its center. On its left the Hudson River flows to the north, on its right the East River flows out to the coast.

In 1524 Giovanni Verranzano came upon New York harbor–he thought it was a lake– searching for a passage to the Pacific. The Verranzano Bridge stands to the south at the entrance to the harbor today.

In 1609 Henry Hudson, exploring for the Dutch, sailed into the harbor and then up as far as Albany on the river that now bears his name.  The Dutch realized how valuable this place was and made a small settlement on the island. They called their trading post New Amsterdam and traded with the many Indian tribes here and along the Hudson River. Before any Europeans came, numerous Indian tribes fished, hunted and traded here.

The English had their eyes on the place too and in 1642 took it over. New Amsterdam became New York, and it was under English control till the American Revolution in 1776.

Millions of immigrants have come through New York harbor since then. In the harbor you are looking at their gateway to the new world.  The Statue of Liberty stands on the harbor’s western side along with Ellis Island, a major center for processing immigrants.

New York harbor also was the place where early New York City traded with the rest of the world. Elizabeth Seton and her family were closely connected to the harbor. Her husband, William Seton, invested in the ships that made New York one of the richest ports in the world.  But ships were a risky investment; they brought handsome profits but they could also bring bankruptcy if they didn’t come in. The Setons experienced both the riches and the risk.

I suppose you could call William Seton one of Wall Street’s first venture capitalists. In 1801 the Seton’s went bankrupt after the loss of a ship at sea and the family moved to the rented house on State Street, our first stop off the ferry.

Elizabeth Seton’s father, Doctor Richard Bayley, was the first Health Officer for the Port of New York (1796);  he dealt with many of the first immigrants and travellers arriving here.

His job was to keep New York City safe from disease, and one of his tasks was to keep travellers who were dangerous health threats isolated. So, quarantine stations were set up in the harbor for immigrants with yellow fever, cholera and small pox.

Within the harbor are some of the city’s early quarantine stations. Bedloe’s Island (1758-1796), Governor’s Island (1796-1799), Thomkinsville in Staten Island (1799-1858), just south of the St. George ferry station.

In the summer of 1801, Elizabeth was staying with her father at the Thomkinsville quarantine station when a boatload of sick Irish immigrants were brought in. She describes the dreadful conditions in a letter:

“I cannot sleep–the dying and the dead possess my mind. Babies perishing at the empty breast of the expiring mother…Father says such was never known before: twelve children  must die for want of sustenance…parents deprived of it as they have lain for many days ill in a ship without food or air or changing…There are tents pitched over the yard of the convalescent house and a large one at the death house.” (Letter July 28, 1801)

That same year, Richard Bayley died from yellow fever contacted while caring for a boatload of Irish immigrants off Thomkinsville. He’s buried in the family plot next to the Episcopal Church of St. Andrew in Richmond, Staten Island.

Arriving back in the city you can see the Seton house and a shrine near the ferry terminal at the end of Manhattan Island where Elizabeth Seton and her family lived for a short time. Stop in for a visit; many mementoes of her are found there. Most of Elizabeth Seton’s New York years were lived in this early section of the city.

From Mother Seton’s shrine and house on State Street walk up Broadway to Trinity Church and then St. Paul’s Chapel, the Anglican parish she belonged to until her conversion to Catholicism in 1805. She lived her early years as a happily married woman with five children on Wall Street and Stone Street, close by these colonial churches.

As a devout Anglican, Elizabeth devoted herself to her family and to the poor. In 1797 she and other public-spirited church women began an aid society for destitute women and their children. “The poor increase fast: immigrants from all quarters come to us. And when they come to us they must not be allowed to die.” (Description of the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows and Small Children.)

Looking eastward down Wall Street from Trinity Church on Broadway , you can see many of the founding institutions of America: the docks and slave market (no longer visible) on the East River  the New York Stock Exchange and the Federal building, a short walk from Broadway, and finally Trinity Church and King’s College on the western side of Manhattan. King’s College built on lands belonging to Trinity Church became Columbia University after the Revolutionary War, and later relocated in northern Manhattan.

Our final stop visiting Elizabeth Seton’s New York is St. Peter’s Catholic Church on Barclay Street, near to World Trade Center. Here she was received into the Catholic Church. Notice the beautiful painting of the crucifixion above the altar. Elizabeth Seton mentioned how moved she was as she prayed before that painting after becoming a Catholic. 

In June 1808, she left New York City with her family for Baltimore, where she founded a school on Paca Street, the beginning of the Catholic parochial schools system in the United States. Shortly after, Mother Seton moved to Emmitsburg, Maryland, where other women gathered around her and took vows as the Sisters of Charity. Her religious followers continued her work through schools, orphanages and hospitals found throughout the United States.

Mother Seton died at the age of 46 in 1821. She was canonized on September 14,1975. There’s a good biography of Mother Seton written by Catherine O’Donnell, Elizabeth Seton: American Saint, Blackstone, 2018

Nazareth: Where Jesus Was Raised


What was Nazareth like? We might think it was a quiet little town far from anywhere else in Jesus’ time; the gospels indicate his early years were spent in such a place.  Recent historical studies tell a different story. The town was not as isolated as once believed.  Just four miles away was the thriving Greco-Roman city of Sepphoris, recently uncovered by archeologists, and nearby were roads to Tiberias, Jerusalem, the sea coast and the rest of the world.

 Galilee’s economy was booming then, thanks to the rich soil of the Esdraelon plains, the fishing villages along the Sea of Galilee, the stability of Roman rule and Herod Antipas, a skillful administrator and builder who was firmly in charge then.  His new regional capital, Tiberias–a model of Greco-Roman city planning– dominated the shores of the Sea of Galilee. A new port, Caesaria Maritima linked Galilee to the rest of the Roman world. 

Could Nazareth, 15 miles east of the Sea of Galilee and 20 miles west of the Mediterranean Sea, situated in a thriving province, be shut off from this world?

How did Jesus get there?

Some historians say Joseph and Mary were not from Nazareth in Galilee, but from Judea.  Matthew’s gospel, in contrast to Luke’s, indicates that Joseph was a Judean associated with Bethlehem, David’s city. Mary’s family may have been associated with the temple in Jerusalem. The Church of St. Ann there claims to mark Mary’s birthplace in that city. 

Another tradition, however, says Mary was born in Sepphoris, near Nazareth. After Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, the gospels indicate his family moved north to the small town of Nazareth to escape the clutches of Herod the Great, who ordered the slaughter of infants. When Herod died, he was succeeded by his son Archelaeus, who was just as unstable as his father. Herod Antipas, another of Herod’s sons yet slightly less dangerous than Archelaeus, inherited power in Galilee after his father’s death in 6 BC and ruled till about 36 AD, in the lifetime of Jesus. He began building the city of Sepphoris in 3 BC. Workers from nearby Nazareth would likely have been recruited to build that city.

Jesus and his followers rejected

Whatever its history, Nazareth will always be a mystery. Instead of supporting Jesus, the Nazareans turned their backs to him, the gospels say. They drove him out of their synagogue when he announced his mission and said he was mad. (Mt 13,54-58)  After his resurrection, there is no evidence Jesus appeared there; his followers in Nazareth were few. “No prophet is without honor except in his native place,” Jesus said. (Mt 13,54)

A Christian Minority through the Centuries

Followers of Jesus in the town where he was raised continued to be few, it seems. By the time Matthew’s Gospel was written, around the year 90, after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD,  scribes and temple officials as well as the pharisees from that city had moved to the Galilean cities of Tiberias and Sepphoris, near Nazareth, and began a powerful new movement in Judaism.

Did they drive the followers of Jesus out of the Galilean synagogues just as his contemporaries drove him out of Nazareth?  Matthew’s gospel offers numerous warnings that the disciples would be handed over to the courts and scourged in the synagogues. (cf. Mt 10, 17)

“Slender evidence suggests that a Jewish Christian community survived in Nazareth during the C2 and C3 AD, “ writes Jerome Murphy-O”Connor. (The Holy Land, 423) The nun Egeria, one of the few early Christian visitors to Nazareth, found a cave considered part of Mary’s house in the 4th century,  but she did not stay long in the town.  In 570 AD a pilgrim from Piacenza found Nazareth a hostile place:  “there is no love lost in the town between Christians and Jews.” Two Christian churches were built at that time, but after the Muslim conquest of Palestine in the 7th century the number of Christians in Nazareth declined further and their churches were destroyed.

When the Crusaders conquered the town in the 11th century, they rebuilt the Byzantine shrines and added their own buildings; some remains are visible today. But after the defeat of the Christians in the 12th century, Nazareth once more became a Muslim stronghold and Christians a minority.

Through the ages, the Christian presence in Galilee remained small, dependent mostly on Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. After the crusades, it was considered dangerous for Christians to enter Nazareth.  In 1620 the Franciscans bought a site in the  town where the house of Mary was said to be and they continued to nourish a Christian presence in the town. Through their efforts the large Basilica of the Annunciation, built over the early Byzantine and Crusader churches and archeological remains from the ancient town, was dedicated in 1968. The Greek Orthodox church also continued its ministry in this revered spot.

Nazareth itself remained poor and undeveloped from the time of Jesus until recently, when it became the provincial capital of Galilee and its population soared. From less than 1,000 inhabitants in Jesus’ time, the number has grown today to 70,000, mostly Muslim.

The large basilica of the Annunciation, with its extensive collection of art from all over the world honoring this mystery, is a gathering place for Catholic pilgrims. Here faith attempts to interpret this mysterious town “where our feeble senses fail.”

19th Century Nazareth

An English vicar left this quaint description  as he approached Nazareth towards the end of the 19th century. Unlike its neighbor, Cana, the town then was experiencing a modest revival:

“Our horses began to climb the steep ascent of 1,000 feet that brings one to the plateau in a fold of which, three miles back among its own hills, lies Nazareth.

“At last, all at once, a small valley opened below, set round with hills, and a pleasant little town appeared to the west. Its straggling houses of white soft limestone, and mostly new, rose row over row up the steep slope. A fine large building,with slender cypresses around it, stood nearest to us; a minaret looked down from the rear.

“Fig trees, single and in clumps, were growing here and there in the valley, which was covered with crops of grain, lentils and beans. Above the town, the hills were steep and high, with thick pasture, sheets of rock, fig trees now and then in an enclosed spot.   Such was Nazareth , the home of our Lord. (p 513)

“The town is only a quarter of a mile long, so that it is a small place, at best; the population made up of about 2,000 Mohammedans, 1,000 Roman Catholics, 2,500 Greek Catholics and 100 Protestants – not quite 6000 in all; but its growth to this size is only recent, for thirty years ago Nazareth was a poor village.”  (p 516)

The Catholic shrines of Nazareth were not among the English vicar’s favorite places to visit, but he does recognize one of the town’s enduring holy places:

“The water of Nazareth is mainly derived from rain-cisterns, for there  is only one spring, and in autumn the supply is precarious. A momentous interest, however, gathers around this single fountain, for it has been in use for immemorial ages, and, no doubt, often saw the Virgin and her Divine Child among those who frequented it morning and evening, as the mothers of the town, many with children at their side, do now.” (p.515)

“The Virgin’s Spring bursts out of the ground inside the Greek Church of the Annunciation, which is modern, though a church stood on the same site at least as early as 700 AD.They say that it was on this spot that the Angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin; and if there is nothing to prove the legend there is nothing to contradict it.  Indeed, the association of the visit with the outflow of living water from the rock has a certain congruity that is pleasing. “ (p.516)

The Word Made Flesh

Nazareth, where Jesus lived most of his time on earth, offers few traces of the town he knew. Those were hidden years when the Son of God “humbled himself” by living inconspicuously, immersed in the steady, ordinary rhythms of a small 1st century Jewish town.  Jesus “became flesh” in Nazareth,  “one like us in all things but sin.”

Instead of Nazareth of the past, then, we may find him just as well in Nazareth of the present–or in any town or city or anyplace today, for that matter.

Jesus did not come only for the world then, he comes also for the world now, to dwell among us. Nazareth may help us understand the mystery of his Incarnation in our town and place.

St. Philip Neri, (1515-1595)

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Philip Neri, whose feast is May 26th, helped rejuvenate the Catholic church in the city of Rome following the Protestant reformation in the 16th century. He’s an important example of the way reform takes place in the church.

Philip came to Rome as a young man, became a priest, and fell in love with the city’s history, its churches and holy places. He roamed the catacombs of St. Sebastian where early Christians were buried and was a regular guide for pilgrims searching for their roots. He promoted pilgrimages to the great churches of St.Peter’s, St.Paul outside the Walls, St. Lawrence, St. Sebastian, Holy Cross, St. John Lateran and St. Mary Major, which are still the major pilgrim churches of the city.

Philip was also a familiar figure on the Roman streets where he engaged ordinary people, especially the young, with cheerfulness and simple conversation. People listened to him and he listened to them. He made people aware of the beauty and joy of an ancient faith.

Philip inspired saints like Ignatius Loyola, Charles Borromeo and Pius V.

In his day Protestants were turning to history to back up their claims against the Catholic Church. At the same time Philip encouraged Catholic scholars and historians like Caesar Baronius to look into the history of their church with fairness and accuracy.  Baronius said of him: “I love the man especially because he wants the truth and doesn’t permit falsehood of any kind.” He supported Galileo: “The bible teaches the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go.”

In promoting an honest study of church history and archeology Philip was influential in helping the Catholic Church examine its traditions and roots. At a time when fierce controversy between Protestants and Catholics was the norm, Philip brought gentleness, cheerfulness and friendship and a search for truth to Christian reform. He believed reform would best come about by showing the beauty of faith in art, music and tradition.  He was an unassuming man. A biographer said “ his aim was to do much without appearing to do anything.”

He died in Rome on May 26, 1595, at eighty years of age.

The great Christian scholar John Henry Newman, attracted to Philip Neri,  entered the religious society he founded, the Oratorians.

Here’s one of his prayers I like: ” Let me get through today, and I won’t worry about tomorrow.”

God our Father, you are continually raising to the glory of holiness  those who serve you faithfully.In your love, hear our prayer:  let the Holy Spirit inflame us with that fire with which, in so admirable a way,  he took possession of Saint Philip’s heart.Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,  who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,  one God, for ever and ever.Amen.

Catherine of Siena, (1347-80)

St. Catherine of Siena is a doctor of the church and Italy’s patron saint along with St. Francis.

The 24th child in a family of 25 children, Catherine of Siena was a saintly teacher and church reformer.  As a young girl, she clashed with her father, who worked dying wool, and her mother, a hardy determined housewife, after she told them she wasn’t going to get married, but was giving herself totally to God.

She cut her hair and began to fast and pray.  She joined a group of women who helped the poor in Siena, mostly widows associated with the Dominican order. They  were suspicious of the pious young girl who kept to herself and at odds with her mother and father.

At 21 years old, Catherine went beyond the mission of the women’s group and reached out further to the church and society.  Men and women, priests and laypeople, from Siena and its surroundings gathered around her. They cared for the poor– famine struck Siena in 1370 and a plague in 1374– but also they sought to reform the church and the society of their day.

At the time, Italian cities like Siena, Florence, Pisa and Padua were fighting among themselves as rival families clashed continuously over political power and economic advantages. In 1309 the popes fled the violence and factional riots in Rome for the safety of Avignon in France, where the papacy remained for almost 70 years. They call it “the Babylonian Captivity.”

Catherine and her companions pleaded with the feuding Italian cities for peace and urged the popes to return to Rome to exercise their mission as bishops of the city where Peter and Paul once led the Christian church. Catherine cajoled, warned and scolded the absent popes to do their duty as shepherds of their sheep and get back to where they belonged.

Without any formal education, Catherine learned to read and write only later in life, which made her an unlikely public figure. She was also a woman teaching and preaching– unusual for that day : “Being a woman, I need not tell you, puts many obstacles in my way. The world has no use for women in a work such as that and propriety forbids a woman to mix so freely with men.” (Letter) Despite those obstacles, Catherine traveled to the warring cities of Italy urging peace and to Avignon to plead with the pope to return to Rome.

Catherine had a deep experience of God in prayer, as the “Dialogue,” her mystical exchange with God, attests. God spoke with her and she shared those words. Her prayerfulness drew others to join her in her mission of peace-making and reform.

Jesus was her “Gentle Truth,” her guide and strength. “This is a sign that you trust in me and not in yourself: that you have no cowardly fear. Those who trust in themselves are afraid of their own shadow; they think heaven and earth are letting  them down. Fear and a twisted trust in their own small wisdom makes them pitifully concerned about getting and holding on to everything on earth and throwing away everything spiritual…The only ones afraid are those who think they are alone…They are afraid of every little thing because they are alone–without me.” (Dialogue)

As a lay-woman in the church, she was not afraid to speak to power, once correcting a bishop for “ordaining little boys instead of mature men… idiots who can scarcely read and say the prayers.  They consider it beneath them to visit the poor, they stand by and let people die of hunger.”

Tell the truth, God told her. Tell the truth because love impels you. “You must love others with the same love with which I love you. But you cannot repay my love. Love other people, loving them without being loved by them. Love them without concern for spiritual and material gain, but only for the glory of my name, because I love them.” ( Dialogue )  Loving God inevitably means loving others.

She died in Rome in 1378 and is buried there in the Dominican church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Her heart is in Siena.

Where did it happen?

We wonder where the gospel events took place, especially during Holy Week.. Where was Jesus judged by Pilate? What way did he go to Calvary?  Where was he crucified and where was he buried?

Reliable historians generally agree that the tomb of Jesus and the site of Calvary are  in the Church of the Holy Sepucher.  “Is this the place where Christ died and was buried?” Jerome Murphy-O’Connor asks in his solidly researched “The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide” (New York, 2008). “Yes, very probably,” he answers. (p 49)

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Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem

Jerusalem’s “Via Dolorosa”, the traditional way of the cross,  is less historically reliable. Beginning near St. Stephen’s Gate, where the Fortress Antonia once stood, it winds up at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  Murphy-O Connor says it is “defined by faith and not by history.” (pp 37-38) Early Christian pilgrims created it.

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Pilgrims on the Vis Dolorosa

After the Christian church was established by Constantine in the 4th century, pilgrims from Mount of Olives, where many stayed, walked through St. Stephen’s Gate up to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, stopping at certain places to recall incidents from the passion of Jesus. The present Via Dolorosa was formed from their devotions over the centuries.   (cf. Murphy-O’Connor, p 37) Pilgrims, not archeologists, have given us the present Via Dolorosa.

Jerusalem

Jerusalem at the Time of Jesus

Is their a more reliable way?  A reconstruction of Jerusalem (above) from the time of Jesus at the Israel Museum–somewhat altered here– suggests another way that  Jesus was led to Calvary.  At the bottom right is the luxurious palace complex built by Herod the Great. (below) When Pontius Pilate came from Caesaria Maritima for Passover he probably stayed there and judged Jesus in the courtyard outside the palace.

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Herod’s Palace, the Citadel

After sentencing Jesus to death, Pilate handed him over to a detachment of soldiers quartered somewhere in the great towers to the left of the palace, who scourged him and crowned him with thorns.

They then led him away to Calvary, probably parading him through part of the upper city as a warning to others. In our map of Jerusalem above, the rock outcropping near to the city wall is the site of Calvary where Jesus was crucified. The gospels say  he was buried in a tomb only a stone’s throw away.
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In Jerusalem today the Citadel stands on the ruins of Herod’s palace, still dominating the western part of the Old City.

You can walk on the southern ramparts of the city wall where Herod’s palace once stood and view some few remains of Herod’s building;  the towers have been rebuilt.

Murphy-O’Connor suggests a way  Jesus was taken to Calvary from here. “If, as seems likely, Jesus was brought into the city on his way to execution, the approximate route would have been east on David Street, north on the Triple Suk, and then west to Golgotha.” (p.38)

I walked that way some years ago, down David Street, to the Triple Suk and then west to Golgotha and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  My sense is Murphy-O’Connor is right, but I think we better not change the Via Dolorosa. For one thing,  good piety has given us the present Via Dolorosa and it has a truth and beauty all its own.  More importantly, it would start a war in Jerusalem, and the city has enough grief now.

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For more information on the places of the Passion, see

The Visitor

This Wednesday’s Gospel (Lk 1: 39-56 ) tells the beautiful story of Mary’s visitation to her cousin’s house in the hills near Jerusalem.

“ Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said,
‘ Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.’ “
This is indeed a precious, sacred event. Mary goes on to “ prophesy “ with her song-like, much-beloved Magnificat, a prayer that always seems new every time I pray it.
Nearly six years ago I was blessed to visit the wooded valley of Ein Karem, one of the most beautiful places in Israel. It seems almost miraculous how, with only one turn in the road, one leaves behind the barren Judean desert and enters this lovely area full of greenery and life. Up on one of the surrounding hills we visited the place that is commemorated as the site of the Visitation. The view from up there is magnificent. A delicate, elegant church stands there, decorated with symbols of fertility, life, and womanhood. A high wall against the hillside is covered with large stone-carved versions of the Magnificat in many different languages. Joyful song seems to exude from these stones, and from the rich greenery all around. Upon reading the prayer in English and Spanish I was caught up in that joyful feeling, as if, like John, Elizabeth, and Mary, I was also “ filled with the Holy Spirit “ of the Child Jesus. That joy stayed with me for the rest of the day back in Jerusalem. I felt like if I had undergone a powerful supernatural experience, like the one described in the Gospel.
That happy memory is still so vivid in my mind. I have been a Catholic for only a few of my 67 years. Incredibly, most of the time I am still in a sort of “ honeymoon “ with my Lord Jesus, who personally came and opened my eyes to the infinite love of God. So it has taken me a while to come to appreciate and venerate the bountiful power and grace that He has given His Blessed Mother in Heaven.
Her mission seems to me to have mysterious angelic dimensions . She is not only His Messenger, whether in Tepeyac, or Lourdes, or Fatima, but every time we call her she brings her Son, in the most generous way, as she did on the Visitation. All I have to do is invoke her name and she and her Son “ visit me “.

The simple prayer of the Hail Mary tells the story. She has come to me in quiet haste in some of my most sorrowful moments. At her greeting I answer: “ Ave Maria “. The fulness of her grace pacifies my soul, and excites it too, because the Lord is indeed with her as she shares that blessing with me. The child-prophet in me can even leap for joy. The greatest blessing seems to be that of God-given faith, to actually believe that what has been spoken to my soul by my Lord will be fulfilled. She teaches me to pray and trust. She brings me hope, and most of all the boundless love of the “ fruit of her womb “, the living, present, Jesus.
And then she prays for all of us sinners. A perfect prayer is her Magnificat. There is unfettered praise, wonderment, and gratitude at God’s great love. Once again most of all there is trust : trust in the mercy, the strength , the justice, and generosity of our God for all of us, for in one way or another, we are the lowly, the poor, the hungry.
Thank you, Blessed Mother, shining example for all saints, bringer of solace, sister, friend.

Orlando Hernández

Friday Thoughts: Flight Into Egypt

Flight Into Egypt Henry Ossawa Tanner American 1923 Met

Henry Ossawa Tanner, “Flight into Egypt”, (1923) (Metropolitan Museum of Art)


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A young lady and a good man. A tiny precious child. A tired donkey. An angel of God leading them by the lantern in his right hand.

You are one of them. You travel by night. Your party is small. But you are not alone.

The streets are empty. At least as far as you can see. Strange lands this side of the Red Sea.

Jesus is with you. He sleeps in your arms. He takes your family name. He rides upon your back. You walk a few feet ahead of Him to ensure the right and safe path.

You too are Jesus. Born a few days before. Completely wrapped up. Yet totally exposed.

Beyond the frame an onlooker more than watches. He paints the picture. He steadies the easel. He knows exactly where the finished work will hang.

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—Howard Hain

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http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/16947

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After Thoughts: Liturgy of Seasons

Maurice de Vlaminck partie de campagne 1905

Maurice de Vlaminck, “La partie de campagne”, 1905

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Be still, and know that I am God.

—Psalm 46:11


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Don’t move. If you do, you’ll burst into sweat.

This is when you know it’s hot. The slightest movement brings about spontaneous combustion.

God will have His way. If the cold wont get you to sit still in front of a fire, then the oppressive heat of summer will stop you in your tracks in the middle of an otherwise busy day.

That is until modern HVAC has its way.

So much progress. So much heating, ventilation and air-conditioning.

I wonder if we’d pay more attention to the Church calendar, more attention to prayer, more attention to God in general if we spent more time within His seasonal elements. I am fairly certain we’d spend a lot more time sitting still.

Yes, modern climate control may give us more time in many ways, but that certainly doesn’t imply that we spend that time well. For we are very weak, and most additional “freedom” most normally results in increased amounts of wasted, fruitless, and spiritually-empty activity.

Besides, voluntary sitting still is very different than forced stillness. Voluntary is certainly better—in terms of us using our freewill wisely, and in terms of us positioning ourselves to “know” God’s presence—but, on the other hand, when stillness is forced upon us, we actually might do it. We actually might stop, and we actually might be more concerned with “not moving” than just about anything else. That’s a funny consequence of truly compulsory conditions, when they come about through God’s perfectly ordained plan: The more we’re forced into something by factors greater and holier than ourselves, and the more we don’t resist but cooperate, the more we find ourselves desiring the consequences of the very conditions that were “forced upon us” in the first place.

When was the last time you had to sit still for any extended period of time in front of a fire in order to keep warm on a dangerously cold night, or sit extremely still in order to fend off the truly oppressive heat of a summer afternoon?

For that matter, forget the extreme cases, when was the last time you or I didn’t have a modern source of heating or cooling within a few steps on even moderately cool or warm days?

Most of us living within this culture and during this time are no longer very dependent upon “our sister Mother Earth” to force us into life changing ways. Yes, I know of course about the big storms and floods, the fires and earthquakes—the catastrophic natural events—but in terms of day-to-day living for the great majority of people in the Western world, daily climate is not something that cramps our modern, in-control-of-everything style. It is really quite ironic when we stop and think about it, for we hear so much about climate change, and yet most of us who may ponder that very question do so while comfortably residing within temperature-controlled homes, offices, and automobiles that make us almost oblivious to natural and seasonal weather changes.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that we should collectively trash our heating or a/c units and move back into the pre-HVAC age. I enjoy my heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning as much as my Middle-Eastern and Central-American neighbors living next door.

It’s just that I was forced into thinking about this. You see, my daughter is off from school and busy playing and making the “noises” that accompany such joy, and my wife is currently a busy little bee, walking in and out of each room, cleaning, straitening, and unpacking the laundry. I had little choice but to leave the house to get a few undisturbed moments of quiet. So here I am behind an urban two-family home, sitting within a somewhat screened-in gazeebo on a blacktopped driveway, trying not to move.

I thank God for allowing me to sweat. For reminding me of just how much I cannot control. For reminding me that exterior stillness and interior peace, although connected, are not one and the same. I also thank Him for allowing me to forget for the time being just how sensitive my feet, especially the first few toes of my left foot, are to the cold.

And now that I think about it, now that I have begun to give thanks, I’m realizing that it’s really not that bad. It’s not that hot. It’s kind of nice in fact. And I definitely notice that it has kept my writing in check. The word count of this piece has most surely been stunted, and I am very, very certain that that is for the best. I think I’ll leave it here then and wrap it up. And afterward, I’ll spend some time doing just about nothing, allowing the heat to box me in and keep me comfortably quiet.

I must admit though, I feel a bit guilty, knowing that it won’t be too long before I walk back into a climate controlled, air-conditioned environment—that is once the mosquitos begin to bite (thank God for screens!).

But maybe that’s just the point.

God’s will has its way.

His seasons, His entire world, always speaks to us.

His Liturgy never ends.

The Liturgy of Seasons cannot be stopped.

 

Happy Monday of the 15th week in Ordinary Time!

(Year: C(II). Psalter: Week 3. Liturgical Color: White. Memorial: St. Benedict.)

(Monday, July 11, 2016.)

(Hot. Humid. Partial Sunshine. Very Slight Chance of Thunderstorm.)

(Sunset 8:28 PM. Moon: Waxing Crescent, Illumination: 45%.)

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—Howard Hain

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Friday Thoughts: Walled Garden (2)

(Please note: This is part 2 of a piece entitled “Walled Garden”. To read part 1, simply click here: Friday Thoughts: Walled Garden (1))


pissarro orchards at louveciennes 1872

Camille Pissarro, “Orchards at Louveciennes”, 1872

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And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.

—John 19:27


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On leaving the convent I came upon the friar I noticed on my way in. The little dog was no longer around. We approached each other as if we had met before. He was kind. He was middle-aged. He was simple. And then the strangest thing occurred. He took me by the arm, the way men stroll in Italy, arm-in-arm, during the evening passeggiata—the evening stroll.

But I had never met this man before.

Yes, it is certainly strange to have an unknown man approach you and link his arm in yours.

He led me toward a dirt path. We strolled. We spoke little. He didn’t speak English and my Italian was tiny. But it was nice. Peaceful. It didn’t feel strange. I only now use that word, for from a somewhat forced “objective” perspective, it seems that it had to be.

He was a man of God. And he saw I was too, before I had any idea God had undeservedly entrusted me with such a gift. The gift of loving God. The gift of wanting Him more than I could ever explain. The gift of being an outcast here in this world of time, a wanderer, a pilgrim, a crusading knight of Lady Poverty—of being—in yet again, some strange kind of way—a lady-in-waiting—patiently and painfully anticipating the exuberant arrival of the one and only eternal groom.


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He brought me to what appeared to be an old foundation. I understood from what few words we exchanged that this was the remains of an abandoned orphanage. And then we began to head back toward whence we came. I remember offering him some bread that I had in my bag, purchased that morning in the city of Assisi up above. He lightly touched his stomach with one hand and shook his head “no”—a kind, polite, gracious, and utterly grateful, “no-thank-you” kind of “no”.

When we arrived at the door of the convent I understood from his gestures that he was inviting me to see something inside. It was clearly something that I had not yet seen. I motioned “yes” and we entered. We climbed a staircase and walked down a hallway. We were in an area not open to the public. The walls revealed its age. And we approached a door. A wooden door. And he unlocked it with an old large skeleton key. He opened the door and motioned for me to go inside, quietly informing me that this is Saint Clare’s cell. I entered and he remained outside. He gently pulled the door closed.

I wasn’t sure what to do. I was safe. I knew I wasn’t locked in. I was pleasantly confused. I looked around. It was small. It was literally a cell. Enclosed. All stone. A low tight arched ceiling. Bright. Dark. Cozy. Warm. Beautiful.

A tabernacle. A womb. A virgin’s womb.


 

At the end of the somewhat rectangular shaped room was a small alter-like shelf. I knelt before it. I have not the slightest recollection of what I prayed.  Of what I thought. Of anything spiritually taking place. I was just there. And I remained a few minutes. And then I left. I opened the door and I was all alone. No friar. I closed the door behind me and made my way back down from where I had come.

It seemed as if nothing extraordinary had happened. It was all so normal. So everyday. Yet it was nothing of the sort. It was extraordinary. It was an encounter. I think. Perhaps.


 

I think of little Mary. Alone in her room. I think of a gentle breeze and the sight of a bowing angel.

“Hail, full of grace…”

What a name, what a title to be given!

Gabriel holding the key that opens the door.

The young, chosen, highly-favored virgin agrees to hear his message, to walk arm-in-arm with him, to accompany him to she knows not where. She agrees to accept God’s invitation.

The Holy Spirit comes upon her simple life, her simple way, her simple manner.

The power of the Most High overshadows her daily existence.

Our Father confirms her trusting posture, her grace-filled instinct to utter the purest of prayers:

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“Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word.” (Luke 1:38)

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Jesus entered a private, off-limits room. He made His home there.

And He never left.


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“…when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret…”

—Matthew 6:6


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—Howard Hain

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Friday Thoughts: You Dirty Rat

The Boyarina Morozova, Vasilij Surikov, 1887, detail 2

Vasilij Surikov, “The Boyarynya Morozova”, 1887 (detail)

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I am starving to death by not preaching. I search the garbage bins and pick out of dumpsters, ever eying with hungry eyes trash thrown by the wayside.

I am so wonderfully fed by Christ!

Yet I thirst a thirst of love. I long for more painful encounters that heal me so. I am a lover of the beach who roams the Sahara. Below the height of the mounting sun, among the singing dunes, I bellow with them the universal hum.

The sand is all about me. An oasis resides within my heart. I am surrounded by mirages of men whom long ago have forgotten to start.

I starve to preach. To sing of our Lord. I starve to fly high with no might of my own. Tapping toes and rocking forth, slightly bending knees, ready to spring forth from well to well.

I love our God. I love Him so. I love Him and Him alone. He tells me to love others as myself. I love Him despite myself. I love Him in others, and others because of Him. I love for I have been brought low. I love for I have learned to soar high. He is my all. My everything. Of Him, and Him alone, do I sing.

I sing of socks, and of sneakers, of old clothes and new sandals, and of wedding rings. I sing of mice, and of men, I sing of the difference that resides only in the length of whiskers. I sing of dogs and of cats, and o yes, of rats—o those ugly creatures that challenge me so.

I ask myself, are they not created by God as well?

Isn’t that dirty filthy stinkin’ rat also beautiful and also real?

Does not God shine the sun and shower the rain on disturbing rats as well?

O, if I could only love rates, then I would truly sing! Mend this heart, this rock of mine, hardened by selfish sight and by wanting what isn’t mine. Yes, boil me down, so I may drown in what the residue of life leaves to those who truly suffer.

I sing to you, O Glorious Rat. Creature of God!

I sing to you that you too shall sing with me. I see that I no longer need to sing alone. Come, accept my embrace. I forgive you. Now perhaps I too may be forgiven.

I see and smell and hear the truth. You the rat, object of everyone’s scorn. You too were once so young, before you crawled into the bin, before you journeyed down the darkened tunnel—you too—little infant rat—were brought forth from the mother’s womb.

Come young, come old! Come from your abandoned buildings, and vacant storage yards, from old ball fields well over grown. Come one, come all!

The pious pied piper now plays a gospel tune. The garbage begins to gather, the desolation takes on an evening glow. The sand all about me recedes from the stormy cloud. It slowly begins to lay low.

The desert creeps up upon a vast body of water.

I pass between walls of a held back sea, my feet tread cross a red clay bottom.

You too, brother rat, are a gift from our mighty God above. You too were loved into existence by the Lord of all.

God of all who share residence upon the earth.

God of all who sigh and sing.

God of all who snort and smile.

God of all who bellow and breathe, both fresh and soiled city air alike.

Come, then, last call, leave your dens, leave your hobbies, leave you daily work behind. Leave you rats, friends of mine, leave the muck and sewers of this world, climb the hills, and charge the mountain, dip yourselves in Carmel air, for even you reflect the glory of Zion from a peak so high.

Come and join the birds who listened so intently, who still this day patiently hear lonely troubadours sing. Yes, join us, for there is always plenty of room, room for even you, object of everyone’s scorn.

Enough for even you, you dirty rat.

A sight for sore eyes to this poor lonely thirsty preacher.

For through you I give our magnificent God mighty humble joy-felt praise.

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—Howard Hain