Joey Spencer
Archives

Joey Spencer is a Tutor for the Alcuin Institute for Catholic Culture, and serves as the Archivist for the Diocese of Tulsa.

Archive Search

Joey Spencer Archives

All the Trees of the Wood Sing for Joy Before the Lord

When life gets busy, as it so often does, with all the distractions it can be easy to lose sight of the most important things while trying to juggle all of the small stuff. Not that all of the small stuff doesn’t have its own place and importance, but things become problematic when the small stuff becomes a distraction for, or even takes the place of, more important things. St. Augustine tells us that things are either used or enjoyed. Things enjoyed bring us happiness, and the only thing which can bring us true happiness is God. God is the only thing we should enjoy. Everything else should be used in order to lead us to God. “Those things which are objects of use assist, and (so to speak) support us in our efforts after happiness, so that we can attain the things that make us happy and rest in them.”[1] All of the small stuff should be ordered so as to bring us closer to God and not become distractions or ends in their own right.

This can be easier said than done in a world with a lot of anxiety and constant busyness. When life gets busy and focused on the wrong things, I find myself drawn to taking a walk in the woods or sitting alone in a beautiful garden. This always helps to redirect my thoughts to God. There is something about nature which has a calming effect on the soul.

The French aristocrat and commentator on early American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, in an essay titled “Two Weeks in the Wilderness,” expressed what he experienced when stepping away from the cities and entering the American wilderness.

In that spot, the wilderness was probably just as it appeared six thousand years before to our ancestors’ eyes—a delightful and scented solitude festooned with flowers; a magnificent dwelling, a living palace constructed for man but into which the master had not yet made his way. The rowing boat slipped along effortlessly and silently. All around us reigned total serenity and peace. It was not long before we ourselves became, as it were, soothed at the sight of such a scene. Our conversation began to become more and more intermittent. Soon we were only whispering our thoughts. At length we fell silent altogether and, both putting up our oars, we descended into a quiet reverie filled with inexpressible magic.[2]

Perhaps the calming of the soul is due to God’s working on us through His creation. St. Thomas in the Summa contra Gentiles describes how we can come to God through His creation. “Now, God brought things into being by His wisdom; wherefore the Psalm (103:24) declares: ‘Thou hast made all things in wisdom.’ Hence, from reflection upon God’s works we are able to infer His wisdom, since, by a certain communication of His likeness, it is spread abroad in the things He has made.”[3] Thus the flowers of the garden and the trees in the woods, by their creation and existence, proclaim the greatness of God.

So, the next time you get caught up in the small things and get distracted from God, find the nearest garden or wooded walk and remember the words of St. Basil, “I want creation to penetrate you with so much admiration that wherever you go, the least plant may bring you clear remembrance of the Creator.”[4] After a bit, you too will find yourself soothed, less anxious, and refocused on the one thing that matters: God.

[1] St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 1.3. [2] Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America and Two Essays on America (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 922. [3] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles II, ch. 2. [4] St. Basil, The Hexaemeron, 5.2.

The Custom of Reading Out Loud

Over the summer the Alcuin Institute hosted its first Catholic Imagination Fellowship. As part of this fellowship three college-aged scholars participated in two accredited, two-week intensive Great Books courses covering the ancient and medieval writers, as well as a two-week internship working with the staff of the Eastern Oklahoma Catholic. It was a great joy to get to work through so many texts with the students and my fellow tutors in the Institute. One of the texts we read was Euthyphro by Plato. It is a fairly short text and one that can be read in about an hour. One afternoon after class, we decided to read the entire text out loud so that the text would not only be read, but also heard. Euthyphro can be a tough text, and sometimes in hearing the dialogue read out loud our ears catch things that our eyes don’t. Not only was it beneficial, but the Fellows thoroughly enjoyed having the text read to them. Every teacher at one time or another will find themselves reading to their students. As a parent, I read to my son all the time, until he was able to read the books himself. Once my son could read, it was rare that I would read out loud unless I was teaching a class. All of my friends are readers, but unless it is a poem on all too rare occasions, we do not come together to read texts out loud to each other. Outside of classes or reading to our kids, why don’t we read to each other more often? Perhaps we should! The occasion that made me ponder reading out loud was a book I read recently called The Haunted Bookshop, written shortly after the end of World War I. One of the main characters of the story is Roger Mifflin, a charismatic pipe-smoker and owner of a used bookshop. Mr. Mifflin takes on a new employee and lodger named Titania whom he is introducing to the world of books. On the first night Titania stays with the Mifflins, and after dinner, Roger Mifflin makes the following suggestion for the evening’s entertainment. “Well my dear,” said Roger after supper that evening, “I think perhaps we had better introduce Miss Titania to our custom of reading aloud.”[1] Titania is of course delighted at the idea of being read to. This then made me think of the Inklings. Several years after the time depicted in The Haunted Bookshop, A group of scholars and Oxford dons, including C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams, would come together in the rooms of C.S. Lewis or meet at the Eagle and Child pub to read texts to each other. Some read their own texts, and many are now considered classics in their own right. These 20th century examples made me ponder reading out loud in the Church. My first thoughts went to another book which was read by the scholars of the Catholic Imagination Fellowship, The Rule of Benedict. Rule thirty-eight concerns the weekly reader. “The brothers’ meals should always be accompanied by reading, not by a person at random who just picks up the book, but by someone who will read for the whole week starting on Sunday. After Mass and Communion, the one who is starting his period of duty should ask all the brothers to pray for him, so that God may preserve him from a spirit of pride, and then everyone in the oratory should repeat this verse after him three times, ‘O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will show forth your praise’ (Ps. 51:15). Then he will receive a blessing and start reading.”[2] They hear the Word of God while they are eating. They ingest the Word of God with their ears, just as they ingest the food on their plates with their mouths. We do the same, when at every Mass we hear the priest or deacon read the Gospel in the Liturgy of the Word. St. Paul tells us, “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Being read to has always been a part of the Tradition of the Church. Unfortunately, we live in a time that is very noisy. It is hard to escape the television, the radio, and the internet. If you think about it, in a way, these modern technologies are just a modern way of reading out loud to us. Perhaps it would be better to turn them off. A better alternative would be to get together with your family or a few friends, pick up a good book or Sacred Scripture, and as Roger Mifflin would say, re-introduce “the custom of reading aloud.” [1] Christopher Morley, The Haunted Bookshop (Philadelphia: J B Lippincott Company, 1955), 74. [2] The Rule of Benedict, trans. Carolinne White (New York: Penguin, 2008), 38.

Stop Christian Passer-by…and Pray

I have a lot of books. One of my favorite things in life is to have a comfortable chair, warm coffee, and a good book in my hands. It is a common occurrence that the book I sit down with will not be the same book I find myself reading when I finish my pot of coffee. Some interesting statement in the first book will lead me back to something I read in another and so on and so on, until, by the end of the pot of coffee, there is a new stack of books which have migrated from the shelves to the side of my chair. Recently it was not the book, but the bookmark, which set me off on my reading adventure…and prayer. A great number of my books have been bought second-hand in used bookstores. Very often they will have prayer cards for friends and family members who have passed away tucked inside. I always keep these prayer cards. Sometimes they find their way into the current book I am reading, marking my place, but also reminding me to pray for the dead. On this particular day the prayer card was for a Ms. Chastain who was born in 1932 and died in 2008. On seeing her card, I said a prayer for her, and before I started reading the book, praying for this woman led me to another book in search of something I had recently read about a memorial stone asking for prayer in an old English church. The memorial stone was for the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. When the famous poet of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner knew he was going to die, he prepared the poem that is engraved on his memorial stone.  
“Stop Christian Passer-by! Stop Child of God. And read with gentle breast. Beneath this sod A poet lies, or that which once seem’d he O, lift one thought in prayer for S.T.C.: That he who many a year with toil of breath Found death in life, may here find life in death! Mercy for praise-to be forgiven for fame He asked and hoped through Christ. Do thou the same!”
The memorial stone is located in the center aisle of St. Michael’s Church, Highgate. It is an ever-present reminder to each “passer-by” not only to pray for those who have gone before us, but also to pray and prepare for our own death. Having found my reference to Coleridge’s memorial stone, and saying a quick prayer for Samuel Taylor Coleridge, I then recalled a similar request for prayers by the author of a twelfth century book on painting, glassmaking, and metalwork. The book, On Divers Arts, was written under the name Theophilus, which was almost assuredly a pseudonym. Scholars believe that the real author was either a Benedictine monk or Roger of Helmarshausen, an early twelfth century artisan. Whoever Theophilus was, he had the foresight to know that his text would be read many years after his death. Like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, he too asks for prayers when he is gone.  
When you have read this again and again and entrusted it to your tenacious memory, you will repay your instructor for his pains if every time you have made good use of my work, you pray for me that I may receive the mercy of almighty God who knows that I have written what is here systematically set forth neither out of love for human praise nor from desire for temporal reward, and that through envious jealousy I have neither stolen anything precious or rare nor silently reserved anything for myself alone, but rather that I have given aid to many men in their need and have had concern for their advancement to the increase of the honor and glory of His name.[1]
Almost a thousand years later, after reading this passage in his book, I said a prayer for Theophilus. The Church teaches that we should pray for the dead; it is one way in which we participate in the communion of saints. Praying for the dead is also a reminder that we too will someday die, and God will judge us on how we lived. So, if you are reading this in your comfortable chair with a hot mug of coffee, please say a prayer for Ms. Chastain, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Theophilus, and those other friends and family who have preceded us in death. And, if you are reading this (hopefully many years in the future) and I have gone on to my judgment, please say a prayer for me!       [1] Theophilus, On Divers Arts (New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1979), 13.

Caravaggio’s Light

In the Church of San Luigi de Francesi in Rome, there is a side chapel devoted to the life of St. Matthew. Hanging within the Contarelli chapel, there are three masterpieces by the Baroque artist Caravaggio. The paintings of the chapel, like a book, if read left to right, tell the story of the life of St. Matthew. If you step into the side chapel and turn your head to the left, you will see Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew. In the painting, Matthew is sitting with four other tax collectors who look to be counting money. Christ enters the room from the shadows, interrupting the counting, and points to a surprised Matthew, calling him to “follow me” (Matthew 9:9). If you look directly in front of you, and above the altar, you will see Caravaggio’s The Inspiration of Saint Matthew. This famous painting depicts St. Matthew at a table writing his Gospel as it is dictated to him by an angel. Finally, if you look to your right, you will see the third painting by Caravaggio, The Martyrdom of St. Matthew. Jacobus de Voragine, the thirteenth century chronicler of the lives of the saints and Archbishop of Genoa, describes St. Matthew’s death as being cut down with a sword in the midst of saying Mass. This is the story being depicted in Caravaggio’s painting. A barely dressed man holding a sword stands over Matthew while an angel leaning down from heaven is offering the frond of a palm representing martyrdom. In the background you can see the altar and the altar candle still burning, showing that St. Matthew was in the act of saying Mass when he was attacked. If you look to the left of St. Matthew’s assailant, you will see the bearded face of a man fleeing the scene with his head turned back to take in the last moments of St. Matthew’s martyrdom. This bearded man is a self-portrait of Caravaggio, who has painted himself into the scene. While each painting is a masterpiece in and of itself, the real genius of Caravaggio is expressed when all three paintings are experienced together in the setting of the Contarelli Chapel during a Mass. This genius has to do with Caravaggio’s light source in each of the paintings. In The Calling of St. Matthew, the light source comes from the lower right-hand corner of the painting, while the source of light for The Martyrdom of St. Matthew comes from the lower left of the painting. For The Inspiration of St. Matthew, the light source seems to come from below and directly in front of the painting. This only makes sense when you see the priest at the altar holding up the Eucharist at Mass. The elevated Eucharist becomes the source of light for all three paintings. Christ is the light of the world, and as Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, He is also the light for all three of these masterpieces. Caravaggio not only gives us three masterpieces, but in his use of the Eucharist as the source of light expresses the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Giving Thanks for Backseat Drivers

I have never heard anyone say that they love backseat drivers.  Most of us have experienced a time or two when we have been distracted by a witty billboard, beautiful scenery along the road, or even a great conversation with the backseat driver through the use of the rearview mirror. I’ll share one of my experiences. Driving home from a night out with friends, I had become distracted by the conversation we were having and had taken my eyes off the road.  All of the sudden everyone in the car yelled at the top of their lungs, “BOX”!  The suddenness of the screams from a car full of backseat drivers uncomfortably redirected my attention to a giant television box that I was about to hit in the middle of the road!  I barely had time to swerve to miss the box. I’m grateful that an accident was avoided. Recollecting the story of the box in the road made me think of the story of Balaam and the donkey on their way to visit Prince Balak. Three times on the journey, the Angel of the Lord will stand in the middle of the road, sword in hand, threatening the life of Balaam. Balaam’s donkey, that long-suffering, loyal and faithful creature, acts in the narrative as the backseat driver. Three times, his faithful donkey will see the impending danger that Balaam does not and will act in order to save her master (Numbers 22, 25, 27). All three times Balaam beats the poor creature in order to force the donkey back onto the road. Finally, the third time the angel stands in the way, there is no room to move right or left, so the brave donkey kneels to the ground, stopping in front of the angel. Then a miraculous event occurs: God opens the mouth of the donkey so that she can express her lifetime of service and loyalty, the truth of which Balaam cannot deny (Num. 30). At this point, God opens the eyes of Balaam and he sees the Angel of the Lord standing, sword in hand, ready to kill him, the danger that the donkey had seen but Balaam had been blind to.  Balaam not only sees the threat of the Adversary Angel, but also sees his guilt in his turning away from God’s will. It begs the question: If the donkey’s eyes are always open to the Lord, why aren’t ours? Just like Balaam, we live in a world of distraction, and this distraction can lead us away from God and into sin. We should be thankful for the donkeys and the backseat drivers in our life who call our attention not only to the physical dangers within the road but also our own blindness to sin; perhaps God is using them to open our eyes.

Archive Search

All the Trees of the Wood Sing for Joy Before the Lord

When life gets busy, as it so often does, with all the distractions it can be easy to lose sight of the most important things while trying to juggle all of the small stuff. Not that all of the small stuff doesn’t have its own place and importance, but things become problematic when the small stuff becomes a distraction for, or even takes the place of, more important things. St. Augustine tells us that things are either used or enjoyed. Things enjoyed bring us happiness, and the only thing which can bring us true happiness is God. God is the only thing we should enjoy. Everything else should be used in order to lead us to God. “Those things which are objects of use assist, and (so to speak) support us in our efforts after happiness, so that we can attain the things that make us happy and rest in them.”[1] All of the small stuff should be ordered so as to bring us closer to God and not become distractions or ends in their own right.

This can be easier said than done in a world with a lot of anxiety and constant busyness. When life gets busy and focused on the wrong things, I find myself drawn to taking a walk in the woods or sitting alone in a beautiful garden. This always helps to redirect my thoughts to God. There is something about nature which has a calming effect on the soul.

The French aristocrat and commentator on early American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, in an essay titled “Two Weeks in the Wilderness,” expressed what he experienced when stepping away from the cities and entering the American wilderness.

In that spot, the wilderness was probably just as it appeared six thousand years before to our ancestors’ eyes—a delightful and scented solitude festooned with flowers; a magnificent dwelling, a living palace constructed for man but into which the master had not yet made his way. The rowing boat slipped along effortlessly and silently. All around us reigned total serenity and peace. It was not long before we ourselves became, as it were, soothed at the sight of such a scene. Our conversation began to become more and more intermittent. Soon we were only whispering our thoughts. At length we fell silent altogether and, both putting up our oars, we descended into a quiet reverie filled with inexpressible magic.[2]

Perhaps the calming of the soul is due to God’s working on us through His creation. St. Thomas in the Summa contra Gentiles describes how we can come to God through His creation. “Now, God brought things into being by His wisdom; wherefore the Psalm (103:24) declares: ‘Thou hast made all things in wisdom.’ Hence, from reflection upon God’s works we are able to infer His wisdom, since, by a certain communication of His likeness, it is spread abroad in the things He has made.”[3] Thus the flowers of the garden and the trees in the woods, by their creation and existence, proclaim the greatness of God.

So, the next time you get caught up in the small things and get distracted from God, find the nearest garden or wooded walk and remember the words of St. Basil, “I want creation to penetrate you with so much admiration that wherever you go, the least plant may bring you clear remembrance of the Creator.”[4] After a bit, you too will find yourself soothed, less anxious, and refocused on the one thing that matters: God.

[1] St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 1.3. [2] Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America and Two Essays on America (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 922. [3] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles II, ch. 2. [4] St. Basil, The Hexaemeron, 5.2.

The Custom of Reading Out Loud

Over the summer the Alcuin Institute hosted its first Catholic Imagination Fellowship. As part of this fellowship three college-aged scholars participated in two accredited, two-week intensive Great Books courses covering the ancient and medieval writers, as well as a two-week internship working with the staff of the Eastern Oklahoma Catholic. It was a great joy to get to work through so many texts with the students and my fellow tutors in the Institute. One of the texts we read was Euthyphro by Plato. It is a fairly short text and one that can be read in about an hour. One afternoon after class, we decided to read the entire text out loud so that the text would not only be read, but also heard. Euthyphro can be a tough text, and sometimes in hearing the dialogue read out loud our ears catch things that our eyes don’t. Not only was it beneficial, but the Fellows thoroughly enjoyed having the text read to them. Every teacher at one time or another will find themselves reading to their students. As a parent, I read to my son all the time, until he was able to read the books himself. Once my son could read, it was rare that I would read out loud unless I was teaching a class. All of my friends are readers, but unless it is a poem on all too rare occasions, we do not come together to read texts out loud to each other. Outside of classes or reading to our kids, why don’t we read to each other more often? Perhaps we should! The occasion that made me ponder reading out loud was a book I read recently called The Haunted Bookshop, written shortly after the end of World War I. One of the main characters of the story is Roger Mifflin, a charismatic pipe-smoker and owner of a used bookshop. Mr. Mifflin takes on a new employee and lodger named Titania whom he is introducing to the world of books. On the first night Titania stays with the Mifflins, and after dinner, Roger Mifflin makes the following suggestion for the evening’s entertainment. “Well my dear,” said Roger after supper that evening, “I think perhaps we had better introduce Miss Titania to our custom of reading aloud.”[1] Titania is of course delighted at the idea of being read to. This then made me think of the Inklings. Several years after the time depicted in The Haunted Bookshop, A group of scholars and Oxford dons, including C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams, would come together in the rooms of C.S. Lewis or meet at the Eagle and Child pub to read texts to each other. Some read their own texts, and many are now considered classics in their own right. These 20th century examples made me ponder reading out loud in the Church. My first thoughts went to another book which was read by the scholars of the Catholic Imagination Fellowship, The Rule of Benedict. Rule thirty-eight concerns the weekly reader. “The brothers’ meals should always be accompanied by reading, not by a person at random who just picks up the book, but by someone who will read for the whole week starting on Sunday. After Mass and Communion, the one who is starting his period of duty should ask all the brothers to pray for him, so that God may preserve him from a spirit of pride, and then everyone in the oratory should repeat this verse after him three times, ‘O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will show forth your praise’ (Ps. 51:15). Then he will receive a blessing and start reading.”[2] They hear the Word of God while they are eating. They ingest the Word of God with their ears, just as they ingest the food on their plates with their mouths. We do the same, when at every Mass we hear the priest or deacon read the Gospel in the Liturgy of the Word. St. Paul tells us, “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Being read to has always been a part of the Tradition of the Church. Unfortunately, we live in a time that is very noisy. It is hard to escape the television, the radio, and the internet. If you think about it, in a way, these modern technologies are just a modern way of reading out loud to us. Perhaps it would be better to turn them off. A better alternative would be to get together with your family or a few friends, pick up a good book or Sacred Scripture, and as Roger Mifflin would say, re-introduce “the custom of reading aloud.” [1] Christopher Morley, The Haunted Bookshop (Philadelphia: J B Lippincott Company, 1955), 74. [2] The Rule of Benedict, trans. Carolinne White (New York: Penguin, 2008), 38.

Stop Christian Passer-by…and Pray

I have a lot of books. One of my favorite things in life is to have a comfortable chair, warm coffee, and a good book in my hands. It is a common occurrence that the book I sit down with will not be the same book I find myself reading when I finish my pot of coffee. Some interesting statement in the first book will lead me back to something I read in another and so on and so on, until, by the end of the pot of coffee, there is a new stack of books which have migrated from the shelves to the side of my chair. Recently it was not the book, but the bookmark, which set me off on my reading adventure…and prayer. A great number of my books have been bought second-hand in used bookstores. Very often they will have prayer cards for friends and family members who have passed away tucked inside. I always keep these prayer cards. Sometimes they find their way into the current book I am reading, marking my place, but also reminding me to pray for the dead. On this particular day the prayer card was for a Ms. Chastain who was born in 1932 and died in 2008. On seeing her card, I said a prayer for her, and before I started reading the book, praying for this woman led me to another book in search of something I had recently read about a memorial stone asking for prayer in an old English church. The memorial stone was for the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. When the famous poet of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner knew he was going to die, he prepared the poem that is engraved on his memorial stone.  
“Stop Christian Passer-by! Stop Child of God. And read with gentle breast. Beneath this sod A poet lies, or that which once seem’d he O, lift one thought in prayer for S.T.C.: That he who many a year with toil of breath Found death in life, may here find life in death! Mercy for praise-to be forgiven for fame He asked and hoped through Christ. Do thou the same!”
The memorial stone is located in the center aisle of St. Michael’s Church, Highgate. It is an ever-present reminder to each “passer-by” not only to pray for those who have gone before us, but also to pray and prepare for our own death. Having found my reference to Coleridge’s memorial stone, and saying a quick prayer for Samuel Taylor Coleridge, I then recalled a similar request for prayers by the author of a twelfth century book on painting, glassmaking, and metalwork. The book, On Divers Arts, was written under the name Theophilus, which was almost assuredly a pseudonym. Scholars believe that the real author was either a Benedictine monk or Roger of Helmarshausen, an early twelfth century artisan. Whoever Theophilus was, he had the foresight to know that his text would be read many years after his death. Like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, he too asks for prayers when he is gone.  
When you have read this again and again and entrusted it to your tenacious memory, you will repay your instructor for his pains if every time you have made good use of my work, you pray for me that I may receive the mercy of almighty God who knows that I have written what is here systematically set forth neither out of love for human praise nor from desire for temporal reward, and that through envious jealousy I have neither stolen anything precious or rare nor silently reserved anything for myself alone, but rather that I have given aid to many men in their need and have had concern for their advancement to the increase of the honor and glory of His name.[1]
Almost a thousand years later, after reading this passage in his book, I said a prayer for Theophilus. The Church teaches that we should pray for the dead; it is one way in which we participate in the communion of saints. Praying for the dead is also a reminder that we too will someday die, and God will judge us on how we lived. So, if you are reading this in your comfortable chair with a hot mug of coffee, please say a prayer for Ms. Chastain, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Theophilus, and those other friends and family who have preceded us in death. And, if you are reading this (hopefully many years in the future) and I have gone on to my judgment, please say a prayer for me!       [1] Theophilus, On Divers Arts (New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1979), 13.

Caravaggio’s Light

In the Church of San Luigi de Francesi in Rome, there is a side chapel devoted to the life of St. Matthew. Hanging within the Contarelli chapel, there are three masterpieces by the Baroque artist Caravaggio. The paintings of the chapel, like a book, if read left to right, tell the story of the life of St. Matthew. If you step into the side chapel and turn your head to the left, you will see Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew. In the painting, Matthew is sitting with four other tax collectors who look to be counting money. Christ enters the room from the shadows, interrupting the counting, and points to a surprised Matthew, calling him to “follow me” (Matthew 9:9). If you look directly in front of you, and above the altar, you will see Caravaggio’s The Inspiration of Saint Matthew. This famous painting depicts St. Matthew at a table writing his Gospel as it is dictated to him by an angel. Finally, if you look to your right, you will see the third painting by Caravaggio, The Martyrdom of St. Matthew. Jacobus de Voragine, the thirteenth century chronicler of the lives of the saints and Archbishop of Genoa, describes St. Matthew’s death as being cut down with a sword in the midst of saying Mass. This is the story being depicted in Caravaggio’s painting. A barely dressed man holding a sword stands over Matthew while an angel leaning down from heaven is offering the frond of a palm representing martyrdom. In the background you can see the altar and the altar candle still burning, showing that St. Matthew was in the act of saying Mass when he was attacked. If you look to the left of St. Matthew’s assailant, you will see the bearded face of a man fleeing the scene with his head turned back to take in the last moments of St. Matthew’s martyrdom. This bearded man is a self-portrait of Caravaggio, who has painted himself into the scene. While each painting is a masterpiece in and of itself, the real genius of Caravaggio is expressed when all three paintings are experienced together in the setting of the Contarelli Chapel during a Mass. This genius has to do with Caravaggio’s light source in each of the paintings. In The Calling of St. Matthew, the light source comes from the lower right-hand corner of the painting, while the source of light for The Martyrdom of St. Matthew comes from the lower left of the painting. For The Inspiration of St. Matthew, the light source seems to come from below and directly in front of the painting. This only makes sense when you see the priest at the altar holding up the Eucharist at Mass. The elevated Eucharist becomes the source of light for all three paintings. Christ is the light of the world, and as Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, He is also the light for all three of these masterpieces. Caravaggio not only gives us three masterpieces, but in his use of the Eucharist as the source of light expresses the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Giving Thanks for Backseat Drivers

I have never heard anyone say that they love backseat drivers.  Most of us have experienced a time or two when we have been distracted by a witty billboard, beautiful scenery along the road, or even a great conversation with the backseat driver through the use of the rearview mirror. I’ll share one of my experiences. Driving home from a night out with friends, I had become distracted by the conversation we were having and had taken my eyes off the road.  All of the sudden everyone in the car yelled at the top of their lungs, “BOX”!  The suddenness of the screams from a car full of backseat drivers uncomfortably redirected my attention to a giant television box that I was about to hit in the middle of the road!  I barely had time to swerve to miss the box. I’m grateful that an accident was avoided. Recollecting the story of the box in the road made me think of the story of Balaam and the donkey on their way to visit Prince Balak. Three times on the journey, the Angel of the Lord will stand in the middle of the road, sword in hand, threatening the life of Balaam. Balaam’s donkey, that long-suffering, loyal and faithful creature, acts in the narrative as the backseat driver. Three times, his faithful donkey will see the impending danger that Balaam does not and will act in order to save her master (Numbers 22, 25, 27). All three times Balaam beats the poor creature in order to force the donkey back onto the road. Finally, the third time the angel stands in the way, there is no room to move right or left, so the brave donkey kneels to the ground, stopping in front of the angel. Then a miraculous event occurs: God opens the mouth of the donkey so that she can express her lifetime of service and loyalty, the truth of which Balaam cannot deny (Num. 30). At this point, God opens the eyes of Balaam and he sees the Angel of the Lord standing, sword in hand, ready to kill him, the danger that the donkey had seen but Balaam had been blind to.  Balaam not only sees the threat of the Adversary Angel, but also sees his guilt in his turning away from God’s will. It begs the question: If the donkey’s eyes are always open to the Lord, why aren’t ours? Just like Balaam, we live in a world of distraction, and this distraction can lead us away from God and into sin. We should be thankful for the donkeys and the backseat drivers in our life who call our attention not only to the physical dangers within the road but also our own blindness to sin; perhaps God is using them to open our eyes.