Joey Spencer

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

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A“Living Man”: the Martyrdom of St. Blandina

In the fifth chapter of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius quotes from a letter scholars believe to have been written by Saint Irenaeus. It is a letter written to the Churches in Asia and Phrygia regarding the persecutions occurring in the Churches of Lyons and Vienne.  Eusebius includes the letter in his narrative so that the struggles of the saints who underwent persecution and martyrdom for Christ might not be forgotten in the history of the Church. For Eusebius as well as Irenaeus, the gods of the Roman Empire, and those who persecuted the Christians in their name, were linked with, and doing the work of, the diabolical. This cosmic battle of the diabolical against God and his followers is an essential element in understanding Irenaeus’ view of the persecution of the saints of Lyons and Vienne, and serves as well as a crucial element in Irenaeus’ theology of God’s forming His creation into a “living man.” While it is the Holy Spirit who strengthens the martyrs in their tribulations, it is Satan who puts doubt and fear into their hearts, “striving with all his power, that some blasphemy might be uttered by them.”[1] Just as Christ voluntarily gave His life for the salvation of the world, so also do the martyrs go to their death voluntarily for Christ. In the paschal mystery, Christ’s death is transformative. Through His crucifixion, death, and resurrection, Christ destroys death, so that man might have eternal life in God. The martyrs go to their death knowing that death no longer has its sting, rather it is a part of God’s plan of redemption through which they will truly become vivified. “We believe in the true resurrection of this flesh that we now possess. We sow a corruptible body in the tomb, but he raises up an incorruptible body, a ‘spiritual body.’”[2] Only through death can we enter into eternal life in the presence of God. Christ turns death into a new beginning rather than the end. Christ told his followers to “take up your cross and follow me, for whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matt. 16:24-25). To lose one’s life in martyrdom was not to be a dead man, but was to gain eternal life in Christ. According to Irenaeus, we must first die in order to truly become “living Men.” The martyrs knew that in dying for Christ, they were entering into eternal life, and to watch the martyrs voluntarily and joyfully go to their death without a fight was baffling to the pagans. In order to become a “living man,” one has to have the Holy Spirit and one has to die in Christ. To die the death of a martyr was to give oneself over to Christ, so that through the power of the Holy Spirit, one could be transformed into a living man in the hands of God. When asked why he was willing to turn himself over to his persecutors, St. Ignatius of Antioch gives the answer that, “to be near the sword is to be near God; to be in the claws of wild beasts is to be in the hands of God.”[3] Not only did the martyrs go to their death voluntarily, but also confessing Christ so that they might be strength to others. One of the Christians martyred in Lyons was a slave girl named Blandina. The martyrdom of Saint Blandina is only one story of martyrdom among many which Irenaeus expounds upon. However, Blandina’s story is unique, in that in its telling, Irenaeus gives us an insight into how, for the Christian who sees with the eyes of faith, weakness becomes strength, death becomes life, and in martyrdom the saints participate in the timeless sacrifice of the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Blandina’s story in Eusebius is an excellent example of how through the death of martyrdom, the martyr becomes a source of life for other Christians who see the crucifixion of Christ in their example. Through martyrdom, Blandina fully becomes a “living man,” and as such becomes an expression of the glory of God through whom others are strengthened so that they too might become “living men” through dying in Christ. “For the glory of God is a living man, and the life of man is to see God.”[4] Holding on to worldly freedom, physical health, or material goods never allows one to be free; the threat of having these freedoms or goods taken away will always be a source of control over the individual afraid to lose them. Christ tells us in Matthew 10:28, “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Blandina, a slave in the world, did not allow herself to be a slave to the world; rather she chose to give herself to Christ, allowing herself to be used in any way that God saw fit; like clay in the hands of the Creator, she allowed herself to be formed by God. By doing so she was filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. Blandina’s persecutors were destroying her body, yet they were being defeated; their goal was to bring her to death, yet in her martyrdom they were becoming her source of eternal life. Blandina chose to die to herself so she might live in Christ, suffering her persecution voluntarily and letting Christ work through her. Among the martyrs of Lyons and Vienne, it was Blandina who most perfectly became the icon of Christ for those Christians witnessing her persecution. Blandina, after suffering many tortures, was suspended on a stake and left to be devoured by the wild animals. Hanging on the stake, Blandina, for those who saw with eyes of faith, became an icon of Christ hanging on the cross. “For as they saw her in the contest, with the external eyes, through their sister, they contemplated Him that was crucified for them, to persuade those that believe in Him, that every one who suffers for Christ, will forever enjoy communion with the living God.”[5] For those Christians who wavered in the face of persecution, the confession of the martyrs became a source of strength for them so that they were able to reclaim their faith and become confessors themselves. Such was the case when the Phrygian Doctor Alexander stood before his persecutors and confessed the faith. In light of his courage, those who had renounced the faith were once again given the strength to proclaim their faith. This infuriated the persecutors. “The mob, however, chagrined that those who had before renounced their faith were again confessing, cried out against Alexander, as if he had been the cause of this.”[6] Being full of the Holy Spirit, the confessor’s preaching of Christ had an effect on those who had also received the Spirit. According to Irenaeus, Christ’s reclamation, through the confessing of the martyrs, of those Christians who had fallen into apostasy was spiritually devastating to the devil. Hearing the confession of Christ for those who had fallen away was efficacious. They wanted the life that they saw present in the lives of the martyrs, even if they had to die the death of martyrdom to truly live. It is hard not to imagine that Irenaeus’ experience of witnessing and writing about the martyrs in Lyons and Vienne did not have some impact on his theological writings.  The martyrdom of Blandina and her fellow Christians present clear practical examples of Irenaeus’ theological thought, particularly in his theology of the glory of God being a “living man.”  And if seeing God is the way to becoming a “living man,” then He is clearly present in the lives and deaths of Blandina and the other martyrs of Lyons and Vienne. May the Martyrs of the Church always be a source of strength for those suffering, so that they too may eventually become “living men” through Christ, entering into the fullness of life in the eternal presence of God.

St. Augustine: Love & Conversion in the Church

Sacred Scripture reveals through salvation history that God calls every person to Himself. Those who respond to their vocation and turn to the Lord are often used for the conversion and salvation of others. Conversion does not always occur in a single moment but sometimes is a process of coming to God over time. The theology of conversion is not only seen in Sacred Scripture, but also in the lives and theology of the saints. St. Augustine is an example of a saint who was converted over time, and, thus, his theology is one of constant conversion. The Church, according to St. Augustine, is full of saints and sinners: saints who have converted from a sinful life to one of holiness and sinners who have not yet let the old man die so that the new man might live. Likewise, there are Saints who fall into sin, and the most wretched of men who become martyrs for Christ. To participate in the life of the Church is to participate in flux. “In any case, those who appear to be bad today may be good tomorrow, just as those who today are proud of their own goodness may tomorrow turn out to be bad,” he wrote. To be a member of the Body of Christ is to participate in a life of ongoing conversion, sometimes being used by God in the conversion of others, sometimes using others as an example of conversion for oneself. Conversion does not occur in a vacuum; it is both relational and a struggle over time. The relational experience of conversion can be understood as a fundamental element in Augustine’s own conversion and, therefore, works its way into Augustine’s theology and pastoral approach to those whom he served as Bishop of Hippo. For Augustine, the Church on earth is like a hospital, filled with many people at different levels of spiritual health and healing. There are those who suffer from grievous, near fatal wounds, wounds that others turn their eyes away from in disgust, hard wounds to heal. Likewise, there are those who are well on their way to recovery, a recovery that becomes an example to those who are still in the process of healing. Finally, there are also saints, priests and bishops who are charged with being the doctors in this spiritual hospital. The Church is the dispensary of God’s healing medicine. “And since the same medicine is not to be applied to all, although to all the same love is due, so also love itself is in travail with some, becomes weak with others; is at pains to edify some, dreads to be a cause of offence to others; stoops to some, before others stands with head erect; is gentle to some, and stern to others; and enemy to none, a mother to all.” Healing in the Church is done through conversion to Christ, and converts to Christ become an example to others helping them in their own conversion. Once man as an individual is in a proper relationship with God, this love of God is expressed through the love of others, the Church. As Christ laid down his life for us out of love, we also are called to sacrifice ourselves for others. “And for this reason, that inasmuch as love is the end of the commandment and the fulfillment of the law, we also may love one another, and even as He laid down His life for us, so we also may lay down our life for the brethren,” stated Augustine. While laying down our life for the other is the ultimate sacrifice, love for our brethren can be expressed in other ways as well. Our expression of joy in living a life of faith in God can become an example for others in the Church. Augustine uses the example of coal. Those who have no faith or have gotten lost in a life of sin are likened to dead coal. Those who are living a life in Christ and are on fire in their faith are considered live coals. All that is needed to bring the dead coal to life is to be placed next to a burning coal. It brings great joy to the whole Church to see the effects of conversion, life in Christ, in someone who had been dead in sin. “But while you praise this live coal− if you praise him wisely −you will apply him to another who is dead, and set fire to him or her as well,” he said. In this way, the Church grows exponentially through Christ and His saints. Christ uses those in His Church for the conversion of others. Just as our life must be given for the good of others, so also our knowledge of Christ and the precepts of the Christian faith must be given over to others so that they might use what we have for their own use to enjoy God in the Holy Trinity. Augustine expresses this well when he compares our sharing of what God has given us with others to the miracle of the loaves and fish. “So just as that bread increased in quantity when it was broken, in the same way all the things the Lord has already granted me for setting about this work will be multiplied under his inspiration, when I start passing them on to others.” Sharing what God has given us with our brethren is not only beneficial to them, but to the individual sharing it as well. Also, loving one's brethren is the greatest form of loving God. Augustine knew that there were those in the Church who did not yet belong to the Church and that they could be a source of scandal within the Church. And yet, while he disliked them, he loved them all the same. “Today I hate such wicked and perverted people, though I love them as people in need of correction, so that instead of money they may prefer the doctrine which they learn and, above the doctrine, may prefer you, God, the truth, the abundant source of assured goodness and most chaste peace.” Augustine knew from his own experience that God works on people over time. He unpacked Sacred Scripture to his flock and corrected their errors while never losing hope that some of those who were in the Church but not part of Christ’s body would come to conversion just as he had. Augustine wrote, “True, it is hidden from us when it is that one whom we now see present in the body does really come in spirit; nevertheless, we should deal with him in such a manner that he may conceive this desire even though it does not as yet exist.” It is not known when God will act on the sinner’s heart and predispose the person to conversion, but out of love for one's brethren there must be hope and prayer. Sinners and scandal will always be present in the Church, but like a hospital, the Church exists for the salvation of those people. “But if our mind is troubled by some scandal and so is unable to produce a calm and agreeable discourse, so great should be our love towards those for whom Christ died, desiring to redeem them by the price of His own blood from the death of the errors of this world that the very fact of the word being brought to us in our dejection that someone is at hand who desires to become a Christian should have the effect of alleviating and dispelling our grief, even as the joy over gains is wont to alleviate grief over losses,” he taught. The scandal cannot overcome the joy in just one person who decides to become a Christian, and those who are already in the Body of Christ should seek out those who remain outside. We live in tumultuous times. It is our job to be the live coals, a source of love and conversion to others, spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ to those both within the Church and without.

Fra Angelico’s “Annunciation” & Mary’s Obedience

I recently taught a class on sacred art to a local parish’s men’s club. One of the paintings that we discussed was an altarpiece of the Annunciation done by Blessed Fra Angelico, which is held at the Prado Museum in Spain. In this particular painting, the left side depicts Adam and Eve being cast out of the Garden of Eden, while the right side depicts the Annunciation. For the person standing in front of the painting there is a before and after effect, a story being told, that the Fall of Adam and Eve is directly tied to the Annunciation. On the Garden side, Adam and Eve can be seen being escorted out of paradise by one of God’s angels. Genesis 3:24 states that after the Fall, God, “drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.” In Blessed Fra Angelico’s depiction, there is no anger or aggression present in the angel toward Adam and Eve, rather there is a sadness depicted in the angel’s downturned eyes, understanding what has been lost, as it’s right hand almost sorrowfully directs them out of Eden. As Adam and Eve exit the Garden, it can be seen that God, in his grace, has covered their naked bodies with animal skins even though they still retain the leaves which they used to first cover their nakedness. The animal skin clothes show that even in their sin, God provides for them. In the upper left-hand corner of the painting there are two hands surrounded by a bright light representing the hands of God. There is light moving diagonally across the painting as if it is moving through time and across history, to the Annunciation and the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. We see a dove representing that the light is the movement of the Holy Spirit. We can recall the words From Luke 1:35 as we imagine the angel Gabriel saying, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.” Where the first Eve chose her own will over God’s and brought sin into the world, the second Eve, Mary, aligns her will with God’s will. Thus what begins with the Annunciation and Incarnation ends with the defeat of sin in Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, death, and resurrection. At this point, the person standing before the painting, understanding who all the characters are, and the before and after nature of the story, could move on to the next painting in the museum. If they do, they might miss a major detail of what Fra Angelico might have been trying to communicate. The person looking at the painting participates in the story. The sin in the Garden is the before, the Annunciation is the middle of the story, and the after is now, and concerns you, the person standing before the painting. Through the crucifixion death and resurrection of Christ, made possible by the fiat of Mary at the Annunciation, you can receive salvation through Jesus Christ and no longer have to be a slave to sin which entered with the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden.

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St. Cyril of Jerusalem and the Mystagogy of Baptism

Sometime around the year 350, St. Cyril was named Bishop of Jerusalem. St. Cyril served as Bishop of Jerusalem during tumultuous times, both political and theological. During his reign as bishop, he was banished from his see three times and was three times reinstated. In 381 he was one of the Fathers present at the First Council of Constantinople. St. Cyril died on March 18, 386, and his commemoration is celebrated on March 18th in the liturgical calendar of the Church. St. Cyril’s existing works include his pre-baptismal catechesis, known as the Procatechesis, and twenty-three post-baptismal catechetical homilies. These are some of the earliest writings depicting the catechesis and ritual of the Sacrament of Baptism in the early Church. St. Cyril was named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XIII in 1883. Having celebrated St. Cyril’s commemoration in March, and about to conclude the Easter season, it might be interesting to look at St. Cyril’s catechesis on Baptism. In the Procatechesis, St. Cyril addresses those catechumens who are participating in the Lenten catechumenate. The catechumens are undergoing preparation for their entry into the Church through the Sacrament of Baptism at Easter. In their preparation, the catechumens would have attended Church daily, receiving instruction in the faith and receiving minor exorcisms, not unlike our modern catechumens today who attend RCIA programs and receive minor exorcisms during the scrutinies on the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent. It is to the catechumens that have been advancing in their knowledge of the faith that St. Cyril is speaking, when, in the Procatechesis, he says, “Already there is an odor of blessedness upon you, O you who are soon to be enlightened; already you are gathering the noetic flowers, to weave heavenly crowns; already the fragrance of the Holy Spirit has breathed upon you; already you have gathered round the vestibule of the King’s Palace; may you be led in also by the King!”[1] The vestibule of the King’s Palace was the baptistry of the Church. For St. Cyril, Baptism is the gate through which we entered the King’s palace, or paradise. After the Fall and expulsion from the Garden of Eden, man was held captive by the devil in his original sin. With the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, the hold of the devil over man was broken. In one of his post-baptismal homilies, St Cyril explains how this is evident in the ritual of Baptism. Within the ritual there is a clear expression of conversion, turning away from Satan, and turning toward Christ. According to St. Cyril, the ritual begins at the entrance to the baptistry with the individual being baptized facing west with his arms outstretched. The west is where the sun sets, and with the setting of the sun comes darkness. As such the west was symbolically tied to the devil. “Since the west is the region of sensible darkness, and he being darkness, has his dominion also in darkness, therefore, looking with a symbolic meaning towards the West, you renounce that dark and gloomy potentate.”[2] The arms are held out, representing that the individual is rejecting or pushing away the devil and his works. The individual to be baptized then vocally rejects Satan, all of his works, and all of his pomp. After the rejection of Satan, the person being baptized physically turns his body (conversion) and enters the baptistry facing the east. He has now turned his back to Satan and is moving toward Christ and the baptismal font. With his back to the west, he now faces east. Just as the west is tied to the setting of the sun and darkness, the east is the direction that the sun rises and represents light and the coming of Christ. “For as the lightening comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matt. 24:27). In facing east, the person being baptized also faces the direction in which lies paradise. “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed” (Gen. 2:8). Facing east, the person then puts off the garments they are wearing. The stripping of the garments has multiple meanings. First, it is a symbol of the person putting off the old man of sin. “For since the adverse Powers made their lair in your members, you may no longer wear that old garment.”[3] In putting of the garment there was a sense of putting off the sin, and having put off the sin, there was no longer any shame connected to the nakedness. “You were naked in the sight of all, and were not ashamed; for truly you bore the likeness of the first-formed Adam, who was naked in the garden, and was not ashamed.”[4] Another meaning to the stripping of the garments has to do with Baptism being a participation in the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ. “Having stripped yourselves, you were naked; in this also imitating Christ, who was stripped naked on the Cross, and by His nakedness put off from Himself the principalities and powers, and openly triumphed over them on the tree (Col. 2:15).”[5] Another early Church Father, Theodore of Mopsuestia, adds that after turning east the person genuflects before stripping their old garments. After the garments are put off the person is then brought to the standing position, representing the lifting up of man from the Fall. After rejecting Satan and putting off the old garments, the baptizand is then anointed with exorcised oil. The exorcised oil also has multiple meanings. One meaning is that, being cut off from Satan, “the wild olive tree,” you are grafted onto Christ, “the good olive tree.” The other purpose that St. Cyril gives for the anointing of exorcised oil has to do with warding off the evil spirits tempting the person before Baptism. “For as the breathing of the saints, and the invocation of the Name of God, like fiercest flame, scorch and drive out evil spirits, so also this exorcised oil receives such virtue by the invocation of God and by prayer, as not only to burn and cleanse away the traces of sins, but also to chase away all the invisible powers of the evil one.”[6] Once the person was anointed with the exorcised oil, they were then led to the baptismal font and asked three questions. “And each of you were asked, whether he believed in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and you made that saving confession, and descended three times into the water, and ascended again; here also hinting by a symbol at the three days burial of Christ.”[7] Baptism is a participation in the death and resurrection of Christ for the one who is baptized. St. Paul says, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in the newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). Coming out of the waters, the newly baptized were once again clothed with a new white garment. Just as before Baptism he put off the garment of the old sinner, now the baptizand is clothed with a new white robe which represents the newness of life in Christ. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27). Having “put on Christ” the baptized individual can now properly call himself a Christian. There is one further anointing which occurs. At the Baptism of Christ, after He is baptized, the Holy Spirit comes upon Him. “And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and behold a voice from heaven, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’” (Matt. 3:16-17). This second anointing with holy oil represents the Holy Spirit coming upon the newly baptized. “For as the Bread of the Eucharist, after the invocation of the Holy Spirit, is mere bread no longer, but the Body of Christ, so also this holy ointment is no more simple ointment, nor common, after invocation, but it is Christ’s gift of grace, and, by the advent of the Holy Spirit, is made fit to impart His Divine Nature.”[8] Thus, receiving the anointing, we receive participation in the divine nature and through Christ truly become children of God.

Taylor Swift is Right: I’m the Problem

I will confess to all the “Swifties” out there that I am no expert on Taylor Swift or her music, and, in addition to possibly putting my ignorance of Taylor Swift on display, the fact that I am writing about her in my latest musing may be opening myself up to lots of future jokes from my colleagues in the Alcuin Institute. But that’s okay, full steam ahead. I should start by laying out the context of how this particular musing came about. Some time ago I was able to spend quality time with my nephew who is in eighth grade. Like many eighth graders, his world is one filled with music, movies, and pop culture. In one of our conversations, it came up that Taylor Swift had just released a new album (my nephew would want me to clarify at this point that he is not a “Swiftie” …we were discussing music in a general sense). So as a result of this conversation, I listened to the first song released called “Anti-Hero.” Thus, this musing.

What caught my attention were the lyrics. Maybe the words were simply creative songwriting, but they come across to the listener as being very personal insights into the life of Taylor Swift, confessional even. One particular line states, “I should not be left to my own devices, they come with prices and vices, I end up in crisis, tale as old as time.”[1] Now, anytime I hear “tale as old as time” tied to “vices,” my thoughts are immediately directed to the story of the Fall in Genesis.

It is a well-known story. Adam and Eve rejected God’s warning about eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and, left to their own devices, they ended up in a crisis. The price of their sin was death and separation from God. In the aftermath of recognizing their sinfulness they hide from God among the trees. When God asks, “Adam, where are you?” it is not that God doesn’t see them in hiding, or that He doesn’t know their location. He is asking the question out of love. God gives Adam the opportunity to confess the sin and make things right. Adam does not confess, rather he blames his sin on Eve and even God Himself since He gave Eve to be his wife. As the Easter Exsultet says, “O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a redeemer!” Through the crucifixion, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, our sin has been forgiven and we are once again able to enter into a relationship with God.

Being sinners, we tend to fall back into sin over and over again. Because of this, the Church has been gifted with the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to this sacrament as the sacrament of forgiveness, “since by the priest’s sacramental absolution God grants the penitent ‘pardon and peace’” (CCC, 1449).

Back to Taylor Swift. Taylor Swift’s song ends with lyrics which insinuate that at her funeral, her family members will think that she is laughing at them in hell when they realize that she has left them nothing in the will. Now if this is some insight into Taylor Swift's self-perception and not just creative songwriting, this is heartbreaking. Taylor, it does not have to end this way. Just as in the case of Charles Dicken’s Ebenezer Scrooge, there is time for conversion. In fact, it is encouraging that, unlike Adam and Eve, who blame everyone but themselves, in the chorus of Taylor’s song there is a line which says, “It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me.”[2] There is no hiding in the trees here. In a world in which we like to make excuses for all of our sins and problems, this seems like a refreshingly honest confession. So, Taylor, forgive me, I don’t know much about you, but if you are reading my musings, I do have the answer to where you can find the peace you are seeking. If the lyrics of this song are your own struggles, you have the confession down, you should take it to Christ through the Sacrament of Confession. If you are Catholic, after confessing the priest will give you absolution; if not, you can also find healing and mercy in the conversation with the priest. The same goes for anyone else reading this article and carrying around the weight of your sins. Go to Confession, ask for forgiveness, be forgiven, and enter into the pardon and peace of Jesus Christ.

    [1] Taylor Swift, “Anti-hero,” Midnights (New York: Republic Records, 2022). [2] Taylor Swift, “Anti-hero,” Midnights (New York: Republic Records, 2022).

Happy Is He Who Prays with the Church

Each feast day, St Therese of Lisieux's sister Pauline would read Dom Guéranger’s commentary on the Mass in order to prepare their minds and hearts. St. Therese writes of this experience, “How I loved the feasts! You knew how to explain all the mysteries hidden under each, and you did it so well that they were truly heavenly days for me.”[1]

Dom Prosper Guéranger was a Benedictine monk who was instrumental in the liturgical reform movement of nineteenth-century France as well as the re-founding of Solesmes Abbey. Our Lady of Clear Creek Monastery is part of the Solesmes Congregation and thus becomes a connection between our diocese and the history of Solesmes and Dom Guéranger.

Founded in 1010, the Benedictine Priory of Solesmes was closed in 1791 as a result of the anti-Church sentiment in France during the French Revolution. In 1831, the buildings of the priory which had survived the French Revolution but had fallen into neglect were put up for sale by the French Government. Father Guéranger realized that if he could buy the priory it would be an opportunity to re-establish the Benedictine religious life to France, which was all but lost after the French Revolution. With the help of private donations, Guéranger succeeded in acquiring the Priory of Solemnes, and in 1832, religious life under the Rule of St. Benedict returned to France. “Prayer which had been interrupted, has been resumed.”[2] In 1837, the Priory of Solesmes was made the Abbey of Solesmes and Dom Prosper Guéranger was appointed Abbot and Superior General of the Benedictines of the Congregation of France.

One of the results of re-establishing the Benedictine monastic tradition to France was that Dom Guéranger was able to focus on studying the Church’s liturgy. In 1841, Guéranger began writing The Liturgical Year, a fifteen-volume work which explains day by day the liturgical year of the Church, including the Mass and the Divine Office. After the devastating years during and following the French Revolution, in order to strengthen the Church, he recognized the importance of the laity having an understanding of the liturgy.

But this liturgical prayer would soon become powerless were the faithful not to take a real share in it, or at least not to associate themselves to it in heart. It can heal and save the world, but only on the condition that it be understood. Be wise, then, ye children of the Catholic Church, and obtain that largeness of heart which will make you pray the prayer of your mother.[3]

His hopes were that he could revitalize the Church by introducing the faithful to the prayer of the Church with explanations and commentaries. As seen in the life of St. Therese of Lisieux, The Liturgical Year made it possible for the lay faithful to come to know the prayer of the Church and participate in the liturgy in a way that was impossible before it was published. Saints read his work and were strengthened in their faith. Thus it is fitting that in 2005 the cause for beatification was opened for Servant of God Dom Prosper Guéranger.

Dom Prosper Guéranger died in 1875 after finishing nine of the fifteen volumes. The other six volumes were completed by another Benedictine monk under Dom Guéranger’s name. The Liturgical Year is today still considered one of the most important resources for liturgical studies. In addition to studying the liturgical year, Dom Guéranger also helped to recover and re-establish the use of authentic Gregorian Chant in the liturgy. May his work inspire us even today as we seek to draw closer to our Lord in the sacred liturgy. [1] Àngel de les Gavarres, Thérèse, The Little Child of God’s Mercy: Her Spiritual Itinerary in the Light of Her Autobiographical Manuscripts (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1999), 23. [2] Dom Prosper Guéranger, O.S.B., The Liturgical Year: Volume I – Advent (New Hampshire: Loreto Publications, 2000), 5. [3] Guéranger, The Liturgical Year: Volume I – Advent, 5-6.

The Nativity of our Lord: The Feast of this Awe-filled Mystery

As we prepare for the coming of Christ at Christmas, it seemed proper to spend some time with a few sermons of Saint Peter Chrysologus, particularly those dealing with the seasons of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.

Saint Peter Chrysologus was appointed Bishop of Ravenna by Pope Sixtus III sometime around the year 431. At the time, Ravenna was the political capital of the Western Roman Empire. According to the legend of the saint, the people of Ravenna had chosen their own man for bishop, but St. Peter the Apostle and St. Appolinaris had come to Pope Sixtus III in a vision and instructed the Pope to name Peter Chrysologus bishop. St. Peter Chrysologus was known for his gifts as a shepherd to his people and a preacher. Of his writings, there are 176 sermons attributed to his name as well as a pastoral letter written to the heretic Eutyches. It is believed by scholars that of the 176 sermons, 168 are authentic writings of the saint. He was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1729 by Pope Benedict XIII.

Known as the Doctor of Homilies, as a preacher, St. Peter’s sermons were short. “He frequently stated that he did not want to weary his hearers by speaking too long.”[1] Even though his sermons were short, they were beautifully crafted and theologically rich, earning him the epithet Chrysologus or “the Golden Orator.” While Christianity had become the official religion under Emperor Theodosius the Great in the late fourth century, there were still many at the beginning of the fifth century who were influenced by the old pagan religions. The focus of most of St. Peter’s sermons was the moral conversion of his flock. That he truly cared for the people he shepherded, desiring their conversion and salvation, is apparent in the sermons. “You are my life, my saving encouragement, and my glory. Therefore, I cannot suffer you to remain ignorant of what God gave me to know.”[2] His passion was for saving souls and his gift was to be able to share in his sermons difficult theological ideas in an easily understood and pastoral manner.

Preface II in the Eucharistic prayer for the Mass of the Nativity of the Lord could be a description of St. Peter Chrysologus’ thoughts present in his sermons regarding the Nativity. It is a beautiful prayer reminding us that in Christ’s Incarnation there is not only the salvation of man, but also the restoration of the unity of all creation which was disordered with the first sin in the Garden.

For on the feast of this awe-filled mystery,

though invisible in his own divine nature,

he has appeared visibly in ours;

and begotten before all ages,

he has begun to exist in time;

so that, raising up in himself all that was cast down,

he might restore unity to all creation

and call straying humanity back to the heavenly Kingdom.[3]

With this prayer in mind, we can now turn to the words of St. Peter Chrysologus and see how he expresses the same themes in his homilies.

For Peter Chrysologus, the Incarnation of Christ is always an awe-filled mystery. This mystery begins with the Annunciation. In one of his sermons, Chrysologus ponders the meaning of the Archangel Gabriel’s words when he proclaims to Mary, “the Lord is with thee.” “‘The Lord is with Thee.’ Why is the Lord with you? Because He is coming to you not merely to pay a visit, but He is coming down into you in a new mystery, that of being born.”[4] In another sermon the great saint asks us to turn our thoughts to the mystery of Christ in Mary’s womb.

Then ponder this in your heart: Can you fathom the mystery of the Lord’s birth? Do you deserve to enter into the resting place of that bosom, where the heavenly King, with all the full majesty of His divinity, finds His repose? Ought you, as a rash witness with human eyes and bodily senses, to gaze on the virgin’s conceiving? Can you, as a bystander, contemplate with daring reverence the very hands of God fashioning for himself the holy temple of a body within the womb of the mother?[5]

In Mary’s womb God became flesh and blood and shared in our human nature while Mary became the tabernacle of Our Lord and the Mother of God.

In the Gospel of Matthew, we are told that “Jesus was born in Bethlehem, of Judea, in the days of Herod” (Matt. 2:1). Both Bethlehem and Judea are particular places, both of which can be visited today, while “in the days of Herod” allows us to pinpoint a particular time in human history. As Preface II states, at Jesus’ birth God appears visibly and enters into time. St. Peter Chrysologus expresses it beautifully when he says,

He who made man from undefiled earth, without any process of birth, He Himself by being born fashioned His human nature from an undefiled body. The hand which with dignity raised earth to our image also with dignity assumed flesh for our restoration.[6]

That Christ assumes flesh for our restoration is a direct reference to the Fall in the Garden.

The first man, Adam, the father of the race, the origin of all posterity, lost by his sin the good of nature, the freedom of his race, and the life of his offspring…. Thus it is that Christ was born to elevate those prostrate in an earthy seed up to a heavenly nature.[7]

In Christ’s Incarnation it is not just man who is restored, but all of creation is restored as well. In his sermons there is a cosmological view in which all of creation celebrates the coming of our Savior.

So, what God commands an angel relates. His spirit fulfills it and His power brings it to perfection. The virgin believes it, and nature takes it up. The tale is told from the sky, and then proclaimed from all the heavens. The stars show it forth, and the Magi tell about it. The shepherds adore, and the beasts are aware. As the prophet testified: "The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib." [8]

All of creation participates and celebrates the Nativity of our Lord.

As we prepare for the coming of Christ this Christmas, let us remember that it is part of the mystery and beauty of the Church, that the same truth preached during Advent and Christmas by St. Peter Chrysologus in fifth century Ravenna, is the same truth our pastors will preach to us on Christmas day. “Today, Christ, who is the King of peace, has come forth with His peace and routed all discord, banished dissensions, and dissipated conflicts.”[9] May we all experience the peace of Christ who routes discord and dissipates conflicts this Christmas.

Lord, Open Our Eyes So We Might See

I was recently asked to teach two classes in the upcoming year on the topics of the Eucharist in Sacred Art and on Eucharistic Miracles. As I have not taught on these particular subjects before, the first step was to grab the books off the shelf and start collecting the pictures I will need for the class on art. In the collecting of pictures, I ran across the picture which accompanies this musing. It is a picture from a few years ago in which Bishop Slattery is consecrating the host, making what was once bread and wine into the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

What struck me about the picture was the gaze of the priests. At this moment in the Mass all of the priests are intensely looking at the Eucharist, their eyes focused on Christ Himself, who is truly present in the Sacrament. If we were to step back and enlarge the picture so that we could see the high altar in its fullness, we would notice that some of the angels depicted on the altar are also looking at the Eucharist held up by the Bishop. The eyes of the other angels are focused on the tabernacle or the depiction of Christ on the Cross. All eyes are on Christ! If only our eyes could be opened to the spiritual reality taking place in this picture, we would also see a host of real, not artistically depicted angels and saints focused intensely on Christ present in the Eucharist.

This being said, there are many in the Catholic Church who do not believe in Christ’s true presence in the Eucharist. A Pew Research Center survey from 2019 found that only about one-third of Catholics believe in the true presence. While this number may come as a surprise to many, this disbelief is not new or modern.

There is a similar situation depicted in the life of St. Gregory the Great contained in the Golden Legend by Jacobus Voragrine. As St. Gregory is distributing the Eucharist to the laity, one particular woman steps up to receive the Eucharist with an amused smile on her face. St. Gregory pulls back the Eucharist and asks the lady why she is so amused. The lady happened to be the woman who made the bread for the host and admitted that she found it hard to believe that the bread she made was now the body of Christ. St. Gregory placed the Eucharist back on the altar and prayed that God show His grace by revealing the truth of what the Church believes. The Sacrament on the altar became flesh before the eyes of all. The woman was converted and after her conversion was further catechized by St. Gregory. For those of us helping catechize the faithful, we have work to do! But we should do this work with great joy, keeping our eyes focused on the Eucharist, and knowing that Christ and all of His saints and angels are right there with us.