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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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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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.

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.