"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Compassionate Blood by Fr. Romanus Cessario, O.P.

I mentioned back at Ash Wednesday that one of my Lenten reads was Compassionate Blood, a meditation on the Christ's Passion from the words of the patron saint of this blog, St. Catherine of Siena.  I wanted to go through one of the chapters to give you a feel for the book, but also to once again to show the sparkling thoughts of this wonderful little lady on her feast day, April 29th.  This comes from the book’s chapter titled “The Cross.”  Cessario here takes Catherine’s exegesis on a well-known verse from Paul’s epistle to the Romans, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us” (Rom 8:18).

Catherine once wrote to a certain woman, Nella Buonoconti, a wife and mother who lived with her family in Pisa and whose son had extended hospitality to Catherine and her “family” during their stay in that northern Italian city.  Here is what she said: “The sufferings of this life are not worth comparing with the future glory that God has prepared for those who reverenced him and who with good patience endured the holy discipline imposed on them by divine Goodness.  In their patience, these people are experiencing even in this life the earnest of eternal life” (Letters II, 459).  Her words introduce an especially comforting word that Jesus spoke from the cross: “Then [the good thief] said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into the kingdom.’  He replied to him, ‘Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise’” (Lk 23:42-43)…What, however, explains that only one of the two criminals who were crucified with Jesus received this remarkable grace to turn to him and seek an “earnest of eternal life”?

The answer to that question lies in why the good thief, traditionally known as Dismas, makes his plea to Christ.

To discover how an everyday thief became a good thief, we must consider two themes: first, the immensity of divine grace and, second, the efficacy of Christ’s death on the cross…These themes dominate the spiritual doctrine of St. Catherine of Siena…

Those two themes reach to the heart of Christianity.  If you have to remember two elements of Christianity, remember divine grace and the transformation of the world by Christ’s crucifixion. 

To another woman, one moreover who enjoyed a reputation for indulging worldly desires, Catherine felt compelled to explain the dynamics of divine law.  “But you will say to me,” she wrote to Regina della Scala, “’Since I have no such love, and without it I am powerless, how can I get it?’ I will tell you,” Catherine continues.  Her reply seems too simple for the theologically sophisticated to take seriously, but Catherine’s authority trumps such a phony demurral.  “Love,” explains Catherine, “is had only by loving.  If you want to love, you must begin by loving.” (Letters I, 73)

Love is integrally connected to grace.

God never abandons us.  The divine goodness remains present to us, always there to fill up what is empty and vacant in our lives.  This assurance explains why Catherine instructs Regina della Scala that she should become accustomed to reflecting on her own nothingness.  “And once you see that of yourself you do not even exist,” Catherine explains, “you will recognize and appreciate that God is the source of your existence and of every favor above and beyond that existence—God’s graces and gifts both temporal and spiritual.” (Letters I, 73)  Instead of emphasizing the disjunctive conjunctive either/or, Catherine prefers what Hans Urs von Balthasar later called “the catholic and.”  (The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church, Ignatius Press, 1974, pp. 301-7)  Divine premonition and human freedom. Divine grace and human nature.  God and the cross of God’s only son.  “For without existence, we would not be able to receive any grace at all,” Catherine writes to Regina.  “So everything we have, everything we discover within ourselves, is indeed is indeed the gift of God’s boundless goodness and charity.

And the crucifixion is actually God’s greatest grace, his deepest expression of love.  Love and grace meet—buckle—at the cross.

“When we see ourselves loved we love in return,” she assures us.  (Letters I, 73)  On the cross, Christ exhibits the greatest possible love, so says Saint Thomas Aquinas.  (Summa Theologiae IIIa q. 48, a.2)  Catherine calls the cross “love’s fire”; fed in this fire, “we realize how loved we are when we see that we ourselves were the soil and the rock that held the standard of the most holy cross.” (Letters I, 73)  In other words, in order to appreciate the place we poor sinners hold in the drama of Christ’s Passion, we need first to find comfort from “love’s fire,” from the holy cross of sweet Jesus crucified.  Like a little moth that can only find itself drawn to the fire that will consume it, the soul finds itself drawn to the cross.  And what do we find when we land close to “love’s fire”?  “That neither earth nor rock could have held the cross, nor could the cross or nails have held God’s only-begotten Son, had not love held him fast.”  (Letters I, 73)  Catherine’s catechesis reaches its completion.  What moved the good thief?  Love.  God’s love.  God’s love shining through the human face of the Savior.

Not bad from an uneducated woman from the Middle Ages.  Compassionate Blood is a nice little devotional.

St. Catherine of Siena, on your feast day, pray for us.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Word of the Day: Tsundoku

I came across this fascinating word in The Huffington Post’s Arts and Culture section.  I can’t stand The Huff’s politics and social biases but they do have a fine Book and Arts sections.  

The article is by a Katherine Brooks, titled “There’s A Japanese Word For People Who Buy More Books Than They Can Actually Read.”  Now obviously that would catch my eye, if you’ve learned anything about me.  From her article:

Book hoarding is a well-documented habit.

In fact, most literary types are pretty proud of the practice, steadfast in their desire to stuff shelves to maximum capacity. They’re not looking to stop hoarding, because parting with pieces of carefully curated piles is hard and stopping yourself from buying the next Strand staff pick is even harder. So, sorry Marie Kondo, but the books are staying.

The desire to buy more books than you can physically read in one human lifetime is actually so universal, there’s a specific word for it: tsundoku. Defined as the stockpiling of books that will never be consumed, the term is a Japanese portmanteau of sorts, combining the words “tsunde” (meaning “to stack things”) and “oku” (meaning “to leave for a while”).

I refuse to open the links Ms. Brooks provides on the habit of “book hoarding” and especially the link on the rehab therapy that is available—good heavens, there’s actually a syndrome named for it!  I refuse to accept I have any neuroses and I’m not going to find out that I do. But I do compulsively buy books, even when I realize I may never read them. 

The Japanese have a word for my compulsion.  (Does compulsion still imply I have a mental disorder?  Heaven forbid.) Tsundoku, pronounced tsoon-doh-koo.  Brooks describes the word as a “portmanteau of sorts,” a portmanteau word being a word formed by two words that have been amalgamated into one.  Which is different than a compound, where two words are joined together.  A classic example of a portmanteau word is “smog” formed from “smoke” and “fog.”  A classic example of a word compound is “paperclip,” formed from joining “paper” and “clip” together. 

I don’t know Japanese to be even remotely knowledgeable, but it strikes me that tsundoku is a compound not a portmanteau, despite dropping the “e” from the end of the initial part of the compound, “tsunde.”  I’ll let the Japanese linguists figure that one out.

Back to Ms. Brooks’ article:

Tsundoku has no direct synonym in English, Oxford Dictionaries clarified in a blog post, defining the word as “the act of leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piling it up together with other such unread books.” An informative subreddit provides even more context, explaining that “the tsundoku scale” ranges from just one unread book to a serious hoard. “Everyone is most likely to be ‘tsundokursed’ one way or the other,” it warns.

The blog Other-Worldly, a blog about strange and unusual words, defines tsundoku best: 

(n.) buying books and not reading them; letting books pile up unread on shelves or floors or nightstands.

Or like me in plastic storage boxes in the basement.  I swear, I’m not crazy.  I swear it, believe me, I’m not.  

Sunday, April 16, 2017

What Jesus Saw from the Cross: The Look to Heaven

I’ve posted twice on this wonderful book, A. G. Sertillanges’ What Jesus Saw from the Cross, already (here and hereand I wanted to post one more on its amazing conclusion.  I did want to post this before Easter Sunday, but I was just too busy.  But here it is on Easter Sunday night.

As I’ve noted, Sertillanges’ book is a devotional on Christ’s passion, taken from the perspective of Christ looking out hanging from the cross.  Sertillanges identifies the sights and sounds, the events of Christ’s last days, Christ’s friends and His enemies, His last words, and what all this sound and fury was about.  In the last chapter, as Christ raises His eyes toward heaven in His last moments of life, the vision steps away from what is below, and Sertillanges attempts to contemplate Christ’s vision beyond the earth. 

In the eyes of the dying Savior, things and people are never withdrawn from their natural environment nor isolated from the divine sphere in which they are enclosed.  When He meditates upon what He sees He cannot but consider its divine content.  Heaven envelopes the earth and all things that are upon it.  Lifted up from the earth, more by His soul than by His Cross, Christ finds in Heaven the first object of His contemplation.  From Heaven He comes and to Heaven He returns.  Thus it is with His eyes raised to Heaven that we must think of Him uttering His first and His last sentences, each of them beginning with the word Father.  (p.211)

Two things are important there—the intermingling of the divine with the material and the source of the first cause, God the Father.  In that glance toward the Father, eternity and the temporal meet, and the mutual love of the Father and Son, which blossoms in the form of the Holy Spirit, is made manifest.  What Sertillanges sees at that moment is the reconciliation of all things, the material and the spirit, the eternal and the transient, the internal and the external.

It is not without importance at the foot of the Cross, which reconciles all extremes, to notice how the heavens—especially the heavens at night—are related to the mystery of the soul.  The ether is beyond all measure; and beyond all measure and understanding also are the stirrings of the heart.  We cannot rise to the stars or descend to the depths of our being.  Two infinites stretch beyond the bounds of our experience, and both attract us irresistibly yet hold us at a distance.

What can we do without God in the heights, and without His grace in the depths of ourselves?  Yet we feel that these two domains coalesce and that God, who is in us and ineffably beyond us, welds the whole of nature into one.  If we go to God and give ourselves to Him, then we reconcile all things—being, our own being, and the Subsistent Being upon whom all else depends.  (pp. 213-14)

 Reconciliation implies that despite fragmentation there is unity.  Christ being one of the Trinity is aware of the impalpable wholeness.  Sertillanges continues:

We cannot doubt that Christ always has an intimate realization of these things.  If “the father had given all things into His hands” (John 3:35), it was assuredly with the full consciousness that this was so.  Filled with the knowledge of what is, He has by that very fact full assurance of what He does.  His vision reaches unerringly to God, the living Heaven, to the soul, that lowly heaven in which the other is reflected, to the nature of the universe, and to Himself in whom all these fragments of reality find their unity.

And so Sertillanges has Christ first lovingly contemplating the beauty of creation, the natural world, the blue vault of sky, the gathering clouds, expressing that vision in His imagination as a poet expresses mystery.  Here Christ becomes an artist, expressing truth and beauty, all leading to God and a part of God.

Who better than this human and heavenly soul was able to taste God in the universe and the universe in God who sustains it?  Associated with the divine harmony (One in Three, Three in One), is He not wholly attuned to the music of creation?  Son of Man, does He not find in man’s dwelling place His proper home?  He has caught up in Himself the whole of humanity.  He bears within Himself the Idea, the begetter of beings.  He is the “beginning of creation of God” (Rev 3:14) and He is the End.  Everything is a symbol of Him.  Nature tends to Him with all its significance and all its powers.  (pp. 216-17)

In that last moment Christ “perceives the harmony of creation as an eternal Will whose applications to human life for the object of His teaching, of His exhortations, and of His grace.  He mingles Heaven with earth, nature with the soul, time with the eternal outcome of time” (217).  Christ both contemplates the vastness of the grand universe and the minuteness of the molecular world, the infinity inside the microscopic.  His vision is both expansive and confined.

Second, Setillanges has Christ, at that moment of looking heavenward, in prayer on the cross.  Christ’s contemplation of the harmony of all things is a prayer.

Jesus prays.  His prayer on the Cross is a continuation of His constant prayer.  If the sky is Heaven, if the universe, the soul, and God are Heaven, then the act by which Jesus links all of these together in one common thought is a communion with Heaven in the most complete sense of the word, a vision of Heaven boundless and sublime.  (p. 220)

It is in prayer that the sublime of Heaven interfuses with the physicality of earth, the transcendence of the spirit with the incarnate of flesh and blood.  The cross is the axis between the two realms.

The cross, then, is the great place of prayer, just as it is the great altar, the great monstrance, and the first tabernacle.  It is not in vain that we are told to begin and end prayer with the sign of the Cross.  Properly understood the sign means: “I adore Thee, my God, by the Cross, by Jesus on the Cross, with Jesus on the Cross, in a spirit of commemoration and trust, but also in a spirit of obedience and sacrifice…I ask of Thee all that I need in the name of the Cross, that is, in the name of the same memory, in the name of the same merits, to which I humbly unite those things that are wanting, according to the exhortation of the Apostle” (Col 1:24).  (pp 224-25)

Paul in that passage in Colossians speaks of uniting his sufferings with that of Christ.  Sertillanges is suggesting that through such a union, we too marry the transcendence with our flesh and blood.  We reach it through prayer and sacrifice, which amounts to love.  Jesus prays on the cross the 22nd psalm, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me.”  We all know the famous first line, but surely Christ didn’t stop praying there.  He prayed the whole psalm, and in it we hear of the suffering servant but we also hear of the transcendent.  By the middle of the psalm, the psalmist gives praise to the Lord, and by the conclusion the Lord is triumphant.  The dualism of suffering and victory merge, as does Christ on the cross.

In Christ there are two lives, the one is a temporal life, which moves on from the manger to the Cross and the grave, the other eternal, immutable at the right hand of the Father.  The Beatific Visio, identical in each, welds as it were these two lives in one.  For Jesus, life after death is not entirely a renewal; it is a continuation.  Jesus is reborn and glorified in His flesh; but in His soul He merely pursues His destiny and continues His eternal colloquy with God.  The crown of His destiny makes no deep change in Him.  In the dust of daily action, and under the searing fire of pain, He was already in glory; He saw God face-to-face.  What was there still for Him to acquire, save that His body should finally share the glory of His soul.  (p. 230)

So in that moment of looking toward heaven, just before Christ dies, defeat and victory, heaven and earth, spirit and body, fuse.  Sertillanges has Jesus watching the heavens open.  “This is His vision of victory, symbolized on Calvary by those eyes that look out upon the infinity of space through a film of blood” (pp. 233-34).

This is a remarkable book, one of the best devotionals—if not the best—I have ever read. 

I hope your holy week was blessed and Easter Sunday joyous.  Alleluia, He is risen.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Music Tuesday: Victimae paschali laudes

We are now in the holiest week of the year.  Sunday was Palm Sunday, and we head into the Easter Tridium.  I wanted to offer this beautiful Easter chant, Victimae paschali laudes, for your listening pleasure and hopefully inspire you to strive for greater holiness this coming weekend.

Of course I’ll have to provide some background.  Victimae paschali laudes, literally “Praise to the Paschal Victim,” is sung in chant—monophonic and unaccompanied—with an evolving melody.  It was written in the eleventh century and its authorship is in dispute, attributed to at least four people.  Technically the chant is a sequence, which means it’s set as part of a liturgical celebration, in this case for Easter Sunday celebration.  Apparently even some Protestant denominations, such as Lutherans, preserved it for their celebrations as well.

First listen to the hymn and I’ll go through the melody after.

Here are the lyrics, copied from Wikipedia.

(1) Victimae paschali laudes   [8 syllables]
immolent Christiani.                [7]

(2) Agnus redemit oves:          [7]
Christus innocens Patri           [7]
reconciliavit                             [6]
peccatores.                              [4]

(3) Mors et vita duello            [7]
conflixere mirando:                 [7]
dux vitae mortuus,                  [6]
regnat vivus.                            [4]

(4) Dic nobis Maria,                [6+1]
quid vidisti in via?                  [7]
Sepulcrum Christi viventis,     [8]
et gloriam vidi resurgentis:      [10]

(5) Angelicos testes,                [6+1]
sudarium, et vestes.                 [7]
Surrexit Christus spes mea:     [8]
praecedet suos in Galilaeam.  [10]

(6) [Credendum est magis soli            [8]
Mariae veraci                                       [6]
Quam Judaeorum Turbae fallaci.]       [10]

(7) Scimus Christum surrexisse           [8]
a mortuis vere:                                     [6]
tu nobis, victor Rex, miserere. [10]

[Amen.] [Alleluia.]                              [6]

Let’s look at the construction of the hymn.  This appears to be some dispute on how you arrange the stanzas when you look across the internet for the lyrics.  I would arrange it as above into seven stanzas.  First note that stanza six is in brackets because it is often eliminated from a performance.  Also the “Amen” and “Alleluia” were added to the hymn later as part of its use in liturgy. 

Each line of a stanza has four, six, seven, eight, or ten syllables.  I’ve listed the number of syllables off to the right of each line.  Setting aside the initial stanza for now, you can see that the stanzas two and three are a matching set, four and five match, and six and seven match.  The two concluding lines of stanzas two and three both contain six and four syllables, which add up to ten, which matches the concluding lines of stanzas four, five, six. and seven.  This means that all stanzas except the first end with ten syllables, whether from a single line or the sum of the last two.  Stanzas two through five all have their first two lines with seven syllables.  Four and five actually contain six syllables in their first lines but the melody adds an extra syllable by repeating the last in the line.  All of this has the effect of creating unity, despite what appears to be several melodies throughout.  More on the melodies further down.

The rhyme scheme is also interesting.  Here’s how I map the ending rhymes, with the stanza number following in parentheses:

AB (Stanza 1), ABBA (2),  CCDD (3), EEFF (4), AAGG (5), HHH (6), JJJ (7).

So stanzas two through five are quatrains, while the two concluding stanzas are triplets.  If you take stanzas one and two together you have an interlocking rhyme scheme of As and Bs.  Stanzas three, four, and five are quatrains of couplets, with the fifth stanza bringing back the A rhyme (“es”) from the beginning.  So stanzas one through five also project a sense of interlocking.  The final two stanzas of triplets provide a wonderful sense of conclusion.

So what does this mean to the musical melody?  I hear the hymn as having three melodies, each varying on its predecessor, concluding in the climaxing triplets.  First stanza serves as an introduction which leads into the first melody in stanzas two and three.  Notice how the penultimate syllable is of a longer note in the lines of those stanzas.   Stanzas four and five have a similar melody but subtly different because I think the lines are of different length.  The third melody are formed from the triplets again being of different length.  But are they of different length?  The first line of eight syllables borrows one from the second line, so in effect they could be seen as two lines of seven syllables.  And the last line of ten could be broken up into two lines of four and six, thereby matching stanzas two through five.  It’s only because of the rhyme scheme that causes us to envision those stanzas as triplets. 

All this creates a marvelous interconnecting sounds and line lengths to form a harmonious whole.  My concluding thought is that the absence of accompaniment forces the composer to craft in such an elaborate fashion.  I don’t think you see this very often in modern song writing. 

It’s extraordinarily beautiful. 

Monday, April 10, 2017

Matthew Monday: Reconciliation Monday

Today, as in many dioceses across the country, is Reconciliation Monday.    The Catholic Church makes a push for all to attend the Sacrament of Reconciliation, otherwise known as the Sacrament of Penance, still otherwise known as Confession.  Church are open from three P.M. to nine P.M. with priests manning confessionals.    

Matthew is making his first Communion in a couple of weeks.  He’s already gone to the Sacrament of Penance a twice in the past few months.  Actually I found that kind of odd.  When I was a kid the Sacrament of Penance was just a few days before first Communion.  Matthew had his first confession at the beginning of January, and his first communion will be on May 6th.  I think it’s a good idea how they do it now. 

So given his first communion is less than a month away, Matthew’s school encouraged them to go to confession today, Reconciliation Monday, and to bring along their parents.  So when I got home, and on our way to Grandma’s house for Passover Seder, we stopped at the church and we both went through confession.  Our confessionals have a glass door from the outside, and I could see Matthew kneeling before the confessional and he was speaking a little too loud so I could almost hear what he was saying.  He was so adorable.  He’s the joy of my heart.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Literature in the News: Spending $1,200 in One Day on Books

I’m not very familiar with the economic news site Quartz but it has popped up a couple of times on news summary sites for me.  And here’s an interesting article that just came up on me, titled. “I spent $1,200 on books in one day—and it was a totally worthwhile career investment.”  

How much was the most you have ever spent on books in a day?  I don’t remember for me, but I’m sure it was a couple of hundred dollars.  College text books were expensive even back when I went to college, and I’m sure I bought a number of them at one time.  I bet today they must run a couple of hundred dollars each, so racking up a thousand dollar bill would not be unusual.  The article is a personal essay written by a Shane Parrish:

A few days ago I ordered 61 books, most of which you’ve probably never heard of. I didn’t even flinch when Amazon stopped incrementing my shopping cart at 50 items. And the final tally of $1,201.40 represents only a small percentage of the money I routinely spend on books in any given year.

So this wasn’t exactly a purchase of text books.  Sixty-one books into $1201.40 averages $19.70 per book, so that must be mostly upper-end paperbacks.  Why did he buy so many books?  Well, he must have the same compulsive behavior as I do when it comes to books.

 You might ask why I spend so much money on books when I could just borrow them from a library. First, my local library is unlikely to have all the books I want to read (more on that later). Second, when I’m reading a good book, I want to read it actively. I want to write in the margins. I want to make notes. I want to make it my own. If you get a library book, you can’t do that.

I buy every book I want, with few exceptions. As someone who reads over 100 books a year and has an anti-library with thousands of titles that I haven’t read, I can assure you my habit gets expensive. Yet this doesn’t bother me at all.

That’s exactly how I feel and exactly what I do!  I write in the margins of every book I own.  But what’s the economic angle to this habit?

Books contain a vast amount of knowledge, and knowing what most other people don’t know is how I make a living. While books can be expensive, ignorance is costlier.

That’s fascinating.  I would have to agree.  I’ve probably been promoted at work because I sound more learned than the next guy.  Actually I believe I think better than the next guy because vast amounts of learning seem to help me think through issues and organize material.  Mr. Parrish also seems to buy books only for them to collect dust.

I might not read every book I buy. I might never even crack the spine on a few of them. They might turn out to be a waste of money. But I keep spending money on them because I know the right book may change my life.

Yes, I have that same nagging feeling.  Does anyone else have that same sort of book compulsion?