Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Woman Jesus Loved

Every year on July 29, the same thought crosses my mind: Where are all the headlines? You know, the "Jesus' wife" hoaxes, the cheesy romance stories about Jesus and a female disciple, the cloak-and-dagger novels about Jesus' secret family with (who else?) Mary Magdalen.

Why, you ask, on July 29? It's not, after all, the feast of St. Mary Magdalen--that was last week.

Ah, but today, July 29, is the feast of the only woman the Bible categorically states that Jesus loved. Look it up! It's John 11:5:
"Jesus loved Martha (and her sister and Lazarus)." 

Where are the headlines? Where are the exposés?

Is it somehow disappointing to learn of Jesus' love for Martha in the same sentence that testifies to his love for her sister and brother? To me that's just the point that so many "Jesus' wife" stories miss. Jesus' love for each one of us has that unique, unrepeatable character that our limited experience of humanity finds best exemplified in spousal love. The fact that nowhere in the remotely reliable tradition indicates that Jesus was married is a clue that we can each have an extravagantly personal relationship with Jesus. The kind Martha had. The kind that led to her epic act of faith: "I believe that you are the Christ, the One who is coming into the world."

The anointing at Bethany; that's Martha sitting next to Peter (between Jesus and the apostles).
Manuscript detail from the Walters Museum of Art.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Pilgrim to Walsingham

Inside the Slipper Chapel.
There was a time, roughly a thousand years ago when Walsingham was the destination of many a medieval pilgrim. The shrine was built to be a replica of Mary's house at Nazareth, constructed on the request of Our Lady herself. A baker's wife could not make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, or even Campostela, but she could go to the "Holy House" of Our Lady in Norfolk. Indeed, baker's wives, fishermen and even kings had been making their way to this shrine in honor of the Annunciation since 1061.

Well, pilgrims needed shelter, and meals and other sorts of services, didn't
they? When the Augustinians arrived, they had more than enough to keep all the Fathers (Canons, to be more exact) busy. A village sprouted along the roadside. Business was good. And gifts flowed to the Augustinian priory, too. Right next to the Holy House, its triple towers soared to the heavens. In the refectory (dining room), high arched windows let in plenty of light for the lector in his pulpit to read pious or instructive texts to the community during meals. Down the road, at the Slipper Chapel, a constant stream of pilgrims confessed their sins and then removed their shoes to make the final mile to Walsingham unshod.

The remaining tower of the Augustinian Prior.
Now in private hands, it can be visited for a fee.
It all came to a sudden end over "the King's great matter" during the reign of Henry VIII. The revered statue of Our Lady seated on a throne with her Son in her lap was pulled from the Holy House and carried to London, where it was thrown into a fire. The Holy House itself was leveled. Even the enormous Priory was sacked and razed--at least as much of it as could be torn down. Pilgrimages ended overnight, though for centuries there were tiny hints of devotion by stealth. The Slipper Chapel became a workhouse.

Eventually a law court was established in the village, and a vast prison.

And then, after centuries in the shadows, Catholicism became legal again. The Slipper Chapel, tumbledown but still surviving, was purchased and restored. Unable to visit even the grassy spot where the Holy House once stood (the entire property of the shrine and Priory had long since gone into private hands), pilgrims visited the Slipper Chapel instead. Eventually, it was named the National Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. A new statue was commissioned, based on the design of a pilgrim's medallion from the glory days. Anglican devotees built a shrine, too, near the original site.
Slipper Chapel,
seen from behind.

When my Norwich hosts (see "Rhymes with Porridge") suggested we go to Sunday Mass at Walsingham, I knew it was the answer to a prayer: this was the one place I most wanted to visit while in England! We got a little lost (Walsingham is still in the sticks), but were set on the right road by a passer-by near the Anglican shrine. We were only a mile away from the Slipper Chapel, the "RC Shrine" of Our Lady. As we jostled down the narrow country lane in a rental car, we passed groups on foot, mostly Indian groups walking the other way. (They had to go single-file to accommodate our car.) 3,000 Syro-Malabar Catholics were expected for Mass in the afternoon, and many of them came early. They would process from the Anglican shrine to the Slipper Chapel and outdoor Mass space. When we arrived, we found the parking lot completely full; our car was directed to a nearby field. We had time to visit a bit before Mass in the modern chapel. (The Slipper Chapel only holds about a dozen worshipers!)

After Mass, we knew we could not make it down the road (not with 3,000 worshipers processing in), so we took our time visiting the shrine. I had made a list of prayer intentions before Mass, wanting to write the names of as many sisters and family members as possible, starting with those whose needs were most timely or urgent, such as my dear Alabama uncle and cousins who had just said their last good-byes to my aunt. (She and Mom topped the list.) I just didn't want to assure people of generic prayers, although I told Our Lady that I was praying for "everyone whose name I wish I could recall specifically right now..." That slip of paper got added to the prayer intention box, while I lit two candles in the "Holy Ghost Chapel"--one for my religious family, one for my natural family.

Meanwhile, in the background, I could hear the sound of drums...as pilgrims continued, in the light rain, to come in prayer to Mary's house in Walsingham!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

"Pray for your persecutors..." and a prayer for one by name

As much as my thoughts have been focused on the unspeakable sorrows of the Christians of Iraq as their ancient civilization is dismantled while the world busies itself with other matters, it occurred to me that I ought to be praying much, much more for their vicious persecutors, those men whose consciences are so blinded by ideology that they pulled a three-year-old from his grandfather's protecting arms and shot the child in the head out of spite. The loss of cathedrals and monasteries and manuscripts pales before the execution of a toddler. And only today is the news beginning to get picked up by the world press. Indeed, it was the Vatican newspaper that this morning broke the story that the BBC and CNN began posting this afternoon: female genital mutilation is the new order of the day under Iraq's self-proclaimed Caliphate.

I've been retweeting items on this over the past several days, hardly believing the news (and yet finding it confirmed via Vatican radio, the Fides news service and Al Arabiya news service; Al Jazeera? Not so much!) Today I got responses from two Muslims, one in London who expressed some doubts, at least about the FGM part: "Sunni Muslims are against FGM and ISIS is Sunni" ; another response was supportive of ISIS, claiming "Due to reduction in prices & Crime become 0% Public R happy with ISIS Controlled Area, Tax on Christian 2% & Muslim 2.50%." (Right. The criminals are in charge.)

Obviously, none of the powers that be in this world are anxious to rescue hundreds of thousands of Christian refugees in one of the world's troubled spots. Does that mean we (and they) are utterly helpless?

I got to thinking about another time when a brilliant and fanatically violent man was devastating the Church. What if we began an intense campaign of prayer to St Paul for the conversion of "Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi" (given name, Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai).

In the interest of promoting just such a campaign, I offer a prayer:

O Glorious Apostle Paul,
persecutor of the Church who became its most ardent preacher,
we commend to you Abu Bakr al-Baghadi.
He was created for eternal life with God, 
but he has now given himself over to unspeakable evil.
Intercede, St Paul, for this new persecutor of Christ's Body.
Turn his life around as completely as yours was, that day on the Damascus Road.
Obtain for him the unmerited and unexpected grace 
of coming to know Christ Jesus as Lord and Christians as his very Body,
that his life may bear fruits of grace and not works of death,
for the Glory of God and peace to humanity.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Rhymes with Porridge

The lovely details of Liverpool
Street Station, London.
On the invitation of a Chicago choir friend whose husband is from Norwich, I just spent a delightful weekend in that town and its environs. The first thing I learned, as you may have already gathered, is how to pronounce the name of the locale. It is not Norwich (nor-witch). The "w" is silent. But do not say, as I rather consistently did, "Norrich." The proper pronunciation is "Norridge" (rhymes with porridge). (Horatio Nelson is from this area by the sea.)

The place reeks of history that goes back to the Stone Age. Closer to our own times, one of the first places we came upon was the Adam and Eve pub, founded in the 1200's and still serving food, drink and atmosphere today. Conveniently enough for the modern-day owners, the Adam and Eve is located right by a public parking lot. However, while we did use the parking lot, we did not avail ourselves of the Adam and Eve, so someone else will have to tell you if their food measures up to 21st century expectations!

A bit of our time in the town was spent visiting Cathedrals. The more ancient Cathedral, built in Norman days, is now, like most of the ancient churches in this country, Anglican. A strikingly well-designed (and brand spanking new) visitors center provided all the conveniences, including a lovely cafe and a small gallery where a photography exhibition was on display. We walked around the cloister, enjoying the bas-relief medallions in the ceiling and the lovely courtyard, which was ready for a Shakespeare festival. Inside, we were unable to visit the Choir area (a wedding was in progress), but we did get to hear the magnificent pipe organ. (My hosts' little girl (age 3), the daughter of not one but two Church musicians, ran to the book rack and brought us each back a hymnal!) A Methodist minister was in attendance as the greeter, and he came to speak with us and make sure we felt comfortable and welcome (which we did).

Detail of one of the ceiling medallions along the entire span
of the cloister walk.

After a hearty "cream tea" ("cream tea" refers not to the drink, but to the scones, served with remarkable--probably inimitable--British clotted cream), we continued on toward an open air market, by way of an arcade in the Arts and Crafts style. I popped into the mustard shop. (I had never been in a mustard shop before, but Colman's is a local company.) I walked out with a kitchen apron, which I plan to use for my Tuesday cooking turn. (I won't have to borrow someone else's apron now--and I'll have a fitting souvenir to bring home at the end of my UK year!)

Beyond the market (where the prices were so good I wanted to buy all the veggies and haul them back to London) and some really picturesque shops and restaurants we made it to the Catholic Cathedral of St John the Baptist well before the Saturday evening Mass. While I visited the Church, my friend and her daughter spread their picnic blanket on the grass of the garden beyond the well-appointed cafe (the gift shop was closed); in the visitors area was a series of panels presenting basics of Catholicism and of Catholic history in England, as well as a hands-on explanation of how stained glass windows are made. The garden was beyond the cafe's outdoor seating area. (I read in one of the brochures that the Cathedral's stained glass had been removed for safekeeping during the bombardments of World War II.)

As dusk began to fall, we were in the car, where a three-year-old conductor led us all in singing "Doe, a deer" ("Sing it again!") all the way to Comer, a popular beach town with a sprawling Victorian Hotel on a crest overlooking the sea, ice cream shops every ten feet, and fish-and-chips places with queues all the way down the road. We detoured by one ice cream shop for a "whippy" (soft serve) and took them all the way to the waterline, digging in the wet sand with teaspoons and letting the cold waters of the North Sea wash past our toes. Only when the sun had slipped past the horizon did we join the queue for our fish and chips, the fish caught that day in those very waters--the first "real" fish and chips I have ever had. (If I ever go back, I am told I must try the "Comer crab.")

On a future installment of Nunblog: Pilgrims to Walsingham!

Blickling Hall (after closing hours); we paused on the road to
stroll up to the front doors of this "small" Jacobean estate.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Docent for a Day

Lots of della Robbia on display.
About a mile from our London bookshop is the Victoria and Albert Museum. That proximity makes it my new don't-have-much-time and rainy-day destination for my free day (currently Saturday--a terrible day to go to the nearby science museum, which has lines stretching down the block). On Saturday I dodged the raindrops and entered through a side door, ignoring (for now) the plea for a free-will offering of £3, £4 or even £5 for entry. My plan was to hunt down Raphael's "St. Paul Preaching in Athens," which is housed there.

I never made it to the Raphael room. On my way to look for it, I came across vast rooms of Medieval and Renaissance architectural features, from wall fountains to an entire sanctuary from a Poor Clare convent (with crown moldings of della Robbia tiles!). There were funerary monuments (including the sarcophagus of St. Justina); altar screens (one enormous one formed an entryway to the next exhibition space, and had been built in the late 1500's as an assertive response to the destruction of the earlier screen by iconoclastic reformers); Madonnas, Annunciations... and in the second space, stained glass windows and elaborate altar pieces from the late Middle Ages.

St Justina's sarcophagus
I was just starting to visit that next section, standing before the stained glass windows on the outer edge. Another visitor glanced up, and then asked me, "Do you know what these windows are depicting?" I had to admit that if it was biblical, I wouldn't have any real trouble identifying the stories, but that sometimes these medieval works refer to legends that I am just not familiar with. It just so happened that the window we were before was pretty easy: the Nativity story.

I pointed out halo that indicated that this was not just any baby; the shepherds; the panel of the massacre of the innocents, and the flight into Egypt. Just above that was Moses, coming upon the worship of the golden calf, so I remarked on the Egypt connection between the two stories, and that while Moses had led the people out of Egypt, the child Jesus was being led back there--because he was the real Moses. A few expressions of recognition told me that my museum friend probably had at least some Jewish background, but he was completely mystified by any New Testament reference.

"Do you mind telling me more, say, about this window?" So we went to the next window. I had to think about it--there was some kind of theophany going on (the blaze of glory with God inside) but no other halos...  and sheep... and a prominent shepherd. Then I realized that the blaze of glory was really flames. In a bush. "Oh, it's Moses again!" Then there was the temptation in the desert, John the Baptist, and another panel of the Baptism of the Lord. I told the story of John's initial reluctance to baptize Jesus, and Jesus' response ("What an act of humility!" the man responded appreciatively.)

More than once I had to assure my fellow visitor that I really didn't mind decoding the art; that it was fun to be sharing this with him. He believed me, because next he said, "If you wouldn't mind, there is a piece on the other side that really puzzled me. It seems to involve some extreme torture." It was an elaborate altar piece, centered on the Annunciation (above) and the Crucifixion, with side units to the left portraying the scourging at the pillar ("A Roman scourging," I told him. "So those men with the diabolical expressions are soldiers?") and the carrying of the Cross, and on the right, the burial of the Lord and the Resurrection. Behind the main scenes, which were completely sculpted figures, smaller, also complete scenes told more of the story--for instance, the Burial had the Harrowing of Hell in the back! ("What is that gaping mouth?" "That's the jaws of death." "You mean they used mythology like that?" "Yep.") Behind the Resurrection, one side featured the encounter of Mary Magdalene and "the gardener" ("This is all happening in a garden," I reminded the man, whose name I learned was Stan; "Where did the first sin take place?" "In a garden," he said, nodding.) The arches over the main scene featured smaller bas-reliefs of yet more of the story (in the Resurrection scene, you can make out the Dinner at Emmaus on the upper left side, in the column). (To give you a sense of the size, the figure of Christ is about 11 inches tall.)

In my eagerness to point out the many incredible details, at one point I touched one of the figures. Immediately a museum guard showed up to remind me that the pieces must not be touched!!! (Stan thought that was great.) Soon after that, Stan was to meet his wife for lunch; he asked to take my picture in front of the remarkable Passion Narrative altarpiece, and we said goodbye.

Not bad for my first day as a docent!

But next time, I really do want to find that Raphael!

Monday, July 07, 2014

Rome again, Rome again (jiggety-jig?)

That's right! I got the call from Mother General two weeks ago, asking if I would be willing (willing?!) to go to Rome in August to do some simultaneous translation (I love doing simultaneous translation!) for a spirituality pilgrimage to key places in our community's history: Rome, of course, with its Pauline sites; Assisi and Pisa (just because) and our home city of Alba in the gastronomic paradise of Piemonte--to be present on location on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Pauline Family!

I kind of kept all this quiet (even though I wanted to do the happy dance all over London) until the superior here let the sisters know--not a good thing in community when the sisters find things out on Facebook--but now you can thank the Lord with me for the grace to participate in the centennial in such a concrete way.

Send your special intentions to me via the comments box--I won't publish them if you tell me not to--and I will deliver them to Sts. Peter and Paul, St. John Paul and St. John XXIII; Blessed James Alberione; Venerable Mother Thecla Merlo; Venerable Mother Scholastic Rivata; Blessed Timothy Giaccardo; Venerable Maggiorino Vigolungo; St. Francis and St. Clare and any other intercessors I cross paths with along the way.

One thing I might not be able to do is see Pope Francis (unless I can slip away for the Angelus on the one Sunday I'll be in Rome: how about you pray for that little bitty intention?).

Jim Gaffigan takes me back in time...

Here in England, I end up spending a lot of time on public transportation, opening up new opportunities for reading. I'm a big fan of non-fiction, and usually go for things in the realm of liturgy, history and, yes, liturgical history, but last week I received a review copy of Jim Gaffigan's "Dad is Fat" and indulged in pure fun. Gaffigan used to be identified with his "Hot Pockets" routine, but now I think he's more known as the funnyman with all those kids. He and comedy-writing-partner wife Jeannie have five so far (don't ask them if they're "done yet"; there's a whole chapter on that).

On Sunday, sitting alone in the back seat of the community car while we were stuck in London traffic, I kept laughing out loud as I read, provoking a lot of head-turning and quizzical looks. Finally, when I managed to keep from chortling, I read the zingers out loud. I think the sisters in the car were all from big families (one of them, I know, had ten siblings); they could all identify with the stories and that oddball sense of humor.

So Gaffigan writes about his wife; about his kids (by the end of the book, you know them all by name--though I can't figure out how to pronounce daughter Marre's name); about finding babysitters (like grandparents! "The problem is, when you are not paying someone to do a favor for you, they don't really need to listen to you. 'No candy' means 'Your heartless parents don't give you candy, so I will give you tons of candy..."); about being the kind of Catholic who goes to Mass each and every Sunday with five children ("Am I torturing my children, because church is the opposite of a video game?"). He writes about Catholic guilt--and how Parental Guilt "totally puts 'Catholic Guilt' to shame." He writes about life with five kids in a two-bedroom apartment (until the family's recent move, bedtime involved shifts and a "holding cell"), and he writes about "attachment parenting" ("Since Jeannie is a big believer...and I'm a spineless coward, we have instituted an open-door policy, meaning if one of our kids has a nightmare, they are welcome to come in our room and pee in our bed").

The whole experience of reading "Dad is Fat" reminded me very much of my early teen years, when Erma Bombeck's column was a regular feature of the daily paper. (Back then, New Orleans had a daily paper.) While Mom prepared something for the little kids, I would sit at the breakfast table with my bowl of grits (salt and butter, please), hunt down Bombeck's feature ("At Wit's End") and read it out loud, the narration only broken by my choking laughter (sometimes even to tears) and Mom coming to read it herself, one hand on my shoulder, shaking with laughter.

"Dad is Fat" is for real. And I'm recommending this one to all six of my siblings.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Internet Nuns and Nunblogger

There was a lot happening online yesterday, so you can be forgiven if you didn't notice this little piece from the Global Sisters Report (a service that usually focuses on sisters ministering to the disabled in remote areas, serving impoverished families and generally not going online about it): Q & A with Sr. Anne Flanagan.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Following the Martyr's path

Between yesterday's feast (solemnity!) of Sts Peter and Paul, today's observance of "the first martyrs of the Church of Rome" and the Pauline Family's special Feast of St. Paul (all by himself, today), you would be right to suspect that "martyrdom" was an essential dimension of Christian life. If you were in London at any time over the past week or so, you would have had even more reason to make that assessment. On Saturday (my free day in the big city!), Sister Mary Lou (American here for 30+ years; phenomenal artist) and I went to Mass at Westminster Cathedral. The bulletin mentioned that there would be a choir mass (Westminster has a choir school and a seraphic choir) for the "Solemnity of St. John Southworth," a diocesan priest martyred in London in 1654, after more than 35 years of parish ministry in a country in which just being ordained was an act of treason. Presumably, since St. John focused his attention on the poor and outcasts, he didn't draw much attention to himself among the high and mighty (at least temporarily). After his martyrdom, Southworth's remains were treated with reverence and spirited off to Douai, home of generations of exiled Catholic Englishmen. There they stayed until 1930, at which point he was given a resting place in the recently built Catholic Cathedral, not far from the neighborhoods where he had ministered.

We thought we would be participating in his memorial (which is a Solemnity, at least at Westminster), but done up big. We were right, but we were also wrong. When we got to the Cathedral, we were handed a program for the Ordination Mass. Since it was a free day for both of us, we were under no time constraints, so both of us considered it a signal grace that we would witness a priestly ordination. (As for me, I had previously been to the ordination of deacons--for the first class of American deacons of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary at St. Clement's Eucharistic Shrine in Boston, and the ordination of three bishops--one of whom became Cardinal McCarrick, but had never been to a regular priestly ordination!) The twist was, this Ordination Mass was celebrated with the "propers' (special prayers) of St John Southwark: all the Mass prayers except for the actual Rite of Ordination were taken from the martyr's page in the missal. The three ordinandi (one of them with a smile he just couldn't control) processed in wearing red stoles; when the time came, they moved down to the center of the Cathedral where the martyr's body was lying in state in a glass casket and joined him, prostrate; at the vesting, they were draped in red--a red they would don again for their First Mass on the Solemnity of Sts Peter and Paul.

Just the Sunday before, Sister Mary Lou and I joined a few dozen others for the "Martyr's Walk." Led
This fresco from Our Lady of Victories parish depicts
Tyburn's triple gallows; you can also make out the "hurdle"
on which the prisoners were dragged to the execution site.
by a local historian and author, the very dynamic Joanna Bogle, the three hour pilgrimage traces the route that many of the English martyrs were dragged along from the torture chambers of Newgate Prison to the gibbet at Tyburn hill. We weren't dragged (though by the time we reached Tyburn (now known as Marble Arch), I did feel kind of ragged, myself), but walked along, now praying a decade of the Rosary, now stopping near some historic location for a bit of backstory. At Tyburn, a monastery now serves as a martyrs' shrine, with the "Tyburn Tree" (gibbet) used as the logo. There we concluded the day with adoration, Benediction and blessed Benedictine hospitality (a "hearty tea" that served as my supper). On the strength of that repast, Sister Mary Lou and I found the energy to keep walking--all the way back to our Kensington High Street bookstore community!

Interesting factoids:

  • Here in London, they pronouce "Douai" (which I have only, ever, in all my life heard pronounced "Doo-ay") as "Dow-ee" (rhymes with owee).
  • Even when it was completely illegal to celebrate or attend a Catholic Mass, the foreign embassies maintained active chapels. If you could slip into the Sardinian or Spanish embassy, you could safely go to Mass (presuming you could safely slip away). Those embassy chapels became the embryonic parishes of a restored Catholic community in London!
  • St Etheldreda's Church, for peculiar reasons of history, is the only Catholic Church in London (outside of embassy chapels) never to have served as a "state church"; the day after our pilgrimage was Etheldreda's (Audrey's) feast day. The locale even gets honorable mention in Shakespeare!
  • St Giles in the Field was the church of the lepers, located far from the city center. When the procession of the condemned got that far, someone from the church would typically bring the prisoner a glass of refreshment, a final act of humanity before being hung, drawn and quartered. We learned that St. Giles being the patron of lepers, most European churches of that name most likely originated with a leper colony, far from the populated zones. The current St. Giles in the Field is located near a busy London street, and is an active Anglican community with a strikingly lovely 19th century church (the earlier versions of St. Giles having suffered various fates through the centuries). 

Read Joanna Bogle's description of the annual Martyr's Walk on her blog!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Free day: Westminster Abbey

The adventure started last night, actually. I had been giving the sisters (mostly the seniors) a workshop on social media, but had to end it less than halfway through the planned content so that I would be sure to catch the once-per-hour bus into London to join the sisters there at a parish event. It would be an excellent opportunity to meet the neighbors of our Kensington book center where I spend a couple of days a week. Alas "would have been" is the operative phrase. 35 minutes after the bus was scheduled to for the local stop, one appeared on the horizon. As our ragtag group assembled along the curb, the bus tore by, the driver pointing to the rear of the bus as if to signal that another bus would be coming shortly. Another forty minutes later, and we were all still there, still waiting. Sister Mary Lou came over from the convent to get me. London would have to wait.

And it did wait! After Mass, Sister Mary Lou and I drove into London Town. She was coming anyway, for her "holidays" (vacation). Being an artist, she plans to spend the holidays visiting art museums. Since her first day of vacation corresponded with my free day, we took the Underground together, she to Sloan Square, I to St James Park. My destination: Westminster Abbey. I hoped to be able to get the annual pass so that I could visit "whenever" without adding up the entrance fees. Turns out, I qualify for the free "Clergy" ticket! So I can visit "whenever"!  That gave me the freedom to walk slowly, taking in what came my way without the anxiety of trying to see all the highlights in one visit. In fact, I skipped a lot of the highlights on purpose--and then found the one I think will be my lifelong favorite.

I would show you what I mean, but there was a NO PHOTOGRAPHY sign right at the entrance, so there went that idea.

Anyway, the Abbey resembles nothing so much as a grand gothic mausoleum, but with Baroque and Victorian monuments, not to mention all those burials in the floor itself. There was a certain poignancy to reading the inscriptions of people who were great in their day when now even their grandest exploits, some of them recounted in detail, seem merely quaint today.

I was barely in the door when I caught myself treading over the final resting place of the heroic William Wilberforce. I noticed Henry Purcell suffering a similar indignity from many clueless visitors. Nearby, a memorial to Benjamin Britten and Charles Stanford (didn't we sing his music at My Carmel?), not to mention Ralph Vaughn Williams and Edward Elgar. (Handel's monument was on the other side, facing Shakespeare. What gives?)

As I approached the scientists' area (Darwin, Joules), a young man near me asked whose tomb it was to the left, somewhat obscured by a bit of scaffolding. Unfortunately, the name of the deceased or any clue to his  (?) identity was right beneath the scaffold, completely out of sight. All I could see was a Latin inscription that I couldn't quite translate. I got the "life is Christ" part but what was that part about death? It seemed to be a quite popular graveyard sentiment there at the Abbey--finally an obliging decedent included the Scripture passage in its entirety--with the citation! "For me, to live is Christ and death is gain" (St Paul to the Philippians). Near the same Scripturally enriched tomb was a cordoned-off area where folding chairs wait for the next major celebration (maybe Sunday services, since the Abbey is an active church?); two enormous and elaborate candle holders were tucked way, too.

The burials are along the side aisles and transepts; the nave itself has a few set into the floor, but that's about it until you get to the royal chapels. I saved those chapels for next time, and continued on just getting the lay of the land. Crossing over to the Poet's Corner, I was surprised to see two traces of the Abbey's medieval past: Heroic-sized frescoes, one of the Risen Christ with "doubting" Thomas kneeling as he touches the wounded side, the other of St. Christopher. The two, obviously by the same artist, had strikingly beautiful faces. If only I could have take a picture!!! (You can find details of the images at the bottom of this page from the Abbey website.) I contented myself by remaining there to take it in, while everyone else was intent on identifying the memorial to Jane Austen (tiny and rather drab), the tomb of Chaucer; Lord Byron; Laurence Olivier...  Given that the following day Sr Mary Lou and I planned to join the "Martyr's Walk" pilgrimage along the route taken by so many Jesuit martyrs of the Elizabethan era, I was struck by the sight of Gerard Manley Hopkins' memorial. (I also learned that the patron of the Abbey church is St. Peter; kind of ironic, isn't it, given the history?)

My favorite part of the Abbey (so far) was the Chapter House, a chapel of sorts, but off from the main Church. What is striking about the Chapter House is the remnant of medieval frescoes illustrating the whole of the Book of Revelation. My favorite scene was the depiction of the "casting crowns"; you can also barely pick out the Last Judgment, and the "cloud of witnesses" with their intent faces (though the Abbey detail calls one section the "doom group"!!)

Thanks to the availability of a free Clergy pass, I am looking forward to spending another free day in London visiting the ancient splendors of Westminster!

Monday, June 16, 2014

But I don't want to turn the other cheek!!!

Needless to say, the Lord and I had a bit of a conversation over today's Gospel. "Offer no resistance to one who is evil...turn the other cheek."

"Wait a minute, Jesus," I said to him. "That sounds an awful lot like enabling an already bad situation. Isn't that the same as acquiescing to evil, facilitating it, cooperating with it? Doesn't it let the wrong just entrench itself further?"

"You're not getting it, are you?" Jesus observed. "I don't mean 'give in' with a cowering, servile attitude. That only allows the evil to remain as a slow, simmering threat, and the fear of what might happen ends up having more power over the situation than any actual external action at all. You know what that is like, don't you?"

Come to think of it, I do. You know, too: When people do all they can to avoid another person's having an outburst, they hand over their own dignity to one controlling person (who is, more likely than not, "out of control"). A whole culture of fear can take root, and the only options seem to be fight or flight: either fight back, answering threat with threat, or do whatever it takes to avoid further conflict. Either way leaves the out of control person in control. Jesus seems to be saying to face down the threat by standing your ground; to be willing to take the hits--or to call the
tyrant's bluff.

Sadly, it can be easy to take this Gospel where Jesus does not intend: into situations of domestic violence. Too many seem to understand this challenge at face value as I did, as if Jesus were telling us to become like doormats and let anyone and everyone walk all over us. Too many people give "one more chance" to a spouse or lover with a vicious, violent streak when the real way of standing their ground would be to leave the situation entirely (getting help to do this).

No matter how you read it, today's Gospel is a scary one. Jesus admits that we can be in tough, even unacceptable situations. Good thing he will be there with us!!!