Monday, March 31, 2008

An Image for the Feast of the Annunciation

Happy feast of the Annunciation--this year, a movable feast! I like it when the Annunciation falls during the Easter Season, because the Incarnation is really the very beginning of the Paschal Mystery.

I found this painting while looking for images of the Annunciation on-line. It was painted by a contemporary Catholic artist named John Collier. Even with a fine arts background--I was a B.F.A. candidate at an art college before I changed my major to Philosophy--I didn't know that there were any contemporary Catholic artists! My art school was so secular that on Ash Wednesday, everybody just assumed that I'd gotten a little over-zealous with my charcoal during my life drawing classes.

I think this painting is great, even though I'm sure it will make some of my more traditionally-minded friends (you know who you are!) cringe. I can just hear them now: "What!? Mary wearing saddle shoes!?"

I see this painting as sort of a modern adaption of the Renaissance convention of depicting Biblical scenes in contemporary settings, with the subjects dressed in the clothes of the day. Because the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance are no longer "modern" to us, I think we tend not to appreciate how odd it is for Mary to be dressed as an Italian noble woman.

While I certainly would not advocate this sort of modernizing of traditional religious scenes as a normative form of Catholic iconography--in fact, most of the other contemporary examples which I have seen tend to be rather unsuccessful--I think this particular image works very well because of the sensitivity with which it portrays the subject.

Because the Annunciation is such an awesome and glorious event, I think that it is sometimes easy for us to forget the very real human elements in the story. By stripping the scene of some of the useual Baroque or Medieval trappings, and by placing it in a setting familiar to us, this painting helps us to recall the fact that Mary was an actual person who was more like us than not. And it is important that we remember this, because if Mary wasn't human, then there is no point in trying to imitate her!

We believe that Mary was totally sinless and perfect, but at the time of the Annunciation she was still a young girl who was living a rather ordinary life. When we reflect on this, it's easy to understand why the angel Gabriel had to tell her not to be afraid.

In her book The Reed of God, Caryll Houselander points out that at the Annunciation, God's entire plan of salvation depended on the answer of someone who was basically a child. This only underlines how remarkable it truly was when Mary was able to say confidently, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done unto me according to your word."

Naturally, the example of Mary's "yes" means a great deal to me in my own life, especially as it concerns my vocation. However, all of us are called to say yes to God's will. It's good to remember that Mary can help us to say "yes" like she did, even and especially when we feel alone, scared, unprepared, or confused.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

"May We Join the Holy Women..."

The other day I received an Easter card from a religious sister (who is becoming something of a mentor to me), which read in part: May we join the holy women who fell prostrate at the feet of the Risen Lord and adored Him!

I was really touched by the appropriateness of this greeting. Aside from the supreme example of Our Lady, the women in the Easter story are some of my favorite scriptural “role models,” especially as it pertains to my vocation.

While the four Gospels differ slightly in their accounts of the sequence of events on the morning of the Resurrection, all of them name women as the first people to see the empty tomb or to meet the risen Christ. The women were, in effect, the first public witnesses.

This is really a remarkable detail in God’s providential plan for the history of salvation, since in the contemporary culture a woman’s testimony could not be upheld in a court of law without a man to verify her story. Often, when people object to the Church’s teachings on the non-ordination of women to the priesthood, they claim that Jesus did not call women to be apostles simply because of the social constraints of that period. This episode highlights the fact that Jesus is and has always been the Lord of the universe, and He could (and did) call whomever He wanted to whatever He pleased!

I personally feel that it is a very great honor for all women to know that it was women whom God first called to see and to “proclaim” Christ’s resurrection from the dead. I also think that this story has for special significance for women in consecrated life.

As an aspiring consecrated virgin, I hope that through my efforts to love God with an undivided heart, I will grow in faith to the point where I can come to a very profound and personal understanding of the Paschal mystery. And by striving to reflect this understanding with my life, I hope that I too may act as a witness to the Resurrection.

On the morning of the Resurrection, Jesus told Mary Magdalene, “…go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”(John 20:17)

This is verse is particularly meaningful to me because part of the vocation to consecrated virginity in the world is the spiritual support of the local clergy—that is, Jesus’ “brothers”. I pray for the diocesan priesthood daily. But I also hope that the witness of my consecrated life, by being a reflection of the joy of Easter, will provide some encouragement for the clergy today, just as Mary Magdalene’s witness encouraged the original apostles.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Thoughts for Easter 2008

When I was in grade school, I always had a difficult time dealing with the story of the Passion. I disliked the Stations of the Cross because I hated to see Jesus suffer. And I hated the thought that men could do something so terrible to Him.

The one thing which made the Stations of the Cross bearable for me was the “added” fifteenth station—“Jesus rises from the dead”. It made me feel that after Christ was finished dying to save the world, God would undo all the damage and thing could get back to normal. That is, we could all resume our business of loving God and trying to be good, and then live happily ever after.

I suppose in my heart I knew this wasn’t the case. Jesus did rise from the dead, but things could never go back to the way they were before the Crucifixion; just as we could never return to Eden, even while we were redeemed from original sin.

Even though I understood intellectually that Jesus’ risen life was truly better and more perfect then His earthly life, it took me a very long time before I could see this with my heart. What could be better or happier than a comfortable, mundane life with Jesus? Jesus’ post-Resurrection life may have been glorious, but it was still so strange and foreign to everything I thought I knew and loved.

But when I finally did come to understand, I found that it was something too deep and too beautiful to put into words.

I see my vocation to consecrated virginity as a reflection of this aspect of the Paschal Mystery.

If I did not have this vocation, I think I still would have lived a good Christian life. I imagine that I would have been a wife and a mother. I would have made a happy home for my family, and I would have tasted all the highest, best, and most lasting joys this created world has to offer.

But God called me to live in this world as though I was already a citizen of the next. Being called to stake all my hope in Heaven has been slowly teaching me to “walk by faith, and not by sight.” (Which, to be perfectly honest, can be really hard at times.)

Yet in forsaking marriage, I found that I truly could glimpse “the love for which it is a sign.”* In letting the risen Christ lead me to places I didn’t understand, I found that in Him there is a life deeper than life itself.

* from the Rite of Consecration

Friday, March 14, 2008

A Reflection for the Last Friday in Lent

(This is a reflection I wrote for a program at my university on the "seven last words" of Christ. As it wouldn't seem right being on the computer on Good Friday, I thought I would share this today.)

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Many unbelievers have suggested that while crucifixion is certainly a horrific method of execution, Jesus’ death was no more terrible than the deaths of countless ordinary Roman criminals, or even that of the average cancer victim. They hold that we give undue significance to Christ’s Passion.

This verse more than any other shows us Christ’s agony as unique in its intensity. We only feel pain at someone’s absence if we love the person; and our pain increases in proportion with the depth of our love. No one will ever love as deeply as Jesus loved, and Jesus loves no one as much as He loves the Father. The suffering that Christ endured in His experience of the Father abandoning Him is most likely beyond what any of us are able even to begin to comprehend. Compared to this, all Christ’s bodily torments must have seemed almost negligible.

Christian martyrs throughout history have frequently met brutal deaths with a sense of peace and holy resignation which baffled those around them. St. Agnes was said to have gone to her execution more joyfully than most people go to their wedding; St. Thomas More told jokes on the scaffolding; and St. Maxamillian Kolbe led his fellow prisoners in hymns until they one by one died of starvation. Undoubtedly, these martyrs were strengthened and consoled by their faith in and love for God.

How paradoxical that Christ Himself—the source of the martyrs’ strength—was not granted similar consolation at the hour of His death! Yet perhaps this agony of agonies is what made His sacrifice complete. And in this, Christ, who now sits at the right hand of the Father, was actually fulfilling the Father’s will more perfectly than it had ever been fulfilled.

How does this apply to our lives today? I think for Christians of this century, and especially for us young Catholics, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” has become sort of the antiphon for our own sufferings.

We live in an age where we see multitudes of once-vibrant religious orders dying, churches closing, and families simply falling apart. Secular humanism has become the dominant intellectual view even in numbers of Catholic universities. It seems sometimes that the “lights of the world” are dimming, or that “the salt of the earth” is losing its flavor.

The spiritual pallor of our world finds its way into our interior lives. Probably most of us have felt it difficult or even impossible to believe in God at one time or another. For all the moments when our faith has been a comfort to us, there have been times when we have had to fight bitterly against the tide to hold on to what looked like the last shards of it. It may take every ounce of tenaciousness in us to resist the easy dullness of a life without faith for the obscure and difficult beauty of the God whom we barely understand…

But there is hope. We always have hope, and we should never forget this. We have hope in even in the most wretched and profound darkness because Christ has already been there…and He has risen from the dead!

Friday, March 7, 2008

Some Helpful Books

As it's notoriously difficult to find reading material which is really useful and pertinent to someone discerning a vocation to consecrated virginity in the world--I think people discerning priesthood or religious life may have it easier in this regard--I though I would share some of the books which I lately have found helpful.

Virginity, by Raniero Cantalamessa. I read this book for the first time when I was nineteen, and I just loved it. This is a very warm and "human" introduction to consecrated celibacy in general, but at the same time it is also intelligent and even poetic. It does a good job of presenting virginity in an appealing way without watering down the impact of some of the underlying theology.

Virginity, by J.M. Perrin, O.P. This is an older book (c. 1955), and I don't think it's still in print. However, I would think any reasonably well-stocked Catholic library would have a copy.

This book focuses on the nature of consecrated virginity specifically as it is embraced by women. Although he certainly refers to some conditions unique to religious life, Perrin doesn't restrict the discussion to religious. He frequently remarks on the particular issues which pertain to women living some form of consecration in the world. Though the revised rite for consecration to a life of virginity was not promulgated until 1970, Perrin was obviously amenable to the idea of women living these "newer" forms of consecrated life (and I believe co-founded a secular institute for women).

The places where he describes the blessings of virginity basically functioned as spiritual reading for me, but I think I most appreciated his discussion of the challenges and dangers inherent in a consecrated life. I'm always grateful to find an honest presentation of these issues which isn't tinged with an undue pessimism.

We Look for a Kingdom: the Everyday Lives of the Early Christians, by Carl Sommer. This is a popular description of the culture in which the early Church was born. While it is not a book on consecrated life, it helped me understand how the earliest consecrated virgins would have understood their life and their vocation. I was particularly interested in the parallels that could be drawn between the Church as it existed in its first few centuries and the Church as it exists today.

Even though this was not written as a scholarly work, I think it was intended for an educated audience. Its footnotes are very good. I learned a lot from this book, and I had a lot of fun reading it. (Would that I could say the same about some of my Philosophy texts!)