My trip to New Zealand last week put me in mind of previous travels in the American West. If I could make one recommendation for travelers to the USA, it would be to visit our National Parks. New Zealand offers similar pristine landscapes, though on a more compact scale. Of course, both landscapes boast their own unique treasures. New Zealand has its fiords and temperate rain forests; the American West, its vast expanses and the red rock sculptures of Utah that look like a landscape dreamed up by Antoni Gaudí.
The trip had me rummaging through old photos of my trips out West and looking up old notes. I had a few thoughts about travel published in Plough a few weeks ago, and that reminded me of an older article in the same magazine inspired by a long drive out West. Here’s that older article: Nature is Your Church? And, to go with it, a few pictures of places mentioned in Montana and Wyoming –Devil’s Canyon, Fort Phil Kearney, Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, and Glacier.
The new year came early for me this year–while in America 2022 still had almost a full day left to go, I was as close to the International Date Line as I’ve ever been watching fireworks erupt from the Sky Tower in Auckland, New Zealand. I will be spending the first half of the year doing Jesuit “tertianship” in Melbourne, Australia. Tertianship is the final formal stage of Jesuit formation in which we do the 30-day Spiritual Exercises again and have a chance to reflect on all that’s happened so far.
New Year’s Eve also brought the sad news of the passing of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, someone I have immensely admired as a man whose character balanced both courage and humility, as a Christian for whom Jesus was the center of everything, and as a theologian capable of expressing the most profound truths with luminous clarity. Benedict knew how to cut through both theological jargon and political rhetoric to get to the heart of the matter– always the absolutely unique encounter with Jesus Christ.
Since St. Francis of Assisi introduced the idea 800 years ago, Italy has been the land of Nativity scenes. And there is no more prominent location for a Nativity scene in the world than St. Peter’s Square. The scene is different every year and–along with the Christmas tree in Piazza Venezia–is usually subject to intense comment and critique from Romans and visitors alike. There’ve been a few doozies in my years here, but this year’s scene from Friuli Venezia Giulia does not seem to have aroused great protests.
Here’s a peak at the scene, still waiting for the child who makes all things complete.
Christmas blessings to one and all!
“In the fullness of time, chosen in the unfathomable depths of God’s wisdom, the Son of God took for himself our common humanity in order to reconcile it with its creator.” (Pope St. Leo the Great)
One of the reasons I find the season of Advent so compelling is its central symbol of light growing in the darkness, as simple as it is powerful. The fifth of the O antiphons always strikes me as particularly poignant:
O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
Mid-December also coincides with a slight lull in the crush of tourists here; between the Immaculate Conception and Christmas the streets are a tad calmer and one can get out and enjoy the decorations. In the northern hemisphere it is one of the darkest times of the year, but that only makes the lights all the more delightful.
In Italy the pre-Christmas countdown begins in earnest after the Immaculate Conception on December 8. One of the country’s less-known charms is that Holy Days of Obligation are national holidays, so the Immaculate Conception means a day off, and if, like this year, it falls on a Thursday, this means a long-weekend for many, rather like Thanksgiving.
Advent is one of my favorite seasons, and, as the lights go up and manger scenes come out, I find it one of Italy’s most charming as well. (Christmas lights, fireworks, and outdoor summer operas are among the ways Italians take delight in being delightful.) Unfortunately, this year I was not among those to get last Friday off and the end of the semester is keeping me at my desk–so for this Gaudete Sunday , I rummaged through pictures of Advent trips past. Here’s a handful from Orvieto and Viterbo, the sort of small towns that are charming any time, but especially decked out for the season.
Happy Gaudete Sunday!
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near.
Yesterday’s reading from the Office, the last of the liturgical year, is also one of the best, St. Augustine at his most eloquent. Like this time of year in the liturgy itself, it’s as much about beginning as it is about ending. It captures that joyful hope that so characterizes the Advent season and which I think is much in need these days — that flicker of unfailing light to guide us through the winter darkness.
There’s nothing saccharine in Augustine — Rome was crumbling as he wrote, and his honesty about his own failings and man’s sinfulness is unflinching — but that’s what makes his alleluia really count. Despite his own weakness and wrongheadedness, he knew God’s pursuit was unfailing. And he knew — something I feel acutely today given the state of the Church and the world — that there is still so much work before us…
“Let us sing alleluia here on earth, while we still live in anxiety, so that we may sing it one day in heaven in full security… Even here amidst trials and temptations let us, let all men, sing alleluia. God is faithful, says holy Scripture, and he will not allow you to be tried beyond your strength. So let us sing alleluia, even here on earth. Man is still a debtor, but God is faithful…
“O the happiness of the heavenly alleluia, sung in security, in fear of no adversity! We shall have no enemies in heaven, we shall never lose a friend. God’s praises are sung both there and here, but here they are sung in anxiety, there, in security; here they are sung by those destined to die, there, by those destined to live forever; here they are sung in hope, there, in hope’s fulfillment; here they are sung by wayfarers, there, by those living in their own country.
“So, then, my brothers, let us sing now, not in order to enjoy a life of leisure, but in order to lighten our labors. You should sing as wayfarers do — sing, but continue your journey. Do not be lazy, but sing to make your journey more enjoyable. Sing, but keep going…”
The end of the liturgical year coincides with a number of gems from the Office of Readings, including this conference from St. Thomas Aquinas, which I’d never taken note of before. It reinforces a number of things that I’ve noticed over the past several years researching the theme of baptism of desire. The first–that eternal life means union with God–is perhaps the most important and, today, the most neglected. Heaven, in others words, does not mean having more treats, but communion with God. It’s maybe uncomfortable to say in our age of “moralistic therapeutic Deism”, but those who don’t desire communion with God don’t really want what we mean by heaven. In the end, heaven has more to do with how we love than with where we are.
Here’s how Thomas puts it:
Final Judgment, Orvieto Cathedral
“The first point about eternal life is that man is united with God. For God himself is the reward and end of all our labors…
“Next it consists in perfect praise…
“It also consists in the complete satisfaction of desire, for there the blessed will be given more than they wanted or hoped for. The reason is that in this life no one can fulfill his longing, nor can any creature satisfy man’s desire. Only God satisfies, he infinitely exceeds all other pleasures. That is why man can rest in nothing but God. As Augustine says: You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our heart can find no rest until it rests in you…
“…eternal life consists of the joyous community of all the blessed, a community of supreme delight, since everyone will share all that is good with all the blessed. Everyone will love everyone else as himself…”
St. Thomas Aquinas, Credo in Deum
Office of Readings
Saturday of the Thirty-third week in Ordinary Time
I have a new piece this week at the excellent Plough Quarterly magazine on one of my favorite themes, travel. It was fun to write, letting me look back at visits to Jesuit brothers in Burkina Faso, my Peace Corps days in Kazakhstan, and my one time riding a helicopter in the Alps. Plus thinking about Chinua Achebe’s great novel Things Fall Apart. Here is a link to the essay “Between Continents“.
Visitors to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome often don’t realize that the magnificent baroque church is built over the site of a still more ancient basilica, built by Constantine and then torn down completely by Pope Julius II during the Renaissance. Over the course of the next century, today’s basilica was rebuilt by the likes of Bramante, Giulio da Sangallo, Raphael, Michelangelo, Carlo Maderno, and Bernini.
Surprisingly little of the original church remains, so I was fascinated this week to see a few of the mosaics saved from the first basilica at a special exhibition on medieval Rome at the Museo di Roma. The exhibition displayed work from the other four major basilicas, each of which has a unique history. The complex around St. John Lateran, another Constantinian construction, has changed greatly over the centuries and the interior of the church was redone by Francesco Borromini in the 17th century, though the shape of the basilica remains basically the same. St. Mary Major preserves the magnificent mosaics from its Roman days, but St. Paul Outside the Walls was entirely rebuilt after a fire burnt it down in the early 1800s.
Here are a few pictures form the papal basilicas’ medieval past.
A few weeks ago I mentioned José Granados’s fine new book Introduction to Sacramental Theology: Signs of Christ in the Flesh. It’s full of interesting insights. Since I’m working on putting the final touches on my book about baptism of desire, one line that indirectly touches on the theme of desire stood out.
I often point out that our rituals are meant to form us. They shape us and make us into new beings, especially the sacraments of initiation. In this regard, Granados points out that rituals form our desires as well.
“For in our action there is always more than what we have put into it; and for that reason we desire, when we act, more than what we think we desire.” (309)
The action of the liturgy, in other words, implies desiring certain things and in a certain way. When we participate in the liturgy, therefore, those desires become our own. This insight gets at what makes the sacraments irreducible, why they cannot be replaced with just having the right ideas, and what makes baptism of desire such a difficult and fascinating topic.