As you climb the stairs to the top of the Duomo, the stunning cupola that tops the altar area of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, you think about the 467 stone steps to the summit. You think about the narrow passageways. You think about the dozens of people ahead of you and the dozens behind you. You think you should just take deep breaths.il-duomo-evening-615

In 1420, Filippo Brunnelleschi, a goldsmith with no formal architectural training, won a contest to build an enormous airy dome that he claimed would need no visible, fixed supports. There are two domes, actually–two concentric shells, the inner one of herringbone-patterned brick nestled in the larger, taller one, with tension rings and tie beams between them to reduce stress and distribute the weight evenly. The city planners and church authorities didn’t know if it would work–no one did. Except maybe the goldsmith.

You ascend on the stairway between the two domes, feeling the cool of the herringbone brick on your hands, seeing the beams above your head. As the stairs lead you out onto the interior walkway, your eyes are immediately drawn to the dramatically frescoed dome ceiling above. (Brunnelleschi designed and constructed it bare; apparently there have been proposals through the centuries–time is measured in centuries in Florence–to restore the ceiling to its pristine whiteness).

Like other domed ceilings in churches and basilicas, the bottom tier depicts scenes of hell and judgment. The artists who painted the Duomo’s ceiling, Georgio Vasari and Frederico Zuccari, offer shocking, gruesome, ghastly scenes of deadly sins and the horrors of hell.

There is something theologically interesting (of course there is) about both the architecture and the art. On the walkway, the hellish frescoes are too close for comfort. The figures are simply enormous. Depictions of the beatitudes, the virtues, saints, angels, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, Mary, Christ–all of these seem very far away indeed.

As you leave the inner walkway and climb the remaining steps to the top of the dome, the steps are steeper, the passages even narrower. Light pours in at intervals from openings in the stone, but it is intermittent, fleeting. You feel like you’re groping, not striding, toward the summit.

And then when you step out of the darkness, when you complete the journey of many step and emerge into the light of a late Tuscan afternoon, when all of Florence is bathed in golden sunshine and even the hills and groves beyond the city are visible, you think about your life. About the precariousness of your own journey of many steps. About the light that sometimes seems intermittent, fleeting, but which always, always appears. And you realize it is Lent and that this is fitting, and that soon it will be Easter.

And you are grateful.

 

The planet Venus in last night’s sky. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus today at the Uffizi Gallery.

This work of art was like none other of its time. The first Renaissance painting to portray a nude woman in a non-Christian context–only Eve heretofore–The Birth of Venus was controversial from the start. Commissioned by Birth-Venus-Bott-LLorenzo di Medici, likely as a wedding present for a cousin (it would have hung over the marital bed), the painting barely escaped destruction at the hands of a zealous Dominican monk. During Carnivale of 1497, Girolamo Savonarola organized what came to be known as the bonfire of the vanities.  He ordered a house to house search of costumes, masks, wigs, cosmetics, musical instruments, and other objects deemed ill-suited for the devout. Also caught up in the banning/burning were precious manuscripts and various works of art. The night before the beginning of Lent that year, the great pile of “vanities” was set afire. Botticelli himself, who had been captivated by Savonarola’s apocalyptic preaching, contributed some of his own work to the blaze.

But Venus survived.

To stand in front of this magnificent painting is to be overwhelmed by qualities that one does not encounter in most paintings in the Uffizi, or in Renaissance art generally, where subjects (and subject matter) are weighty and substantial and realistically rendered. (Notice the impossible postures/positions of Venus and the figures representing the Zephyr winds). The Birth of Venus is charming, graceful, lyrical, ethereal, delicate, and deeply sensuous. It celebrates human desire.

And to my untrained eye, it seems to be, ultimately, about beauty. It invites one to contemplate physical beauty, erotic beauty, not as voyeur, but in recognition of the truth that we are creatures who hunger for beauty, who are made from beauty and for beauty, and who must learn that all desire is a desire for beauty.

THE VENUS OF BOTTICELLI

Wendell Berry

I knew her when I saw her
in the vision of Botticelli, riding
shoreward out of the waves,
and afterward she was in my mind
as she had been before, but changed,
so that if I saw her here, near
nightfall, striding off the gleam
of the Kentucky River as it darkened
behind her, the willows touching
her with little touches laid
on breast and arm and thigh, I
would rise as after a thousand
years, as out of the dark grave,
alight, shaken, to remember her.

 

A stunning sunrise over the city of Amsterdam more than made up for the lack of sleep on the flight from Washington, DC.  Unexpectedly, our flight to Florence was diverted to Pisa–too much wind on the ground for a safe landing. Also unexpected: exquisite views of the Italian Alps and the Mediterranean Sea. Such spectacular grandeur, IMG_5407such ancient beauty. And then finally entering Firenze, as it is known in Italy, a city which in some ways looks like any other but in most ways like no other.

A late afternoon walking tour of the center city–brief glimpses of the Cathedral (God in heaven, the glory of every part of it), the Baptistry of San Giovanni, the Piazza della Repubblica, the Piazza della Signoria–how will we bear the beauty of it all in the coming days?

As night fell, the sight of Jupiter in the east of the cobalt-blue sky. He stood brilliant, silent vigil over a sea of tourists and Bartolomeo Ammannati’s Neptune Fountain, which I’m not sure what I think about. It’s either much-loved or much-reviled, I hear. At first sight of it, Ammannati’s teacher, Michaelangelo, is said to have quipped, “what a beautiful piece of marble you have ruined.”

As we walk past the Galleria Uffizi (on the schedule for our second day), a classical guitarist plays “Gabriel’s Oboe,” from the film The Mission and written by Italian composer, Ennio Morricone. It is beautiful beyond words.

And then, walking back to the hotel, along the Arno river, Venus shines bright in the western sky, and I know that I am in love.

The Epiphany of the Lord

Isaiah 60:1-6the-adoration-of-the-magi-1510-1
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

Lectionary for Mass

Welcome home, my child. Your home is a checkpoint now. Your home is a border town. Welcome to the brawl.

“Song of the Magi,”Anaïs Mitchell

They are as familiar as any in the cast of characters that make up the mash-up we know as the Christmas Story.

The “wise men from the East” in Matthew’s gospel join the shepherds and angels found only in Luke to populate children’s Christmas pageants everywhere. With tinfoil crowns on their heads and festive tablecloths draped over their tiny shoulders, solemn preschoolers reverently place wrapping-paper-clad boxes at the feet of makeshift mangers. Parents and grandparents sigh and chuckle. Video and still shots are posted to Facebook before “Silent Night” has been sung and happy applause has been rendered.

Christians high-church and low have ritualized these stories (even as they have conflated them) in this very recognizable and much-beloved form. And why not teach children (and others) in such ways—through embodiment, performance, spectacle?

But for those who may be weary of the inevitable kitsch of this rite of passage, and perhaps especially for those who wonder if the whole nativity narrative isn’t just another fairy tale, it’s worth noting how the story of the wise men in Matthew (and also of the shepherds and angels in Luke) is rooted not in cuddly cuteness but in the politics of domination and costly resistance to it. 

To read the rest click here.

I had the privilege of making a quick trip to East Tennessee this week to give the homily at Adoration, a contemplative, ecumenical service of Word and Table. We observed the Solemnity of All Saints.

Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14
Responsorial Psalm 24: 1BC-2, 3-4AB, 5-6
1  John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12A

Let us pray:

Great God of light,
as the radiance of these candles dazzles our eyes,
so may the light of your Spirit illumine our hearts and minds,
that we might behold your beauty—in word, in sacrament, in one another.
Amen.

+ + +

When my two sons were about 8 and 12 years old, the younger one, Patrick, came home from school one day and announced to the older one, Drew: “I was named after a saint, and you were named after the past tense of a verb.” This is the same younger son whom I once overheard say to a new friend: “My mom is a doctor but not the kind who can do you any good.”

 Patrick is now in his 20s and he is still learning to live into his sainthood.

As are all of us. Each one of us.

And for some of us, we find this to be a daunting proposition: to try and live—whether or not we bear the name of a saint—into the vocation of sainthood. Because for most of us, sainthood suggests sinlessness, or at least a singlemindedness of devotion or piety or virtue that we could never muster.

We think about our lives that often seem so small. We regret choices we have made. Hurts we have inflicted. Friendships we have allowed to languish or worse. We consider how judgmental we can be. How petty or prideful or preoccupied with a thousand things other than the way of discipleship. We know that our faith is often shaky—something we can barely admit to ourselves, let alone to others, let alone to God.

And our calling is to be saints?

When Jesus speaks these familiar words in St. Matthew’s gospel—what we call the “Beatitudes”—he gives his first hearers and us something of a litany of sainthood:

Poverty of spirit.
Mourning.
Meekness.
A hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Mercy.
Cleanness of Heart.
Peacemaking.
Being persecuted for righteousness’ sake.

These are the states of being, the conditions of life, the qualities of character that Jesus says are blessed by God. And blessedness here, the New Testament scholars tell us, means something like “happiness.” But this word, too, gives us pause: Happy are the poor in spirit? Really?

The Christian tradition has always held that human beings are created for happiness, and it has defined happiness as knowing, loving, and enjoying God. St. Thomas Aquinas, in perhaps one of the most thorough treatments of the subject, observed that happiness is ultimately linked with goodness. In this he was following Aristotle who believed that only goodness can make us happy.

At the beginning of the Bible we learn that the happiness we were created for is friendship with one another and with God, and at its end we have heard, this very night, of the heavenly communion that characterizes the ultimate happiness—the beatific vision—that all of creation is destined for:

“A great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue, standing before the throne and before the Lamb . . . “

This is the happiness we were made for:  to contemplate the beauty of God. John’s vision isn’t one of leaving anyone behind; it is the eternal adoration of God in the communion of saints.

In contrast to a culture that trains us to view happiness as something we buy or make, something we earn or deserve, the Christian tradition has insisted that a life of genuine happiness comes to us through grace. “The God who wants our good gifts us with the happiness we seek” (Paul Wadell).

Scripture also makes clear, from beginning to end, that the happiness we were made for is deeply social, ineluctably political. “Political” in this sense has to do with how human beings are constituted by community and how we might flourish in it—how it is that we are good together.

Thus the Beatitudes—indeed the whole Sermon on the Mount in which they are set—are not a list of ethical mandates for the individual or a prescription for self-actualization. What Jesus blesses are not moral states he orders his followers to achieve—be meek! be merciful!—but the conditions of our shared life as we seek to flourish together in the goodness of God.

So for instance when Jesus says, “happy are those who mourn,” we know that he is not enjoining chin-up cheerfulness in the face of blinding sorrow. Rather, we have it on Jesus’ authority here that “in deep sadness human beings are in God’s hands more than at any other time” (Dale Bruner).

But there is another kind of mourner: the one who weeps with those who weep (Rom. 12:15). And here we might see Jesus as the one who makes known what blessed mourning looks like. At Bethany, Jesus wept for his friend, Lazarus, and through his own tears, transformed the grief of his friends and the suspicion of his skeptics.

Blessed are those who weep with those who weep.

In our lives, we have the privilege of making a gift of our own tears as we attend to those who grieve—the wounded, the weary, the broken, the broken-hearted.

But in truth we find this to be a very difficult thing. Tears are profoundly intimate. They reveal our human frailty like almost nothing else. The grieving often suffer alone because they do not know how to receive the tears of another—their own can be bewildering enough.

And those who might offer comfort to the grieving by weeping with them are also often embarrassed by tears—their own and the tears of others—and at a loss with how to be so exposed and unguarded; how to simply be with another through unstoppable tears.

But “God’s heart calls to our hearts, inviting us to come out of ourselves, to forsake our human certainties [and] to make of ourselves a gift of unbounded love” (Pope Benedict XVI).

If genuine happiness is learning to be like God in goodness, then those who mourn and those who weep with them know something of the vulnerable heart of our good and gracious God.

On the feast of All Saints we are reminded, happily, that we do not go it alone on this journey of living into the blessedness, the happiness we have been called to, created for. The New Testament never uses the word “saint” in the singular. There are only saints in the plural.

In trying to live into the gift, the vocation, of sainthood—into the gift of happiness—we have the witness of other saints: beloved people in our own lives and the beatified, canonized saints of the Church, many of whose countenances surround us here tonight like the great cloud of witnesses they are in these beautiful icons.

Yet these beautiful, iconic witnesses to our faith are not persons whose lives are beyond our reach. As Dorothy Day once said: “Don’t call me a saint; I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

We pray to the saints—or, rather, we beseech the saints to pray for us—not because they were perfect but because they weren’t—because they, like us, lived messy lives. They had regrets. They inflicted hurts. They struggled with pettiness, pride, a shaky faith.

Yet in the midst of their flawed, imperfect lives, they were men and women who relished life as a gift, and who realized that the only way to honor such a gift is to give it away (William Stringfellow).

 + + +

A great American tradition on Halloween is to carve a pumpkin into a grinning lantern. We set it by the front door as a sign of hospitality to strangers and guests. According to our faith, offering hospitality to strangers and guests is a way to experience a foretaste of the great heavenly banquet where all of us will be welcomed into the presence of Christ and invited to feast at his table.

Tonight we, too, experience a foretaste of the great heavenly banquet as we partake of this holy meal set before us. We sup with the saints of the ages. And we sup with the saints beside us in this room even now.

“See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are. What we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:1-2).

Until then, we have this meal. We have each other. We have the witness of those in whom we see the goodness of God, who show us what blessedness, what happiness, looks like.

With them, we are saints in the plural.

 

 

On a long drive the other day, I heard an NPR story about an adventure playground in California where kids can “play wild” on a half-acre park that has the deliberate vibe (and potential danger) of a junkyard. The day before that, the TED Radio Hour featured a talk by Gever Tulley, founder of The Tinkering School, who says that when kids are given sharp tools and matches, their imaginations take off and they become better problem-solvers.

These stories are part of a trend in which Americans (or at least American journalists) are beginning to question the overprotection believed by many to characterize modern American parenting. In Europe, by contrast, risky, junkyard playgrounds have been around since the end of World War II, when their construction was spurred by the conviction that children who might grow up to fight wars shouldn’t be shielded from danger; rather, they should meet it, early and often, with confidence and courage.

Recently, when a mother in Florida was arrested for allowing her seven-year-old son to walk alone to a city park a half-mile from their house, talk shows, blogs, and Facebook news feeds lit up with impassioned responses, revealing a deep divide over this issue: either the mother’s actions constituted criminal negligence or we are now criminalizing commonsense parenting. (Important class issues that come into play here received only scant attention).

Such a set of cultural concerns could only come about through a particular confluence of factors. Perhaps the most significant is our increasing fearfulness, individually and collectively. Much of it is unfounded, a good deal of it misdirected, almost all of it cultivated dishonestly and exploited shamelessly by those who stand to gain by it. What we ought to fear–that honeybees may soon be extinct, for one thing, and that half of the planet’s topsoil has been lost in the last hundred and fifty years, for another–is overtaken by any number of false worries: that there is something called “the gay agenda,” that President Obama is secretly a Muslim, and (the one that keeps us up at night regardless of our politics) that we are largely failures as parents.

There is also the factor of the kind of anthropology of children we operate with. In a market economy, children are regarded alternately, though sometimes simultaneously, as commodities/consumers or burdens/liabilities. We routinely think of children as “instruments” for our own fulfillment, “objects” of our (micro)management skills, “projects” for reform or redirection. Of course, we love our children and, of course, we don’t use this language when speaking of them or to them. But we swim in the sea of global capitalism with its discourse of cost-benefit analysis, investment and return, and profitability. Often at the heart of both child-bearing and child-rearing are questions of affordability and the pressure to compete, the latter of which we seem to pass on to our children as readily as we give them our curly hair or nearsightedness.

Our theology of children often doesn’t fare much better. While the Church has rightly insisted that children are gifts from God–not commodities and certainly not burdens–parents, congregations, and clergy often unwittingly regard children as personal possessions. When an infant is baptized, the whole community makes long-haul promises to help nurture the child in the way of discipleship. Yet when that child is not the sweetly-sleeping cherub in her mother’s arms but a rebellious teen making disastrous choices, we often turn away–embarrassed for the family, hopeful that the kid will get the professional help she needs. It’s not our business, we tell ourselves. It’s a private matter. We wish them all the best.

What we don’t seem to get very well is that in the mystery of baptism we discover that our lives are linked with all those–children, women, and men–who have been baptized into Christ. And because we believe that all people–all children, women, and men everywhere–are created in the image of God, our lives are also linked with those of other faiths and those of no faith. No exception.

But what about the children of Gaza–the traumatized and suffering, the dead and dying? What about the refugee children at our southern border? Why is it that we cannot conceive that they are our children, too? that our lives are inextricably, quite inconveniently, linked with theirs?

We feel sorry for them–perhaps deeply sorry–but when we make them into objects of our pity, we engage in a kind of emotional self-indulgence that may soothe our own discomfort for awhile (at least until the next human catastrophe appears on our screen) but which changes nothing.

All the while we  worry that our own children won’t be tough enough. We debate the parenting skills of a single mother in Florida. These are preoccupations of the safe and the privileged. It’s only if our children are secure, after all, that we can contemplate filling their lives with more risk.

In the meantime there are children living daily under conditions of unspeakable danger. Theirs are playgrounds of death, not of their own choosing. They inhabit junkyards of ruined hopes, ruined lives.

Would that we might be accused of overprotecting them.

 

 

 

 

Third Sunday After Pentecost
Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Matthew 10:40-42

When I first began attending mass several years ago, I was struck by the kind of welcome I received. Or, rather, the kind I cead mile failtedidn’t. Raised in the over-eager Protestantism that hovers and fawns over every guest at worship (a well-meaning practice; I’ve engaged in it myself), Catholics were noticeably cool, it seemed—a little distant, even.

This wasn’t (and isn’t) calculating or conspiratorial on their part—nor on mine now as a Catholic. Any given group of parishioners at any given mass is not following a script about how to treat newcomers to the liturgy. And I don’t mean to suggest an absence of warmth or kindness; I’ve never experienced that in a Catholic church and I hope I’ve never communicated it. But I do think that the Eucharist—week after week, year after year—trains worshipers to know, even if they don’t or can’t articulate it theologically, that it is not the people or even the priest who does the welcoming; it’s Christ who does so.

All of us—long-timers and first-timers alike—are Christ’s guests, receivers of his gracious welcome.

And yet when we think about the welcomes we experience in other settings, most of us—Catholics and Protestants—find it difficult, I think, to be on the receiving end of another’s generosity. It seems to go against our sense of pride or self-sufficiency to be vulnerable in ways that would cause others to freely offer us welcome or refuge, harbor or hospitality. Interestingly, we don’t mind paying for such things—a nice hotel stay, a day at the spa—but this is because the hospitality industry is about market exchanges, not true acts of gracious, gratuitous, no-strings-attached welcome.

To read the rest click here.

 

 

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