Advent: St. Lucy’s Day

As we rapidly approach the Winter Solstice, the day of the year with the least sunlight, the Church calendar and readings stick to the theme of light. This coming Sunday’s Gospel opens with John 1:6

A man named John was sent from God.
He came for testimony, to testify to the light,
so that all might believe through him.
He was not the light,
but came to testify to the light.

The ‘O’ Antiphon for December 21:

O Radiant Dawn,
splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:
come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the
shadow of death.

And today is the Feast of St. Lucy, whose name means ‘Light’.

virgin and martyr of Syracuse in Sicily, whose feast is celebrated by Latins and Greeks alike on 13 December.

According to the traditional story, she was born of rich and noble parents about the year 283. Her father was of Roman origin, but his early death left her dependent upon her mother, whose name, Eutychia, seems to indicate that she came of Greek stock.

Like so many of the early martyrs, Lucy had consecrated her virginity to God, and she hoped to devote all her worldly goods to the service of the poor. Her mother was not so single-minded, but an occasion offered itself when Lucy could carry out her generous resolutions. The fame of the virgin-martyr Agatha, who had been executed fifty-two years before in the Decian persecution, was attracting numerous visitors to her relics at Catania, not fifty miles from Syracuse, and many miracles had been wrought through her intercession. Eutychia was therefore persuaded to make a pilgrimage to Catania, in the hope of being cured of a hæmorrhage, from which she had been suffering for several years. There she was in fact cured, and Lucy, availing herself of the opportunity, persuaded her mother to allow her to distribute a great part of her riches among the poor.

The largess stirred the greed of the unworthy youth to whom Lucy had been unwillingly betrothed, and he denounced her to Paschasius, the Governor of Sicily. It was in the year 303, during the fierce persecution of Diocletian. She was first of all condemned to suffer the shame of prostitution; but in the strength of God she stood immovable, so that they could not drag her away to the place of shame. Bundles of wood were then heaped about her and set on fire, and again God saved her. Finally, she met her death by the sword. But before she died she foretold the punishment of Paschasius and the speedy termination of the persecution, adding that Diocletian would reign no more, and Maximian would meet his end. So, strengthened with the Bread of Life, she won her crown of virginity and martyrdom.

And:

Lucy’s legend did not end with her death. According to later accounts, Lucy warned Paschasius he would be punished. When the governor heard this he ordered the guards to gouge out her eyes; however, in another telling, it was Lucy who removed her eyes in an attempt to discourage a persistent suitor who greatly admired them.

When her body was being prepared for burial, they discovered her eyes had been restored.

Quotes Catholic Saint Lucia. QuotesGram
St. Lucy. Here’s looking at you! 

Before you dismiss this as sheer pious fantasy, you might want to read this David Warren essay. I’m inclined to believe that the bare bones of the story as factually correct, and that there’s something behind the more legendary claims, even if they might have suffered some embellishment in pious hands. The Church has long held that there’s little harm in pious legends, and much good if they inspire us to greater holiness.

Be that as it may, the feast of St. Lucy has some interesting history and traditions around it. Due to the subtle inaccuracies of the Julian Calendar, the Winter Solstice had slowly crept earlier over the 15 centuries since that calendar’s promulgation. Pope Gregory’s team proposed an equally subtle correction in 1582. That’s the calendar we use today.

Even though the Gregorian Calendar is a better calendar in all practical senses, keeping the days of the solstices and thus the seasons more or less fixed for millennia to come, the Pope had no authority to enforce this change. He could only appeal to reason. We know how far that will get you in a politically charged (to say the least!) environment. Plus, there was a correction needed: the papal bull specified that Thursday, October 4, 1582 under the Julian calendar be followed by Friday, October 15, 1582 in the Gregorian calendar. Tough break if your birthday falls into those now-vanished days!

In the end, Catholic countries pretty much got on the bandwagon pretty fast, while Protestant countries, being Enlightened and all, resisted doing the logical, practical thing for a long, long time.

When John Donne wrote A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day around 1627,  the British were still using the Julian calendar (better to get one’s calendar from a pagan emperor than a pope!), according to which the Winter Solstice had crept forward to indeed fall on (or very near) St. Lucy’s Day. As mentioned in this earlier post, our European ancestors were much less bent out of shape by claims that coincidences showed the hand of God, in fact, they expected God to work through accidents. Thus, that the feast of the saint named Light would fall on the day with the least light would seem appropriate cause for contemplation, portentous, even, to a man of Donne’s time.

St LucyThus has St. Lucy been remembered since the 6th century on. More recently, as in the last 1,000 years or so, Scandinavians have celebrated St. Lucy’s Day as part of the Christmas celebration in this manner: eldest daughter wears white that day, and wears a crown of candles. She is charged with serving food to the family, in commemoration with a legend that has it that St. Lucy did this to have both hands free to serve the poor.

There is a procession, and, in church, appropriate hymns are sung.

The love of Scandinavians for St. Lucy, a Sicilian, is explained by how her feast fell close to the pagan Norse celebration of the Winter Solstice. Those Norsemen would build big bonfires during the longest winter night to drive off the darkness and invite back the light. Lucy’s Day timing, name and story seemed a good segue from pagan to Christian.

And who doesn’t like setting stuff on fire?

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Ave Fit Ex Eva

Happy, holy and blessed Feast of the Immaculate Conception!

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Immaculate Conception, El Greco, 1610. You can count on El Greco for weird and arresting colors and composition, and also for unusual insights into the emotions of the scene depicted. For example, study Mary’s face in the painting. 

This is a lovely and evocative feast. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is a wonderful expression of faith understood through tradition and logic.

I was a little disappointed at mass this morning when the homilist stuck to a Sunday school level exposition of the mystery of the Immaculate Conception. He first spent a couple minutes making clear that we’re talking about Mary being preserves from original sin, not Jesus’s divine conception or virgin birth, then explained how Mary needed to be kept free of sin in order to be the Mother of the sinless God – well and good.  But we left it there.

It was completely orthodox, something for which I suppose I should be thankful, especially given some of the homilies I’ve heard at this particular church (recently retired: a Jesuit, and a super-duper spirit of V-II priest.) But my mind went back to this little ditty, the sources of the text for which dates to the Middle Ages:

(Not the exact text Williametta Spencer used – I couldn’t find it – but close)

1. Gabriel of high degree,
He came down from the Trinity
From Nazareth to Galilee,
Nova, nova, nova! Ave fit ex Eva

2. He met a maiden in a place;
He kneeled down before her face;
He said: “Hail, Mary, full of grace!”
Nova, nova, nova! Ave fit ex Eva

3. When the maiden saw all this,
She was sore abashed, ywis,
Lest that she had done amiss.
Nova, nova, nova! Ave fit ex Eva

4. Then said the angel: “Dread not you,
Ye shall conceive in all virtue
A child whose name shall be Jesu.”
Nova, nova, nova! Ave fit ex Eva

5. Then said the maid: “How may this be,
God’s Son to be born of me?
I know not of man’s carnality.”
Nova, nova, nova! Ave fit ex Eva

6. Then said the angel anon right:
“The Holy Ghost is on thee alight;
There is no thing unpossible to God Almight.”
Nova, nova, nova! Ave fit ex Eva

7. Then said the angel anon:
“It is not fully six months agone,
Since Saint Elizabeth conceived Saint John.”
Nova, nova, nova! Ave fit ex Eva

8. Then said the maid anon quickly:
“I am God’s own truly,
Ecce ancilla Domini.”
Nova, nova, nova! Ave fit ex Eva

It seems those poor ignorant medieval peasants were getting markedly deeper theology in popular songs than one can nowadays expect from the pulpit.

The refrain is the key: Ave, the first word of the angel’s greeting of Mary, is made from (fit ex) Eve’s sin. The medievals loved the little accidental palindrome of Ave – Eva. In fact, they didn’t really believe in coincidences like this – they thought that the all-loving God would quite naturally use little associations like this to make His Love known.

For the Ave really is made by reversing the Eva. Mary is not the only Immaculate Conception, in the sense of the only person born without Original Sin. There are 4: Mary, her Divine Son, Adam – and Eve.

Eve, sinless and blessed with a personal knowledge of God, who walked with them in the cool of the evening, nonetheless chose to reject His will. By means of her ‘No’ to the will of God, all her children inherited a darkness of intellect, a weakening of the will, and a tendency to choose evil. And we all thus die.

Mary, also sinless and blessed – full of grace, even – and free of those curses, is thus able to respond to God’s call with complete freedom. By means of her ‘Yes’ all her children inherit the grace of salvation, and are likewise free to chose to do God’s will.

Eve, the mother of mankind, and Mary, the Mother of God and the mother of the all who follow her Son, are set in parallel for our contemplation. One chose hard but well, the other chose poorly. One was faced with a simple prohibition – don’t eat the fruit! – and could not trust God enough to obey. The other was faced with a huge unknown, and chose to trust God’s will anyway. Neither knew what would happen, but Eve hoped to become a god herself but becomes instead the mother of sin, while Mary loses herself in God and becomes the queen of heaven and earth.

When it comes to revealed truths, Thomists have from the beginning loved to argue from appropriateness – we may not be able to reason our way to a particular truth (that’s why it is revealed) but we can see that the revelation is meet and just. And thus it is with the Immaculate Conception: it is meet and just that, since sin entered the world through the choice of the woman Eve, that salvation should enter the world through the choice of the woman Mary; that, as Eve was sinless and thus perfectly free to choose, Mary must needs be sinless and perfectly free to choose; that, just as the result of Eve’s poor choice was death for her children, the result of Mary’s good choice is life for her children. As brothers and sisters of Christ, we are children of Mary.

The Immaculate Conception is celebrated as a great feast of Advent, because Mary’s preparation for the coming of Our Lord, and embrace and acceptance of the consequences of that coming, are meant to inspire and inform our own preparations and our own acceptance of the Lord. Our salvation is and has always been an unmerited gift. We must, like Mary, say ‘yes’ and be prepared to live out the implications of that yes in our lives.

The Harrowing of Hell, depicted in the Petites Heures de Jean de Berry, 14th-century illuminated manuscript By Anonimous – from en.wikipedia.org, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3170407

The final punchline is something often portrayed in medieval art: the Harrowing of Hell. Christ, during His time in the Tomb, is portrayed opening the gates of Hell and freeing those souls who had yearned for His coming but were not yet saved because he had not yet come.

The first two people out are always Adam and Eve. Thus, even Eve, our mother in sin, is saved by means of the ‘Yes’ of Mary, our mother through our being the brothers and sisters of Christ. To the medieval mind, the symmetry and beauty of such a resolution and such mercy was indeed meet and just, a magnum mysterium to be contemplated in awe.

 

 

 

 

An Invitation to Solemn Joy

Yesterday, the family attended Mass at beautiful St. Dominic’s Church in San Francisco, one of the loveliest churches on the West Coast.

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The neo-Gothic style building is situated in a bit of a valley or hillside on the north side of San Francisco not far from the Presidio. It’s not a particularly large or imposing structure, especially when compared to the Cathedral or St. Ignatius in the City.

The interior, in particular, is very well done. A slightly yellow-tinted stone was used for most of the interior, which gives it a warmth. The many stained glass windows fill it with richly colored light. The woodwork on the confessionals and trim is beautiful German craftsmanship. The proportions are glorious yet still human scale.

I love the high altar in particular. The classic semicircular apse, raised a couple steps above the nave, with an ambulatory which provides access to the sacristy, has the effect of at once setting the sanctuary apart while also allowing people to walk around it easily. The altar piece features Dominican saints arrayed around the Crucifix and Tabernacle. The altar rail, although I suppose unused for decades, is attractive and, more important, still there.

The interior is at once joyful, playful, even, in that Gothic way, and completely serious. The result of all this, and the defining characteristic of St. Dominic’s, is that it is a special place, a place set apart. It could not be mistaken for any other kind of building.

St. Dominic’s is an invitation to solemn, almost stern, joy. In a way more definite than even a burning bush, everything tells you you are on holy ground. You should be silent and pay attention. Something Important happens here.

Built in the 1920s, this building is a concrete expression of the Latin Mass, and not just in having been built to facilitate the rituals. It shares an esthetic with the old Mass, and, much more – they share a spiritual mission.

Having recently been blessed to attend the Ordinary Form of the Mass in the way envisioned (and commanded!) by Vatican II – ad orientem and in Latin – it’s easy to imagine that the Novus Ordo, too, shares that same spiritual mission. It’s also hard not to conclude that the Ordinary Form as done 99.99% of the time in this neck of the woods – ad populum and in English, sure, but more important, with the sensibilities of a game show – does not.

The Mass as actually celebrated by the wonderful Dominicans at St. Dominic’s is, of course, beautiful and efficacious, and we are grateful for having been blessed to attend it. And the artistic and spiritual spirit of the building does seem to have a calming affect, inspiring a level of reverence sadly lacking in most parish churches. But the gap between architecture and the practice that architecture embodies was palpable. It would no doubt foment a revolution of sorts, but I imagine that, for some people, maybe many people, that if they started doing an ad orientem Mass in Latin there, they would never want to go back. They harmony of building and practice would call to them. They would know that they were home.

 

Weekend Update: Shield

Been busy. David, our 13 year old son, is now too old for that trick-or-treating nonsense, but not too old to want a cool costume to wear to school & parties. It so happens that the beloved Mrs. YSotM is, how do the kids put it? tots awesome at this whole costume/seamstress thing, and has been for a few decades,  so we’re often close to a great costume just based on what’s lying around the house. (The daughters have inherited this skill, and are therefore pressed into everything from costuming plays to modifying wedding dresses. A reputation for competency is a burden.) David once went to one of those fantasy cons down in San Jose, and Mrs. YSotM put together a wizard outfit for him to wear that had people stopping him and getting their pictures taken with him.

The bar has been set pretty high, in other words. Dad has wisely stayed out of it.

Until this year. As a fun project this summer, David and I made a couple fiberglass shields – one to screw up completely, and one sort of OK and usable. (I’d never done fiberglass before, so wanted to – probably funned out for life on goopy, messy, tricky frustrating projects – would rather do wood or brick stuff.)

Anyway, always intended to paint the shield something cool. David decided he wanted a winged sword, so he could use it with his St. Michael’s costume he envisioned for Hallowe’en.

Well. My one year of art school helped me become not totally incompetent in drawing, but we didn’t get to painting before I quit, and I frankly had little interest in it, so – nada.

The result of this minimal skillset is that was able to do a few pretty decent mock-ups in pencil until I got David’s sign-off, transfer the winner in pencil to the shield without much trouble – and then learn the hard way that going from pencil to paint is tricky.

It’s looks OK from > 10′ away. Just don’t get too close.

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Things I learned:

  • painters love oil paints and those expensive brushes for a reason. Trying to paint straight lines with gloppy latex using cheap little brushes that keep  shedding hairs – DON’T DO IT! Lumpy, uneven, frustrating.
  • The fancy gold leaf style paint uses a solvent that seems to dissolve the black latex paint unless the latex is really, really dry. Therefore, you’d want to put in on FIRST. Not, in other words, the way I did it.
  • Masking tape only slightly improves things. And it tends to peel off the black latex paint when you pull it up.
  • My hands are pretty steady. They could be a LOT steadier.

If I find myself doing any more painting like this, I’ll spend the money on decent brushes and paint. And maybe watch a YouTube video or three on basic technique.

David is pleased, though, and that’s what counts in these things.

Book reviews, more schooling stuff, as time permits.

Happy Easter! Χριστός ἀνέστη!

He is truly risen!

Blessed Fra Angelico has got what you need.  First, we have the women at the tomb greeted by an angel:

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The Risen Christ hovers in the background, as it simply would not do to show merely an empty tomb. This fresco is in cell 8 upstairs at San Marco’s Dominican Convent in Florence, so Fra Angelico paints St. Dominic kneeling to the left – in the brother’s cell, he (almost) always puts a Dominican in the scene, to remind the viewer that he is not just looking at a pretty fresco, but is to see himself in the events portrayed.

I love the way the angel sits rather casually and seems to be caught mid-lecture: He is risen as he said!

The wonderful hymn O filii and filiae captures the moment thus:

 Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

Ye sons and daughters of the Lord,
the King of glory, King adored,
this day Himself from death restored.

R. Alleluia

All in the early morning gray
went holy women on their way,
to see the tomb where Jesus lay.

R. Alleluia

Of spices pure a precious store
in their pure hands these women bore,
to anoint the sacred Body o’er.

R. Alleluia

The straightaway one in white they see,
who saith, “seek the Lord: but He
is risen and gone to Galilee.”

R. Alleluia

Next, from cell #1, is the “Do not cling to Me” scene from the Gospel of John:

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The lack of a Dominican is a little unusual – a quick skim spotted only 3 or 4 others cell frescoes out of 36(?) or so cells that do not feature one. I could make up a story about how the text being illustrated – Mary Magdalene, confused and desperate, looking for her Lord, is enough of an Every Person for the artist’s purpose. But I don’t know.

Love the hoe on Christ’s shoulder – mistaken for the gardener, indeed. Here and in his Annunciations, where man’s fall and salvation are front and center, Fra Angelico sets them in a garden and adds much details to the plants and trees. Man’s proper place is, after all, in a garden, a place restored and then some by Christ’s Resurrection.  Ave fit ex Eva, after all.

We’ll end for this year with Piero della Francesca’s awesome Resurrection:

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Aldous Huxley, of all people, describes this fresco thus: “It stands there before us in entire and actual splendour, the greatest picture in the world.” Like most masterpieces, photos do it no justice. Piero captured the grandeur of the Risen Lord, and his realistic portrayal of the guards as contemporary Italian men at arms who dropped asleep where they sat is wonderful.

One last distraction: count the guards’ legs. Piero was painting the Resurrection, not guards’ legs, so if he needed to leave out a few…

 

Good Friday: Bouguereau

Bishop Barron says, in one of his wonderful videos, that happiness lies in surrendering completely to God’s will. He then points at Christ on the Cross, and says: there is a happy man.

With that in mind, praying that you and yours, all the visitors to this humble blog, have a happy, holy and blessed Good Friday.

Since it’s Good Friday and we’ve been discussing Bouguereau:

File:William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - The Flagellation of Our Lord Jesus Christ (1880).jpg

 

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Bouguereau


A possibly amusing story involving Twitter:

Got some Bouguereau lined up for tomorrow. He’s a pretty good cautionary tale against accepting the opinions of your age, one with, possibly, a happy ending. During his lifetime, he was considered the greatest painter in the world, for very good reason:

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One may reasonably dispute about choice of subject matter, for example, or simply prefer other great artists. I’m partial to Fra Angelico and Botticelli, personally. But as far as skill and technique goes, he’s one of the very greatest painters ever, and he used all those painting chops to create always beautiful and often profound art. The accusations made against him and other Academic painters – that they were dull, lifeless, and cared only about technique – are disproven by a glance at just the 3 examples above.

But Bouguereau, who died in 1905, was forcibly consigned to the dustbin of history, and stayed there, his painting put into storage and dismissed in art schools for over 80 years. Only the work of some dedicated people has brought him back to life over the last couple decades.

When hung in museums, these are the painting the young and old alike linger over. It’s not because of bad taste. Preferring modern art to Bouguereau is a willful act of insanity. It is to choose ugly and shallow over beautiful and deep.

Anyway, yesterday, was wasting time on Twitter – but I repeat myself – when Daddy Warpig, self-proclaimed geek and trenchant social critic, tweeted:

Daddy Warpig 1

To which I replied:

Daddy Warpig 2

And, 10,000 or so impressions (whatever they are), dozens of retweets and likes and replies later – I’ve introduced Bouguereau to Mr. Warpig’s Twitterverse. You know, gamer geeks and Odds and all that. I do not understand Twitter at all. In about 12 hours, there was more Twitter activity around this tweet than the total from inception to that point. People thanked me for introducing them to Bouguereau, who (of course) they’d never heard of.

This is strangely and deeply satisfying.