TSD 24: The Birds of the Air

Prudence, radicalism, detachment

We had a minor emergency overnight last night (seven-month-old with labored breathing due to croup) that required a brief hospital visit. The baby’s perfectly fine—one dose of steroids should keep her breathing easily through the duration of the illness—but things are a little off kilter around here. Please forgive a somewhat shorter TSD than usual.

These Seven Days…

…in the Ordinary Form

It is the Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time. The readings are Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; and Luke 15:1-32 (or 1-10, which keeps the story of the lost sheep and omits the Prodigal Son).

On the mystical meaning of Christ the Good Shepherd collecting his lost sheep and rejoicing over it with his “friends and neighbors,” Gregory the Great writes:

He placed the sheep upon his shoulders, for taking man’s nature upon Him he bore our sins. But having found the sheep, he returns home; for our Shepherd having restored man, returns to his heavenly kingdom. … By His friends and neighbors He means the companies of Angels, who are His friends because they are keeping His will in their own steadfastness; they are also His neighbors, because by their own constant waiting upon Him they enjoy the brightness of His sight.

And so the lost sheep is each one of us personally, but also the human race collectively.

Christ as the Good Shepherd, by Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne.

Tuesday, September 17, is the Feast of St. Hildegard of Bingen—abbess, mystic, dramatist, composer, theologian, and doctor of the Church. Hildegard is one of the most fascinating women in the history of the Church.

Her writings, especially the Scivias (a contraction of Sci vias Domini, “Know the Ways of the Lord”), described by the Catholic Encyclopedia as “an extraordinary production and hard to understand, prophetic throughout and admonitory after the manner of Ezechiel and the Apocalypse,” were groundbreaking in style and in substance. In fact, her Ordo Virtutum is said to be the very first extra-liturgical musical drama in the Western canon.

Contemporary writers accentuate Hildegard’s boldness as a woman theologian and artist, even identifying her as a proto-feminist. I don’t want to entirely extinguish that notion, but it must be said that she was also scrupulously obedient to proper ecclesial authority. It’s precisely in the Spirit-led creative tension between her innovative mysticism and traditional duties that the brilliance of her contributions can be found.

One of dozens of Hildegard’s compositions accompanying an original text. These are all over YouTube and beyond: Knock yourself out.

Image result for hildegard of bingen

Hildegard receives a vision from God and transmits it to her (male) scribe. From an illumination of the Scivias.

Friday, September 20, is the Feast of Sts. Andrew Kim Taegon, Paul Chong Hasang, and Companions—the Korean martyrs. When we think of the evangelistic effect of martyrdom, out thoughts usually go first to Rome, but the early Church can seem distant from us in time and circumstances. As recently as the nineteenth century, however, we can see the same effect in Korea. Over the course of decades of persecutions, as many as 10,000 Christians were martyred. And yet, year after year, the number of professing Catholics in the peninsula’s missions only grew.

Andrew Kim Taegon was the first Korean-born man to be ordained to the priesthood. His recorded last words were:

This is my last hour of life, listen to me attentively: if I have held communication with foreigners, it has been for my religion and for my God. It is for Him that I die. My immortal life is on the point of beginning. Become Christians if you wish to be happy after death, because God has eternal chastisements in store for those who have refused to know Him.

Now that’s an effective evangelical communication strategy, or whatever the bureaucratese we use nowadays is.

Paul Chong Hasang was a nephew of an early convert. Interestingly, the first Korean converts were not made by missionaries, but by the procurement of Christian literature by the newly-minted cosmopolitans of the newly-open peninsula. Paul was instrumental in securing sacramental ministers from Beijing, whose presence both accelerated conversions and accelerated the persecution. He went to his death gladly, being dragged through the streets on a cross.

Unfortunately, I can’t find any more information about this image except that it portrays martyr St. Joseph Cho Yun-ho.

…in the Extraordinary Form

It is the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost. The Epistle is Galatians 5:16-24 and the Gospel is Matthew 6:24-33.

The commentators are quick to point out that Christ’s discussion of the provision given to the birds, who “sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns,” is not meant to be a brief against work but rather one against anxiousness over material goods. St Augustine writes:

Such of God’s servants as have strength to earn their food by the labor of their hands, would easily answer any who should object to them, “If we by sickness or any other hindrance are not able to work, He will feed us as He feeds the birds, that work not. But when we can work, we ought not to tempt God, seeing that even this our ability is His gift; and that we live here we live of His goodness that has made us able to live; He feeds us by whom the birds of the air are fed.”

Haydock drives the point home:

A prudent provision is not prohibited, but that over-solicitude which draws the soul, the heart, and its affections from God, and his sweet all-ruling providence, to sink and degrade them in empty pursuits, which can never fill the soul. 

This passage obviously ties in with the teachings of St. Basil, who said (along with St. Ambrose, St. John Chrysostom, et al) that unnecessary possessions were theft from the poor. This is, for me, one of the most challenging passages in the Gospel; it seems to me (following Basil) to suggest something more radical than what even the commentators I quote here let on. And yet how does one square that kind of radical trust with, for instance, the necessities of family life? The easy answer, as Haydock days, is “prudence.” But what does “prudence” look like? I don’t know, but I think this is an essential tension that we all need to be thinking about: Eschewing certain expectations of worldly practicality can, I believe, be one of the most effective signs of contradiction we can propose to contemporary society. And yet it’s not much of a sign if we go bankrupt.

The gradual this week, taken from Psalm 117 (D-R 116), fits in beautifully with this theme of detachment. The Latin is so simple and lovely that with only a few hints most people, I think, could decode it:

Bonum est confidere in Domino, quam confidere in homine. // Bonum est sperare in Domino, quam sperare in principibus.

It is good to confide in the Lord, rather than to have confidence in man. // It is good to trust in the Lord, rather than to trust in princes.

Someday, when I have more time, I’ll track down some chant commentary other than Dom Johner’s. But his are so good that it really demotivates me. Here he is on the psalm quoted in today’s gradual:

Were worldlings endowed with all power and wealth, they would yet remain mere men, mortal men, incapable of bestowing upon us lasting happiness. David, the composer of Psalm 117, knew this from his own experience as well as from the history of his nation. God alone is the source of true happiness of heart: His fidelity is never wanting; His riches are boundless; His love is eternal.

This selection is also popular in Taizé services. This is an especially lovely arrangement:

Tuesday, September 17, is the Feast of the Stigmata of St. Francis. The first saint to receive the wounds of Christ (other than St. Paul), St. Francis is “the one saint whom all succeeding generations have agreed in canonizing.” This feast was added to the calendar in 1585, suppressed in 1604, then reintroduced in 1615. It no longer appears on the post-conciliar calendar. The St. Andrew Missal tells the story:

Two years before his death, St. Francis retired to mount Alverno where he began a fast of 40 days in honor of St. Michael the archangel. In the midst of his meditation he saw a figure like a Seraph with six wings dazzling and burning, whose feet and hands were nailed to a cross.

And in order that his crucified love might become an example to us all, five wounds resembling those of Jesus on the cross appeared on his feet, hands, and side.

The collect for the Mass is a beautiful tribute to the saint and his legacy:

O Lord Jesus Christ, who when the world was growing cold, in order that our hearts might burn anew with the fire of Thy love, didst in the flesh of the most blessed Francis renew the sacred marks of Thy passion; mercifully grant that by his merits and prayers, we may ever carry our cross, and bring forth fruits worthy of penance.

When the world was growing cold… It makes on wonder what saints and signs the Spirit may see fit to raise up in our frigid times.

St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata, by (unmistakably) El Greco, 1585-1590.

Those Seven Days

Honestly, sometimes we’re parodies of ourselves.

I am 100% here for this.


This is the image referenced in the quoted tweet.

Louder for the folks in the back, professor. I would add, though, the assumption that anything traceable to the “left” must necessarily be rejected.

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