One of the finest studies recently to cross my desk is J. Christopher King’s Origen on the Song of Songs As the Spirit of Scripture: The Bridegroom’s Perfect Marriage-Song. It’s a demanding and technical academic study, but also quite beautiful — simultaneously a work of theology, history, and interpretation. The subject is the third-century Egyptian exegete Origen and, in particular, his reading of the Song of Solomon. The author, an American Episcopal priest, defines his task this way: “For Origen, the reading of Scripture is itself an exercise in spiritual transformation.” In reading the Song, “the narrated love in the text coincides perfectly with reader’s love for the text, both finding their fulfillment and unity in the transforming love of Christ, present in his very person as both Word and Bridegroom.” The Song mediates the presence of Christ “in and through the intelligible structures of the text itself.” The pricetag will likely restrict this book to the shelves of scholarly libraries, which is a pity; but it can do a lot of good there!
In his Message for Lent this year, Pope Bendict brings it on home with the Church Fathers:
The Fathers of the Church considered these elements as symbols of the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist. Through the water of Baptism, thanks to the action of the Holy Spirit, we are given access to the intimacy of Trinitarian love. In the Lenten journey, memorial of our Baptism, we are exhorted to come out of ourselves in order to open ourselves, in trustful abandonment, to the merciful embrace of the Father (cf. Saint John Chrysostom, Catecheses, 3,14ff). Blood, symbol of the love of the Good Shepherd, flows into us especially in the Eucharistic mystery: “The Eucharist draws us into Jesus’ act of self-oblation … we enter into the very dynamic of His self-giving” (Encyclical Deus caritas est, 13). Let us live Lent then, as a “Eucharistic” time in which, welcoming the love of Jesus, we learn to spread it around us with every word and deed.
OK, this is something of a rerun. But if it works, stay with it.
What follows are the words of St. John Chrysostom that I used to dedicate my book The Fathers of the Church to my wife Terri.
An intelligent, discreet, and pious young woman is worth more than all the money in the world. Tell her that you love her more than your own life, because this present life is nothing, and that your only hope is that the two of you pass through this life in such a way that, in the world to come, you will be united in perfect love.
Feel free to lift them for your Valentine.
Rogue Classicism leads us to an interesting review of Jan Eisner’s Pilgrimage in Graeco-Roman and Early Christian Antiquity: Seeing the Gods. It may be of interest to those of you who are joining Scott Hahn and me for our pilgrimage to Rome in May — and to those who are considering grabbing the last few spots in our group.
Judging by my mail, it seems to me that many readers were as surprised as I was about ancient Christians who took foul and insulting names for themselves.
I hasten to add that it didn’t only happen to the poor. History has tarred one Byzantine emperor with the same S-word equivalent: Constantine V, called “Copronymous” (literally, “Named S***”). Constantine was the son of Leo III, the fanatical iconoclast. But, while Leo was content just to smash the icons of the people, Constantine took the purge a step further. Here’s the historian J.J. Norwich in Byzantium: The Early Centuries:
he abhorred the cult of the Virgin Mary and refused outright to allow her the title of Theotokos, Mother of God, since he held that she had given birth only to the physical body of Jesus Christ, in which his Spirit has been temporarily contained. For the worship of the saints — and worse still, their relics — he showed a still greater contempt, as he did for any form of intercessory prayer. Even the use of the prefix “Saint” before a name would incur his wrath: St. Peter could be referred to only as “Peter the Apostle,” St. Mary’s church as “Mary’s.” If a member of his court forgot himself so far as to invoke the name of a saint in some exasperated expletive, the Emperor would immediately reprimand him — not for the implied lack of respect for the saint in question, but because the title was undeserved.
For a fuller telling of the iconoclastic controversies, see this post. Iconophobia was a spiritual sickness of the elites, while icons held the devotion of the orthodox poor. Constantine reigned from 741 to 775, writing his heresy up as theology and closing down monasteries that dared to harbor images. He was little loved by his subjects. They spread the rumor that, as an infant, he had befouled the waters of his own baptism. Thus he merited the name Coprion (Greek for the substance he allegedly left in the font).
Well, it’s at least true in an allegorical sense.
The difference between Constantine V and those Copronymic Christians in the Catacombs is that the former had the name foisted on him against his arrogant will, while the latter took the name (or kept it) willingly as a mark of humility (or at least ironic humor).
Patristiblogging Phil is pondering the possibilities of Christian history.
Nice to see that this blog received several nominations for the Catholic Blog Awards. Don’t forget to vote.
Last week I mentioned a promising new book, The Christian Catacombs of Rome: History, Decoration, Inscriptions, co-authored by three members of the Pontifical Commission on Sacred Archeology. Over the weekend I was able to borrow a copy from Lea Ravotti, the great contemporary Christian artist and premiere interpreter of ancient Christian art. The book is the stuff of which obsessions are made. I could blog on it for a year and never want for good material. I hope, at some point, to do a more in-depth review for Touchstone magazine. In the meantime, I’ll post occasional bits from this lavishly illustrated coffee-table volume.
Certainly the book benefits from the, um, depth of the knowledge of its authors. They’re in situ, living, teaching, noting correspondences in the many miles of underground corridors. From their intimate knowledge of thousands of inscriptions, artifacts, bone fragments, and artworks, they’re able to give us brief and brilliant glimpses of the ordinary lives of the early Christians. What kind of work did they do? Were they poor? rich? middle-class? How old were they when they married? What did they value in their spouses? In their children? In their priests? How did they die? Answers to all these questions arise from the epitaphs in the Catacombs.
One fascinating section deals with the names bestowed and taken by the Christians of Rome. How many took biblical names? How many were named after early martyrs? How many Christian parents stuck with the old, traditional Roman names — the names of pagan deities?
One illuminating subsection covers “Humiliating names or nicknames.”
In Christian nomenclature, the so-called “humiliating names” or “shameful names” form a distinctive group. These names, when not defamatory, were sometimes used by some faithful as a life-long act of modesty, precisely because of their unpleasant significance…
This is the case of Proiectus and Proiecticus, which meant “exposed,” and the unpleasant Stercorius, with the Greek parallel Coprion, that can be understood as “abandoned in the garbage.” Further proof of the abandonment of minors comes from the large number of alumni or “adoptive children” recorded in the Christian epigraphy of Rome. At the Catacomb of Pretestato, one of them was in fact named Stercorinus.
The authors (or the translators) are being polite. Stercorius means, literally, crap. It’s most accurately translated by what kids call “the S-word.” Thus, Stercorinus (the diminutive) means “Little S***,” or “Dear S***.”
I have posted before on the Roman custom of abandoning “defective” or female infants on the dungheap. Apparently, some were rescued and adopted — but their neighbors and playmates would taunt them by reminding them of their lowly origins. The authors of this volume speculate that some of these children, on becoming Christian, chose to keep their foul nicknames as an act of humility — or perhaps an act of triumphant irony. The joke, after all, was on the pagan world, which would soon enough die out for the crime of murdering its young. The children who were dung in the eyes of Imperial Rome were precious in the sight of God.
Reading this book is a profoundly religious experience.
And to those of you who will join me in the Catacombs in May: Just wait and see!
Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa was one of the world’s most renowned patristic scholars when he decided to abandon academia for more vigorously evangelistic work. He gained such fame by his preaching that soon he was named preacher to the papal household, a post he has held since 1980. His preaching, which he often gathers into wonderful books, continues to draw deeply from the masters of the great tradition, especially the Church Fathers. His meditations are profound, stirring, and simple. In Contemplating the Trinity: The Path to the Abundant Christian Life, he explores the deepest mystery of the Christian religion, and what that mystery should mean for the prayer, the moral life, and the disposition of the ordinary believer.
A lovely piece of triva: In Italian, “Canta la Messa” means “He sings the Mass.”
Father Cantalamessa’s patristic backlist is wonderful, and it should be sprinkled throughout all our shelves. Easter in the Early Church: An Anthology of Jewish and Early Christian Texts should be everybody’s reading this year as Easter approaches. His Come, Creator Spirit: Meditations on the Veni Creator works with some of the same patristic texts Scott Hahn uses in the essay I linked to last week.
The Center shipped nearly 1,000 copies of my book The Fathers of the Church to Manila in the Philippines and to Bangalore, India. The books were donated by Our Sunday Visitor.
We received thanks from Father Emmanual Kaniamparampil, a Carmelite who teaches patristics at Carmelaram College Seminary in Bangalore: “Very happy to tell you that the books are already being used in my classes, and the students are very happy to get them. I am also distributing some of the books to various religious communities in India. Thanks a lot for your great service and generosity and may God bless you and your activities abundantly.”
My friend Scott Hahn has, for years, been studying the Syriac Fathers’ doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Last year, he gathered his reflections in an appendix to the paperback edition of his book First Comes Love: Finding Your Family in the Church and the Trinity. I just found out that his publisher, Doubleday, has permitted him to post the appendix online as a PDF. While you’re on the St. Paul Center website, check out the nice tribute to Scott penned by Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz (also a PDF).
Yours Truly is speaking once again this year at Franciscan University’s Defending the Faith Conference, July 27-29. I’ll be talking about the perennial appeal of the Church Fathers — drawing, at least in part, from my experience with this blog!
As usual, the conference will be preceded by intensive educational opportunities at the Applied Biblical Studies Conference, July 25-27.
If you can’t make it to Rome, can you make it to Steubenville, Ohio? I hope to meet you at one place or the other!
Several people kindly sent me the link to The Archaeology Channel, where the current featured video is “The Witnesses of Silence: Discovering Rome’s Catacombs.” I haven’t seen the documentary yet; but here’s TAC’s description of the half-hour show:
This film retraces the rediscovery of the catacombs, subterranean burial places and hideouts beneath the streets of ancient Rome. It finds in the dark galleries the traces of early explorers and the signatures, graffiti and inscriptions they left. These early underground explorers include legendary figures such as Antonio Bosio and Giovanni Battista de Rossi, the scholar who laid the scientific basis of modern Italian archaeology. This film sheds new light on an underground world where silence dominates but images retell stories voiced many centuries ago.
I’ve been planning a post on Bosio for some time, so I can’t wait to see what the documentary does with him. I hope I have time to see it before it vanishes. The Roman catacombs are a particular fascination of mine. I’ve posted on them before (here and here). I’m counting the days till I get to “go down in history” again. If you can join me then, please do. There are just a few spaces open on our May pilgrimage to Rome.
In the meantime, here comes a brand new book on the catacombs that arrives with a high recommendation from Lea Marie Ravotti, the artist whose opinion I trust more than any other. The book is The Christian Catacombs of Rome: History, Decoration, Inscriptions, a collaborative effort by three of the world’s leading experts on the subject. All are members of the Pontifical Commission on Sacred Archeology. I’ve put the book on my list of titles to review in the coming months. So order your copy today, and read along with me — even if you can’t join Scott Hahn and me in Rome. (This time.)