Mike Aquilina

Romanus Roams Rome

Wednesday May 21st 2008, 9:44 pm

Is this pope cool or what? In today’s audience, he moved on to Romanus the Melodist (whom we discussed here).

Teresa Benedetta translates:

Dear brothers and sisters,

In the series of catecheses on the Fathers of the Church, I wish to speak today about a little-known figure: Romanus the Melodist, born around 490 in Emesa (present-day Homs) in Syria.

A theologian, poet and composer, he belongs to that great line of theologians who transformed theology to poetry. We may think of his compatriot, St. Ephraim of Syria, who lived 200 years earlier than he.

But we can also think of the theologians of the West, like St. Ambrose, whose hymns still form part of our liturgy and continue to touch our hearts; or a theologian-thinker of great strength like St. Thomas, who gave us the hymns for Corpus Domini which we celebrate tomorrow. We think of St. John of the Cross and so many others.

Faith is love, and therefore, it creates poetry and music. Faith is joy, so it creates beauty.

And Romanus the Melodist is one of these – a theologian poet and composer. Having learned the first elements of Greek and Syrian culture in his native city, he transferred to Beritus (now Beirut), to complete his classical education and perfect his rhetorical skills.

Ordained a permanent deacon around 515, he became a preacher in that city for three years. He transferred to Constantinople towards the end of the reign of Anastasius I (around 518), and settled in the monastery of the Church of the Theotokos, Mother of God.

It was there that a long key episode in his life took place: the Sinassarium tells us that the Mother of God appeared to him in a dream and he received the gift of poetic charism. That Mary, in fact, asked him to swallow a rolled-up paper. When he woke up the next day – Feast of the Lord’s Nativity – Romanus preached from the pulpit: “Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent” (Hymn ‘On the Nativity’ I. Proemium). And that is how he became a homilist-cantor up to his death (after 555).

Romanus lives in history as one of the most representative authors of liturgical hymns. The homily was, for the faithful of his time, practically the only occasion for catechetical instruction.

Thus, Romanus is not only an eminent witness to the religious sentiment of his era, but also of a lively and original way of catechesis. Through his compositions, we realize the creativity of this way of catechesis, the creativity of theological thinking, and of the sacred aesthetics and hymnography of that time.

The place where Romanus preached was a shrine in the outskirts of Constantinople. He would ascend the pulpit in the center of the church and spoke to the community using a rather elaborate ‘setting’ – he used depictions on the church murals or icons decorating the pulpit to illustrate his homilies, and even used dialog.

His homilies were in sung metric verse called kontakia. The term ‘kontakion’ – a small staff – appears to refer to the rod which holds the scroll of a manuscript, liturgical or otherwise.

There are 89 kontakia that have lived to our day under the name of Romanus, but tradition attributes thousands to him.

In Romanus, every kontakion is composed of stanzas, mostly 18 or 24, with a similar number of syllables structured according to the pattern of the first stanza (irmo); the rhythmic accents of the verses in all the stanzas are modelled after the irmo. Each stanza ends with a refrain (efimnio) that is usually identical, to create poetic unity.

Moreover, the first letters of every stanza indicated acrostically the name of the author, often preceded by the adjective ‘humble’. A prayer referring to the lessons celebrated or evoked concludes the hymn.

After the Biblical reading, Romanus would sing the Proemium, often in the form of a prayer or supplication. Thus, he announced the theme of the homily and explained the refrain to be repeated together at the end of every stanza, which he recited aloud in cadence.

We are offered a significant example in the kontakion for Passion Friday: it is a dramatic dialog between Mary and her Son which takes place during the way of the Cross.

Mary says: “Where are you going, my Son? Why have you completed so quickly the course of your life?/ Never did I think, my Son, to see you in this state/ Nor ever imagine to what point of fury the wicked would come/ To lay their hands on you against everything that is just.”

Jesus responds: “Why do you cry, my mother? … Should I not suffer? Should I not die?/ How otherwise would I be able to save Adam?”

Mary’s son comforts his mother, but also reminds her of his role in the story of salvation: “Therefore, my mother, lay down your sorrow/ It is not fitting that you weep, because you have been called ‘full of grace'” [Mary at the foot of the Cross, 1-2; 4-5).

In the same hymn, regarding the sacrifice of Abraham, Sara reserves for herself the decision on Isaac’s life. Abraham says, “When Sara hears your words, my Lord/ and will have known your will, then she will tell me:/ ‘If he who gave him to you will take him back now, why did he give him, to begin with?… You, o watchful one, leave my son to me,/ and when he who called you wants him, he should say so to me” (The sacrifice of Abraham, 7).

Romanus did not use the solemn Byzantine Greek used in the imperial court, but simple Greek that was close to the language of the people. I would like to cite here an example of his lively and very personal way of speaking about the Lord Jesus: he calls him ‘the spring that does not burn and light against the shadows’, and says: “I burn to have you in my hand like a lamp;/ indeed, whoever carries an oil lamp among men is illuminated without being burned./ Illuminate me then, you who are the inextinguishable lamp” (he Presentation, or Feast of encounter, 8).

The power of conviction in his preachings was based on the great consistency between his words and his life. In one prayer he says: “Make my tongue clear, my Savior, and open my mouth/ and after having filled it, pierce my heart, so that what I do/ should be consistent with what I say” (Mission of the Apostles, 2).

Let us examine some of his principal themes. A fundamental theme of his preaching was the unity of God’s action in history, the unity between creation and the story of salvation, the unity between the Old and New Testaments.

Another important theme was pneumatology, the doctrine about the Holy Spirit. On the Feast of Pentecost, he underlined the continuity between Christ ascended to heaven, and the apostles, that is, the Church, and exalts missionary action in the world: “…with divine virtue, they have conquered all men;/ they have taken up the Cross of Christ like a pen;/ they have used words like fishnets to fish among men;/ they have used the Word of God like a sharp fish-hook/ and as bait, the flesh of the Sovereign of the Universe” ( Pentecost 2;18).

Another central theme is, of course, Christology. He does not go into difficult concepts of theology, much discussed in those days, and which had so torn apart not only the unity among theologians but also among Christians.

He preached a simple but fundamental Christology – that of the great Councils. But above all, he kept close to popular piety – after all, the concepts of the Councils were born from popular piety and knowledge of the Christian heart – and thus, Romanus underscored that Christ was true God and true man, and being the true man-God, was one person, the synthesis of creation and creature, in whose human words we hear the Word of God himself.

He said: “He was a man, Christ was, but he was also God/ though not divided in two: He is One, son of a Father who is only One” (The Passion 19).

As for Mariology, Romanus, who was grateful to her for the gift of poetic charism, remembers her at the end of almost every hymn, and dedicates to her some of his most beautiful kontakia: Nativity, Annunciation, Divine Motherhood, the New Eve.

Finally, his moral teachings have to do with the Last Judgment (The Ten Virgins [II]). He leads us to this moment of truth in our life, the confrontation with the just Judge, and so, he exhorts to conversion in penitence and fasting. Positively, the Christian must practice charity and alms.

He emphasizes the primacy of charity over chastity in two hymns, the Marriage at Cana and The Ten Virgins. Charity is the greatest of virtues: “… Ten virgins possessed the virtue of virginity intact/ but for five of them, the practice proved fruitless./ The others shone with their lamps of love for mankind/ and for this, the Bridegroom asked them in” (The Ten Virgins, 1).

A pulsing humanity, the ardor of faith and profound humility pervade the songs of Romanus the Melodist. This great poet and composer reminds us of the whole treasury of Christian culture, born of faith, born from the heart that has encountered Christ, the Son of God.

From this contact of the heart with the Truth that is Love, culture is born – the entire Christian culture was born. And if the faith remains alive, this cultural legacy will not be dead, it will remain alive and present.

Icons continue to speak today to the heart of believers – they are not things of the past. Cathedrals are not medieval monuments but houses of life, where we feel ‘at home': where we meet God and where we meet each other.

Neither is great music – Gregorian chant, Bach or Mozart – a thing of the past. It lives in the vitality of liturgy and in our faith.

If faith is alive, Christian culture will never become ‘past’ but will remain alive and present. And if the faith is alive, even today we can respond to that command that is repeated ever anew in the Psalms: “Sing a new song to the Lord.”

Creativity, innovation, new song, new culture, and the presence of the entire cultural heritage are not mutually exclusive, but one reality: the presence of the beauty of God and the joy of being his children.

Festal Virgins

Monday May 19th 2008, 8:54 pm

Invoking the Fathers, Pope Benedict XVI addressed a gathering of consecrated virgins. Catholic News Service reports:

While the rest of the world may think chastity is something “unintelligible and useless,” the order of consecrated virgins is a charism that can be fruitful and beneficial to all people, Pope Benedict XVI said.

“With your righteous life, you can be the stars that guide the journey of the world,” he said in a May 15 private audience with about 500 consecrated virgins from across the globe.

He said he wished to encourage them in their vocations and hoped they would grow daily in their awareness that this charism is “as bright and fertile in the eyes of faith as it is unintelligible and useless (in the eyes) of the world.”

The women were in Rome as part of a May 14-17 international congress of consecrated virgins discussing how to foster the order and how it is lived in the world.

Consecrated by her local bishop, a consecrated virgin makes a promise of perpetual virginity, prayer and service to the church while living independently in society.

The order of virgins is one of the oldest forms of consecration in the church.

Pope Benedict said the desire to live as a consecrated virgin is linked to the desire to mirror Mary and her “loving, free choice” to do the will of God.

The pope asked that the soul of Mary be in each one of them. Quoting St. Ambrose, he said Mary “is the one mother of Christ according to the flesh, yet according to faith, Christ is the fruit of all.”

“Every soul receives the Word of God, provided that, immaculate and immune to vice, it guards its chastity with inviolate modesty,” he said, quoting the saint.

Some years back, Yours Truly interviewed Dominican Father Benedict Ashley on the ancient roots of the practice of consecrated virginity. It’s one of the most-visited pages on this site.

Vision Test

Monday May 19th 2008, 8:46 pm

Jim Davila points us to an intriguing article by Israel Knohl on the “Vision of Gabriel” — a messianic Jewish text from the first century before Christ. The vision speaks of a messiah who dies, rises (“by three days”), and ascends to heaven. As always, there are those who say this shows Christianity up to be history’s most successful copycat. And there are those who marvel that the prophets were so tuned-in to what was coming. For either crowd, the “Vision of Gabriel” is a fascinating read. There’s full text (PDF) of Israel Knohl’s article here. There’s a little bit of background here.

It’s amazing to me that some folks still deny that there was much in the way of messianism before Jesus.

Musings on the Delphic Muteness

Monday May 19th 2008, 9:16 am

The Fathers had little good to say about the town of Delphi and its famously oracular pythoness. Delphi went mute, they said, because Christ had conquered the demons.

Well, Delphi’s back in the news as a tourist draw. Says the Miami Herald’s reporter:

I stood on the ancient ground where Agamemnon, Socrates and Cicero, among others, had humbly stood, hoping to get answers to their big questions.

I was alone outside the ruined Temple of Apollo, where for more than 1,000 years the Oracle of Delphi enigmatically answered the questions of curious pilgrims — including kings, generals and philosophers. Now, she was silent. But Zeus wasn’t. Thunder shook the ground.

Above me loomed the rain-darkened Phaedriades — or ”Bright Ones” — twin, broad-shouldered limestone cliffs that frame the sacred hollow where the temples, stadiums and shrines of Delphi were built. Once the hub of the religious life of the Greek classical world, Delphi, on a late afternoon in April, played host to one wet tourist and several bored security guards.

I’ll still side with the Fathers and recommend that you save the airfare and kneel down in the nearest parish church.

Sacred Sinai

Sunday May 18th 2008, 4:23 pm

Al Ahram takes us to Sacred Sinai, focusing, of course, on St. Catherine’s, “one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world and home of the biblical burning bush.”

The basilica was built in 530 by Emperor Justinian at the site of an earlier chapel founded by St Helena, mother of Constantine the Great. The monastery’s long existence and priceless, virtually-intact collections of icons and manuscripts can almost certainly be attributed to the safety of its location, tucked away in the barren rocky landscape of South Sinai.

There’s more to read, mostly touristy stuff. We’ve covered this ground before. Using the search tool at left, type in “Sinai” and hit return.

The Whole Code!

Saturday May 17th 2008, 9:50 pm

My friend Paul Crawford, titan of Templar studies, brings news that an English translation of Justinian’s Code — full text, fully annotated — is up on the Web. What an amazing accomplishment. You must read the story of how this came about.

It was Justinian, by the way, who commissioned that mosaic of the Fathers you see at the top of this page.

Arian, Aryan — What’s the Diff?

Saturday May 17th 2008, 8:18 am

There’s an urban legend making the rounds about Pope Benedict’s visit to the United States. The story goes that Vice-President Cheney asked the pontiff what he’s been reading. The Holy Father replied that he’s been researching “the Arian heresy.” Cheney, thinking the pope meant “Aryan,” said, “That must be interesting for you, since you lived through it.” And Benedict responded, “I’m old, but I’m not that old.”

It’s a funny story, and I’m told it appeared in the London Times. But I’m afraid I couldn’t find confirmation anywhere on the Web.

So I went over the head of the World Wide Web and sought out an expert: the political scientist Dr. Joseph Heim of California University of Pennsylvania. And Joe put me on to the likely source. Cheney wasn’t the political figure; it was Boris Johnson, the mayor of London. And Boris didn’t flub the historical facts quite as badly as the urban-legendary Cheney; the media did. The true story is still very good, and it’s told with great theological precision by Christopher Howse in the London Telegraph, under the title “Boris Johnson and the Holy Trinity.”

Poor old Boris Johnson made a couple of jokes after his election as mayor of London that were mistaken by commentators for learned showing-off. “I am just totally fed up with this artificial distinction … this sort of Arian controversy about the old Boris and the new,” he had declared. “There is no distinction between the old Boris and the new Boris. They are indivisible, co-eternal … consubstantial.”

The Evening Standard was still quoting him on Tuesday as talking about an “Aryan” controversy, as if it were about racial theory. It was certainly “Arian”, for all he meant was that such distinctions were, as the cliché puts it, “theological”. Mr Johnson prefers avoiding clichés by making them concrete. So he jokingly pretended that his interlocutors were familiar with the Arian controversies of the fourth century.

I suspect that he himself is more familiar with Edward Gibbon’s account of the heresy promoted by the Egyptian bishop Arius, rather than with recent theological studies of Arianism. “The post-war period has been astonishingly fertile in Arius scholarship,” writes Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in his controversial book Arius: Heresy and Tradition. I say “controversial”, but the book was published by Dr Williams before homosexuality and sharia distracted the world’s attention from almost anything else he said.

Gibbon’s endeavour in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire had been to show that the whole controversy was ludicrous. His motive was hatred for the Christianity against which he had turned after a youthful period of devotion.

In recounting the fortunes of the Arians, Gibbon mocked the terminology in which theologians of the time were entangled. “I cannot forbear reminding the reader,” he remarks in a mischievous footnote, “that the difference between the homoousion and homoiousion, is almost invisible to the nicest theological eye.”

That can hardly be a very honest judgment. There is only one letter’s difference between the two Greek words, but so there is between the English food and wood, though the latter would be a disappointing dinner. All the marvels of computer science depend on the simple distinction between the two figures 0 and 1.

I don’t want to spoil Boris Johnson’s joke, but the question of whether Arius’s followers had got it right is no trifling matter. On those obscure Greek words depends the answer as to who Jesus Christ is. That is the central point of the Christian religion.

One often hears people saying things like, “Jesus wasn’t God. It says in the Bible he was only the Son of God.” Yet to the Christians of the first centuries, it was vital to recognise the Son of God as fully God and fully man. That is why the framers of the Book of Common Prayer in 1662 included the Athanasian Creed in it.

In the 19th century there was a hot argument about whether this creed should be recited in church. (That is another story.) The Prayer Book directs that its should be recited on solemn days, such as Whitsun, which falls tomorrow. After some difficult-sounding statements about God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, the Creed says: “He therefore that will be saved must think thus of the Trinity.”

It is no longer the style to claim that a specified faith is necessary to salvation (that is, going to heaven). Yet believers feel that they can pray more coherently if they have some idea of whom they are praying to when they say “Our Father”, or when they hear a Collect in the Prayer Book end: “Through Jesus Christ our Lord”.

The difficulty of saying anything true about God in limited human language is nothing new. St Augustine, the great north African bishop, wrote 1,600 years ago about the three-in-oneness of the God the Holy Trinity: “Three whats?” in God he asks. Human language can hardly express any answer. “One can reply, ‘Three persons’,” says Augustine, “less in order to say what is there than in order not to be reduced to silence.”

Still, we do know a little about what a person is. We know something of the relationship that distinguishes Son from Father, and of the relationship between lover and beloved (which distinguishes the Holy Ghost).

If Boris Johnson can say of himself that he is the same person as he ever was, it is partly because theologians have sharpened the concept of what being a person means.

Recovery

Thursday May 15th 2008, 10:13 pm

Well, I’m apologizing again. I’ve neglected this little patch of land for a couple of weeks now. After battling a viral thing (mostly by sleeping), I traveled northward to visit Mom for a few days. Then I spent a few in the TV studio taping a new 13-week series with my friend Scott Hahn. (It’s called “Reasons to Believe,” based on Scott’s book by that name.)

In the next day or so, I’ll try to post the backlog I’ve accumulated. There’s lots of fun stuff.

Meantime, start here, with Maureen’s translation of distiches by Pope St. Leo the Great (“in the man’s pre-papal days”).

Pseudo Fed

Thursday May 15th 2008, 7:49 am

In this week’s Wednesday audience, Pope Benedict catches us up on Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. Teresa Benedetta translates:

Dear brothers and sisters,

Today, in the course of the catecheses on the Fathers of the Church, I wish to speak of a rather mysterious figure – a theologian of the sixth century whose name is unknown but who wrote under the pseudonym Dionysius the Areopagite.

His pseudonym alludes to the passage of Scripture that we heard today, the episode that St. Luke narrates in Chapter XVII of the Acts of the Apostles, which says that Paul preached in Athens on the Areopagus for the elite world of Greek intellectuals, but that in the end, a great part of his listeners proved to be uninterested and walked away, deriding him.

Nonetheless, some – a few, St. Luke tells us – approached Paul and opened themselves up to the (Christian) faith. The evangelist gives us two names: Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus (circle), and a woman named Damaris.

If the author of these books chose the pseudonym Dionysius the Areopagite five centuries later, it means that his intention was to place Greek wisdom in the service of the Gospel, to help the encounter between Greek intelligence and culture, on the one hand, and the good news about Christ, on the other. He wanted to do as the earlier Dionysius intended, namely, that Greek thinking should encounter St. Paul’s preaching, and as a Greek person, to become a disciple of St. Paul and therefore of Christ.

Why did he hide his true name and choose this pseudonym? One part of the answer has been given – he wished to express the fundamental intention of his thinking.

But there are two hypotheses on his (choice of) anonymity. The first one says it was a deliberate falsification, in which, by seemingly dating his works back to the first century, to St. Paul’s time, he wanted to confer on his writings an almost apostolic authority.

But better than that hypothesis – which I find barely credible – is the other: that he wished it to be an act of humility. Not to glorify his own name, not to create a monument for himself through his works, but truly to serve the Gospel, to create an ecclesial theology and not an individual theology based on himself.

In fact, he succeeded to construct a theology that we can certainly date to the sixth century but that could not be attributed to any of the figures of the time. It is a theology that is a bit ‘dis-individualized’, that is, a theology that expresses common thinking in common language.

It was a time of most bitter controversies following the Council of Chalcedon. But he, for instance, in his Seventh Epistle, says: “I do not want to create polemics: I simply speak of the truth, I seek the truth.”

The light of truth itself allows errors to fall off and whatever is good to shine. With this principle, he purified Greek thought and reconciled it with the Gospel. This principle, that he affirms in that seventh letter, is also the expression of a true spirit of dialog: to seek not the things which separate, but to seek the truth in Truth itself, which will then shine and let errors fall.

Therefore, even if the theology of this author is what we might describe as ‘supra-personal’ – in reality, ecclesial – we can situate him in the sixth century. Why? Because he encountered the Greek spirit which he placed at the service of the Gospel in the books of one Proclus, who died in Athens in 485.

Proclus belonged to late Platonism, a current of thought that had transformed Plato’s philosophy into a sort of religion, whose ultimate goal was to create a great apologia for Greek polytheism and turn back, after the success of Christianity, to the ancient Greek religion. It wanted to demonstrate that, in reality, divinities (gods) were the operating forces in the cosmos. The intended consequence was that polytheism would be considered more true than monotheism with its single Creator God.

What Proclus sought to demonstrate was a great cosmic system of divinities with mysterious powers, and that man could find access to divinity through this deified cosmos. But he distinguished between the way for simple people, those who are not able to reach the summits of truth – for whom certain rites would suffice – from the ways for wiser ones who must purify themselves in order to reach pure light.

This thinking, as we can see, is profoundly anti-Christian. It was a late reaction to the triumph of Christianity. An anti-Christian use of Plato, even while a Christian use of the great philosopher was already under way.

It is interesting that the Pseudo-Dionysius had dared to use that thinking in order to show the truth of Christ – to transform that polytheistic universe into a cosmos created by God, into the harmony of God’s cosmos where all the forces are in praise of God, and to show that great harmony itself, that symphony of the cosmos that ranges from the seraphim, angels and archangels to man and all creatures who together reflect the beauty of God and who in themselves constitute praise of God.

Thus he transformed polytheistic images into a eulogy for the Creator and his creatures. We can discover in this the essential characteristics of his thinking: it is, above all, cosmic praise.

All creation speaks of God and is a eulogy to God. Since the created being is himself a praise to God, the theology of the pseudo-Dionysius becomes a liturgical theology: God can be found above all by praising him, not merely reflecting on him. And liturgy is not something constructed by us, something invented to constitute a religious experience for a certain period of time. Liturgy is singing with the chorus of all creatures and entering into cosmic reality itself.

And that is how liturgy, apparently only ecclesiastic, becomes large and great, it becomes our union with the language of all creatures: One cannot speak of God in an abstract way, he said. To speak of God is always – he uses a Greek word – a ‘hymnein’, a singing to God with the great song of all creatures which is reflected and concretized in liturgical praise.

But although his theology is cosmic, ecclesial and liturgical, it is also profoundly personal. He created the first great mystical theology. Rather, the word ‘mystical’ acquired a new meaning with him.

Until then, this word was, for Christians, equivalent to ‘sacramental’, namely, something that belongs to the ‘mysterion’, the sacrament. But with him the word ‘mystical’ became more personal, more intimate – expressing the path of the soul towards God.

And how to find God? Here we find once more an important element in his dialog between Greek philosophy and Christianity, particularly, Biblical faith. It had been made to appear that what Plato said and what the great philosophies say about God is much more elevated and much more true. By comparison, the Bible was seen as rather ‘barbarous’, simple, pre-critical, one might say today.

But the pseudo-Dionysius observed that this was precisely what was needed, because that way, we would understand that the highest concepts about God will never really approach his true greatness – they would always be inadequate. The (Biblical) images make us understand that God is above and beyond all concepts. In the simplicity of such images, we find more truth than in grand concepts.

The face of God is our inability to really express what He is. Thus one speaks – and the Pseudo-Dionysius himself does so – of a “negative theology”: We can say more easily what God is not, rather than express what he really is.

Only through images can we guess at his true face, but on the other hand, the face of God is also very concrete: it is Jesus Christ. And although Dionysius shows us, following Proclus, the harmony of celestial choirs in which it seems that everything depends on everything else, it remains true that our path to God is often very far from him. The Pseudo-Dionysius demonstrates that ultimately, the road to God is God himself, who made himself close to us in Jesus Christ.

That is how a great and mysterious theology also becomes very concrete, whether in the interpretation of liturgy or when discussing Christ. With all this, Dionysius the Areopagite had a great influence on all of medieval theology, on all the mystical theology of the East as well as the West.

He was practically rediscovered in the 13th century, above all by St. Bonaventure, the great Franciscan theologian who in his mystical theology found the conceptual instrument to interpret the legacy of St. Francis that is at once so simple and so profound.

The Poverello said, at the end, along with Dionysius, that love sees more than reason. Where the light of love is, the shadows of reason no longer have a place. Love sees: love is seeing, and experiencing it gives us more than reflection does.

What such experience was, Bonaventure saw in St. Francis: it is the experience of a very humble, very realistic path – this day-to-day walking with Christ, accepting his Cross. In this poverty and in this humility, a humility that lives even in ecclesiality, is an experience of God that is higher than what one can reach through reflection. In it, we truly touch the heart of God.

Today there is a new relevance and actuality for Dionysius the Areopagite. He appears a great mediator in the modern dialog between Christianity and the mystical theologies of Asia, whose well-known characteristic is the belief that one cannot say who God is, that one can only talk of God in negative forms, one can only speak of what he is not, and that only by entering into this experience of what he is not, does one reach him.

So we see a kinship between the Areopagite’s thinking and that of the Asian religions, and he can be a mediator today just as he was between the Greek spirit and the Gospel.

One sees that dialog cannot accept superficiality. Precisely when one enters into the profundity of the encounter with Christ, then the vast space for dialog opens up. When one meets the light of truth, one realizes that it is a light for all; controversies disappear and it becomes possible to understand each other, or at least talk to each other, come close to each other.

The path of dialog is precisely by being near to God in Christ, in the profundity of the encounter with him, in the experience of the truth which opens to light and which helps us to go forth and encounter others – the light of truth, the light of love.

Ultimately, he tells us: take the road of experience, of humble experience of the faith, day by day. Then the heart opens up in order to see – and can therefore illuminate reason because it sees the beauty of God.

Let us pray to the Lord that he may help us even today to place the wisdom of our time in the service of the Gospel, discovering anew the beauty of faith and of the encounter with God in Christ.

Read Dionysius. At this price you can’t afford not to!

I’m in The Times

Wednesday May 14th 2008, 6:50 pm

The New York Times quoted Yours Truly for the first (and surely last) time today.

Actually, the Times quoted Rock n Roll Hall-of-Famer Dion quoting me on the subject of St. Jerome.

An Italian-American bluesman records a song in Florida. An Irish-American disc jockey plays it at a radio station in Woodstock, N.Y. He tells a friend from his old neighborhood in the Bronx about the song. And before you know it, Mexican teenagers whose families replaced the Irish in the tenements and row houses of Mott Haven are tapping their toes to the tune.

Some song? You bet. Consider this: The song is “The Thunderer,” an homage to St. Jerome, an irascible scholar and a pillar of the early church. The singer? Better known for “The Wanderer.”

But Dion DiMucci, the Italian-American doo-wop legend from Belmont who goes by his first name, was only the messenger. The real link between him, the D.J. and Mott Haven is the parish church in Mott Haven, named for St. Jerome, which was the boyhood church of the Irish-American D.J., Big Joe Fitz.

Big Joe told the Rev. John Grange, a childhood friend and the current pastor of St. Jerome’s, about the song. He played it at Mass and at other events, and it caught on. Now he plans to make up shirts for the parish teams declaring themselves “The Thunderers.”

Dion, 68, who won fame early as the leader of a teenage group that toured with Buddy Holly, was touched by the gesture.

“That is amazing that a guy like St. Jerome who lived in the fourth century could bring people together,” he said. “Sometimes you think people are dead and forgotten. But they can actually bring you together in the best way.”

The song, from Dion’s 2007 album “The Son of Skip James,” is based on a poem by Phyllis McGinley, also titled “The Thunderer.” In it, Jerome emerges as difficult as he was smart:

God’s angry man,

His crotchety scholar

Was Saint Jerome,

The great name-caller

Who cared not a dime

For the laws of Libel

And in his spare time

Translated the Bible.

Dion had long been familiar with a quote of St. Jerome’s: “Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ.” He had casually mentioned that line to a friend, Mike Aquilina. Mr. Aquilina replied, “The Thunderer.”

The what?

“I said to myself, there is no such word,” Dion recalled. “But Mike told me about the McGinley poem and who St. Jerome was, how he translated the Bible from Greek into Latin. Then he translated it from Hebrew into Latin.”

But the saint wasn’t always perfect, Dion learned.

“He was a pretty uppity guy,” Dion said. “He was intolerant. He was so bright, he was like, ‘C’mon, get over it!’ He couldn’t be around people, so he lived in this cave.”

How could he not like a person like that?

“I thought you had to be humble to become a saint, but a priest told me it takes all kinds to make it to heaven,” he said. “I figure he’s like us, a little like us. Not that I’m a scholar or an academic, but you go ‘Wow! I got a chance.’ ”

Gosh, I want one of those tee-shirts. And you want to own an MP3 of that song about St. Jerome, if you don’t own it already! You can get it on Amazon or on iTunes.

When I found out I was quoted in the New York Times, I felt like Steve Martin in that great scene in The Jerk. He gets his name in the phone book and jumps for joy, shouting, “I’m somebody! I’m somebody!” The camera then does a quick cut to a psychopathic killer, armed to the teeth, opening a phone book to a random page.

Intention

Monday May 05th 2008, 7:09 pm

Please pray for Sister Macrina, who blogs on the Fathers at A Vow of Conversation. She’s preparing to make her final profession as a Cistercian.

He Was the Very Model of a Pantheon Librarian

Sunday May 04th 2008, 7:03 pm

Born in Jerusalem, closely connected with the royal house of Edessa, Sextus Julius Africanus served as librarian at the Pantheon in Rome during the reign of Alexander Severus (third century). Talk about your inside tracks on history! They say his Chronicles filled many volumes, though only fragments survive. He corresponded with Origen, and he was an invaluable source for Eusebius.

Now, all the fragments have been collected, with two letters by Africanus, in one volume with and English translation and footnotes. Iulius Africanus: Chronographiae: The Extant Fragments is a very valuable book, whose pricetag certainly reflects that high value. Bryn Mawr Classical Review says:

Through the Chronographiae Africanus conceived the extraordinarily ambitious plan of fitting widely disparate strands of different histories into a biblical frame of time, beginning with Adam and culminating with the Resurrection. The resultant chronological system served as a basis for universal histories of which the Eusebian-Hieronymian version proved both influential and lasting. Perhaps the success of the latter ultimately guaranteed the dispersal and fragmentary survival of the model conceived by Africanus.

Hat tip: PaleoJudaica.

Many apologies for my relative silence. I’ve been down with some mystery bug, which seems to be affecting all major systems simultaneously. Last week I could barely stay awake. My fever broke Friday, but other symptoms are lingering. Raise an Ave for a poor blogger, please.

On Priesthood

Friday May 02nd 2008, 11:37 am

The Society of St. John Chrysostom promotes ecumenical dialogue of the east-west variety. Most members belong to Orthodox or Catholic churches. I’ve had the honor of speaking twice in the lecture series of the Youngstown-Warren, Ohio Chapter.

Next up in the series is Reverend Father Calinic Berger, patrologist, monk, and pastor. A visiting professor of dogmatic theology at St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary, Father Calinic got his doctorate under the generation of patristic luminaries at CUA, and it shows. The program will begin with vespers on Tuesday, May 13, at 6:30 p.m. He will speak on the subject “Priesthood: Foundations and Reflections.” The program takes place at Holy Trinity Romanian Orthodox Church, which is at 626 Wick Ave., Youngstown, Ohio. For information, call 330-755-5635.