Unveiling the paradox of Christ’s love

“The birth of Jesus Christ in that stable in Bethlehem is where all my questions begin to be answered”.  The late Cardinal Basil Hume, Archbishop of Westminster, wrote these words when nearing the end of his life. “If I want to look on the face of utter love, if I want to see what the lover will do for the beloved, I have to take myself with faith to the crib and look at the image of the Child lying in the manger”, he added (1).

Looking at the scene of Christ’s birth – this is exactly what Benedict XVI invited the faithful to do when he blessed the Bambinelli that children had brought to the Angelus Reflection in St Peter’s Square on Sunday, 13 December.  He asked the “little ones” and their families to open their eyes to the mystery of this familiar scene of the Child Jesus and his Holy Family in the stable. In Italy the presepe, or nativity scene, remains the focus of Christmas decorations, with elaborate displays adorning piazzas and churches throughout the country.

As the Pope recalled, the tradition of the nativity scene began when St Francis of Assisi organized a re-enactment of the night of Christ’s birth in a mountainside cave in the small Italian village of Greccio:

“I want to do something that will recall the memory of that Child who was born in Bethlehem, to see with bodily eyes the inconveniences of his infancy”, St Francis explained during preparation for that first live nativity scene in 1223, as Thomas of Celano recorded in his biography of the Saint.

In that time, Thomas writes, “in the hearts of many the Child Jesus really had been forgotten, but, by his grace and through his servant Francis, he had been brought back to life”. What Francis most wanted to show the people, the Holy Father said on Sunday,  was that because of his love for us the Son of God emptied himself completely and came down to earth as a tiny baby.

The depth and nature of this love is a mystery that – while remaining hidden to many, past and present – has been revealed to the “little ones”.  Understanding the profound importance of this mystery and realizing what kind of person might begin to grasp it are both topics on which the Pope has consistently reflected, especially since the beginning of the new Liturgical Year.

“He concealed the great mystery of the Son… from the wise and the learned, from those who did not recognize him. Instead he revealed it to the children”, the Holy Father said. In order for our eyes to be opened, we need the grace to become small, he said. This is not to say, however, that the “becoming little” that is necessary for a deeper understanding of the faith means an abandonment of reason or a reversion to ignorance (2).

Instead, this process of becoming small involves the acknowledgement and consequent renouncement of the kind of foolishness that often leads to blind pride. All too often, people tend to think they “know everything” and see their own methods as “above God”.  In order to look at the Christ Child and truly see what lies there before him a man must open himself in humility, recognizing how little he is in comparison to the greatness of God. It is “precisely by accepting his own smallness… that he arrives at the truth” (3).

So we are to look to children for inspiration, the Pope says. A large part of what makes them worthy role models seems to be their ceaseless wonder at the world. “God speaks very gently to children, often without words…. Creation provides the vocabulary – leaves, clouds, flowing water, a shaft of light. It is a secret language, not to be found in books” (4).

Indeed, seeing God in nature is often how mankind has come to experience this same mystery whose truth is revealed in Christ.  In every age the beauty of Creation has brought Christians and non-Christians to catch a glimpse of that mystery.  One might begin with St Francis, so well known for his exuberant praise of God’s handiwork, as expressed in his Canticle of the Sun. But someone like Albert Einstein, for example, found transcendent meaning in Creation as well. His religion consisted in “a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind”, he said. And he also had an appreciation for the importance of being like children: “People do not grow old no matter how long we live. We never cease to stand like curious children before the great Mystery into which we were born”.

The greatest minds – from theologians to philosophers to scientists – have often concluded their life’s work with a sense that  what they know is, in the grand scheme of things, not much at all. St Thomas Aquinas is a prime example. His thought remains to this day an invaluable foundation upon which a considerable part of Catholic Doctrine firmly stands. Having produced a large body of theological and philosophical work, St Thomas reached a point late in his life when he decided to stop writing. This was prompted by a realization, as he described it, that all he had written seemed to him to be mere “straw”.

But the Baby Jesus was not to become a Man who spoke of his utter lack of wisdom. Instead, “slowly he grew to man’s estate, increasing in wisdom and grace before God and man, adding to the fruits of his knowledge by experience… growing conscious of the outward fabric of the universe which his own hands upheld”, writes English Dominican Bede Jarrett (5).

It is only with the realization of Jesus’ true identity, then, that the extent of his humility can even begin to be perceived. And it is this realization that lies at the very core of the mystery of the faith: “that at a given moment in history the Trinitarian God entered our history, as a man like us” (6).

Thus the Holy Father has asserted time and again that Christianity is no myth: “the Gospel is not a legend but the account of a true story…. Jesus of Nazareth is a historical figure” (7). By coming down to earth, God revealed a great deal of the mystery of his love.  But in illuminating this mystery, “he cannot help blinding me even while he enlightens me, not because of his limitations, but of mine…. In other words, just because God is infinite and I am finite, it is to be expected that everything that he tells me of himself, while increasing light, will increase darkness at the same time. In those countries where the sun is brightest, there are the deepest shadows; the very brilliance of the sun adds to the blackness of the shadow that it casts” (8).

An awareness of Jesus’ identity and his humility unveils what seem at first to be contradictions. The paradox of his life emerges – a life begun on a bed of hay and finished on a wooden cross. If Christ is truly King, why would he lower himself to that kind of existence? Why would he choose to place himself in such poor circumstances? A helpless child might be considered the very epitome of vulnerability.  But then, “to love at all is to be vulnerable”, as C.S. Lewis writes (9).

Christ knows the human condition inside out, but instead of exploiting humanity for its frailty, he chose to share in its trials. It was this loving desire that led him to dwell among us: “In becoming Man, the Lord himself wanted to love us with a heart of flesh!”, the Pope explained (10).

The moment in which that heart of flesh started beating, the course of human history was drastically changed.  Christ’s entrance into the world would bring a new intimacy to mankind’s relationship with its Creator, one that did not end when he ascended into Heaven. He is still present today: “God is here, he has not withdrawn from the world” the Pope said, explaining that this phrase constituted “the essential meaning of the word adventus” for Early Christians (11). He described the Advent Season as a chance to “pause in silence to understand a presence. It is an invitation to understand that the individual events of the day are hints that God is giving us”, signs of his love (12).

Yet Advent is also a time of anticipation. “The Lord is at hand!”, we heard during Sunday’s Liturgy in the Letter of St Paul – notably the very same “great scholar” who had become a “little one” and was hence able to perceive “the folly of God as wisdom” (13).This anticipation is expressed, for example, in the way that in Italy traditionally the Infant Jesus is not placed in the manger until Christmas. The tension between this sense of expectation and the divine presence that can be experienced today is in itself symbolic of the Christian journey.

The balance between them was illustrated poignantly in St Peter’s Square on Sunday. There in the centre of the piazza was the large, covered manger scene, soon to be unveiled.  But from the Square filled with the faithful, Baby Jesus figurines in hand, one could see the Virgin holding a newborn Child just to the right of the Basilica. Upon the mosaic, a work commissioned by Pope John Paul II,  are written the words: Totus Tuus – totally yours. Parallel to Mary and Jesus stood the Holy Father at his window, reminding the faithful that “the crib is a school of life, where we can learn the secret of true joy”. This consists “in giving oneself as a gift for others and in loving one another” as God loved humanity – completely.

For Christians, it is a joy rooted firmly in hope. Christ did not come only to share in the human condition, he came to sanctify it, to lift it to himself:  “Christ’s nativity places ‘in our hands’ the potential of personal participation in God’s sacred life and love in an endless progression” (14).  The sense of anticipation that comes with Advent is in fact reminiscent of humanity’s insatiable longing for union with its Creator, its waiting to return home to him.

This same Creator made himself a humble servant out of love for his creatures. It is the Christ Child, both vulnerable Infant and Almighty God, both ever present and near at hand, who makes possible “the hope of our salvation”. Such is the message that Benedict XVI has continually sought to convey. Thus whoever can look – through the eyes of a “little one” – at the nativity scene, welcoming the Baby within as the centre of their lives, will find both “the source of true joy” and “the heart of the world” (15).


1)    Cardinal Basil Hume, Mystery of the Incarnation, (London: Dartman, Longman and Todd, 1999), p. 10.

2)    Cf. Benedict XVI, Homily During Mass for the Members of the International Theological Commission, 1 December 2009; L’Osservatore Romano English edition [ORE], 9 December, p. 6.

3)    Ibid.

4)    Text of a French catechetical document as cited by Cardinal Hume in his above-referenced work, p. 60.

5)    “Jesus Christ”, Bede Jarrett Anthology, ed. Jordan Aumann, OP, (London: Aquin Press, 1961), p. 35.

6)    Benedict XVI, Homily During Mass for Members of the International Theological Commission; ORE, 9 December 2009, p. 6.

7)    Angelus Reflection, 6 December 2009; ORE, 9 December, p. 1.

Note: This latter description can be dangerous when taken alone, however. Many academics have reduced the “great mystery of Jesus, the Son made Man” into a historical Jesus, “a tragic figure; a ghost, not of flesh and blood; a man who stays in the tomb” (Homily, Mass for Members of the International Theological Commission).

8)    Bede Jarrett, OP “Faith”, Bede Jarrett Anthology, p. 296.

9)    The Four Loves (London: Harcourt Brace, 1960), p. 111.

10)  General Audience Catechesis, 2 December 2009; ORE, 9 December, p. 16.

11)   Homily During First Vespers for the Beginning of Advent, 28 November 2009; ORE, 2 December, p. 7.

12)   Cf. ibid.

13)   Benedict XVI, Homily During Mass for Members of the International Theological Commission; ORE, 9 December 2009, p. 6.

14)   Bartholomew I, Patriarchal Proclamation Upon the Feast of Christmas 2008.

15)   Benedict XVI, Angelus Reflection, 13 December 2009.

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© L’Osservatore Romano English edition


Interview: Canon of Florence Cathedral

Mons. Timothy Verdon’s work as the Canon of Florence Cathedral brings him into constant contact with some of the most awe-inducing, world-renowned art in the Catholic Church’s cultural heritage. Among all of this, however, the most beautiful work of art he has come across is one that many do not even consider as such: the Liturgy.

As a man whose ministry involves reawakening believers and non-believers alike to the deep significance of the Incarnation as communicated through Renaissance art, Mons. Verdon’ s roles are many. They include, among others: President of the Diocesan Commission for Ecumenism and Inter-religious Dialogue, Professor of the Stanford University Program in Florence and Director of the Diocesan Office for Catechesis through Art. A respected art historian who has authored many books on sacred art, he was also a member of the scholarly committee invited by the Vatican Museum to advise on the restoration of the Pauline Chapel in the Apostolic Palace.

Your work has been described as focusing on the dynamic bond between the realities of the Mystery of God, the Liturgy of the Church and art in the service of the faith. Could you speak on the relationship among these three?

God is infinitely beyond human comprehension – God is God, we are creatures. And yet in everything that the Judeo-Christian tradition tells us about God, it is clear that God wants to communicate with his creatures, God wants to be known by his creatures. The whole point of the law and the prophecy in ancient Israel was that God wanted his creatures to understand him and themselves – a creature is a reflection, to some degree, of the Creator. This will of God to make himself understood – and in that process help us understand ourselves – reaches fulfilment in Christ. Christ is the Word of God where the Scriptures are many words that come from God and are filtered through the inspired authors; Christ is the very Word that all those other words try to give partial expression to.

Christ assumes a form that makes him intelligible to human beings – the Word becomes flesh. And then the Gospel of John immediately adds that he dwelt among us, and we saw his glory. What Christ did while he was on earth was to reveal the identity, the personality of the Father: all of the wonderful things that he did that reveal the father – the words he spoke, the miracles, the acts of mercy – even after Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension, they continue. All of these communicative actions continue in the sacraments of the Church.

What Christ did while he was on earth is materially continued in the sacramental actions of his mystical Body, the Church. So when a priest baptizes, consecrates bread and wine, when two Christians commit themselves to each other in marriage, when a penitent makes his confession – in all of those situations the saving actions of Christ are again fully present. Rendering Christ’s action continually, we see God, we understand God, we experience God.

What’s the relationship of all of this with art (which is my specific field)? The relationship is simple. When Christ took a Body – when the Word of God took a body from the humanity of Mary – it was to be seen. Christ is now invisible except in the abstract forms of the sacraments – we see water and we know that we’re being cleansed, we see bread and wine and we know that his Body and Blood are present, but we don’t really see the body and blood. But somehow the extreme simplicity of that communication that God wanted in Christ’s Incarnation is now filtered by a symbolic system of sacraments and signs. So we don’t actually see, but the art of the Church allows us to see. It extends down through the centuries, something like that privileged experience of the people of Jesus’ own time when they saw him and intuited that there was more than just a man here. Art allows us to continue to enjoy that experience.

It is no accident that historically speaking, most of the monumental art of the church… [was] made as a context for the Liturgy. Small paintings were made for the home. The church building itself really has one function, to house the celebration of the Eucharist. The works of art that allow us to imagine ourselves present really become the backdrop for efficacious signs and sacraments in which really is present, and when Christ is present then God is present.

So the ancient desire of human beings to see God, Moses on the mountain asks God to show him his face…. In Christ people really contemplated the Face of God. Christ tells us that we see him in the poor and the needy, and so on. But the works of visual art that surround these privileged moments in which [people] come into direct contact with Christ, and which usually tell stories from the life of Christ, or of Mary or of the saints, in whom we also contemplate Christ – the works of art are part of this process.

How have you incorporated all of this into your work as an art historian?

Much of what I’ve done as an art historian is to try to remind other art historians of this whole dimension that I’m describing, which usually has not been discussed. And that’s a grave omission, because the artists and the patrons were more or less conscious of all of this. They lived within this system. So the art historians should be aware of it, because if not they are going to talk about these works in a way which is misleading. Certainly the style, the economical features – all of these things are interesting and real and an important part of the history of art, but the larger framework within which these works were meant to function was something more like what I’ve been describing.

I try to call the attention of colleagues to these things, and even more, perhaps, I try to reawaken Christians to the extraordinary eloquence and beauty of this visual heritage which today ordinary believing Christians have the equipment to understand. They may not be art historians but they have keys to understanding the works of architecture and painting and sculpture that many art historians don’t have. And those keys come from their own faith, from the simple experience of life in church, the life of the sacraments.

One could add that something that Christians tend not to reflect upon and that historians of art and of sacred music and sacred architecture similarly tend not to reflect upon, is that the great work of art that Christianity has produced since its beginning is the Liturgy.

What believing Christians have been harried by the Spirit to do right from the beginning is to seek those poetic forms of expression and those physical actions and those material objects that can be called into play to express their faith. Really Jesus himself taught us to do this. At the Last Supper, he took bread, and then he said words: “This is my Body”. Jesus, who is himself the Word made flesh, in order to communicate, takes physical things that already have their own range of meanings and says words that open that implicit range of meanings to a much more specific and explicit communication.

So Jesus himself is the first teacher of how you combine things and actions and words in order to create a composite work, which is basically a work of art. At the Last Supper, he puts on an apron, he kneels down, he washes their feet. He’s continually doing things that invite reflection and then making sure that we understand what he’s doing.

What I’m saying is that you can’t really just talk about the visual art of the Church, or the music of the Church, or the Liturgy. All of this is part of a single creative impulse that flows from the experience of Christ himself, the Word who becomes flesh. A conceptual expression of God who becomes visible and tangible. The First Letter of St John says that this is what we have seen and touched and contemplated with our own eyes; it’s a total sensory and intellectual experience. The Liturgy is that. So an artist working for the church and for its Liturgy is within this millennial creative action which, in the last analysis, is a continuation in time and space of the Creation described in Genesis.

Can you speak on your role as President of the Diocesan Commission for Ecumenism and Inter-Religious Dialogue? How does, or how can, art factor into that dialogue?

It’s a delicate question. The art of course is a kind of non-verbal communication that in a sense can get us beyond things that could otherwise cause problems….

I think the art that probably could make it possible for all of us to talk is architecture. Certainly if one begins to reconstruct the spatial interest and grandeur of the Temple of Jerusalem as described in Scripture and reconstructed by archaeologists. That remains an important part of the history of Judaism, and it also offers a number of fascinating keys as to the ways the ancient Hebrew imagination communicated the idea of the sacred in space. If you start with the temple in Jerusalem, and then talk about the early Christian basilicas in Rome, or the Renaissance churches, you’re talking in the same language, because you’re always talking about walls and roofs, large or small spaces, going from an outer courtyard to an inner courtyard to the Holy of Holies, and so on. The basic dynamics are somewhat more abstract, and so too with mosques.

For example, a very interesting line of reflection is the mystical significance of the space of one of the greatest Byzantine churches, Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, which was later transformed into a mosque, but its basic basis remains as it was designed in the 6th century, when the building was constructed to be a church. Then, as everyone knows, the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople and changed the name to Istanbul. In the later 16th century, the Sultans constructed a building which basically was an imitation of Hagia Sofia right there in Istanbul, what’s called the Blue Mosque [Sultan Ahmed Mosque]. But there are a series of subtle architectural changes, which oblige you at that point to say: “If what we have here are Muslim architects interpreting a 6th century Christian basilica in the perspective of their own faith, let’s try to understand why they’re introducing these changes”. I think that that kind of study can be of enormous help in discovering universal spiritual values and also defining – in a way which is not as limiting as actual theological argument – some of the differences of sensibilities between Christians and Muslims.

Another marvellous case is the beautiful mosque in Cordoba, Spain – built when that area of Spain was a Moorish Emirate, and the official religion was Islam – which is actually built on the site of an early Christian church. At the moment of thereconquista when the Christian Spanish kingdom reclaims those parts of the country that had been under Muslim rule, the same building becomes a cathedral. They kind of eviscerate the centre of the mosque and built a mini gothic cathedral rising out of the mosque. But today when you enter, you enter into what used to be the outer courtyard of a mosque, where for centuries people spread their carpets and prayed. If you go into this forest of columns and Moorish arches that was a genuine mosque… in the centre of all this, suddenly the walls soar up, you have stained glass windows, and you have a big Spanish retablo.

Architecture which documents these historical changes also provide a vehicle for discovering the beauty of the other faith. They oblige you to say that “even if I don’t agree with what these people believe, I have to recognize that there’s great beauty in it”. There are elements of great beauty, there are genuine reflections of God in all the great faiths of history.

In that respect, one of my dreams is to be able to one day do a very beautiful photo exhibit of all the things I just described – the Temple, Christian architecture and mosques – here in Florence. Florentines are very sensitive to the quiet eloquence of architecture.

You also served as a consultant at the Synods of Bishops of 2005 and 2008. Are there certain ideas that have remained with you from those sessions that you care to share? What do you think or hope that the upshot of these Synods will be?

It is significant that someone like myself was invited. The recognition that the presence of a person familiar with the relationship between art and the life of the Church could be useful seems to have come about with the Papacy of Benedict xvi. I think it really has to do with his extraordinary awareness of the role of beauty in the life of faith, that larger art form which all of the Liturgy is.

Certainly the Synod on the Eucharist saw Benedict’s insistence on this, expressed in the Sacramentum Caritatis, the Document that sums up the work of the Synod. In it he insists on the ars celebrandi, the art of celebrating Mass. Yes, we receive the real Body of Christ, but the whole process in which we’re called to become a part – the Mass, with the Church, the priest, the vestments, and so on – is a work of art. The priest has to learn to be that beautiful sign of Christ’s presence that he’s called to be, in his movement, in the way he pronounces the words, so as to communicate that creative, artistic character of everything that goes on.

I think that it really is a function of the Holy Father’s own sensitivity and his conviction, which he expresses in the introduction to the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Remember that he both supervised the work on the production of the Catechism and then, at John Paul II’s request, prepared the short Compendium.

In his own introduction – which he wrote first as Cardinal Ratzinger but has reissued now as Benedict xvi – he stresses the fact that in our modern, image oriented society, sacred images can often say more even than the words of Scripture. That’s an extraordinary affirmation, and I believe that he’s absolutely right! That would help explain why he wanted me at the Synod on the Eucharist, and then the Synod on the Word of God is the same sort of thing. It wasn’t just on the Bible as Bible. When the Church summons Bishops for a Synod on the Word of God, it’s talking about the word of God as Bishops and priests have to communicate it to the faithful, and we do that in the framework of the Liturgy. Whereas in many centuries people couldn’t understand the Gospel because it was proclaimed in Latin, even today, when people are half-attentive, the images that are there reinforce, flesh out and in some cases probably even take the place of listening to the Gospel. So images have been so much a part of the context in which we Catholics actively transmit the word of God.

There is an increasing interest in what the history of communications – and the art of the church is one of the forms of communication – can tell us about the way we have approached these things in the past, and from the past, you can sometimes find ways to follow in the present.

Speaking of the convergence of past and present: some people question whether the money spent on Cathedrals and other great works of religious art would be better spent to help the poor or in other similar ways. But others argue that a Church’s beauty is important because, for instance, it serves as a place where past, present and future come together – a place where we can understand better where we come from, where we are now, and where we hope to be headed.

First of all, the Church over the years has spent great deals of money for the poor. But one of the great things we can give to the poor as well as to the rich – maybe we’re all poor when it comes to this – is that harmonious sense of how the distant past and the remote future are present. Any one of us who is in Church is there because someone else has helped to communicate these things. There’s the immediate past of those that gave us the faith, but then there were those who gave them the faith. We go to Church and we pronounce words that were written a long time ago, and we listen to words written such a long time ago. We really are in communication with that past.

What happens during the Celebration, in the here and now of any Catholic Liturgy, is that the past becomes present, because Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary becomes genuinely, if not visibly, present in the Bread and Wine. It’s an objective link between past and present – not just emotional or poetic – and it’s there in a way that it can’t be anywhere else. All of this is in the perspective of the final day. “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again”. All of it is looking toward that eternal Liturgy in heaven to which we are called.

As a teacher, do you find that your students help you to see things in a new way? What are for you the most important messages that you hope they leave your classes having grasped?

Yes, because the temptation for all experts is to lose touch with the much simpler questions that people have who haven’ t studied the material in depth. Experts tend to get lost in theoretical questions, whereas a bright undergraduate student – or sometimes even better, a young child – will ask some obvious questions and suddenly you realize that you have to be simpler in your way of thinking about these things.

All of this art was not created for art historians or for theologians; it was created for ordinary people, who, in every age of history, have been extremely diverse – with different sensibilities, different levels of culture, and different interests. Those works which have survived down the centuries because they continue to speak to people are somehow masterpieces of mass communication.

Students can help me find a language adequate to communicate the genuinely universal values both of the faith and of the particular style of the work I’m talking about, and that’s very important.

As to the second part of your question, I always invite them to consider – even if they’re not Catholic or Christian – the historical, cultural interest of the basic Christian message of a God who becomes a human being. Much of the art is involved in a communicating aspect of Jesus’ humanity – as a child, a man on the Cross, a man who rises. It all has to do with the idea of a God who assumes a body and who goes through all these things. Certainly what I teach, Italian Renaissance art mainly, is an art which focuses on the physical humanity – on the body, on the emotional configuration, facial expression, gesture, and so on. I invite them to grow in their sense of the beauty of our own humanity.

I try to make them aware that for many centuries many people, certainly the patrons, believed that our human condition is so important that God himself entered into it – in order to save it from destruction, to elevate it to the level of his own divinity. Even if you don’t want to believe this, it is a part of understanding Western culture. You really have to be aware that these dynamics were at work for 1500 years, if not more.

As Canon of the Florence Cathedral, if you were able to point out one thing to every visitor to “il Duomo”, what would it be?

It would be the most obvious thing, which is that it is very big, like many cathedrals and churches. There is an urge to try to configure a human space that is worthy of our concept of God – a space which, in the simplest terms, is going to be very big. Because God is infinitely above us; God occupies the entire universe.

That first, most obvious, most simple, most universal impression that you get in our Cathedral, as in many churches, really has to be taken seriously. Why do people want these enormous spaces?

Then from the very size, you move to the sense of order, articulated in a different way according to the different period or architect. There always is some more or less legible sense of order. You find something that is much bigger than most spaces you’ve been in that is then ordered in a particular way that engages your intelligence. Why this large central area, these smaller side areas? What goes on down at the far end? In the chapels? The order itself interests people. And then you start to talk about specific works.

The one thing that I do tell all visitors to the Cathedral – or indeed any church where I might have the task of helping them understand – is that if we are there for a visit, we are seeing it in our own way. The church isn’t built to be visited by tourists. We really should come back when the church is full of worshippers, when the central nave becomes the space through which a procession enters to go to the altar. We have to experience these spaces within that framework of total art that I talked about, in a liturgical situation.

If we believe in a Word who became flesh, then the experience of an ordered space that becomes animated, alive with people, with the Liturgy, is very close to the heart of what we believe. It’s about a conceptual Word that becomes man. But it would be true in any religious situation – you have to see these buildings in use.

The real church is not the building, the real Church is the people. The building assumes the name “church”, which in the Christian Scriptures is used almost exclusively to refer to the community of people.

The building is just a container – beautiful, historical, rich in memory. But if something were to happen to it, we would be sorry, but we would go on.


Copyright L’Osservatore Romano English edition

Meeting Michelangelo

I met Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. There he pointed out to me why the Jesus of The Last Judgment was the best part of the whole Chapel, all of  which was of course “bellissima”: “It’s in the way he’s holding up his hand – he’s giving us a special sort of greeting”, he said.

Detail, Jesus in Michelangelo's The Last Judgment

A small, curly-haired boy of about six, Michelangelo was paying his first visit to the Vatican Museums, or the “Michelangelo Museum”, as he called it. He said that he was happy to be there at last, because, as his mother explained, it is usually too crowded and hot for the family to make the trip. But this evening was an opportunity to visit it without the usual inconveniences of a tourist-packed museum, for the first ever nighttime opening of the Vatican Museums in their five-century-long history.

It was a night to give the Museums back to the people of Rome, according to Prof. Antonio Paolucci, Director of the Vatican Museums. And indeed many Italian families with children, as well as other Romans and pilgrims from all walks of life, attended the historic event on Friday evening, 24 July.

Mothers explained the paintings to their little ones whilst elderly couples strolled along, taking it all in. Many paused at the arched windows to admire the view of the subtly illuminated gardens and of St Peter’s dome at dusk. One woman enjoying the evening breeze at a large window even removed her heels, in a simple gesture that hinted at the true sense of the evening – to make the Romans feel at home amid their own city’s world-renowned cultural heritage.

Paolucci inaugurated the evening by accompanying Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, newly appointed General Secretary of the Governorate of Vatican City State, and Mauro Cutrufo, Vice-Mayor of Rome, through the first leg of the tour. The Director proudly pointed out the highlights to his special guests, inviting them to look more closely and even encouraging them to touch certain statues.

Visitors were offered a special itinerary that included the Octagonal Court, the Upper Galleries of the Vatican Museums – displaying Candelabras, Tapestries and Maps – the Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael rooms), the Sistine Chapel and the Galleries of the Apostolic Library.

That evening, one entered the Octagonal Court to strains of Renaissance dance music played on authentic wooden instruments from the same period. In their playful renditions – resounding throughout the courtyard against the basso continuo of the fountain’s rushing water – the two musicians, Tullio Visioli and Fabio Refrigeri, recreated the atmosphere of the Papal Courts of the past. It was in this evocative setting that Prof. Paolucci commented to Archbishop Viganò on the beauty of the “museographic composition – embracing sky, statues and music”.

Octagonal Court, Vatican Museums

Inside, the sculpted detail of the men and women immortalized in marble emerged with new clarity in the marked shadows. Their faces, lining the Museum’s impressive corridors, seemed to take on an almost suspicious air in the evening light, as if to wonder what the visitors were doing there after hours.

There was in fact something about walking through the halls in semi-darkness that almost felt like sneaking around in a secret, forbidden place. Paolucci had indeed wanted to let the public in on this “secret” for some years now, so as to make them aware of the immense beauty of the “culture on their doorstep”, he said.

“It often happens that citizens of cities like Paris, Rome and Florence feel deprived of their museums”, said Paolucci. There has been a worldwide movement to make the museums of these famed cities more readily accessible for their respective citizens, he explained.

The response was overwhelming. Over 2,600 people entered the Museums in the first 40 minutes. Those who bought tickets online beforehand numbered about 4,000, and more than 3,000 reservations were booked through the Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi, which had joined in the initiative.

The prospect of opening the Museums in the evening is also practical, as explained Fr Bruno Silvestrini, an Augustinian friar and parish priest of St Anna’s Church which stands just inside the Vatican City walls. “For all those who work, it’s a chance to be able to see the Museums peacefully and in new colours”, he said, having been pulled momentarily from his animated explanation of the surrounding artwork to a group of his colleagues from the Vatican. “This is so beautiful, especially during the summer period, when the light of dusk is still streaming in”, he said. “Everything is illuminated in a different way; it allows the visitor to discover these works of art in a new light. I think that it must definitely be repeated”.

Indeed the common sentiment at Friday’s event was the hope that it would continue in the future, and Paolucci expressed every intention of making it a regular occurrence from this September onwards. Plans are also underway for similar events to take place throughout the city of Rome to include weekend nighttime openings of sites such as the Colosseum, the Forums, the Capitoline Museums and the Ara Pacis Museum.

Mr Enzo Mattina was quick to point out however that, more than these, the Vatican Museums are what draw visitors to contemplate the religious elements of Roman culture. Originally from Naples but a resident of Rome for about 40 years, the elderly Mattina could be found that night strolling arm in arm with his sister, Elena.

“We were captivated”, he said of the guided tour given by the Museums that they had taken. “Italians travel around the world, but they also need to realize what’s sitting right here in front of them”, he continued. “Trying to speak about the art in the Museums would be ridiculous. No description would suffice. There are no words”.

The Libyan Sibyl, Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo

Thus the historic nighttime opening resulted in what might even be called an indescribably memorable evening for visitors of all ages. As the end drew near, Paolucci, now free of the press, took in the scene of enchanted visitors on an adjoining candlelit terrace. From it the imposing, illuminated cupola of St Peter’s – yet another of Michelangelo’s masterpieces – glowed like a moon over water.

Perhaps the great artist’s legacy will inspire another. Because little Michelangelo told me when we met: “My teacher said that I’m very good at drawing and that I too could become an artist someday”.

“Do you think you’ll be remembered in the same way this Michelangelo is now?” I asked as we gazed up at The Creation of Adam. He responded confidently and thoughtfully: “Yes, I really think so!”.


Copyright (c) L’Osservatore Romano English edition

Sweet Home Chicago

From cotton fields to city streets, blues music tells the story of a people struggling to survive. Its syncopated rhythms convey a meaning as deep as the raspy voices crooning its melodies. The blues has evolved along with the history of black people in the United States – a journey marked by persecution but also by progress.

Theirs is a story that today opens to a new chapter, being written by a man who calls the city that transformed the face of the blues:  “Sweet Home Chicago”. Thus a closer look at the origins of blues music provides insight not only into black history but also into the context from which President Barack Obama, who lived in the Windy City before his move to the White House, entered the international scene.

It was in Chicago that blues music was modernized, where it adapted into a form that could then be easily diffused into popular culture. It would permeate many other musical genres and create the foundation of rock ‘n’ roll, gospel and the British pop made famous by the Beatles. Today, the blues rhythm beats on as the heart of American mainstream music, which in turn plays an influential role in the music world across the globe.

The twelve-bar structure found in the blues today is the same as that which the slaves invented as they worked in the fields, using music to communicate. This system of “field hollering” allowed the slaves to exchange secret information and indicate potential escape routes.

Chicago blues grew from these roots in the Mississippi Delta, where thousands of blacks lived before moving north during the Great Migration, which occurred in two waves between 1913 and 1970. Its heavy backbeats recall the oppression of slavery, while the charged guitar riffs and gravelly voices in the foreground express an insatiable longing for freedom.

In the 1930s, the Great Depression propelled the blues forward by providing not only greater reason for people to lament but also more opportunity to come together to perform and listen to music. From that decade on in the ghettos of Chicago, residents organized “rent parties” to raise money for families with financial difficulties. Thus listening to the blues also became a concrete experience of solidarity.

By this time, blues musicians in Chicago had already begun to create a more urban sound, distinguishing their own style from more rural or classic forms. This new sound reflected, with its quicker tempos, the frenetic pace of working life in an industrial metropolis.

“It was in these neighbourhoods that I received the best education I ever had”, President Obama said in a speech announcing his presidential bid. With this statement he recalled his work in Chicago from 1985-1988, organizing job training and other programs for the working-class residents of Altgeld Gardens, a public housing project amid shuttered steel mills.

The blues is a lyrical expression of both “the agony of life and the possibility of conquering it through sheer toughness of spirit”, writes Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man(Random House, 1952). This work, set in the newly industrialized Chicago of the 1930s, analyzes the problem of the black man’s identity in U.S. culture.

The people of Chicago are generally known as being “tough”, if only for having to endure the severe weather that results from its position on the edge of Lake Michigan. For this reason the blues, in the tenacity of its sound, personifies the Windy City (even if it was originally named as such in reference to its long-winded politicians, not its notorious weather).

The spirit of a city ever aware of life’s challenges – of a city where people are accustomed to adapting to change – is manifest in the blues. The city and the music have each shaped the other into what they are today.

But the influence of Chicago blues has extended much further than its own streets. This is seen clearly in the career and the heritage left by the man who is said to have defined its sound:  Muddy Waters.
His grandmother gave the musician this nickname, after the puddles of the Mississippi River in which he played as a child. Waters transferred to Chicago in 1943, where he received an electric guitar as a gift from his uncle. With this instrument – the volume of which he intensified by using a pick – Muddy Waters revolutionized the city’s musical scene.

In addition to the guitar, the harmonica and bass were also amplified in order to compete with the loud atmosphere of the locales where blues bands played. The first to win this battle against the noise with his harmonica was Little Walter. He did so simply by cupping his hands around the instrument.

From then on these methods of amplification and electrification characterized the Chicago blues sound. This new sound was part in thanks to the new possibilities that came with the end of the Great Depression and World War II. Muddy Waters and the other blues artists in Chicago became a vehicle for the optimism emerging at this time. It was here that the now widespread image of a small stage in a smoky bar, crowded with musicians improvising on the electric guitar, harmonica, piano, bass and drums, was born.

Today, it is not difficult to find evidence of the impact these musicians have had on the music world. It was, for example, Water’s song “Rolling Stone” that both the magazine and the rock group took their names. The same song was very probably an inspiration to Bob Dylan when he wrote “Like a Rolling Stone”. And it was reported in Rolling Stone magazine that among the playlists on President Obama’s iPod are songs by the group of the same name, by Dylan, and also by Howlin’ Wolf, who was known as Waters’ rival.

The list of artists and musical genres influenced by Chicago blues is endless. Among the numerous names of note are Chuck Berry, Elvis, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and also Eric Clapton, who has carried the inheritance of the blues from the seventies through to the present.

In the hands of the same “Slowhand”, as Clapton is known, the Chicago blues sound has evolved with the changing music scene while still remaining faithful to its deepest roots. A powerful witness to this is one of his recent albums, “From the Cradle”, composed entirely of songs by traditional blues musicians. Among them is Willie Dixon, one of the greatest musicians to have played with Muddy Waters.

But the electrified blues that was founded in the post-war era is not only a thing of the past. The music continues because the stories it recounts are still being written. Worth noting is that this year’s list of Grammy nominees for blues music included several protagonists of Chicago’s musical revolution. Among those carrying this tradition into the modern day is Buddy Guy – known as Muddy Waters’ successor – who opened his own club in 1989 in the heart of downtown Chicago.

The culture which developed around the blues clubs that have sprouted up around the city over the years is indeed thriving, creating a music scene that draws tourists and natives alike. Today, many of the most popular blues clubs are found in neighbourhoods inhabited predominantly by young white people.

In fact, the evolution of blues music in the city also entailed a diffusion into white culture. For proof of this on a wider scale, one can look to artists such as Clapton, Dylan, and even younger musicians like John Mayer. The latter, an artist who had already gained wide acclaim on the pop scene, surprised everyone with a blues album in 2005, featuring Clapton, Guy and B.B. King as collaborators.

Surely one cannot fail to acknowledge the extent to which the famous Blues Brothers, with their “mission from God”, have served to propagate blues music and culture into the mainstream. Working on the Chicago-based film inspired the “brothers” John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, never before musicians, to form their own group modelled after that featured in the movie.

While Chicago blues has survived in its purest form through the revolution’s biggest names and their successors, the deep influence it has had on the many genres of today’s chart-topping music is not to be ignored. Just one example is the widespread diffusion and popularity of rhythm and blues (R&B), a term that was originally used for Chicago blues but has extended to encompass much of black music heard today.

It becomes evident from the longevity of Chicago blues – in its original form as in its many variations – that at its heart this music expresses a depth of human emotion which stems from the very essence of human experience. For Ellison, the blues does not offer a solution to the human condition. It offers instead a strong resolution to overcome suffering:  a “yes” to a life marked by grace and irony, and a defiant decision to preserve the human spirit. Its sound is marked by sadness but also by fierce determination, thus reflecting the history of blacks in the States. In a time of global crisis, the President who pens this story’s newest chapters meets a challenge that will undoubtedly demand the same tenacity.


Copyright (c) L’Osservatore Romano English edition

(Original version was written in Italian and published in L’Osservatore Romano’s Italian daily edition – 03/11/2009)

Finding the Word in the word

When the words upon a page of Scripture transform our hearts, our souls, and our minds, they become the Word made flesh in our world today. This is the message that emerged from the Synod of Bishops on the theme, “The Word of God in the life and mission of the Church.”

The synod met from October 5-26 in the Vatican. Gathered together in the Synod Hall—often deemed a modern-day “Upper Room”—Church leaders shared firsthand accounts of the use of Scripture throughout the world and sought to discern concrete ways of renewing the universal Church.

Throughout the three weeks of the synod, Pope Benedict XVI’s words brought the Bible to life, conveying the profound significance and timeliness of this year’s theme to those both inside Vatican City walls and beyond them.

In his contribution to the Synod Hall discussion, Pope Benedict XVI touched on topics from his recent book, Jesus of Nazareth, as he discussed the necessary elements of a correct approach to reading and interpreting Scripture.

Citing heavily from Vatican II’s Dei Verbum, n. 11, the Holy Father outlined what methodologies are necessary for the Scriptures to reveal their true meaning.

This discourse put in more technical terms the message he emphatically conveyed throughout the synod and in the weeks previous, stressing the need to see Christ the Word in both a historical and a spiritual light.

While applauding the high standard of current historical-critical scriptural scholarship, the Pope expressed disappointment in the lack of truly theological exegesis today. Consequently, the Bible is being analyzed as if it were a history book.

On the one hand, its pages do convey historical fact: “The history of salvation is not mythology, but rather true history, and is therefore to be studied alongside serious historical research methods,” the Pope said.

However, Christ was not only human; he was divine, too. And as such, as more than a historical figure, the reality of his identity as God made man must also be taken into account. This involves reading Scripture “in the same spirit in which it was written,” as Dei Verbum declared.

Any one Bible passage must be seen in the context of the whole of Revelation as handed down to us in Scripture and through tradition.

This is no simple task. “Just reading” the Bible does not mean we come to “find the Word in the words,” as Benedict said in his opening address to the Synod of Bishops. We must strive to seek that Word through a multi-dimensional approach.

When the reading of Scripture fails to acknowledge divine action within its pages, God goes absent from human history: secularism and science replace faith and Revelation. We trust only the former two to be objectively true and lose sight of the truth Scripture conveys.

Thus what may first appear as a purely academic issue regarding exegetical methods is reflected in our society’s perspective on life’s priorities, in a skewed concept of reality. And the danger of that view is all too evident with the current financial crisis.

“We can see this now with the fall of large banks: this money disappears, it is nothing…. The one who builds his life on these realities, on matter, on success, on appearances, builds upon sand,” the Pope said. Continuing, he declared the Word of God as the permanent “foundation of all reality.”

Instead of hungering for success or money, true substance is found in the Word’s meaning for us today. “The Church’s principal task, at the start of this new millennium, is above all to nourish ourselves on the Word of God, in order to make new evangelization more effective,” Benedict said in his homily at the synod’s conclusion.

Evangelization means putting the first and greatest commandment into practice — loving God and neighbor — as the text from Matthew’s Gospel on which the Holy Father’s homily was based clearly teaches (Matt. 22:34-40).

Translating the Word into acts of love is the “only way to make the Gospel announcement credible, despite the human weaknesses that mark individuals.” More than anything, this requires an increasingly intimate knowledge of Christ, sought with humility, Pope Benedict said.

He said that the most important place to take in the Word through Scripture is the Mass. Here we realize that the Bible is “a book of the people and for the people, an inheritance, a testament handed over to readers so that they can put into practice in their own lives the history of salvation witnessed in the text.”

The role of the homily is then extremely important in the way we encounter the Word on a regular basis. Indeed, Pope Benedict pinpointed homilies during his synodal address as another aspect of Church life affected by the current unbalanced state of scriptural study, and their improvement was one of this 12th General Assembly’s main themes. When using “mainstream” historical analyses of the Bible for their preparation, priests come away perplexed, because the soul of Scripture is lost, the Pope said.

The proper formation of priests becomes increasingly crucial within the context of the current movement to encourage Catholics to read the Bible on their own. The Pope has continually recommended prayerful reading of Scripture, or Lectio Divina (Latin for “divine reading”).

The will to explore the Bible’s pages is there, it seems. In a survey conducted by the Catholic Biblical Federation this year, covering 16 countries, the majority of those interviewed think of the Bible with great respect, have a copy in their homes, and consider its words to hold significant meaning for their lives, Italian Bishop Vincenzo Paglia reported to the synodal assembly.

But the majority of survey participants — believers and nonbelievers alike — find the Bible difficult to understand without assistance. (This is without taking into account the fundamental obstacle of language for many, since the same survey found that the Bible has yet to be translated into over 4,000 of the world’s languages.)

It is therefore important that a personal conversation with God through the Scriptures unfold under careful guidance. The responsibility falls to pastors to lead the faithful in this endeavor, and the best methods for doing so were discussed at length by the bishops during these weeks.

Traditionally, the idea of reading Scripture on their own is somewhat novel for Catholics, for whom its communal nature has been emphasized in a coming together as one body in Christ to listen to the Word and hear it broken down in the homily. Individual Bible study, instead, is often considered a predominantly Protestant practice.

Not to be forgotten are the roots of the Lectio Divina that the Pope desires so strongly to renew, which extend deep into ancient monastic tradition.

The difference between the Protestant and Catholic approaches to Scripture is real, however, and it was addressed by Korean Bishop Vincent Ri Pyung-Ho, who spoke of Protestants’ tendency to memorize Bible passages. Protestants quote the Bible, whereas Catholics speak of abstract biblical themes, he said.

But when we read that “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19), we realize that internalizing Scripture can also be considered Catholic in its striving after Mary’s example. Through her intimate relationship with both the Son of God and the Scriptures, “she made her heart into a library of the Word,” said Bishop Ri Pyung-Ho.

Indeed, Pope Benedict, in line with his predecessor John Paul II, consistently steers our eyes toward Mary as our model. During the synod, he demonstrated this clearly with a visit to Pompeii, where he entrusted the assembly to her care. There he continued in his strong encouragement to pray the rosary, led its recitation, and gave a meditation on its meaning.

While it is often prayed communally, the rosary can certainly be a means of incorporating Scripture into personal prayer as well. As the Pope pointed out, the rosary is “completely interwoven with scriptural elements,” as it entails contemplating the Gospel mysteries. The thoughts of those who pray it remain “anchored to Scripture.”

For example, we should ideally use words taken from the Bible when enunciating each mystery. Then there are the prayers themselves: the Our Father comes straight from the Gospel, as does the first half of the Hail Mary. The second half constitutes our own supplications, involving us personally and communally.

“The rosary must always emerge from the silence of the heart as a response to the Word, after the model of Mary’s prayer,” the Pope said during his meditation.

The rosary and Lectio Divina then become integral parts of our dialogue with God, as we use human words to move towards the Word of God. Each is an example of how the Catholic Church can progress into the future while remaining profoundly rooted in tradition.

Since love of God is inextricably linked to love of neighbor, relationship with God then leads naturally to seeking dialogue with others. This was witnessed by those who took in the historic scene of the Holy Father walking side by side with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in the Sistine Chapel.

There, Bartholomew I gave the first address by an Eastern Church leader to the Synod of Bishops. Quoting the Church Fathers extensively and eloquently, he emphasized the fundamental need to take God’s Word beyond the church walls and into every aspect of our lives.

“If we claim to retain the sacrament of the altar, we cannot forgo or forget the sacrament of the neighbor — a fundamental condition for realizing God’s Word in the world within the life and mission of the Church.”

Thoughtful dialogue is therefore necessary among Christ’s followers, transcending political and religious differences “in order to transform the entire visible world for the glory of the invisible God.”

Pope Benedict was deeply moved in his spontaneous response to Bartholomew, deeming the occasion a true experience of “synod,” (a word whose Greek roots signify “walking a path together”), and calling the patriarch’s words “strongly contextualized in our time.”

Days after this encounter, the Holy Father touched again on the theme of dialogue’s essential nature as he brought the synod to a close within St. Peter’s Basilica:

Scripture and liturgy converge, therefore, with the single aim of bringing the people to dialogue with the Lord and to obedience to the will of the Lord. The word issued from the mouth of God and witnessed in the Scriptures returns to him in the form of a prayerful response, a response that is lived, a response that wells up from love.

In this seeking to live our lives in conversation with God, the Pope’s guiding words lead us along the path toward the fullness of truth in the faith handed down to us through the Church. Whether through listening to Scripture and its interpretation as a community or endeavoring to take a guided step toward the Word through individual prayer, our destination remains that same unshakeable truth, found in Christ alone.

11/2008, Web exclusive

Copyright (c) Catholic World Report

Looking inward leads to love

OXFORD  (U.S. Catholic) –  The Dalai Lama laughs, his dancing eyes made even brighter by the yellow hue of the large, square lenses of his glasses. He has been awake since 3:30 a.m., having started the day as usual—with four hours of meditation. In this inner search he taps into a fount of gleeful passion that is nothing if not contagious.

If meditation is the key to this man’s happiness, what does that say of the value and the power of contemplation? Is it better to sit in search for God’s presence, or to go out and aid those in dire need, bringing God’s love to the world? Can one necessitate the other? How does Christian contemplative prayer connect to the Buddhist search for understanding?

These questions, among many others, were explored during a colloquium on contemplative prayer featuring the Dalai Lama as keynote speaker, held in the United Kingdom at Oxford University’s Dominican-run study center, Blackfriars Hall.

In a broad, Christian sense, contemplative prayer is any form of silent prayer which strives to cultivate stillness, attentiveness, and openness to God. Such attentiveness then paves the way for Christian action in the world.DalaiLama-2.jpg

Since the twentieth century, there has been a renewed interest in the various forms of contemplative prayer. Its rise coincides with the rise of dialogue between Christians and Buddhists. Thomas Merton, the Cistercian monk and writer, was a champion of both contemplative prayer and dialogue. Merton and the Dalai Lama each visited each other and engaged in hours of discussion in the 1960s. “As a result, my eyes opened to the real value of Christianity,” the Dalai Lama says.

Years later, Christians and Buddhists still have a lot to offer each other. For the Dalai Lama, meeting with Christians to discuss contemplative prayer furthers two lifelong commitments: the promotion of human value and that of religious harmony. The most effective way of accepting the value of other religious traditions, he says, is to meet spiritual practitioners to listen, watch, and try to understand their deeper experiences. And at the heart of promoting human value is acknowledging every person’s fundamental need for love, he says.

“We are social animals…humanity, individual futures, depend on the rest of the community,” says the Dalai Lama. “So that’s, I think, one of the very, very powerful factors—to need love, compassion, affection—because love and compassion brings all together.”

Discovering God within

Deep meditation, then, serves to seek the truth within and is the only path to “real transformation,” the Dalai Lama says, that can “bring about the flowering of love in oneself.”

One of the Christian participants in the dialogue, Carmelite Father Eugene McCaffrey, speaks similarly, saying that “the heart of contemplative prayer is love, and love is the only reality that will ultimately change us. Only when we have found a greater and a deeper love can we let go of the lesser gods that ensnare the heart and hold it captive. Contemplation is the key to freedom of heart; it is a way of opening the heart to the embrace of God’s love.”

In the Christian tradition, God seeks us as well and draws us into the mystery of God’s love. Dominican Father Paul Murray explains that the goal of contemplative prayer is elusive but powerful.

“All of a sudden, then, we discover that the object of our search for God, and of our search for wisdom, is not some kind of passive, divine truth, something which we are able to assess and possess with our own minds,” Murray says, “but is rather something literally uncontrollable, a mystery of love our minds can hardly begin to grasp, an urgency of attention to our most basic human needs and wants, a divine compassion and care for that very aspect of our lives which seems most hopeless and most lost.”

By entering into and receiving this love, those who pray are then better equipped to serve others. The Dalai Lama describes his morning meditation as something like “charging your battery.” It involves, he says, “making some kind of proper shape of my mind and then some kind of pledge or determination that the rest of the day I should carry that kind of mental attitude—compassion, love, maximum help to others.”

From meditation to compassion

Indeed, Christian and Buddhists alike see a direct relationship between contemplative prayer and dedicated service in the world.

“The contemplative gaze penetrates to the heart of all human reality; it is the deepest source of energy and compassion for the world,” says McCaffrey. “This is the greatest gift the contemplative can give to the world: to see clearly, and to share that vision with others.”

A Dominican brother attending the dialogue agrees with this sentiment. “Prayer puts us right in the thick of the action,” says Brother Robert Gay. “We cannot pray deeply and then look on at the world impassively. If our prayer does not open our eyes to the needs of the other and take us beyond ourselves, all we are doing is navel gazing.”

A gathering of those so intensely engaged in prayer makes sense for an interreligious dialogue. “Prayer teaches us to listen,” Gay says.

Prayer, then, can teach us not only about ourselves and our relationship with a loving God, but can also unite those of all religions with each other in a search for a “happy, joyful, meaningful life.” And that, the Dalai Lama says, is our “real purpose” here on earth.

– – – – –

What is contemplative prayer?

It’s difficult to give one simple definition contemplative prayer, since its practice goes back to the earliest centuries of the Christian tradition.

The earliest monks in the desert were known to use scripture as a basis for meditation and prayer, a practice commonly known as lectio divina. Later, we see the development of the “Jesus Prayer,” associated (although not exclusively) with the Eastern Church, a form of prayer which has simple repetition of the Holy Name at its heart. In the West, the 14th century work, “The Cloud of Unknowing,” advocated a practice of prayer whereby union with God was reached through emptying the mind of all images and thoughts, focusing on God alone.

Many major movements in spirituality, then, such as the Ignatian and Carmelite schools, developed distinctive ideas about the spiritual life that we might call “contemplative.” We also shouldn’t forget the importance of the Rosary as contemplative prayer, which has meditation on the mysteries of salvation at its heart.

Thomas Merton, figures in the “centering prayer” movement such as Thomas Keating and John Main, and many others were important in communicating and making accessible the practices of the contemplative monastic tradition, taking it to a wider audience.

“By meditation, I penetrate the inmost ground of my life, seek the full understanding of God’s will for me, of God’s mercy to me, of my absolute dependence upon him,” Merton wrote in “Contemplative prayer.”

Here are some resources to get started:

The Jesus Prayer
Into the Silent Land: The Practice of Contemplation. Martin Laird.

Lectio Divina
Reading with God: Lectio Divina. David Foster

Centering prayer and meditation
Word into Silence. John Main

Merton and Buddhism


Copyright (c) U.S. Catholic Magazine

Chicago man attends Mass at 365 parishes worldwide in 365 days

CHICAGO (CNS) — David Heimann’s dream was to spend 365 days in 365 different places, each destination a new opportunity to experience Christ made flesh in our world today.

“Forget about it,” his spiritual director told him. “If you can forget about it, then it was nothing, but if it keeps coming back to your heart, then it is something of the Spirit, and we need to pay attention to it.”

He could not forget.

Heimann, 33, pastoral associate of St. Ignatius Parish in Chicago, has since made his dream a reality, having visited 365 different parishes around the globe in 2007 for daily Mass, with the support of Ad Sodalitatem, a group dedicated to “evoking solidarity in the Roman Catholic Church through prayer, education and development of the poor by building personal relationships with Christians throughout the world.”

“I abandoned everything I knew,” Heimann wrote in the blog he kept up each day of his travels. “I left my fishing nets at the boat. I followed.”

Every day, he began with the same simple prayer: “Lord, lead me where you need me to go and show me what you need me to see.” And every day he felt his prayer was answered.

On his pilgrimage, Heimann came to realize that true holiness comes from the miracle of Christ’s body in the Eucharist, wherever it is celebrated.

“The beauty of the Eucharist is not in how much gold is around our tabernacles but how we have surrounded our hearts with the sanctuary of love we experience in the Eucharist,” he said.

It was in this love that he found the consistent comfort of Christ’s presence throughout such constant change.

“The Eucharist was the center of the experience — even when I felt lost and abandoned, I always understood the Eucharist,” Heimannsaid. “You can go to a poor village in Zimbabwe and still experience the same love. It was always there.”

Heimann said he now better understands “the mystery of the church as being one body yet diverse in its members.”

“The Eastern church has a heart to the church, and the European and American have an intellect,” Heimann said. “Africans have the soul of the church. The Latin church has a certain passion, almost like the blood of the church, and together they make a whole.”

It was amid these diverse cultures that Heimann came across a different type of abandonment.

“I wish I could show people how their fellow Christians are begging for recognition and divinity, but they feel forgotten and abandoned,” he said. “I wish I could show people that because they live in a Third World country they’re not lacking in faith, but in fact they are abundant in it — they have so little, yet they have so much more faith than us with so much privilege.”

Heimann now realizes that, more than a physical journey, it is the spiritual journey that counts.

“America doesn’t do pilgrimage because we think we’ve already arrived,” he said. “We think this is the Holy Land. In doing so we’ve lost that sense that there’s another journey that we must make, one to the center that lives in the heart of every human being. This discipline of being a pilgrim is recognizing that our ultimate home is not here — our ultimate home is in heaven.”

– – –

Editor’s Note: Heimann’s travel blog and photos from his pilgrimage are online at: www.adsodalitatem.org.

05/12/2008 11:17 AM ET

Copyright (c) 2008 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
(Original version published by Catholic New World newspaper on Feb. 17, 2008).