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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Christ, the Fairest of All Men III: Song of Songs

Our meditations on Song of Songs ended at the 7th verse of the first chapter, where the “lovely” Bride poses a question to her lover. She asks, “Why should I be like a veiled woman beside the flocks of your friends?”

Song of Songs: Christ and His Church

In this post, let’s look at the next four verses.

8 If you do not know, most beautiful of women, follow the tracks of the sheep and graze your young goats by the tents of the shepherds.
9 I liken you, my darling, to a mare harnessed to one of the chariots of Pharaoh.
10 Your cheeks are beautiful with earrings, your neck with strings of jewels.
11 We will make you earrings of gold, studded with silver.

The speaker in these four verses is the Bridegroom, who is responding to the question posed to him earlier regarding the whereabouts of his “flock” (1:7).  Earlier, we stated that the Bride’s love for her Bridegroom seems to be secretive and unpublicized. Consequently, she goes about hidden and “veiled” so as not to reveal her identity to the world (1:7). Moreover, there is a sense of having lost the tracks of the Beloved; meanwhile, she is surrounded by the Bridegroom’s “friends.” These “friends” do not satisfy her longing for the Beloved. They are called “friends” of Christ in the same sense that Christ called Judah a “friend” (Mathew 26:50). These friends do not really know Christ because they have either strayed away doctrinally to join the folds of the heretics and schismatics, or they have the sound doctrine but do not conform their lives to the Gospel for leading a duplicitous and hypocritical lifestyle. For this reason, the Bride yearns for the “Good Shepherd,” the one who will nourish and feed his sheep (John 10:11).  He responds to her question and says:

“If you do not know, most beautiful of women, follow the tracks of the sheep and graze your young goats by the tents of the shepherds.”

Beginning with verse 8, and for the first time, we hear the Bridegroom speaking. He labels his Beloved as the “most beautiful of women,” a description that stands in direct contrast to the attitude of the “daughters of Jerusalem” who “stare” at the Bride, repulsed at her “dark” skin (v.6).  That which may seem hideous and unattractive to the eyes of the world, may be “beautiful” and appealing to the eyes of God, who looks not at the beauty of the flesh but rejoices in the sanctity of the soul, which conforms its “image” to that of Christ (Genesis 1:27).  Conversely, the world holds in high esteem people with pleasing physical qualities that do not necessarily reflect their deplorable inner condition, which is fully visible only to the eyes of God.   In effect, the Bride becomes a mirror, which reflects the beauty of her Bridegroom. For this reason, despite being “dark” on the outside, the Bride sees herself as “lovely” as the “tent curtains of Solomon” (v.5).

The Lover’s advice for his Beloved is to “follow the tracks of the sheep.” The “sheep,” whose “tracks” the Bride must follow, are the Saints, whose “faith” we must “imitate” after considering the “outcome of their life” (Hebrews 13:7). They are those whose “example” we must “follow” as a “model” or a pattern to be imitated and repeated (Philippians 3:17). Does this take away from the glory of God in any way? No, of course not. It does not detract from the glory that is due to Christ because we only “imitate” those “sheep,” which trod the “path,” in so far as they imitate and “follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).  In due time, these “sheep” turn into “shepherds” by the virtue of the saintly life they lead. It is only fitting that we “graze by the tents” of these faithful “shepherds.” Christ’s exhortation to his Beloved, the Church, is to remain under the ministry of her shepherds rather than breaking off to form a schism or a breakaway group. The Bridegroom goes on to say:

9 “I liken you, my darling, to a mare harnessed to one of the chariots of Pharaoh.”

In our postmodern and thoroughly deconstructed world, this may not seem much of a compliment. However, in ancient poetry, human beings, both men and women, are often compared to certain animals. Thomas Wyatt compares beautiful women who could be potential lovers, to “hinds” or female deer (Whoso list to hunt).  In the comparison above, King Solomon uses an analogy to describe the beauty and physical attraction of his beloved. The effect of mares on stallions is identical to the effect of the Bride on other men. Pharaohs only used the healthiest and most vigorous of horses. Thus, the comparison is made to denote the gracefulness and beauty of the Beloved. When a mare is placed in the midst of stallions, she becomes a great distraction to the stallions. Likewise, the beauty and attractiveness of the Beloved are so great, that all men are occupied and wholly taken by her looks.

10 Your cheeks are beautiful with earrings, your neck with strings of jewels.
11 We will make you earrings of gold, studded with silver.

Detailing the beauty of the Bride, the Bridegroom goes on to describe her features.  Her “cheeks are beautiful” because the beauty of Christ has been imprinted on her features. It is only with “earrings” that her beauty is pronounced and made visible, signifying that apart from Divine intervention, the Bride’s looks are not complete and lack the pleasing appearance that is often associated with a young lady at her own marriage ceremony. The same applies to her “neck,” which is only made beautiful by the “strings of jewels.” To emphasize the role of the Divine in adorning the Bride, the Bridegroom declares in the following verse “We will make earrings of gold.” The maker of the “earrings” is God, Who bestows His virtues and gifts upon His Church. All ornamental objects discussed thus far represent the virtues or the gifts of the Holy Spirit that are given to the recipient of the Sacrament of Confirmation.  This is further solidified in the words of God as He speaks to Israel through the Prophet Ezekiel:

“I clothed you with an embroidered dress and put leather sandals on you. I dressed you in fine linen and covered you with costly garments. I adorned you with jewelry: I put bracelets on your arms and a necklace around your neck, and I put a ring on your nose, earrings on your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. So you were adorned with gold and silver, your clothes were of fine linen and costly fabric and embroidered cloth” (Ezekiel 16:13).

The Gifts of the Holy Spirit are seven in total. They include wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. Seven centuries prior to Christ, Isaiah prophesies about a “stump of Jesse,” from whose “roots a Branch will bear fruit” (Isaiah 11:1). On this “Branch,” the “Spirit of the Lord shall rest; the spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the spirit of counsel and of fortitude, the spirit of knowledge and of godliness. And he shall be filled with the spirit of the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:2, 3). Those who receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the Sacrament of Confirmation are made more docile to the will of the Lover and more obedient to His voice.

We end our reflections on the verses above with a prayer imploring Our Lover to intensify His love for us and stir in us a spirit of obedience, righteousness and docility to His will in our lives, in Christ’s name.  

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Power of the Gospel

A few years ago, I used to teach at a high school in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Al Ain is one of the seven emirates that make up the UAE. The country is located in the gulf region, and despite its receptiveness of people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, Islamic extremism is still rampant, while varying in degrees from the most ultra-orthodox to the more moderate, yet practicing Muslims. In the midst of this setting, I would conduct my affairs, going to school, shopping at the grocery store, and even offering private English lessons to high school students. One of my clients was a Grade 10 student, who was originally from Palestine, and judging by the full hijab and traditional Islamic dress she would wear, she took her faith seriously. She needed help with her novel, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

There is a love triangle in this novel between three characters, Charles Darnay, Lucy Manette and Sydney Carton who has a great physical resemblance to Charles Darnay. Carton is in love with Lucy, while Lucy loves Darnay and later marries him. The settings are England and France during the years of the French Revolution. I read the novel for my student in the course of a month. At the end of the novel, Darnay, being an aristocrat, is imprisoned in France. Without fully disclosing his plans to anyone, Carton’s love for Lucy makes him decide to take Darnay’s place in prison. Carton visits Darnay and exhorts him to exchange his clothing with those Carton is wearing. Quietly and without much explanation, Carton slips into the convicted man’s clothing and takes his place in the guillotine, while Darnay, in full dismay, puts on Carton’s clothes, leaves the prison, and returns to his wife a free man.  As I was reading this part, I could see my student from the corner of my eyes rushing to wipe off her silent tears, which came streaming down her cheeks.

In the background of Dickens’ narrative, there is a clear allusion to the universal theme of Redemption, where a person lays down his life to save the lives of those whom he loves. There is something special about Redemption, something that speaks to the core of our being regardless of our cultural, religious or ethnic backgrounds, and regardless of all the confusion, chaos and perplexity the postmodern society has wrought upon us, we can still recognize a good story of redemption when we hear one. This was definitely the story of Vicky Soto, a first-grade teacher who hid her students in the closet and told the killer that they’re in the gym, which prompted him to pull the trigger on her. Her heroic action has sparked endless tributes that flooded the social media, demonstrating a great sense of devotion, gratitude, and appreciation. Suddenly, online public forums became empty of all polemics and bitter fighting over dogmatic views and were filled with a unifying gesture of love and admiration for the heroine.  

The reaction to the horrifying incident at Sandy Hook Elementary School is almost identical to my student’s reaction to the selfless sacrifice of Sydney Carton. Both incidents stir an emotional response that lauds the person sacrificing himself (or herself) for others. Ms. Soto’s sacrifice, like that of Sydney Carton, embodies an idealized sentiment of profound love that is often missing in our modern, selfish society.  However, the biggest commonality between these two narratives is they both echo the greatest sacrifice of them all, that of Our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross. In essence, it is Christ’s sacrifice that sets a model, an example or a pattern; every time this model is mirrored, every time this pattern is repeated, it is capable of rousing the hardest of hearts and the gravest of sinners into a noble, dignified and righteous spirit. These examples of Christ’s sacrifice are reminders of a longing that is imprinted on every heart, calling back every sinner to Christ’s love and inviting them to consider their eternal salvation. Unfortunately, often times these reminders go amiss, and the voice of God amidst the narrative is ignored or unrecognized.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

To the Sinners, to Make Much of Time

---I hope Robert Herrick will not sue me---

Gather ye sinners while ye may
             Old time is still a-flying
And this lamb that ye behold today
            Tomorrow will be a lion

The great big lie, the worldly riches
            Will never be fulfilling
Like the chasing of the wind
Vain is all your tilling

Come to Christ, the only Way
            Faith, hope and love will fill your morrow
Earthly wisdom is deceiving
And much knowledge brings much sorrow

Tarry not, but know thy Saviour
            before ‘tis late for day is spent;
Night will come with all its terror
            and His knocking forever end

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Twenty One Saint Everyone Must Know III - I

XXI - XIX Saints Gregory the Great, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp
XVIII - XVI Saints Jerome, John Chrysostom, Elijah
XV - XIII Saints Therese of Lisieux, Teresia Benedicta, Teresa of Avila
XII - X Saints John of the Cross, Benedict of Nursia, Thomas Aquinas
IX - VII Saints Sultana Mahdokht, Dominic, Monica
VI - IV Saints Augustine, John the Apostle, John the Baptist

St. Paul
 3-St. Paul (5 AD – 67 AD) [Martyr]
The “Apostle to the Gentiles” has seen his share of “trouble,” “hardship,” “persecution,” “famine,” “nakedness,” “danger” and “sword” (Galatians 2:8, Romans 8:35). While others boast in their lineage and all matters that pertain to the “flesh,” St. Paul finds all these “rubbish” for the sake of “knowing” Christ (Philippians 3:8).  His sole desire is to “know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his suffering” (Philippians 3:10). Pain is not something that an average person would seek. Rather, only those who have tasted the profound and intense love of Christ can wish to share with His suffering. Victory cannot be achieved without a fight, nor can any prize be won without a struggle. Eternity is no different. It is “through many hardships” that “we enter the Kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). The suffering we experience in our lives serves many purposes given that we suffer for righteousness’ sake. One purpose is that “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance produces character; and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3,4). In turn, “hope” in Christ “will never put us to shame” (Romans 5:5). St. Paul thinks that suffering “for Christ” is “granted” to us as a gift and not a punishment (Philippians 1:29). Of course, that does not mean that we suffer aimlessly. Instead, we unite our suffering with Christ’s pain on the cross to “fill up” in our “flesh what is lacking in Christ’s affliction for the sake of His Chruch” (Colossians 1:24). Indeed, it is a great gift and privilege to suffer with Jesus for the sake of the salvation of humanity. In this sense, all those who suffer with Christ are co-redeemers because they participate in His sacrifice on the cross.  This is the ultimate purpose of suffering in a believer’s life. The tiniest pain a person undergoes is magnified a hundred fold when it is united with Christ’s suffering on the cross for the salvation of souls. We “glory” and “rejoice” in our sufferings knowing that our eternal reward is far greater than the biggest pain in our lives (Romans 5:3, Mathew 5:12). Having said all this, it would be foolish to attempt to understand anything that St. Paul has written without seeking his help and his intercession. His writings “contain things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction” (1 Peter 3:16). For this reason, anything St. Paul has written is not meant for “private interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20).  Instead, we must “keep the traditions” that he “passed down” to us, whether orally, “by word of mouth,” or in his writings through his “letters” (1 Corinthians 11:2, 2 Thessalonians 2:15).  Throughout the centuries, St. Paul has been a great teacher and preacher.

St. Peter
2-St. Peter the Apostle (1 BC – 64 AD) [Martyr]
The first Pope who is ordained by Our Lord is definitely a worthy servant of God whose intercession we should beseech at all times (Mathew 16:18). St. Peter knows from experience that we human beings are frail, flimsy and fragile. For this reason, he “rejoices” every time he sees a sinner standing up again and resuming his fight for his salvation (Luke 15:7). In fact, he is more than willing to help you back up on your feet and “encourage” you when you find yourself empty of any strength to bear your cross (1 Peter 5:12). The interesting thing about St. Peter is that he is not just the first Bishop of Rome, but also the first bishop of a very important See, the See of Antioch, which has had a tremendous influence on the Christian school of thought. When Our Lord gives Peter the “keys of the kingdom of heaven,” He is making a direct reference to an incident that takes place in the Book of Isaiah (Mathew 16:19). During the reign of Hezekiah, Shebna’s poor performance and selfish pursuits as the “steward” of the King’s household incurs God’s punishment on him (Isaiah 22:15). God promises that He will “depose” Shebna “from his office,” and install a new steward over the “master’s household” (Isaiah 22:18,19). The new steward is Eliakim son of Hilkiah, who is given the “key to the house of David,” and “what he opens, no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open” (Isaiah 22:22). Christ expresses the identical sentiment towards St. Peter when he gives Peter the “keys of the kingdom of heaven.” Moreover, Christ clearly says that “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Mathew 16:19). This is a key passage to understanding the nature of Peter’s relationship with Our Lord. God is the Master, and the Church is His household. Christ give Peter the “keys” to indicate that St. Peter is the steward of God’s household, the Church, which is a clear indication that St. Peter, as Christ’s steward here on earth, has a primacy over the House of God, the Church. In the year 64 A.D, the flames devour Rome, and Nero attempts to find a scapegoat that will bear the blame. He uses this incident to rid Rome of all Christians. St. Peter finds an escape route, and he flees the persecution that Nero hurls down at Christians by crucifying them. On his way, St. Peter encounters the risen Lord walking the opposite direction, towards the city of Rome. He poses a question to the Risen Christ using the same words from John 13:36, “Quo Vadis,” (where are you going) to which Our Lord answers “Romam vado iterum crucifigi,” (I am going to Rome to be crucified again). Seeing this, St. Peter gains the courage to go back and face crucifixion. However, he feels unworthy to take the cross in the same posture as Our Lord. Instead, he chooses to be crucified upside down.

Blessed Virgin Mary
1-The Blessed Virgin Mary (late 1st c. BC – early 1st century AD)
Our Holy Mother is the Queen of all Saints. Her powerful intercession on our behalf is never rejected or turned down by the Blessed Trinity. She plays a special role in the Salvation History. She brings Christ into this world willingly (Luke 1:38); she will happily take your pleas and your petitions to Him. If you’re looking for Scriptural proof, look no further than the wedding at Cana (Click here and here). As soon as the wine runs out, she intervenes and petitions her son and her God to perform “the first of his miraculous signs” (John 2:11).  Of course, in order for our prayers to be answered, first we must follow her advice and “do whatever He tells” us (John 2:5).  The Immaculately Conceived “woman” is so powerful that “flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a great hailstorm” announce her appearance (Revelation 11:19, 12:1).  Satan knows the privileges she enjoys in heaven, which is precisely why he will convince you to stop saying your Hail Marys.  After his failed attempt of destroying the holy “Mother” of the “Lord,” he goes “off to make war against the rest of her offspring – those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus” (Luke 1:43, Revelation 12:17). As a result of God’s love for us, He does not leave us without a heavenly mother. Rather, He gives us Our holy “mother” as a wonderful gift for us to enjoy her maternal love and care (John 19:27). Often times, Catholics make a claim that seems to dismay our Protestant friends. We think that “She will crush” the “head” of the “Serpent” (Genesis 3:15). St. Jerome uses “She,” referring to the Blessed Virgin, in the Protoevangelium (Genesis 3:15), when he translates the original text into Latin during the 4th century to indicate the one who will destroy Satan. Of course, he does not mean that Mother Mary has powers of her own and through her own strength she overcomes Satan. Instead, it is by her obedience and submission to the will of God, who uses her to fulfill His plan of salvation, that she is able to crush Satan under her feet. Through her cooperation with God’s salvific plan, Our Holy Mother participates in the act of Redemption of mankind. God chooses her to bring about Christ on earth, who in turn saves mankind through the cross. Having this enormous privilege, which no other human being has even come close to, the Blessed Virgin enjoys a special intercessory powers that no other Saint has had or ever will have. Do not be afraid to ask Our Holy Mother for her prayers because she loves you more than your earthly mother will ever be capable of loving you. This “woman,” who is prophesied about in Genesis, gives birth to the Saviour willingly and generously (Genesis 3:15, John 2:4, Galatians 4:4). No other character, aside from Our Lord, did the Scriptures refer to more than the Theotokos, the Mother of God. I’ll be sure to revisit her again in some future blog post.

This concludes the list of Saints that everyone must know and whose intercession we must all seek. May the prayers of these holy men and women protect us from all harm and guide us into eternal joy with Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Twenty One Saints Everyone Must Know VI - IV

XXI - XIX Saints Gregory the Great, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp
XVIII - XIV Saints Jerome, John Chrysostom, Elijah
XV - XIII Saints Therese of Lisieux, Teresia Benedicta, Teresa of Avila 
XII - X Saints John of the Cross, Benedict of Nursia, Thomas Aquinas
IX - VII Saints Sultana Mahdokht, St. Dominic, St. Monica

St. Augustine of Hippo
6-St. Augustine (354 AD – 430 AD) [Doctor of the Church]
The few lines I will write here will do a great injustice to a man like St. Augustine because I can never describe the magnitude of the influence he has had on the entire development of human thought. He is a Doctor of the Church, and his contributions to the doctrine of the Catholic faith are too numerous to be counted. St. Augustine is born to a Christian mother, St. Monica, and a non-believing father who is later baptized on his deathbed. Throughout his life, he embraces and repudiates various philosophies. In his late teens, he is drawn to the Manichean heresy, a sect that combines Christian elements with that of Babylonian, Judaic and Gnostic religions. Manichaeism sees the universe as a duality consisting of matter and spirit. All matter is evil, while all spirit is good. As time passes, St. Augustine’s continuous fascination with sin and the meaning of evil prompts him to reject the simplistic explanations of Manichaeism.  By profession, he is a teacher of Rhetoric. Throughout his life, he is caught up in a life of licentiousness and promiscuity. However, his burning desire for the Truth remains with him, and he realizes that his lower appetites are a barrier to his pursuit of the metaphysical Truth. He studies the Bible thoroughly. While in Rome, he and his friend Alypius host a friend who tells them about the life St. Anthony, a desert monk. Suddenly, St. Augustine feels his heart burning within him for a life of asceticism and renunciation. He leaves his friend Alypius and goes to the garden alone. There, he begins to weep greatly to express the great conflict in his heart between his carnal desires and his pursuit of the Truth. The most difficult obstacle for him to overcome is achieving continence. The thoughts passing through his head at this time are ‘How long shall I go on saying “tomorrow, tomorrow”? Why not now? Why not make an end of my ugly sins at this moment?’ (Confessions VIII, 12). While he asks these questions, he hears the voice of a child. Let me give you his own account:

I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when, lo, I heard the voice as of a boy or girl, I know not which, coming from a neighbouring house, chanting, and oft repeating, Take up and read; take up and read. Immediately my countenance was changed, and I began most earnestly to consider whether it was usual for children in any kind of game to sing such words; nor could I remember ever to have heard the like. So, restraining the torrent of my tears, I rose up, interpreting it no other way than as a command to me from Heaven to open the book, and to read the first chapter I should light upon. For I had heard of Antony, that, accidentally coming in while the gospel was being read, he received the admonition as if what was read were addressed to him, “Go and sell that you have, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me” (Mathew 19:21). And by such oracle was he immediately converted unto You. So quickly I returned to the place where Alypius was sitting; for there had I put down the volume of the apostles , when I rose thence. I grasped, opened, and in silence read that paragraph on which my eyes first fell—“Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof” (Romans 13:13-14). No further would I read, nor did I need; for instantly, as the sentence ended—by a light, as it were, of security infused into my heart—all the gloom of doubts vanished away (Confessions VIII, 12).

Thus St. Augustine is thoroughly converted to Christianity. After being baptized by St. Ambrose of Milan, he embraces a life of celibacy. His writings have influenced the western hemisphere for centuries. If anyone is seeking Truth earnestly, I recommend this Saint. He is my personal favourite.

St. John the Apostle
5-St. John the Apostle (c. 6 AD – c. 100 AD)
This man truly understands love because it is the concept that he discusses the most in his gospel and three letters. For St. John, love is not strictly an emotional undertaking that is expressed by words and feelings. Instead, it is the active participation in Christ’s sufferings.  We do not love with “words,” but with “actions” (1 John 3:18).  This is where the line is drawn between true love and some fake, sentimental feeling. True love demonstrates itself in our deeds. We make a conscious decision to obey Our Lord regardless of how we feel or think. Moreover, all love is to be measured against the ultimate act of love performed by God on the cross for us. If it is anything less than sacrificial, then it is inferior to what Christ gave us because “there is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for a friend” (John 15:13).  Somewhere else, St. John writes, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). This is further proof of Christ’s divinity. If “God is love,” and no one has “greater love” for us than Christ, then Christ is God. After embracing this profound love, a human soul finds itself prepared to give itself for the benefit of others. As a result, we waste ourselves for others.  Our identity is shaped by this love. We demonstrate it at work, in school, on the streets and at home. Another important concept in St. John’s writings is the idea of being “born again” (John 3:5). The first birth is from our parents; the second birth is achieved by “water” and “Spirit,” which is the Sacrament of Baptism (John 3:5).  Baptism washes our soul from Original Sin, and it allows us to enter the Kingdom of God. It is the doorway to other Sacraments, namely the Eucharist. St. John’s gospel imitates the style of the Book of Genesis and its creation narrative. The first creation in Genesis is a physical one, which is later subject to the Fall of humanity through which death and suffering enter the world. However, the second creation narrative written by St. John is a spiritual creation that reveals the work of God in humanity. God’s aim is to save humanity, and He does not accomplish it by fixing the old, but rather, He recreates humanity again.  Those who are not “born again” will die twice, while those who are “born again” will die only once. First death is the separation of soul and body, and the second one is the eternal separation of the soul from God. Therefore, born once, die twice; born twice, die once. Without the second birth, no one can “enter” heaven (John 3:5).  St. John is the “disciple whom Jesus loved the most” (John 13:23). 

St. John the Baptist
4-St. John the Baptist (5 BC – 28 AD) [Martyr]
Few men can be compared with this fearless prophet. St. John the Baptist’s ascetic way of life underlines his vision for the future Kingdom where he will be spending his eternity. Rather than wasting time worrying about what to “eat,” what to “drink” or what to “wear,” he runs off to the desert seeking God’s “Kingdom” and His “righteousness” (Mathew 6:33). His diet consists of “locusts and wild honey” (Mark 1:6). When standing in front of vicious tyrants, we find him unafraid of declaring God’s judgment and righteousness. King Herod falls in love with Herodias, his brother’s wife, while his brother is still alive. St. John tells him that “it is unlawful” to “take his brother’s wife” (Mark 6:18).  Herodias in turn holds a “grudge” against John and convinces Herod to “chop off” his head as a reward for the sexual favour rendered to Herod by Herodias’ daughter (Mark 6:19,27). The sense of perversion and depravity in Herod’s circle is especially underlined when the niece gratifies her uncle’s sexual cravings and convinces him to marry her mother.  Nonetheless, the “greatest man born of a woman” announces the truth of God bravely and earnestly regardless of how unpopular and rejected it may be (Luke 7:28). How many of us today are ashamed to speak out against abortion, contraception or homosexual acts because our position is unpopular? St. John is especially singled out because he is one of the three characters from the New Testament whose coming is prophesied in the Old Testament. Of course, the other two characters are the Blessed Virgin and Lord Jesus. To be grouped among the holy names of Jesus and Mary is a tremendous honour bestowed on a human being. As already noted, St. John’s coming is already foreshadowed by Prophet Elijah. The two characters have many common attributes. Moreover, the Old Testament announces the coming of St. John on more than one occasion. Prophet Malachi says that a “messenger” will “prepare” the way for God (Malachi 3:1). Again, Isaiah says about St. John that there is going to be “a voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘prepare the way for the Lord’” (Isaiah 40:3). May the intercession of this holy prophet, martyr and saint grant us the courage to declare God’s words everywhere we go.


Monday, December 10, 2012

Twenty One Saints Everyone Must Know IX - VII

XXI - XIX Saints Gregory the Great, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp
XVIII - XVI Saints Jerome, John Chrysostom, Elijah
XV - XIII Saints Therese of Lisieux, Teresia Benedicta, Teresa of Avila
XII - X Saints John of the Cross, Benedict of Nursia, Thomas Aquinas

St. Sultana Mahdokht with her brothers and St. Abda
9-St. Sultana Mahdokht (? - 319 AD) [Martyr]
 On the Iraqi-Turkish border, approximately 60 KM northeast of the city of Dohuk is a valley called Sapna. The valley is towered by Matena Mountain from the north and Cara Mountain from the south. Nestled in this green valley is an old Chaldean village called Araden. The name of the village comes from old Aramaic language meaning the Land of Eden or Garden of Eden, signifying the beautiful natural scenery that adorns the area.  There is a church in this village that dates back to the early 4th century, around the year 325 A.D.  It is named after St. Sultana Mahdokht, whose Feast Day is celebrated on January 12th in the liturgical calendars of the Chaldean Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church of the East. Sultana Mahdokht is the sister of Meharnarsa and Adorfrowa. Their father is Prince Pholar, who is in charge of the Dorsas principality during the reign of King Shapur II of the Sassanid Empire.  Pholar is given orders by King Shapur to round up all Christians for interrogation, and put them to death if they do not renounce Christ. Sultana’s beauty and education gain fame throughout the entire Persian Empire, and she is scheduled to appear before the King’s representative who is to assess her and report back to the King. After the meeting takes place, the representative is extremely impressed with the character, beauty and knowledge of the princess and her brothers. On their way back home, they begin racing; the horse of the youngest, Meharnarasa, falls down and the prince’s thighbone is almost completely detached from the rest of his body sending him into a coma. While in this dire condition, the Bishop of a nearby village appears in the scene and is taken with compassion for the wailing princess and her brother. He kneels down and begins praying for the injured prince.  A short while afterwards, the prince is revived and the leg is reattached to the body by the prayers of the Bishop. Meharnarsa tells his brother and sister about the vision he has while in a coma. He sees the Bishop kneeling before the throne of Christ asking for the prince’s life, a request to which Christ consents. Sultana and her two brothers embrace the faith and ask to be baptized. They find themselves a cave somewhere nearby to dwell in where they remain hidden from their father’s search and rescue attempts. All sorts of spiritual gifts are given to them while living in this cave, including the gift of healing and prophesy. Three years later, as their end draws near, God sends them two angels to notify them of their imminent martyrdom. This is when a wandering horse leads two stable boys belonging to their father to the cave. The three Saints recognize the horse and the stable boys and ask the two boys to inform their father of what they have seen. Prince Pholar makes numerous failed attempts to retrieve his lost children. At this point, King Shapur has heard about Sultana’s beauty and has declared to Pholar his intentions to marry her. In every attempt Pholar makes to bring his children back, a miraculous intervention transpires that prevents his troops either from harming Sultana and her brothers or apprehending them and bringing them into custody. Finally, after the power of God becomes clearly manifest in the three Saints, they give themselves up for decapitation in the presence of their mournful father. The troops hesitate to carry out the sentence, which is issued directly by the King after finding out about their apostasy from Zoroastrianism and embracing the Christian faith. The three Saints offer to protect anyone who decapitates them. The eldest son is beheaded first, then Mehernarsa and finally Sultana Mahdokht embraces her fate joyfully instead of denouncing Christ and marrying the King of Persia. Their remains are kept in the church mentioned above located in the village of Araden. This church is built on the same ground where these holy martyrs are slain.  St. Sultana Mahdokht has performed miracles that are too many to be listed here. My own mother has seen the fruits of devotion to this holy Saint in a form of a healing from an illness the doctors could not resolve. St. Sultana Mahdokht has granted prayers of barren women who could never conceive. Her prayers of intercession have healed many sick people in the village as well as devotees from other places. May her prayers accompany us everywhere and give us the same courage to witness for Christ as she so bravely has done 17 centuries ago.  The village of Araden happens to be my village where I come from.

St. Dominic
8-St. Dominic (1170 AD – 1221 AD) The truth is we do not know much about this Saint. Of all his writings, little to nothing has survived to this day. However, his legacy has come down to us in a form of a vibrant and lively Order named after him.  His orthodoxy in a time of rampant heresy throughout Europe is inspiring.  He travels through Europe establishing different priories and houses for the Order of Preachers to defeat the Cathari heresy, which has its root from the different Gnostic philosophies that appear in the 1st century A.D. The Catharis round up multitudes of converts by utilizing on the wickedness of some clergy in the Church and using the sinful behaviour of Catholic clerics as a catalyst to spur the adherents of the Catholic faith into abandoning the Church and joining their heresy. Closely tied to Manichaeism, the Catharis teach that the universe consists of a duality, which is made of matter and spirit. Everything physical is wicked and must be treated as sinful, whereas only the spirit is good, and it must be protected from the flesh. Contrary to this view, the Catholic Church teaches that God created all things. Therefore, all things are good, including our bodies and all physical matter around us as well. However, due to Original Sin, our bodies have become corrupt. This corruption is not so extensive that our bodies cannot be salvaged. Rather, through God’s grace offered to us by the Sacraments, we are able to salvage our bodies and temper their rebellious passions, mending their unruly cravings, thereby redeeming our bodies and spirits as well. In fact, all matter in this universe is redeemed too. In Christianity, evil is not really a substance per se. Instead, evil is a corruption of good. The Dominican theology has been taught for 2000 years by the Catholic Church. St. Dominic’s inspiring sermons have won back many wayward Christians who have abandoned the Church. His order has produced numerous Saints, among which the most famous being St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Sienna, St. Louis de Montfort, and St. Rose of Lima. May the zeal of this fervent preacher inspire us to love the sinners and desire their salvation.

St. Monica praying for her son, St. Augustin
 7-St. Monica (331 AD – 387 AD)
She is the mother of St. Augustine. St. Monica always reminds me of a faithful mother who can never bear the thought of her son, the child who has issued forth from her womb, suffering eternal damnation because of his rejection of the Gospel. This painful truth makes her cry and weep intensely. She visits St. Ambrose repeatedly to petition him to intervene in her son’s case. Finally, St. Ambrose famously responds, “woman the child of those tears will never perish” (Confessions, III, 12).  For 20 years she continues praying, crying and imploring God to save her son. This sentiment embodies the perfect love of a mother and the sweet maternal instinct in a woman who has set her priorities straight. It is good for a mother to offer food and other necessities to her children, but their eternal destiny comes first and foremost. It is more important than even the children’s life on this earth. Out of her loving concern for her rebellious son, she travels to Rome, then Milan. After her son is baptized into the Catholic Church, she speaks these words to St. Augustine, “Son, for myself, I have no longer any pleasure in anything in this life. What I want here further, and why I am here, I know not, now that my hopes in this world are satisfied. There was indeed one thing for which I wished to tarry a little in this life, and that was that I might see you a Catholic Christian before I died. My God has exceeded this abundantly, so that I see you despising all earthly felicity, made His servant—what do I here?” (Confessions IX, 10).  Shortly after, she fell ill, and on her deathbed, she says to her two sons, “Lay this body anywhere, let not the care for it trouble you at all. This only I ask, that you will remember me at the Lord's altar, wherever you be” (Confessions IX, 11). 

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Twenty One Saints Everyone Must Know XII - X

XXI - XIX Saints Gregory the Great, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp
XVIII - XVI Saints Jerome, John Chrysostom, Elijah
XV - XIII Saints Therese of Lisieux, Teresia Benedicta, Teresa of Avila

St. John of the Cross
12-St. John of the Cross (1542 AD - 1591 AD) [Doctor of the Church] Along with St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross is responsible for reforming the old Carmelite order and founding the Order of the Discalced Carmelites. The term discalced refers to a person who is barefooted, which in turn signifies the poverty in which the members of this Order live. The charism of this Order is mainly contemplative prayer. St. John of the Cross writes his spiritual masterpiece, the Dark Night of the Soul, to elaborate on the spiritual experience that we encounter in our path to a complete union with God. After achieving some success in our spiritual undertaking and having attained some mastery over the Seven Deadly Sins, God retracts His Spirit and leaves us in a complete desolation and aridity. This happens after the soul has tasted the profound love of God and the beauty and wonder of His delightful presence. As a result, the “wounded soul” is plunged deep into despair and misery (Dark Night of the Soul, Book II, Chapter xiii, Paragraph 8). Contrary to what a believer may think when undergoing such experience, God is actually infusing an abundant grace into this soul to provide it with enough strength enabling it to overcome its weaknesses and imperfections. At the time, the soul may imagine all sorts of horrifying possibilities while attempting to explain the aridity it experiences. It may think that God, her sole lover, has “abandoned” her due to her imperfections and wickedness (Dark Night of the Soul Book I, Chapter x, Paragraph 1). This prospect sends the soul into frenzy. It becomes terrified, scared and frightened of what its end might be. Little does the soul know that God is actually crowning her with new graces to bring her closer to a full union with Him. According to St. John, some souls experience two such Nights (not restricted to a period of time between evening and morning but rather it may be an extended period of time). The first one is harsh, and it is the lot of many. However the second one is far more severe and few people experience it. The entire process is intended to purify, purge and cleanse the soul of its imperfections. The first Night, which is the less severe, serves to cleanse the senses, while the second Night, frightening and dreadful as it may be, purges the spirit, bringing it even closer to God. If you are experiencing such Nights, then St. John of the Cross urges you to offer yourself completely and wholly to God’s work in you. Remain passive and docile to God’s work until He decides it is time to offer you some consolation or delight, depending on which Night you are experiencing, to help you continue on the path towards Him. St. John of the Cross has been a personal guide for me in certain periods of my life. For that, I am forever indebted to him.

St. Benedict of Nursia
11-St. Benedict of Nursia (480 AD – 547 AD)
St. Benedict is another man whose writings never made it down to our time. His only writing that has survived is his Rule, the Rule of St. Benedict. Everything we know about St. Benedict is passed down to us in a book written by St. Gregory the Great titled The Dialogues. St. Benedict is widely recognized as the founder of western monasticism. His ascetic lifestyle is very similar to the life of the Desert Fathers who wander into the desert to live a life of solitude, austerity and prayer. His authority over evil spirits is noteworthy.  At one time while he is tempted with the sin of flesh, he finds a thorn bush and throws himself on it while naked (do not try this at home) “and there wallowed so long that, when he rose up, all his flesh was pitifully torn” (Dialogues II, 2). Thus he is determined to defend his purity. Of all the great miracles this holy man has performed, nothing surpasses the establishment of the first monastic Order in the west. The Benedictines today are widespread throughout Europe and North America as well as wherever the Catholic Church is present. I like St. Benedict because his lifestyle is closely related to that of St. John the Baptist and Prophet Elijah, which we will read about shortly.  His renunciation of worldly pleasure of any sort is truly commendable. Another story that has been engraved onto my mind is that of his sister, St. Scholastica. After many years of separation, the two finally meet again together alone in a building not very far from his Abbey. The two spend a great deal of time speaking of spiritual matters and things of heaven. The time comes when St. Benedict has to leave, but his sister insists that he stay a little longer. St. Benedict refuses to stay a second longer. St. Scholastica puts her head down in prayer, and as soon as she raises it, storms and thunders fill the sky, making it impossible for her brother to depart at that hour. Seeing this, St. Benedicts looks at his sister and says, “God forgive you, what have you done?” (Dialogues, II, 33). They end up spending the entire night comforting each other with matters of heaven. The next day, St. Scholastica leaves to her Nunnery, and three days later, her brother sees her soul going up to heaven like a dove.

St. Thomas Aquinas
10-St. Thomas Aquinas (1225 AD – 1274 AD) [Doctor of the Church]
It is only apt that I should include the Angelic Doctor in this list because, along with St. Augustine, his writings are the most frequently cited sources in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. His Summa Theologica treats almost every subject under the sun that deals with the science of philosophy. For centuries, atheists have been attempting to disprove God’s existence. Unfortunately for them, they have to wrestle against the five proofs St. Aquinas has posited in his Summa. So far they’ve been unsuccessful. Any theist wanting to bolster his arguments is bound to resort to St. Aquinas in one way or another. The most prominent of those today who engage the atheists in public debates (I would count Dr. William Lane Craig being the most voracious of them) use the same arguments, perhaps sometimes tailored and modified in one way or another. St. Aquinas’ thorough knowledge of the Scriptures has gained him a great deal of affection and respect not just among the Catholics, but also among the Protestants as well. One thing about St. Thomas is that he is always very protective of his chastity. His family attempt to dissuade him from pursuing religious life. They send a prostitute to his chamber to seduce him. He takes a burning log and chases her out of the room. Once he returns to his room, two angels appear to him and gird him with a chord of chastity, a testament of his purity of body and soul. St. Aquinas is the Patron Saint of all scholars and students.