December 31, 2009

In the 4th and 5th centuries debates about the nature of Christ raged in the Church. The debate was about the relationship of Christ’s divine and human natures. At the center of this debate was a title of Mary. Since at least the 3rd century, Christians had referred to Mary as theotokos, meaning “God-bearer.” The first documented usage of the term is in the writings of Origen of Alexandria in AD 230. Related to theotokos, Mary was called the mother of God. Referring to Mary this way was popular in Christian piety, but the patriarch of Constantinople from 428-431, Nestorius, objected. He suggested that Mary was only the mother of Jesus’ human nature, but not his divine nature. Nestorius’ ideas (or at least how others perceived his arguments) were condemned at the Council of Ephesus in AD 431, and again at the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451. The Church decided that Christ was fully God and fully human, and these natures were united in one person, Jesus Christ. Thus Mary could be called “mother of God” since she gave birth to Jesus who was fully divine as well as human. Since this time, Mary has been frequently honored as the “mother of God” by Catholics, Orthodox, and many Protestants.

The Solemnity of Mary Mother of God falls exactly one week after Christmas, the end of the octave of Christmas. It is fitting to honor Mary as Mother of Jesus, following the birth of Christ. When Catholics celebrate the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God we are not only honoring Mary, who was chosen among all women throughout history to bear God incarnate, but we are also honoring our Lord, who is fully God and fully human. Calling Mary “mother of God” is the highest honor we can give Mary. Just as Christmas honors Jesus as the “Prince of Peace,” the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God honors Mary as the “Queen of Peace” This solemnity, falling on New Year’s Day, is also designated the World Day of Peace.

The origins of a feast celebrating Mary’s divine maternity are obscure, but there is some evidence of ancient feasts commemorating Mary’s role as theotokos. Around 500 AD the Eastern Church celebrated a “Day of the Theotokos” either before or after Christmas. This celebration eventually evolved into a Marian feast on December 26th in the Byzantine calendar and January 16th in the Coptic calendar. In the West, Christmas has generally been celebrated with an octave, an eight day extension of the feast. The Gregorian and Roman calendars of the 7th century mark the Christmas octave day with a strong Marian emphasis. However, eventually in the West, the eighth day of the octave of Christmas was celebrated as the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus. The push for an official feast day celebrating Mary’s divine maternity started in Portugal, and in 1751 Pope Benedict XIV allowed Portugal’s churches to celebrate Mary’s divine maternity on the first Sunday in May. The feast was eventually extended to other countries, and by 1914 was being celebrated on October 11. The feast of Mary’s divine maternity became a universal feast in 1931.

However, following Vatican II, Pope Paul VI decided to change the feast of Jesus’ Circumcision to the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God to reclaim the ancient Western Marian emphasis at the end of the Octave of Christmas. Celebrating Mary’s divine maternity during the Christmas octave makes complete sense in that the celebration is connected closely to Christ’s birth. Pope Paul VI gave his reasoning for the change:

In the revised arrangement of the Christmas season, we should all turn with one mind to the restored solemnity of the Mother of God. This feast was entered into the calendar in the liturgy of the city of Rome for the first day of January. The purpose of the celebration is to honor the role of Mary in the mystery of salvation and at the same time to sing the praises of the unique dignity thus coming to “the Holy Mother…through whom we have been given the gift of the Author of life.” This same solemnity also offers an excellent opportunity to renew the adoration rightfully to be shown to the newborn Prince of Peace, as we once again hear the good tidings of great joy and pray to God, through the intercession of the Queen of Peace, for the priceless gift of peace. Because of these considerations and the fact that the octave of Christmas coincides with a day of hope, New Year’s Day, we have assigned to it the observance of the World Day of Peace (Paul VI, Marialis Cultus, Feb. 2, 1974, no.5).

Thus Pope Paul VI highlighted the feast’s celebration of both Mary and Jesus. He also noted the connection to New Year’s Day and Mary’s role as Queen of Peace. January 1st, the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God is also the observed “World Day of Peace.”


Tara (Sanskrit, “star”) is a Buddhist savior-goddess especially popular in Tibet, Nepal and Mongolia. In Tibet, where Tara is the most important deity, her name is Sgrol-ma, meaning “she who saves.” The mantra of Tara (om tare tuttare ture svaha) is the second most common mantra heard in Tibet, after the mantra of Chenrezi (om mani padme hum).  

The goddess of universal compassion, Tara represents virtuous and enlightened action. It is said that her compassion for living beings is stronger than a mother’s love for her children. She also brings about longevity, protects earthly travel, and guards her followers on their spiritual journey to enlightenment.

efore she was adopted by Buddhism, Tara was worshipped in Hinduism as a manifestation of the goddess Parvati. The feminine principle was not venerated in Buddhism until the fourth century CE, and Tara probably entered Buddhism around the sixth century CE.

According to Buddhist tradition, Tara was born out of the tears of compassion of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. It is said that he wept as he looked upon the world of suffering beings, and his tears formed a lake in which a lotus sprung up. When the lotus opened, the goddess Tara was revealed.

A similar tradition has White Tara born from the tears of Avalokiteshvara’s left eye and the Green Tara born from those of his right. In a third legend, Tara was born from a beam of blue light emanating from one of the eyes of Avalokiteshvara. Tara is also the consort of Avalokiteshvara.

Green Tara, with her half-open lotus, represents the night, and White Tara, with her lotus in full bloom, symbolizes the day. Green Tara embodies virtuous activity while White Tara displays serenity and grace. Together, the Green and White Taras symbolize the unending compassion of the goddess who labors day and night to relieve suffering.

In seventh-century Tibet, Tara was believed to be incarnated in every pious woman. She especially came to be associated with two historical wives of the first Buddhist king of Tibet, Srong-brtsan-sgam-po (d. 649). His wife from imperial China was said to be an incarnation of White Tara, while the king’s Nepalese wife was an incarnation of Green Tara. It may be that the desire to regard both these pious women as incarnations of Tara led to the concept of the goddess’s green and white forms.

Green Tara (Sanskrit: Syamatara; Tibetan: Sgrol-ljang), filled with youthful vigor, is a goddess of activity. She is the fiercer form of Tara, but is still a savior-goddess of compassion. She is the consort of Avalokiteshvara and considered by some to be the original Tara. Like Avalokiteshvara, the Green Tara is believed to be an emanation of the “self-born” Buddha Amitabha, and an image of Amitabha is sometimes depicted in Tara’s headdress.

Green Tara is believed to have been incarnated as the Nepali wife of the Tibetan king Srong-brtsan-sgam-po. In Buddhism, the color green signifies activity and accomplishment. Thus Amoghasiddhi, the Lord of Action, is also associted with the color green.

Green Tara is iconographically depicted in a posture of ease and readiness for action. While her left leg is folded in the contemplative position, her right leg is outstretched, ready to spring into action. Green Tara’s left hand is in the refuge-granting mudra (gesture); her right hand makes the boon-granting gesture. In her hands she also holds closed blue lotuses (utpalas), which symbolize purity and power. She is adorned with the rich jewels of a bodhisattva.

In Buddhist religious practice, Green Tara’s primary role is savioress. She is believed to help her followers overcome dangers, fears and anxieties, and she is especially worshipped for her ability to overcome the most difficult of situations. Green Tara is intensely compassionate and acts quickly to help those who call upon her.

In the Stillness Dancing

December 30, 2009

Today is the 27th anniversary of the death of the Benedictine John Main. There is something extraordinary about his writing … well worth getting hold of his books. The words he uses are clearly the fruit of the most profound silence. His words are filled with spirit, life and meaning. Some of his books I have read many times yet each time they possess a new authority, they present a new claim that I have to meditate. 

This is the Wikipedia article about him, ‘Dom John Main, O.S.B. (1926–1982), was a Benedictine monk and priest who presented a way of Christian meditation which utilized the practice of a prayer-phrase or mantra. In 1975, Dom Main began Christian meditation groups at his monastery in London, England and, later, in Montreal, Canada. These grew into an ecumenical network of Christian meditation groups called the World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM).

Born 1926, Main was born in London, England as Douglas Main. In the late 1940s he joined the Canons Regular of the Lateran, and studied at the Diocesan seminary of St. Edmund’s College, Ware in England before being chosen to pursue theology studies at the Pontifical Athenaeum Angelicum in Rome, Italy. He then began to doubt his vocation to the priesthood and decided to leave his Order to go to Dublin, Ireland (where his family then lived). In Dublin, he studied law at Trinity College. He graduated in 1954, and joined the British Colonial Service.

He was assigned to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where he met the Swami Satyananda, who taught him meditation utilizing a mantra as the means used to arrive at meditative stillness. The Swami taught him to meditate by giving him a Christian mantra.

In 1956, Main returned to Dublin, and taught law at Trinity College. In 1959, he decided to join the Benedictines at Ealing Abbey in London. He took the name of John, in honor of St. John the Apostle. He was ordained a priest in 1963.

In 1970, Dom John was appointed the headmaster of St. Anselm’s Abbey School in Washington, D.C.. It was here that he began to study seriously the writings of the desert father John Cassian for the first time. Main saw parallels between the spiritual practice taught by Cassian and the meditative practice he had been taught by the Swami in Kuala Lumpur.

In 1974, Dom John left Saint Anselm’s Abbey in Washington and returned to Ealing Abbey in London, where he began Christian meditation groups at an old house on the monastery grounds. He was assisted in this work by Bro. (later Fr.) Laurence Freeman, also a monk of Ealing Abbey. In 1977, Dom John and Bro. Laurence were sent to establish a new Benedictine monastery in Montreal, Canada. Here, too, they taught Christian meditation groups.

In 1982, Dom Main died of cancer. Fr. Laurence (who had been ordained to the priesthood in 1980) continued his work, traveling widely to establish Christian meditation groups across the world. In 1991, these Christian meditation groups were networked together into the World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM). Each year, the WCCM hosts the John Main Seminar which has been led byMary McAleeseHuston Smith, the Dalai LamaCharles Taylor, Bishop William Johnston, Father Richard RohrO.F.M., Sister Joan Chittister, O.S.B., Anglican Primate Archbishop Rowan WilliamsGreek Orthodox Archbishop Kallistos WareAbbot Thomas Keating, Dom Bede GriffithsO.S.B. Cam., and others.’

From the WCCM website: ‘John Main OSB (1926-1982) believed that the contemplative experience creates community. His genius was to recover and to re-present a way into this experience for ordinary people from within the Christian contemplative tradition. In the teaching of the desert monks on pure prayer he found the practice of the mantra. Realising that this way of prayer could further the search of many modern people for a deeper spiritual life, he recommended two regular daily periods of meditation to be integrated with the usual practices of Christian life.’

Let the book find you!

December 30, 2009

I am a big fan of Ron Rolheiser OMI and it was a great pleasure to meet him when I was a student in Rome. Here is a recent article by him describing his favourite books of the year:

‘An old adage says that the book you need to read finds you. I believe that, though obviously the book likes a little help from its reader who needs to be combing bookstores, listening to friends, and watching reviews. Then the right series of accidents can conspire to place that book in your hands. 

What books found me this year? Here are the ones that touched me most:

Among novels 
• Jhumpa Lahiri’s three novels, Unaccustomed Earth, The Namesakes, and Interpreter of Maladies, exhibit great emotional intelligence and help lay bare the anatomy of the heart, marriage, and family life. 
• Anne Michaels’, The Winter Vault, is dark story, but the best writing I’ve encountered this year. Prose bordering on poetry. 
• Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s, Monsieur Ibrahim, is a tiny book, but its second story, the letter of a young boy dying of cancer, is an exceptional read.
• Alice Munro’s, Too Much Happiness, is a collection of short stories that are mostly dark and take strange twists, but Alice Munro has, I believe, no equal in short-story writing. The pages turn themselves.
• Sebastian Barry’s, The Secret Scripture, will tax your patience as you wait for the suspense, but its writing, in line with a long tradition of great Irish pieces in this genre, makes up for its slow pace.
• Joanna Trollope’s, Friday Night, is a lighter, airplane read, but with more emotional intelligence than most books in this category. 

Among essays and biography 
• David Oliver Relin’s & Greg Mortenson’s, Three Cups of Tea, is the story of a genuine hero who is trying to teach us that the answer to terrorism is education and friendship not war. 
• Carrie Fisher’s, Wishful Drinking, is a great piece of wit and an answer to self-pity.
• Robert Moore’s, Facing the Dragon, Confronting Personal and Spiritual Grandiosity, finally puts on paper the essential insight of a great thinker. 
• Kevin Rafferty’s, Fragments of a Life, is an unpretentious autobiography of a great churchman who uses his own life to write a remarkable chronicle of Roman Catholicism from 1950 – 2008.
• Raymond Brown’s condensed scriptural commentaries for the major seasons of the year: The Crucified Christ in Holy Week; A Risen Christ in Eastertime, A Coming Christ in Advent, are remarkable, readable little books that synthesize for the non-professional scholar the insights of one of the great biblical scholars of our time. They can be reread many times. 
• Joan Wickersham’s, The Suicide Index, Putting My Father’s Death in Order, is the memoir of a daughter trying to come to grips with her father’s suicide. Well-written and helpful to anyone who has experienced something similar.
• Trevor Herriot’s, Grass, Sky, Song – Promise and Peril in the World of Grassland Birds, is one of the finest books I’ve read this year. This is a book about birds, but really, more deeply, about life, morality, and our future. Moral challenge written as it should be written.
• Jim Wallis’, The Great Awakening, Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America, articulates signs of hope within our culture, particularly the coming together of two things, justice and faith. According to Wallis, our generation’s Dorothy Day, the Left are finding Jesus and the Right are finding the poor. This bodes well for the future. Wallis at his best, if not always at his briefest.
• Barbara Brown Taylor’s, Leaving Church, A Memoir of Faith, is a remarkable memoir of a woman ministering in the church and facing all the innate complexities of that. A first-rate, mature account that doesn’t blame and doesn’t self-pity. A good read for anyone ministering in the church or involved in a healing profession.
• Barbara Brown Taylor’s, An Altar in the World – A Geography of the Faith, is one of the better books about “getting into the present moment”. She gives some good, balanced directives about how to get into the present moment and, just as importantly, on how to turn that everyday experience into a sacrament. 

Heavy Academic Reading
• Charles Taylor’s, A Secular Age, is a huge book, not recommended for airplane reading. The faculty at our school is studying it over the course of this entire year. This is a history of ideas that traces the roots of our secular consciousness both in terms of the disenchantment of our previous consciousness and the positive building of a humanism that can pretend to supplant faith. Very heavy but worth the effort.’

The Cloud of Forgetting

December 30, 2009

Father Richard Rohr, OFM, writes: ‘The sin in the beginning of the Bible is “to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:17). The moment I sit on my throne where I know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, then I’m capable of great evil—while not thinking of it as evil!  I have eaten of the wrong tree, according to the Bible.  Don’t judge, don’t label, don’t rush to judgment. You don’t usually know other people’s real motives or intentions.  You hardly know your own.

What the author of the classic Cloud of Unknowing says is that first you have to enter into “the cloud of forgetting.”  Forget all your certitudes, all your labels, all your explanations, whereby you’ve put this person in this box; this group is going to heaven, this race is superior to that race. Just forget it. It’s largely a waste of time. It’s usually your ego projecting itself, announcing itself, and protecting itself. It has nothing to do with objective reality or real love of the truth.

If the world, and the world’s religions, do not learn this kind of humility and patience, I think we’re in definite trouble.’

Live with freedom

December 29, 2009

Richard Rohr writes, ‘great spiritual teachers always balance knowing with not knowing—and knowing that you don’t know, even your own motives—as we see in St. Thomas à Becket.  This balancing act became the central Biblical great idea called “faith.” I am afraid it has been largely lost in the west in our desire to combat secularists, atheists, and unbelievers. The Christian churches today largely define faith as knowing, and even being certain about your knowing, when in fact it means exactly the opposite!

Faith is being willing not to know, and still being content, because God knows.  Faith is a learned “tolerance for ambiguity” because I no longer use knowledge as power, so I no longer need to be right.  I do not even need to know that I am perfectly moral, superior, or good, because I now know as Jesus said, that “God alone is good” (Mark 10:18).

Now that’s definitely a gift from God—to be able to live with the freedom not to know and not to be right—and that is exactly why we always said that faith is a gift.  It is a gift we can consciously ask for and grow into, but we do need to know what the goal is!’

T S Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral: 

Seven years were my people without my presence;
Seven years of misery and pain.
Seven years a mendicant on foreign charity I lingered abroad:
Seven years is no brevity.
I shall not get those seven years back again.
Never again, you must make no doubt,
Shall the sea run between the shepherd and his fold.

It is not I who insult the King,
And there is higher than I or the King.
It is not I, Becket from Cheapside,
It is not against me, Becket, that you strive.
It is not Becket who pronounces doom,
But the Law of Christ’s Church, the judgement of Rome.

I am here.
No traitor to the King.
I am a priest,
A Christian, saved by the blood of Christ,
Ready to suffer with my blood.
This is the sign of the Church always,
The sign of blood.
Blood for blood.
His blood given to buy my life,
My blood given to pay for His death.
My death for His death.

For my Lord I am now ready to die,
That His Church may have peace and liberty.

Divine and Human

December 24, 2009

Richard Rohr OFM reflects that, ‘in Jesus, God achieved the perfect synthesis of the divine and the human. The incarnation of Jesus demonstrates that God meets us where we are at as humans. God freely and fully overcomes the gap from God’s side. The problem of redemption is already resolved once and for all, long before its dramatic illustration on the cross (at least that is the way we Franciscans read it!).  That is why Christmas is such a big thing!

For the Christian, spiritual power is always hidden inside of powerlessness, just as God was hidden and yet revealed in a defenseless baby.  If God is ever to be loved and shared, God had to risk both human embodiment and human vulnerability.  This is the only thing that enchants and evokes the human heart.  We do not properly fall in love with concepts or theological ideas (although some do try); persons fall in love with other persons.

In a weak little child, God is both perfectly hidden and perfectly revealed—and fully loveable.  Tonight we celebrate this wonderful mystery.’

From Monastic Inter-religious Dialogue: ‘

Our [Christian] faith as religion remains as a recognizable part of human history and within its unfolding we can trace the zigs and zags of our response to the presence of God and particularly what has been revealed in the person of Jesus the Messiah. Even with their cosmic grounding no longer possible, these foundation stories still remain central to understanding the relationship of Christ’s followers to the world of which they are a part So let me now suggest a contemporary remodeling of [Epiphany, one of the great festivals we celebrate during the Christmas season]. It may be that no longer are the Magi led by a star but rather they come to us to enquire as to the meaning of Jesus’ coming. They offer their own contributions of gold, frankincense and myrrh–the symbolic gift of kings to kings, but now indeed they are revealed as the treasures of Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim. The problem for us is what to do with these offerings? 

The religious life of mankind from now on, if it is to be lived at all, will be lived in a context of religious pluralism…This is true for all of us; not only for “mankind” in general on an abstract level, but for you and me as individual persons. No longer are people of other persuasion peripheral or distant curiosities of travelers’ tales. The more alert we are and the more involved in life, the more we are finding that they are our neighbors, our colleagues, our competitors, our fellows. Confucians, and Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims, are not only in the United Nations, but down the street. Increasingly, not only is our civilization’s destiny affected by their actions; but we drink coffee with them personally as well. (Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Faith of Other Men(New York: Harper & Row, 1962), p. 11.)’

From a sermon preached by the Rev. Roger A. Balk, PhD, at Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal, on January 6, 2008. The entire sermon is available here.

Unity of Christmas and Easter

December 24, 2009

From Independent Catholic News: ‘At the beginning of his catechesis the Holy Father explained that “the Church’s liturgical year did not initially develop on the basis of Christ’s birth but on that of faith in His resurrection. Hence, the most ancient feast of Christianity is not Christmas but Easter. The resurrection of Christ is what founded the Christian faith, underpinned the announcement of the Gospel and brought the Church into being”.

“The first person to make the clear affirmation that Jesus was born on 25 December was Hippolytus of Rome in his commentary on the Book of Daniel, written around the year 204”, said the Pope.

“In the Christian world, the feast of Christmas assumed a distinct form in the fourth century when it took the place of the Roman feast of the ‘Sol invictus’, the sun unconquered. This highlighted the fact that the birth of Christ is the victory of the true light over the darkness of evil and sin. Yet the particular and intense spiritual atmosphere that now surrounds Christmas developed during the Middle Ages, thanks to St Francis of Assisi who was profoundly enamoured of Jesus the man, of the God-with-us”.

“This particular devotion to the mystery of the Incarnation was the origin of the famous Christmas celebration in Greccio. … St Francis with his nativity scene highlighted the defenceless love, humility and goodness of God, Who in the Incarnation of the Word shows Himself to mankind in order to teach them a new way to live and love”.

The Pope then went on to recall the fact that the first biographer of St Francis, Thomas of Celano, recounted how, “on that Christmas night, Francis was granted the grace of a marvellous vision. He saw, lying immobile in the manger, a small child Who was reawakened from sleep by the proximity of Francis himself”.

“Thanks to St Francis, Christian people are able to understand that at Christmas God truly became the ‘Emmanuel’, the God-with-us, from Whom no barrier or distance separates us. In that Child, God became so close to each of us … that we can establish an intimate rapport of profound affection with Him, just as we do with a newborn child.

“In that Child”, God-Love becomes manifest: God comes unarmed and powerless, because He does not intend to conquer, so to say, from the outside; rather, He intends to be accepted by man in freedom. God becomes a defenceless child to overcome man’s pride, violence and thirst for possession. In Jesus, God assumed this poor and disarming condition in order to triumph over us with love and lead us to our true identity”.

“His being a Child likewise indicates to us that we can meet God and enjoy His presence”, the Pope concluded. “People who have not understood the mystery of Christmas have not understood the decisive element of Christian existence: that those who do not accept Jesus with the heart of a child cannot enter the Kingdom of heaven. This is what St Francis wished to tell the Christian world of his time and of all times, even unto today”.’

The Venerabile

December 23, 2009

I spent five years of my life at the Venerable English College, Rome. I lived in the seminary and attended the Pontifical Gregorian University where I studied for degrees in Philosophy and Theology. The seminary was a beautiful building, full of history and faith. The history of the College suffered at the hands of revisionists. It is interesting to see that they have a new exhibition which continues this revisionism.

From Independent Catholic News: ‘For the first time ever, the Venerable English College in Rome, is running an exhibition that explores the history of the College, from its foundation as a hospice in the 1300s to its transformation into a seminary in 1579:  Non Angli sed Angeli.

Among the exhibits are copies of three mysterious signatures on pages of parchment in the College’s leather bound 16th century guest books for visiting pilgrims: 

‘Arthurus Stratfordus Wigomniensis’ signed the book in 1585, while ‘Gulielmus Clerkue Stratfordiensis’ arrived in 1589.

Fr Andrew Headon, vice-rector of the college and organiser of the exhibition, said the names can be deciphered as:  ‘(King) Arthur’s (compatriot) from Stratford (in the diocese) of Worcester’ and ‘William the Clerk from Stratford’.

A third entry in 1587, ‘Shfordus Cestriensis’, may stand for ‘Sh(akespeare from Strat)ford (in the diocese) of Chester,’ he said.

The entries fall within the playwright’s ‘missing years’ between 1585, when he left Stratford abruptly, and 1592, when he began his career as playwright in London.

Fr Headon said: “There are several years which are unaccounted for in Shakespeare’s life,”  adding that it was very likely that the playwright had visited Rome and was a covert Catholic.

The ‘Shakespeare’ entries are being kept in the college’s archive for security reasons but have been reproduced for the exhibition, which illustrates the history of the college from its origins as a medieval pilgrims’ hospice to a refuge for persecuted Catholics during the Reformation.’

For more information see: