Friday, September 29, 2006

Feast of Saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael

The images are by, from top to bottom, Dominico Ghirlandaio, Raphael, Piero della Francesca, Andrei Rublev, and anonymous (the tenth-century Girona Beatus).

I have nothing much to add to the visuals today, except to say that the first reading for today is from (pick one) either the weird and cool Book of Daniel or the weird and cool Book of Revelations.

I also insist that everyone read Guillaume le Fou's important post on what's happening right now in Mexico, about which we hear very little north of the border.

Happy archangel day, everyone.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

laxity and delusion

After struggling with so many great ideas and the clash of civilizations and relics and books and religion...

I declare today official silly blogging day.

I accept neither depth nor coherence.

Today is all about the glorious reality that is writing whatever one can pull ex culo and immediately publish on the internet.

What could be better?

I could write pages about mustard, tomes about dust, volumes about mistied shoes. I could seriously type randomly: ashjsdh shdghsdgi.

I can do these things, I have the technology.

I could write nasty poems about the Bush administration in Latin (cur morta est intelligentia?) and then turn that Latin into pig-Latin Latin (ur-cay orta-may est-ay intelligentia-ay?).

I could speak flippantly about my dissertation. For example I could imagine having the chance to meet one of the historical figures I am writing about in order to sort some things out. For example, I could meet Alfonso VII in a bowling alley. I would say things to him like: "Just spin the ball to the right, that way you might get the pin on the right to slide across and hit the one on the left. By the way, did you really order that charter giving the monastery of Sahagun the right to coin money in 1119? No, a smooth movement with the arm..." Of course, I could get testy: "You know, you don't have to tell us you were crowned emperor in every single charter! I've read about five hundred of them now. You come off like a blowhard. Knock it off."

I'm working too hard, I guess.

The tape, seal and church sign? Here.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

de ponteficis et imperatoribus

Manuel II Paleologos, one of the last eastern Roman emperors.

Everyone has been following the question of pope Benedict and his remarks about Islam quite closely. He has finally apologized, though perhaps not as enthusiastically as some might wish. I myself believe that the pope was not fair to Islam, though I believe in a more subtle way than the press may have suggested when it referred to his quotation of Manuel II out of context. I won't repeat arguments that I have already made on Jeff's and Prickliestpear's excellent blog posts on the subject, and for the most part I would like just to send people elsewhere to particularly good posts on this issue.

Crystal has taken the time to investigate that sad figure, Manuel II Paleologos, one of the last heirs to an empire that once stretched from Britain to Mesopotamia and in his time was reduced to a sliver of territory around Constantinople. Manuel was forced to play the charming and refined Greek supplicant in the courts of Western Europe, begging for aid to save his doomed city, aid that would never come and would be too late in any case.

Guillaume le Fou, in his comment on Jeff's blog, steered me to Juan Cole's post about the mistakes Benedict made in his discussion of Islam. It's good reading for those who continue to insist that Islam is by nature a violent religion. There are a couple of other points he makes in this and in another post that may be good to take into account. One is about how many in the West see Muslims as "thin-skinned":
Some commentators have complained about Muslim sensibilities in this regard. But in my view, this sensitivity is a feature of postcolonialism. Muslims were colonized by Western powers, often for centuries, and all that period they were told that their religion was inferior and barbaric. They are independent now, though often they have gained independence only a couple of generations (less if you consider neocolonialism). As independent, they are finally liberated to protest when Westerners put them down.

There is an analogy to African-Americans, who suffered hundreds of years of slavery and then a century of Jim Crow. They are understandably sensitive about white people putting them down, and every time one uses the "n" word, you can expect a strong reaction. In the remarks the pope quoted about Muhammad, he essentially did the equivalent of using the "n" word for Muslims. It is no mystery that people are protesting.
Like with the protests against the Danish cartoons, people seem all-too-ready to both condemn protests they see as showing too much sensitivity and also group every reaction in the Muslim world into one pot. The press helps, of course, by reporting about peaceful, if passionate, demonstrations along with acts of vandalism against churches, threats by terrorist groups, commentaries by organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and statements by individuals, as if this entire reaction were orchestrated by one group with one goal in mind.

Of course, Muslim clerics should stress peace and understanding, and many do. Attacks on churches should always be condemned. The Turkish politician who compared Benedict to Hitler is either stupid or irresponsible (note that one politician said this, not Turkey as a country, though I have seen it stated otherwise on blogs). One insurgent group in Iraq, apparently lacking any sense of irony whatsoever, has threatened to attack the Vatican because Benedict may have suggested Islam was a violent religion. Still, why do people in the West refuse to see that many people in Muslim countries have felt used, bullied, and vilified by the West and that regardless of the fact that some Muslims may overreact to what they perceive as provocations, it is our responsibility to build bridges to the 900 million followers of Islam, not burn them. Those who feel we have the right to insult their faith because some of them may insult us are advocating schoolyard politics.

One mistake that Juan Cole made was to say that Benedict should refer to the Church's policy towards Islam as expressed in Nostra Aetate. The first Vatican response actually did quote the same sections that Cole referred to:
' The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ, "the way the truth, and the life" (John 14, 6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself (4).

The Church therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.

3. The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself, merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth (5), who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes great pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgement when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.

Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this Sacred Synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom. '

Perhaps they should make it more clear.

I would like to refer my readers to one more blog. Check out "Charitable Hatred" and "The Pope on Islam" on Catholic Sensibility (I am not the Liam that usually comments on that blog, by the way). The best part is a response from Neil, the poster, to a comment on "Charitable Hatred:"
Regarding Pes' comment, I have read the Qu'ran, which is a very difficult book to interpret. We need to approach it with caution, remembering that some academics - after crude readings of the Book of Joshua, the sacrifice of Isaac, and the story of Cain and Abel - have been quick to label Christianity or all monotheisms as being violent.

To suggest one approach to reading the Qu'ran, Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA would suggest that we must first recognize the context of the Qu'ran, which partially speaks of a time when Muslims in the city-state of Medina were enmeshed in unavoidable hostilities and outnumbered. As he writes, "You would probably expect to find the leader of the community pumping up the fervor so that every member of this community would join the battle and ensure the survival of the community." Consequently, the Qu'ran, written at a time before the UN or international law, at times sounds rather disturbing.

He also writes, "But in fact, I find the Muslim text—whether it is the Qur’an, the traditions of the Prophet, or the texts of the jurists—often rising beyond these physical contingencies, and dreaming of the more humane, the more supernal, the more sublime, the more beautiful—for instance, the parts of the Islamic texts that emphasize no treachery in warfare outside of warfare."

The problem, he suggests, is when Muslims collapse texts describing "highly contingent realities" with texts "that express the subliminal, supernal reach," in a dangerous manner that might remind us of the small number of Christian Reconstructionists.

The more universal texts, however, ground Islam in witness to the God whose justice does not require the political success of his followers in such a way that they should feel compelled to use violence to "win" at any cost. And, so, there is thus ample theological justification for the words of Nostra Aetate, which stand firmly against any crude and wholesale demonization of Islam. Furthermore, we might suggest that the temptation to violence in Islam is actually similar to the temptation to violence in Christianity - the poisonous belief that God is a player in our world, requiring us to "win" for him, dependent on his followers' earthly power.

None of this is meant to excuse the denunications of the Holy Father that seem to keep coming from the Middle East. Perhaps part of the Pope's lecture was inadvisable (this is at least debatable), but the denunciations of him are inexcusable: they proceed from ignorance and have been very painful to read and see.
An intelligent and sensitive response from someone who obviously is not a Benedict-hater. I advise everyone to be careful about certain negative opinions about the Qu'ran that are floating around out there.

I hope and pray that this crisis will be put behind us and that sincere people of faith everywhere will work more to mend than to offend.

Really, I would like things to calm down so I can concentrate on why the Mets keep losing now that they're one game away from winning the NL East. It will happen. And Pedro will rise again!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Triumph of the Cross

St. Helena finding the True Cross.

Today is the feast of the Triumph of the Cross. From the Franciscans at

Early in the fourth century St. Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, went to Jerusalem in search of the holy places of Christ's life. She razed the Temple of Aphrodite, which tradition held was built over the Savior's tomb, and her son built the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher over the tomb. During the excavation, workers found three crosses. Legend has it that the one on which Jesus died was identified when its touch healed a dying woman.

The cross immediately became an object of veneration. At a Good Friday celebration in Jerusalem toward the end of the fourth century, according to an eyewitness, the wood was taken out of its silver container and placed on a table together with the inscription Pilate ordered placed above Jesus' head: Then "all the people pass through one by one; all of them bow down, touching the cross and the inscription, first with their foreheads, then with their eyes; and, after kissing the cross, they move on."

To this day the Eastern Churches, Catholic and Orthodox alike, celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on the September anniversary of the basilica's dedication. The feast entered the Western calendar in the seventh century after Emperor Heraclius recovered the cross from the Persians, who had carried it off in 614, 15 years earlier. According to the story, the emperor intended to carry the cross back into Jerusalem himself, but was unable to move forward until he took off his imperial garb and became a barefoot pilgrim.
Many stories grew up around the cross and its origin that connected the physical origin of its wood with its spiritual meaning. It was thought by some to come from the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden. According to some legends, the tree from which the cross was made grew from Adam's grave, or even from his mouth (remember that the hill of crucifixion, Golgatha, the place of the skull, was thought to be so called because it was where Adam's skull was buried -- uniting the old Adam with the new Adam, the Fall with redemption). Various stories connect the tree with different Old Testament figures such as Seth, Lot, and Solomon. You can find Caxton's translation of the Golden Legend story here, and a description of the cycle by Piero della Francesca in Arezzo here.

There is a beautiful and imposing medieval Greek Monastery of the Cross near Jerusalem, which I visited in 2000. It was across an olive tree-filled valley from the Israel Museum, and I remember walking through the valley, entering the monastery's tiny gate, and being mobbed by a tour group of ecstatically devout elderly Greek pilgrims who had no doubt about the veracity of the legend which located the exact spot where the tree had grown inside the monastery.

The Monastery of the Cross, Israel.

What happened to the cross that St Helena discovered and Heraclius rescued from the Persians? Like many relics, both bodies and objects, it has been broken into countless pieces and dispersed through the world. One sliver of it was given to our family by the Jesuit godfather of Filius imperatricis pulcherrima Africae occidentalis on the occasion of the latter's First Communion. We don't know about its provenance, and yes, perhaps it's not really a sliver of the True Cross. Then again, perhaps it is. It was a wonderful gift and often with relics and holy sites, the faith you put into them as symbols is as important as the facts involved on the ground. We know there was a Holy Cross, we know this is a sliver. The rest is faith.

Our relic of the Holy Cross. The tiny reliquary is about the size of a nickel, the sliver of the Holy Cross lay on top of the white embroidered cross in the case.

I'd like to leave you with a hymn composed by the great Latin poet Venantius Fortunatus (AD 530-609) which is often sung on this feast day. I will leave it in Latin, but if you must, you can find one of many English translations here.

Hymnus in Honore Sanctae Crucis

Vexilla regis prodeunt,
fulget crucis mysterium,
quo carne carnis conditor
suspensus est patibulo.

Confixa clavis viscera
tendens manus, vestigia
redemptionis gratia
hic inmolata est hostia.

Quo vulneratus insuper
mucrone diro lanceae,
ut nos lavaret crimine,
manavit unda et sanguine.

Inpleta sunt quae concinit
David fideli carmine,
dicendo nationibus:
regnavit a ligno deus.

Arbor decora et fulgida,
ornata regis purpura,
electa, digno stipite
tam sancta membra tangere!

Beata cuius brachiis
pretium pependit saeculi!
statera facta est corporis
praedam tulitque Tartari.

Fundis aroma cortice,
vincis sapore nectare,
iucunda fructu fertili
plaudis triumpho nobili.

Salve ara, salve victima
de passionis gloria,
qua vita mortem pertulit
et morte vitam reddidit.

Thursday, September 07, 2006


Late medieval Spanish Koran.

Yesterday I briefly watched CSPAN as I ate my lunch. There was a woman from a NGO (Third Way, I think) who was criticizing the Bush administration's approach to diplomacy, or to be more precise, its lack of the same. Someone called in and suggested she was wrong because our adversaries -- whether we're talking about North Korea or Iran -- are "evil" and "you can't talk to them." Before giving an intelligent reply about the importance of diplomacy, she had to profusely agree about how "evil" they were.

I understand that many people who have supported Bush have done so because they feel he demonstrates "moral clarity." To judge from the results of his policies and administration -- everything from Abu Garib to the response to Katrina to the problems of poverty in this country -- I find it hard to agree, but I can imagine that much of this feeling about "moral clarity" comes from his willingness to paint his foreign policy on one big canvass titled "The Battle of Good vs. Evil." This is a very dangerous starting point. One is reason is that it is so absolute it demands desperate measures -- such as wars to do away with evil. War, however, is evil in itself. If it is ever necessary, it must be a "lesser of two evils." There goes complete moral clarity. The propensity of this administration to rush to an armed response in any given situation without thinking of the possible outcomes shows great lack of responsibility. Glibly referring to the deaths of thousands and suffering of millions as "the birth pangs of a new Middle East" (Condi Rice dixit) shows an insensitivity that I find hard to reconcile with any definition of the word "good."

Still, they will not change the storyline. If we back out of Iraq now, we are Neville Camberlain. Why? Evil is evil. "Islamofascism" (an extremely offensive word) is the same as Nazism, which is the same as Communism. This is not a complex world, where different political forces with different interests use the tools given to them with a greater or lesser concern for justice and human life, it is black and white.

One of the greatest casualties of this kind of a worldview is tolerance, especially since the president and his supporters have to classify all those who oppose us in the Middle East under a term that links a religion (Islam) with a western ideology that this country has successfully fought against in the past (fascism). The resulting term "Islamofascism" is about as helpful to understanding problems of the Middle East and terrorism as the adjective "evil." It's a gross simplification that slanders a religion and gives the false impression that we are fighting one enemy with one agenda. Al-Queada = Hezbollah = Iran = Hamas = Syria. North Korea, Bush's greatest WMD containment failure, is conveniently left out of the equation, so that the subtextual message "the Muslim is the enemy" is that much more clear. It's always hard to say whether Bush and the neo-cons use these ideas to strike fear and prejudice into voters' hearts, or whether they actually believe them, but reports that Bush did not know the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims immediately before the invasion of Iraq are disturbing.

Juan Cole gives a good analysis of those who Bush sees as our enemies, pointing out the complexities and differences between the groups. We owe to ourselves to understand the Muslim world better: the price of simplification is simply too high. Yes, the attacks on September 11 were evil. That much we know. The rest is not so simple.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Peace, God, and Religion

The ruins of the Abbey at Charroux, where the Peace of God was first declared in the tenth century.

Guillaume le Fou and I have been discussing religion and war over at his blog, Zone. A big subject, to be sure, and often depressing. I think there is more than one kind of religion, but it is true that religions that profess absolute certainty can be dangerous.

A couple of days ago I was listening to Speaking of Faith, the radio program I choose when I fold laundry. I discovered it initially because of their interview of the late, great Jaroslav Pelikan. Not every show treats topics of interest to me, but it is always well-done and has a great supporting website. The last show consisted of an interview with Eboo Patel, the founder and executive director of Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago, an organization that encourages interfaith understanding and social action among young people.

Patel is extremely articulate and effective, and he is anything but a dreamy idealist who spends his time singing Kumbaya. He knows the stakes involved when it comes to youth and faith:
So when people say to me, 'Oh, Eboo, you know, you run this sweet little organization called the Interfaith Youth Core and you do such nice things, you bring kids together,' I say, 'Yeah, you know, there's another youth organization out there. It's called al-Qaeda, and al-Qaeda's been built over the past 25 years and with lots of ideas of how you recruit young people and get them to think that this is the best way they can impact the world.'
Patel's personal story is interesting as well. He is Muslim, but his interest in religion and social activism came through working in a Catholic Worker House in Chicago:
And at some point, a Catholic worker leader put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'Kid, you've got to find a way to engage in social justice mind, body, and soul.' And so I began reading in other religious traditions, and interestingly enough, kind of avoided Islam until I met my grandmother again, and this is in the summer of 1998. I went to Bombay, India, the summer before I went to graduate school in England, and I discovered that my grandmother had this 40-year history of housing battered and abused women in her apartment in south Bombay. And she brought out all these Polaroids of these women from Hyderabad and Gujarat and Tamil Nadu. And then finally, at the end of all these stories, I wanted to hear my grandmother's story. I said, 'Why do you do this?' And she said, 'Because I'm a Muslim, and this is what Muslims do.' And it was like heaven cracked open and spilled onto me. And I realized that there was a Dorothy Day figure in my faith, in my family. I was standing in an Indian-Muslim Catholic worker house.
The work he does with people of different faiths both encourages them to understand what is distinctive in their own beliefs as well as what they have in common with others. This open religion is completely different from the fundamentalism that creates intolerant forms of Islam or Christianity (whether we're talking about Pat Robertson or the "extra ecclesiam nullus salvus" crowd in my own beloved Catholic Church). I recommend that people give this program a listen or at least check out the transcript. The "Program Particulars" section has some nice extras, like the following photo:

Cesar Chavez, Coretta Scott King, and Dorothy Day at St John the Divine, New York City. February 20, 1973.