On the Daily Manual Labour (III)

This past Sunday saw the conclusion of chapter 48 of the Holy Rule, which treats of daily manual labour. As the old adage says “idleness is the devil’s playground”; in this chapter the holy patriarch sets about regulating the monks’ time with work and sacred reading for the hours that  they are not engaged with the opus Dei.

The concluding section discusses what the monks are to do on Sunday. The monks, says St. Benedict, are to dedicate themselves especially to reading, though the holy father does allow for human weakness and assigns some task for those who are unable or unwilling to read, though nothing too burdensome.

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The question of how to sanctify Sunday has been on my mind quite a bit these past few years, especially since becoming a novice oblate. In my current place of employment it is not always possible to have Sunday off. Even formerly living and working in a nominally Catholic country, I was expected to work Sundays. It is a sign of the times when one requests Sundays off for the reason that Sunday became a “day of rest” and sees that request denied time and time again. Nowadays it seems to me to almost be a privilege to have Sundays off. Either you have the right job or you have to toil on the Lord’s Day. Mammon must get his due. Welcome to post-Christian society. When did we Christians become so complacent that even Sunday rest was taken from us? When one is in a position where one is obliged to work Sundays, is that something one must simply resign to, or should one be vocal about it? When you have small children and try to instill in them some notion of the sacredness of Sunday, how do you explain to them the fact that you have to work?

What exactly does it mean to sanctify the Lord’s day? The day is His; He has given it to us to enter into His rest. It is a day when we are to give the Lord His due, even more so than any other day of the week. It is a day of worship. I know many for whom that simply means going to Mass, ticking off the box, and that is it; afterwards, business as usual. Yet is that all there is to it?
Is Sunday for my convenience, or is it for the Lord? Over the past few years we have tried to avoid as much as possible anything of the weekly, mundane routine, especially shopping. We try to have a special lunch on Sundays as well. It is immensely convenient to go shopping on Sundays, particularly on those that I don’t work, but is that in keeping with the spirit of the law? Is there anything so important that it can’t be put off for one day? Is Sunday a day for secular entertainment?
Is just going to Mass enough? Do I go to Mass at my convenience, or do I make it the central part of the day, orienting the rest by it? My wife and I, being novice oblates, try to at least say Vespers together (sadly, no one offers solemn Vespers near us) on the Sundays that I do not have to work.
I don’t think it was by chance that St. Benedict chose Psalm 118 for the Little Hours of Sunday in the Benedictine Office. This Psalm is a panegyric to the Law, to the Torah, and we Catholics see it apply to the Torah Incarnate, Our Lord Jesus Christ. Perhaps here is a good place to start, to meditate on the meaning of keeping the Lord’s day holy.

This is all still relatively new to us, and we are still trying to figure it out, trying to figure what works best for the family as well. I would like to hear from any of my readers, to know what you do to sanctify Sunday.

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Guardian Angel

June 10th is the feast of the Guardian Angel of Portugal. For those familiar with the story of Fatima, the Guardian Angel of Portugal appeared to the young shepherds, as a way of preparing them for Our Lady’s visit. Providentially, this centenary the feast has fallen on a Saturday, a day liturgically dedicated to Our Lady.

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Historically, the Guardian Angel of Portugal has always been believed to be St. Michael, who is also referred to in the Liturgy as the Angel of Peace (another title which the Angel of Portugal identified himself with). So, there is the pious belief that the young shepherds actually saw St. Michael! I leave you with the Collect of the votive Mass of the Guardian Angel of Portugal, as found in the Bragan missal:

Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, qui angelicam custodiam homini et hominum regnis, provinciis, et civitatibus contulisti:concede propitius; ut nostri regni ac civitatis praesul et custos, Angelus tuus sanctus ipsum totum regnum ac cives ab instantibus periculis corporis et animae et ab omnibus adversitatibus protegat et defendat. Per Dominum.

For the children

Since last year we have bought a couple of these magnets every time we visit Fatima. I think we probably enjoy them more than the kids! Here are the one’s we have so far:

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Left to right: St. Benedict (a well known Portuguese image, S. Bento da Porta Aberta); St. Anthony of Lisbon; St. Jude; St. Christopher; St. Therese of the Holy Face
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Left to right: Our Lady of Fatima; Senhor dos Milagres; Our Lady of Sameiro (which is actually of the Immaculate Conception); St. Michael the Archangel

Pilgrimage

While on holiday back home I decided that, being the centenary, it was a good occasion to go on pilgrimage to Fatima. For several reasons the family could not accompany me so, as head of the family, I did the pilgrimage on their behalf as well.

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The pilgrimage took up all of one morning, as my wife’s city is not that far from Fatima. As traveling companions I had my Monastic Diurnal, a rosary, and a branch for a walking stick (and protection as well – lot’s of stray dogs on the way!). After praying the Itinerarium I set off. It took me about an hour to get to the city outskirts, out in the countryside. Once out there it was just the sounds of nature and the occasional automobile. Living in a big city and in a very small house with two little children, one doesn’t have many opportunities for complete silence during the day. The silence was like a breath of fresh air. You might say it was a very Marian/”Fatimite” pilgrimage. I don’t think I’ve ever prayed so many consecutive rosaries in all my life! At the churches on the way, I would stop to make a “pilgrimage of the altars” (a somewhat forgotten practice in Portugal which, from what I’ve read, is of Benedictine origin), as well as visit the Blessed Sacrament to pray the prayers taught by the Angel of Portugal. One can still find many “Alminhas” – shrines to the Holy Souls in Purgatory – on the country roads; prayers were offered for them as well. When I finally arrived at Fatima I went to Mass at the basilica. After Mass I went to pray at the tombs of the “new” saints, Sts. Francisco and Jacinta Marto. The ambiance in the basilica left much to be desired, however. Instead of being a place of silence, of recollection, of prayer, there was incessant chatter, people answering their mobiles during Mass… Around the tombs were groups of people, each person shoving and groping, trying to get a better view… There is a certain irony in the fact that while these groups were there to pay homage to two young saints who had a deep understanding and respect for the Blessed Sacrament, they showed such a nonchalant attitude, passing in front of the tabernacle with no acknowledgement whatsoever, and even going so far as to turn their back on it to take selfies…

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At the risk of sounding cliché, the pilgrimage was a very much a condensed version of one’s life, especially the Christian life. My companions – the Wood, symbolic of the Cross, there to support me and to be my protection if there was any danger; the Rosary, the “poor man’s psalter”, the recourse to constant prayer, to recollection. The silence gave one time to reflect on life, especially recent events, of vices overcome, of other ongoing battles, of occasions to be thankful for. The unforgiving heat and the upward paths provided more than enough penance and mortification, symbolic of the hardship and struggles in daily life. The mind would occasionally wander; at times the thought “what do you think you’re doing? Are you crazy? What do you hope to accomplish with this madness?” would race through my mind, like a pesky gnat buzzing around; at others, thoughts of the world would make me forget why I was on this pilgrimage. Always, it was necessary to return to prayer, to focus on what was being done and why. At the end of the road the Eucharist, the Communion of the Saints, the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.

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Alminhas

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Church of St. Catherine

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Tombs of St. Jacinta Marto and Bl. Lucia
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The tomb of St. Francisco Marto

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Lengthening of days

From today’s reading of the Prologue of the Holy Rule, the following was what most caught my attention:

And the days of this life are lengthened and a truce granted us for this very reason, that we may amend our evil ways.

As of late thoughts of this sort have been on my mind. Perhaps because I can see the passing of the years in my children, or the fact that this current year seems to be speeding by so quickly, or because it marks a decade since my return to the Mystical Bride of Christ, but the thought of running sand has been looming in the background of my thoughts and prayers.

Man’s days are as grass, as the flower of the field so shall he flourish. For the spirit shall pass in him, and he shall not be: and he shall know his place no more.

Ps. 102:15-16

How many years were lived in sin, oblivious to it all, squandering the great gift that had been given at my baptism? How many years passed with vices growing unchecked? Have I reached the halfway point of my years? Is there still time?

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While one may find a bit of solace in the idea that perhaps one is halfway through this mortal life and that there is still the same amount of years left to work out one’s salvation, to progress in the spiritual life, that might invite a spirit of sloth. There is no guarantee that it will not end tomorrow, or even today…

Just a few days ago the Prologue mentions the immediacy of the necessity of conversion: “Today if you hear His voice…”, “Run while you have the light of life…” Everyday one is called to convert because everyday one falls. Every day one begins anew. Sanctity is not bought cheaply.

And yet it is not just for myself, for my own salvation that I am worried, but for that of those whom have been entrusted to me as well: my wife and my children. The moment we became a family our salvation became intricately tied to one another: first as husband and wife, then as parents and children.

Is the preoccupation with “spiritual progress” a symptom of worldly thinking where everything needs to be gauged, because one needs to feel some accomplishment, some self-fulfillment? Or is it based on a Pelagian approach, where everything depends on me?

For those who feel like useless servants that cannot even put to use that single talent the Lord has entrusted to them, there is always the last tool of good works enumerated in the Holy Rule: Never to despair of the mercy of God.

Reading up on Fátima

Since my post on Fátima back in February I realized just how little I really knew about the apparitions. I suddenly remembered that an acquaintance of mine, who had known Sr. Lucia for a number of years, had recommend quite some time ago that I read the “Critical Documentation of Fátima” if I wished to know more.
I managed to find an abridged version (only 600+ pages), which still has a good quantity of eyewitness reports, the findings of the canonical commission that investigated the apparitions, etc. Reading it has made me appreciate Fátima; it has helped to put it in a new light.

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I think father prior would appreciate the liturgical providence associated with Fátima: the first apparition took place in May, and the final in October, both Marian months par excellence; the final apparition took place on a Saturday, the weekday associated with Mary. To further emphasize the liturgical providence, May 13th was initially the dedication of the basilica of Our Lady of the Martyrs in Lisbon, a rather important feast day in Lisbon (at the time Fátima was incorporated in the patriarchate of Lisbon). Those curious about the story of the basilica, and why it is so important, can easily find out by a quick internet search.
This was not the first time Our Lady had appeared near Fátima, as there is a story of her appearing to a shepherd girl in the 17th century during a famine (incidentally, Sr. Lucia’s mother recalled having told her daughter this story and was initially afraid that it might had affected her). Not too far from Fátima is the monastery of the Batalha, formerly a Dominican monastery dedicated to Our Lady of Victories.
I found in the documentation a prayer later approved by the bishop of Leiria. Our Lady is the Queen of Portugal – our first king dedicated in perpetuity all the realm and peoples in it to the blessed Virgin Mother, and after Portugal regained its independence from Spain in the 17th century the monarchs never wore a crown again, having donated it to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, proclaiming her as true queen of Portugal. This prayer is addressed to her as our Queen. It was written during the time of the 1st Republic, which tried to stamp out Catholicism, and so it is an appeal to her as Queen and Mother to rekindle the faith in her people. I post it here for those interested. It is a prayer well worth praying, especially on the eve of the centenary, when suddenly priests and bishops decide to come forward saying that the apparitions never took place (see here and here).

Virgem Imaculada, que pelo vosso santo Rosário extinguistes outrora
no seio da Igreja a nefasta heresia dos Albigenses, por ele libertastes a
cristandade do perigo muçulmano e robustecestes a piedade dos fiéis;
extingui também no povo português pela prática mais intensa da vossa
devoção os germens de morte que fazem definhar a sua Fé, libertai-o de
todos os perigos internos e externos que ameaçam a pureza de seus
costumes, fortalecei-o mais e mais, fazendo rejuvenescer nele o genuíno
espírito de piedade que no passado o fez um povo cristianíssimo,
fidelíssimo e evangelizador.
E já que por uma inefável prova de celestial predileção vos dignastes
visitar este povo que se ufana de ser vassalo vosso, mostrando-lhe dos
montes da Fátima quão caro é ao vosso Coração, não deixeis nunca,
Mãe amorosíssima, de o acalentar com esse mesmo amor de predileção.
Descansai sobre ele olhares de misericórdia, fazei-lhe sentir mais e mais
vossa suavíssima proteção e os doces atrativos do vosso Coração que
é coração de mãe.
Abençoai, ó Virgem Imaculada, a terra que vos dignastes visitar, atraí
a vós todos os portugueses, patenteai-lhes os tesoiros do vosso amor,
revelai-lhes os arcanos de vosso Coração materno, fazei de cada coração
português um órgão que vibre de amor por vós e de Portugal inteiro um
Santuário de amor que corresponda com seu filial afeto ao vosso carinho
maternal e assim mereça agora e sempre ser chamado – a Terra de
Santa Maria. – Assim seja.

Martírios

For the past few years I have particularly enjoyed this version (by the same choir that sung at our wedding and our children’s baptisms) of a traditional Portuguese Lenten hymn. Here is the refrain:

Padeceu grandes tormentos
Duros martírios na cruz
Morreu para nos salvar
Bendito seja Jesus

He suffered great torments;
Severe afflictions upon the Cross;
He died to save us;
Blessed be Jesus.

The hymn speaks of Jesus’ suffering for us out of love, but it focuses mainly on His Passion, describing the terrible suffering He underwent. I am not exactly sure in what context it was formerly sung: if in the Senhor dos Passos processions (which are a form of Via Crucis), or with the Ementação das Almas (a practice of praying for the Holy Souls of Purgatory at night during certain days of Lent, while also reminding the living to convert while there is time).

Fasting in light of the Liturgy (I)

While at Mass this past Sunday there were certain prayers that jumped out at me, particularly those that speak of the bodily fast. This prompted me to put my thoughts down in writing, if only to get them in some sort of order. I will be dividing this into two posts.

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After my return to the Church, almost every single Lent (and Advent), I have heard repeated time and time again, be it from laymen be it from clergy, that bodily fasts are not important; that what matters, what God “really wants”, are spiritual fasts; those who propose this view generally tend to waive bodily fasts completely.

Whence this emphasis on the inner over the outer? It seems that lately we are suffering the effects of an exacerbated Cartesian dualism. In secular society one hears such insane claims as that one can decide one’s own sex; that biology plays no influence; that one’s sex is what one believes it to be at any given point, and that it is independent of the physical sex (“sex” having now been relegated to designating an act, being substituted for “gender”, a grammatical term/concept. Another way of implying that “gender is a social construct”?). In an age of rampant materialism, should it come as a surprise that there should appear this insane kind of dualism? Are we reaping the fruits of bad philosophy, of philosophy divorced from theology, divorced from Revelation? This mindset seems to have even spilt over into the Church, where one finds a somewhat subtler divide between body and soul, of one having no influence on the other (at least not the body on the soul).

I admit that in the beginning I held a similar view, that what mattered most was the inner. Yet the more I studied, the more I immersed myself in the Church’s perennial tradition, the more I came to understand that this is not what the Church teaches. The Church may have become lax, almost to the point of dismissing them completely, but she does not teach that bodily fasts are negligible; to the contrary, one need only look at her Liturgy to see how important bodily fasting is.
Being a Roman Catholic I will focus solely on the Latin Liturgy; I am sure non-Roman Catholics, which still practice fasting to a greater degree than Latins do, are able to point to instances where their liturgies speak of fasting.
The Church’s teaching on fasting reveals its anthropology.

The liturgical texts which speak to us most about fasting are those of Great Lent. I will cite a few, from the vetus ordo, to show the importance that the Church places on bodily fasting, how bodily fasting is the main concern of the Lenten ascetical praxis, even if it is not the goal . Let’s start off with the Preface of Lent (emphasis mine):

It is truly meet and just, right and for our salvation, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks unto Thee, O holy Lord, Father almighty, everlasting God; Who by this bodily fast, dost curb our vices, dost lift up our minds and bestow on us strength and rewards; through Christ our Lord. Through whom the Angels praise Thy Majesty, the Dominations worship it, the Powers stand in awe. The Heavens and the heavenly hosts together with the blessed Seraphim in triumphant chorus unite to celebrate it. Together with these we entreat Thee that Thou mayest bid our voices also to be admitted while we say with lowly praise:

Here we have repeated in every single Mass during the Lenten season (apart from certain feast days that may arise: e.g., the Annunciation) what the fast is about. It is a privation of food which aims at: conquering the lower appetites; restraining vices; focusing one’s mind on prayer; fortifying one’s will; receiving God’s mercy. And that it not be ascribed to personal merit, we are reminded that if the fast effects these things in us, it is by the Father, through the Son.

The Collect and Secret of the 1st Sunday of Lent have this to say:

O God, You Who purify Your Church by the yearly Lenten observance, grant to Your household that what they strive to obtain from You by abstinence, they may achieve by good works. (Collect)

We offer these sacrificial gifts at the beginning of Lent, praying You, O Lord, that while we practice restraint in the use of bodily food, we may also refrain from harmful pleasures. (Secret)

Both of these prayers speak of the relation between the external – abstaining from eating – and the internal – doing good works (ordered will) and keeping from what is internally harmful (disordered will).

The Church, in her repetitious pedagogy, prays this theme over and over all throughout Lent. So as not to make this post too tedious, I will just cite a few more prayers which I think highlight the point:

May these sacrificial gifts, we beseech You, O Lord, be the more effective unto our salvation since they have been aided by wholesome fasting. (Secret, Thurs.  after 1st Sunday)

Sanctify our fasts by the sacrificial gifts here present, we beseech You, O Lord, that what our observance outwardly professes may be inwardly accomplished. (Secret, Sat. after 1st Sunday)

Grant, we beseech You, almighty God, that Your servants who discipline the body by fasting from food, may strive after righteousness by abstaining from sin.(Collect, Mon. after  2nd Sunday)

Look mercifully upon Your people, we beseech You, O Lord, and grant that they whom You command to abstain from food, may also refrain from harmful vices. (Collect, Wed. after 2nd Sunday)

May the fasting dedicated to Your Name, O Lord, make us holy for the present sacrifice, that what our Lenten observance outwardly shows, it may work within us.(Secret, Thurs. after 2nd Sunday)

Grant that our fasting may be beneficial to us, we beseech You, O Lord, so that by chastising our flesh we may obtain strength for our souls.(Collect, Sat. after 2nd Sunday)

Grant, we beseech You, O Lord, that, improved by wholesome fasting, and thus abstaining from harmful sin, we may the more readily receive Your mercy.(Collect, Wed. after 3rd Sunday)

Grant, we beseech You, almighty God, that we who chastise our flesh by abstaining from food, may fast from sin by striving after righteousness.(Collect, Sat. after 3rd Sunday)

Grant, we beseech You, almighty God, that we who are chastising the flesh by fasting, may rejoice in this holy practice, and thus, with earthly passions subdued, we may the more readily direct our thoughts to heavenly things. (Collect, Wed. after 4th Sunday)

(to continue in Part II)

Fátima and the Desert Fathers

I find myself writing today about a topic which I never thought I would – Fátima; specifically, the message of Fátima (or, at least, how I have come to understand it). Caveat: for those that came here expecting some comment on “the Consecration of Russia”, you can forget about that. That is a topic I’m not at all interested in touching. Let’s just say that I believe that that request was very time-specific, and is not necessarily what the “message” was all about, though it seems to me that to many it carries an almost messianic weight.

Love it or hate it, every Portuguese knows Fátima and has probably been there at least once in their life. In the minds of not a few, Fátima is something quite apart from the Church. How many times did I not hear from people (who even made regular pilgrimages there): “I don’t believe in the Church, but I have a lot of faith in Fátima.” I never understood what that was supposed to mean. What do those who profess such a belief understand Fátima to be? Does it mean you believe in some “miraculous” event, some “force” you keep a mercenary relationship with? Or does it mean that you believe in the message? If so, then you must necessarily believe in the Church. Our Lady cannot be understood apart of the Church; she is a type of the Church. If you believe in her, and not the Church, then there is something seriously flawed with your belief.

But I digress…

Fátima (Cova da Iria) is about an hour and fifteen minutes drive on the motorway from my home city. Now that I stop to think about it, I (providentially?) made my official return to the Church there 10 years ago. For almost two years I drove down every Sunday so as to be able to experience the vetus ordo of the Roman rite (and occasionally the Divine Liturgy at the local Ukrainian Greek Catholic chapel at Domus Pacis). When people found out that I would go to Fátima every Sunday they would say “Wow, you must have a lot of faith in Fátima.”, but it had never crossed my mind, in all those trips, that I was going there because of Fatima; if anything, in my mind, Fátima was accidental: the vetus ordo just happened to be celebrated there. As time went on, I began to have a bit more of a “sacramental” understanding of the place, and so the shrine (or at least the area of the chapel of the apparitions) became a kind of holy ground. The Deipara, the Dei genetrix, had appeared there; she had hallowed the ground (or at least the oak tree) by her contact. In my mind, that made the immediate vicinity a kind of contact relic, and so I would always stop by, even if just for 5 minutes, to say “hello” and entrust to her care my vocation, whichever it might be. Several years later, Sr. Maria do Rosário and I were received as novice Benedictine oblates at Fátima.

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During these many years I had struggled to understand just what exactly was the “message of Fátima” or why “the world needs Fátima“. Searching for answers on the internet only served to further the confusion. I had never stopped to read any proper literature on the apparitions; I only got bits and pieces of the story from time to time from speaking with people who had purposely moved to Fátima from abroad, as well as from someone who had known Sr. Lucia for many years and served as an interpreter of sorts for her. However, it was only after Father Prior had spoken with the postulator for Bl. Francisco’s cause that things suddenly start to click in my head. To quote Father Prior’s own words:

I put the question to Dr Coelho. She explained that while little Jacinta was an extrovert, easily engaging with others and concerned in reaching out to all, especially to poor sinners, Francisco was a very interior soul, focused on God alone or, as he himself put it, on consoling the Hidden Jesus. In this way, the personalities and graces of Francisco and Jacinta are complementary. Jacinta is emblematic of the missionary impulse of the Church, while Francisco illustrates the call to the hidden life and total dedication to the “One Thing Necessary” (Luke 10:42). Francisco, explained Dr Coelho, was, from the very beginning of the apparitions, singled out as a contemplative soul.

The Postulator explained that had Our Lady said that Francisco was to become a “contemplative soul”, the meaning of her words would have completely escaped Francisco’s understanding. His was the simple vocabulary of a child, of a boy accustomed to the concrete realities of nature. Our Lady’s words that Francisco would “need to say many rosaries” before going to heaven was, in effect, her way of saying that Francisco was to become an entirely contemplative soul before going to heaven, and this by means of many rosaries. Understand by this that, for Francisco and for most ordinary people, many rosaries are the most simple and efficacious way to union with God.

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For some time I had begun to see the message of “penance and prayer for the conversion of sinners” as synonymous with the Gospel, which made me wonder what was so unique about the apparition(s) and its message. Suddenly, with the postulator’s comment about Our Lady adapting her language to her interlocutors/audience, it made sense.

What was Our Lady trying to tell us? What had we forgotten?

Penance – mortifications; prayer for the conversion of sinners – intercession; pray the Rosary – the layman’s office par excellence in the West. Our Lady was reminding a simple people, a people of simple faith, of what it means to be Christian. I don’t mean simple in a pejorative sense; I mean simple in childlike, unable(?) to understand complex theological ideas, but faithful enough to intuit them, with a lively sensus fidelium. In very simple terms, she was reminding them of their baptismal priesthood. Sons in the Son, they could unite their sufferings, their mortifications, to Christ’s, to “make up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ” (cf. Col 1:24). As Our Lord had offered Himself up on the Cross for sinners, so they were to become icons of all mankind, offering in themselves all to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit, especially for those who did not believe. The daily rosary was an injunction to “pray without ceasing”. For a long time the rosary had been an alternative to the Office for those who were unable to read. The Office, especially through the Psalms, shows us the vultus Christi; praying the Psalms helps one to acquire the mind of Christ. Being unable to do that, one turns to Mary, and in contemplating her, one can see in her face the face of her Son shining through.

“Fátima”, in my understanding of it, is nothing “new”. The message is the Gospel. It is the life that finds echo in the life of the Desert Fathers. The Desert Father’s lived a(-n extreme) life of penance, of mortification; one needs only to read their sayings to see how indispensable it was to them, how essential it was to cultivate humility. It was not something negative; rather it was liberating. See, for example, this saying of Abba Poemon:

A brother questioned Abba Poemen saying, ‘I have committed a great sin and I want to do penance for three years.’ The old man said to him, ‘That is a lot.’ The brother said, ‘For one year?’ The old man said again, ‘That is a lot.’ Those who were present said, ‘For forty days?’ He said again, ‘That is a lot.’ He added, ‘I myself say that if a man repents with his whole heart and does not intend to commit the sin any more, God will accept him after only three days.’

Even on their deathbed penance was still (or should that be especially?) on their minds:

It was said of Abba Sisoes that when he was at the point of death, while the Fathers were sitting beside him, his face shone like the sun. He said to them, ‘Look, Abba Anthony is coming.’ A little later he said, ‘Look, the choir of prophets is coming.’ Again his countenance shone with brightness and he said, Look, the choir of apostles is coming,’ His countenance increased in brightness and lo, he spoke with someone. Then the old men asked him, ‘With whom are you speaking, Father?’ He said, ‘Look, the angels are coming to fetch me, and I am begging them to let me do a little penance.’ The old man said to him, ‘You have no need to do penance, Father.’ But the old man said to them, ‘Truly, I do not think I have even made a beginning yet.’

Continual prayer was also a theme on the minds of the Desert Fathers. They knew, through their experience, that it required a great effort to become a habit, especially if one was to pray without ceasing, which in a goal of all Christians, which they will one day do perfectly united to Christ, the Eternal High Priest. The Psalms were their school of prayer.

Abba Agathon said, “Prayer is hard work and a great struggle to one’s last breath”.

Having withdrawn to the solitary life he made the same prayer again and he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Arsenius, flee, be silent, pray always, for these are the source of sinlessness.’

The brethren also asked him, ‘Amongst all good works, which is the virtue which requires the greatest effort?’ He answered, ‘Forgive me, but I think there is no labour greater than that of prayer to God. For every time a man wants to pray, his enemies, the demons, want to prevent him, for they know that it is only by turning him from prayer that they can hinder his journey. What ever good work a man undertakes, if he perseveres in it, he will attain rest. But prayer is warfare to the last breath.’

We find as well stories of the Fathers’ intercession for sinners:

One day Abba Serapion passed through an Egyptian village and there he saw a courtesan who stayed in her own cell. The old man said to her, ‘Expect me this evening, for I should like to come and spend the night with you.’ She replied, ‘Very well, abba.’ She got ready and made the bed. When evening came, the old man came to see her and entered her cell and said to her, ‘Have you got the bed ready?’ She said, ‘Yes, abba.’ Then he closed the door and said to her, ‘Wait a bit, for we have a rule of prayer and I must fulfill that first.’ So the old man began his prayers. He took the psalter and at each psalm he said a prayer for the courtesan, begging God that she might be converted and saved, and God heard him. The woman stood trembling and praying beside the old man. When he had completed the whole psalter the woman fell to the ground. Then the old man, beginning the Epistle, read a great deal from the apostle and completed his prayers. The woman was filled with compunction and understood that he had not come to see her to commit sin but to save her soul and she fell at his feet, saying, ‘Abba, do me this kindness and take we where I can please God.’ So the old man took her to a monastery of virgins and entrusted her to the amma and he said, ‘Take this sister and do not put any yoke or commandment on her as on the other sisters, but if she wants something, give it her and allow her to walk as she wishes.’ After some days the courtesan said, ‘I am a sinner; I wish to eat every second day.’ A little later she said, ‘I have committed many sins and I wish to eat every fourth day.’ A few days later she besought the amma saying, ‘Since I have grieved God greatly by my sins, do me the kindness of putting me in a cell and shutting it completely and giving me a little bread and some work through the window.’ The amma did so and the woman pleased God all the rest of her life.

Is Fátima still “relevant”? I think it is particularly poignant a century later because it obliges us to ask “What have we forgotten?” It seems to me to be quite providential that our Blessed Mother should remind us of this supernatural aspect of the faith on the eve of a revolution of the “anti-Gospel”, of a materialistic “gospel” that promised an immanenitized eschaton. And yet, 100 years later, on the cusp of the anniversary of the apparitions, if one listens to the majority of the “testimonies” about the meaning of Fatima on this website (which is backed by the Sanctuary and a Catholic radio station), one will find that we have forgotten much. The majority of those testimonies of what Fátima means to those individuals is focused to much on me, on vague concepts of love and peace and feeling good with one’s self, a form of spiritual hygiene. God does not figure into the picture. The faith is primarily about the world here below, a convenient ethical system, but little beyond that.

We have forgotten the Cross. It is the Cross, the dulce lignum, that best encapsulates the Faith. In trying to make it more appealing, in applying so much cosmetic to sweeten the pill, we have gone so far as to forget what it is all about.

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What is Fátima to me? Fátima is the unbroken tradition of the Church; Fátima is the life of monks and religious and clerics and lay alike; Fátima is the faith of the Desert Fathers –  Fátima is the Christian life in broad strokes, so simple enough even a child could understand it. And it is a reminder to make every day a beginning.

In what order the Psalms are to be said (I)

Let this verse be said: “Incline unto my aid, O God;
O Lord, make haste to help me,” and the “Glory be to the Father” then the hymn proper to each Hour. Then at Prime on Sunday four sections of Psalm 118 are to be said; and at each of the remaining Hours, that is Terce, Sext and None, three sections of the same Psalm 118. At Prime on Monday let three Psalms be said, namely Psalms 1, 2 and 6. And so each day at Prime until Sunday let three Psalms be said in numerical order, to Psalm 19, but with Psalms 9 and 17 each divided into two parts. Thus it comes about that the Night Office on Sunday always begins with Psalm 20.

Instead of writing something myself on today’s reading, I would like to share a passage from St. John Cassian’s Conferences which was brought to my attention on the Vultus Christi blog. The passage pertains to the introduction of the hours – Deus in adjutorium meum intende – a prayer that has been very dear to me ever since visiting Silverstream.

For keeping up continual recollection of God this pious formula is to be ever set before you. O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me, for this verse has not unreasonably been picked out from the whole of Scripture for this purpose. For it embraces all the feelings which can be implanted in human nature, and can be fitly and satisfactorily adapted to every condition, and all assaults.

Since it contains an invocation of God against every danger, it contains humble and pious confession, it contains the watchfulness of anxiety and continual fear, it contains the thought of one’s own weakness, confidence in the answer, and the assurance of a present and ever ready help. For one who is constantly calling on his protector, is certain that He is always at hand.

It contains the glow of love and charity, it contains a view of the plots, and a dread of the enemies, from which one, who sees himself day and night hemmed in by them, confesses that he cannot be set free without the aid of his defender. This verse is an impregnable wall for all who are labouring under the attacks of demons, as well as impenetrable coat of mail and a strong shield. It does not suffer those who are in a state of moroseness and anxiety of mind, or depressed by sadness or all kinds of thoughts to despair of saving remedies, as it shows that He, who is invoked, is ever looking on at our struggles and is not far from His suppliants. It warns us whose lot is spiritual success and delight of heart that we ought not to be at all elated or puffed up by our happy condition, which it assures us cannot last without God as our protector, while it implores Him not only always but even speedily to help us.

This verse, I say, will be found helpful and useful to every one of us in whatever condition we may be. For one who always and in all matters wants to be helped, shows that he needs the assistance of God not only in sorrowful or hard matters but also equally in prosperous and happy ones, that he may be delivered from the one and also made to continue in the other, as he knows that in both of them human weakness is unable to endure without His assistance.

I am affected by the passion of gluttony. I ask for food of which the desert knows nothing, and in the squalid desert there are wafted to me odours of royal dainties and I find that even against my will I am drawn to long for them. I must at once say: O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me. I am incited to anticipate the hour fixed for supper, or I am trying with great sorrow of heart to keep to the limits of the right and regular meagre fare. I must cry out with groans: O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me. Weakness of the stomach hinders me when wanting severer fasts, on account of the assaults of the flesh, or dryness of the belly and constipation frightens me. In order that effect may be given to my wishes, or else that the fire of carnal lust may be quenched without the remedy of a stricter fast, I must pray: O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me. When I come to supper, at the bidding of the proper hour I loathe taking food and am prevented from eating anything to satisfy the requirements of nature: I must cry with a sigh: O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me.

When I want for the sake of steadfastness of heart to apply myself to reading a headache interferes and stops me, and at the third hour sleep glues my head to the sacred page, and I am forced either to overstep or to anticipate the time assigned to rest; and finally an overpowering desire to sleep forces me to cut short the canonical rule for service in the Psalms: in the same way I must cry out: O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me. Sleep is withdrawn from my eyes, and for many nights I find myself wearied out with sleeplessness caused by the devil, and all repose and rest by night is kept away from my eyelids; I must sigh and pray: O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me. While I am still in the midst of a struggle with sin suddenly an irritation of the flesh affects me and tries by a pleasant sensation to draw me to consent while in my sleep. In order that a raging fire from without may not burn up the fragrant blossoms of chastity, I must cry out: O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me. I feel that the incentive to lust is removed, and that the heat of passion has died away in my members: In order that this good condition acquired, or rather that this grace of God may continue still longer or forever with me, I must earnestly say: O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me.

I am disturbed by the pangs of anger, covetousness, gloominess, and driven to disturb the peaceful state in which I was, and which was dear to me: In order that I may not be carried away by raging passion into the bitterness of gall, I must cry out with deep groans: O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me. I am tried by being puffed up by accidie, vainglory, and pride, and my mind with subtle thoughts flatters itself somewhat on account of the coldness and carelessness of others: In order that this dangerous suggestion of the enemy may not get the mastery over me, I must pray with all contrition of heart: O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me.

I have gained the grace of humility and simplicity, and by continually mortifying my spirit have got rid of the swellings of pride: In order that the foot of pride may not again come against me, and the hand of the sinner disturb me, and that I may not be more seriously damaged by elation at my success, I must cry with all my might, O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me. I am on fire with innumerable and various wanderings of soul and shiftiness of heart, and cannot collect my scattered thoughts, nor can I even pour forth my prayer without interruption and images of vain figures, and the recollection of conversations and actions, and I feel myself tied down by such dryness and barrenness that I feel I cannot give birth to any offspring in the shape of spiritual ideas: In order that it may be vouchsafed to me to be set free from this wretched state of mind, from which I cannot extricate myself by any number of sighs and groans, I must full surely cry out: O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me.

Again, I feel that by the visitation of the Holy Spirit I have gained purpose of soul, steadfastness of thought, keenness of heart, together with an ineffable joy and transport of mind, and in the exuberance of spiritual feelings I have perceived by a sudden illumination from the Lord an abounding revelation of most holy ideas which were formerly altogether hidden from me: In order that it may be vouchsafed to me to linger for a longer time in them I must often and anxiously exclaim: O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me.

Encompassed by nightly horrors of devils I am agitated, and am disturbed by the appearances of unclean spirits, my very hope of life and salvation is withdrawn by the horror of fear. Flying to the safe refuge of this verse, I will cry out with all my might: O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me. Again, when I have been restored by the Lord’s consolation, and, cheered by His coming, feel myself encompassed as if by countless thousands of angels, so that all of a sudden I can venture to seek the conflict and provoke a battle with those whom a while ago I dreaded worse than death, and whose touch or even approach I felt with a shudder both of mind and body: In order that the vigour of this courage may, by God’s grace, continue in me still longer, I must cry out with all my powers: O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me.

We must then ceaselessly and continuously pour forth the prayer of this verse, in adversity that we may be delivered, in prosperity that we may be preserved and not puffed up. Let the thought of this verse, I tell you, be conned over in your breast without ceasing. Whatever work you are doing, or office you are holding, or journey you are going, do not cease to chant this. When you are going to bed, or eating, and in the last necessities of nature, think on this. This thought in your heart maybe to you a saving formula, and not only keep you unharmed by all attacks of devils, but also purify you from all faults and earthly stains, and lead you to that invisible and celestial contemplation, and carry you on to that ineffable glow of prayer, of which so few have any experience. Let sleep come upon you still considering this verse, till having been moulded by the constant use of it, you grow accustomed to repeat it even in your sleep. When you wake let it be the first thing to come into your mind, let it anticipate all your waking thoughts, let it when you rise from your bed send you down on your knees, and thence send you forth to all your work and business, and let it follow you about all day long. This you should think about, according to the Lawgiver’s charge, at home and walking forth on a journey, (Deuteronomy 6:7) sleeping and waking. This you should write on the threshold and door of your mouth, this you should place on the walls of your house and in the recesses of your heart so that when you fall on your knees in prayer this may be your chant as you kneel, and when you rise up from it to go forth to all the necessary business of life it may be your constant prayer as you stand. (Conference X, Chapter 10)