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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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)

Thou hast ascended on high

This Ascension Thursday was the first time I witnessed the extinguishing of the Paschal Candle. The lighting of the Paschal Candle is part of one of my favourite liturgical moments of the year (if not the favourite) – the Exultet. I have a post saved on the topic of the Exultet for another time; at the moment I want to reflect a bit on the meaning of the extinguishing of the Paschal Candle.

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The Paschal Candle’s presence in the novus ordo is virtually perennial; not so in the vetus ordo. The Paschal Candle symbolizes the resurrected and glorified Christ. In the vetus ordo the candle is present since the Paschal Vigil, remaining lit in the sanctuary for 40 days, symbolizing the 40 days the resurrected Christ spent still among His disciples. On the 40th day, on the day of the Ascension, the Paschal Candle is extinguished, symbolizing Our Lord’s bodily Ascension. The Candle will only be relit for the Vigil of Pentecost (in the case of the pre-’55 rite), when the Mass parallels the Paschal Vigil.

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Here is the genius of the Liturgy handed down to us. Here is a reminder that the Son has ascended to the Father; that we have spent these past 40 days in His company with His disciples, that we will no longer see His resurrected and glorified body with our eyes, but will require the eyes of Faith to see Him present in the Eucharist. We must remember that when the Sacred Mysteries are celebrated, we are outside chronos – outside chronological time – and inside kairos – sacred time, God’s time – and that we are re-living the events we celebrate (hence why the liturgical texts always refer to the present; the Hanc igitur of Pascha refers to the resurrection this day; the Ascension’s texts as well ).

Are we aware of the meaning of these symbols and their meanings, or do we just go through the motions?

 

Memento, homo, quia pulvis es

After three Sundays of preparation Lent is finally here (or is it upon us? One is never quite certain with the usus antiquior; but then I kind of like the uncertainty). This is the second year that I have actually been able to participate in the older rite on Ash Wednesday and, while I am normally a Solemn Mass man, the silence of the Low Mass celebrated was not without its effects. We were spectators in this seemingly arcane rite which was being performed on our behalf; and yet we were participants in it as well, offering ourselves up with the Lamb who was immolated from eternity, praying that what was happening on that most holy altar would take place within us as well. The hushed voices of the priest and server all the way up in the apse, which floated down as gently as snow to us all the way back practically in the narthex, brought to my mind a series of thoughts that have lately just been floating around in my head on the subject of Lent.
This post will be very fragmented, with no apparent link between any of the parts, and I write it mostly just to order the thoughts in my head, so I ask whoever reads this (and perseveres until the end) to please bear with me.

What is all this “nonsense” of getting one’s forehead “sullied” with ash at the beginning of Lent? Biblically, ashes are generally a sign of mourning, of repentence (cf. 2 Sam 13:19; Jer 6:26; Job 2:8;42:6; Ez 27:30). There are several prayers used in the blessing of the ashes according to the usus antiquior; let us see what the Liturgy has to say:

  • […] that they may be a wholesome remedy for all who humbly implore Your holy Name […];
  • […] that all who are sprinkled with these ashes for the forgiveness of their sins, may receive health for their bodies and salvation for their souls [reminiscent of the sprinkling of the red heffer’s ashes?];
  • […] are to be placed upon our heads as a sign of humility and a pledge of Your forgiveness […];
  • […] by the ashes sprinkled upon the heads of Your servants mercifully pour forth upon them the grace of Your blessing, fill them with the spirit of repentance and truly grant what they ask for in the right way […]

While Latins are generally accused of having a legalistic outlook (and these prayers do use a bit of legal jargon), one finds in them constant mentions of a merciful God, who only desires that His children return to Him. The prayers found in the Bragan missal remind us as well of the First Adam’s transgression (All powerful eternal God, who declared to the first man transgressing your commandment, nor confessing his sin, that he was dust and to dust he shall return), and reinforce the idea of a loving Creator (All powerful God who hath mercy on all, and who hates nothing of those things which thou hast made). Adam’s lack of repentence merits the warning that he will return to the dust from which he was made; now, we put on dust [ashes] in sign of repentance so that we will not return to it.

So these ashes are sacramentals. They’re not merely an outward sign of our (supposed) interior state; they are conduits of grace to help us repent, and a “reminder” to God of His mercy.

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Memento, homo, quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris.

We processed silently up the aisle to receive the ashes, and as we knelt it would not have been strange to me at all to hear the line from the Dies Irae:

Oro supplex et acclinis; cor contritum quasi cinis.
Low I kneel, with heart’s submission; see, like ashes, my contrition.

For a long time the readings on this day baffled me. “Rend your hearts, not your garments […]; […] when you do fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not be seen fasting by men […]”. “Isn’t it hypocritical to be walking around all day with ash on my forehead when the readings are against this kind of ostentatious behaviour?” I would ask others and they would have the same question; I never received a decent answer from any of the clergy or people in a position to teach. It took a long time to learn that these readings on this day were not paradoxal, nor that we were doing something apparently hypocritical. I had to learn how to read the Scriptures properly. I had to learn what these passages meant in their proper context as well as in the context of the Bible, as well as certain jewish rhetorical styles. The contradiction I perceived between the readings and our actions was only superficial; I had taken things at face value and not really bothered to go beyond the surface. These condemnations were not of what the Law prescribed, but rather of the spirit with which they were done. The exterior signs are necessary, but one should not use them as a source of pride; all must be for God. So much time to learn something so simple…

Later that evening at home we thought it apropriate to pray the Canon of Repentence to Our Lord Jesus Christ (a Byzantine prayer). It was the first time we ever prayed it, and the words struck deep, especially

O woe is me, a sinner! Wretched am I above all men. There is no repentance in me. Give me, O Lord, tears, that I may weep bitterly over my deeds.

We ended the day with a kind of Chapter of Faults/Rite of Forgiveness, in which we both asked for each other’s forgiveness and prayers.

And so began our Lenten journey. The silence of the Mass, as I said, made quite the impression on me, so much so that I’ve wondered if Silence is not to be the staple characteristic of this Lent.