Mary Magdalene

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St. Gregory the Great  got it wrong when he identified Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman mentioned in the gospel stories and Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus.  Yet,  his description of the spirituality of Mary Magdalene is right on.

I wrote about Mary elsewhere in Bread on the Waters; here’s an excerpt from Gregory’s beautiful sermon in today’s Liturgy of the Hours:

“We should reflect on Mary’s attitude and the great love she felt for Christ; for though the disciples had left the tomb, she remained. She was still seeking the one she had not found, and while she sought she wept; burning with the fire of love, she longed for him who she thought had been taken away. And so it happened that the woman who stayed behind to seek Christ was the only one to see him. For perseverance is essential to any good deed, as the voice of truth tells us: Whoever perseveres to the end will be saved.

At first she sought but did not find, but when she persevered it happened that she found what she was looking for. When our desires are not satisfied, they grow stronger, and becoming stronger they take hold of their object. Holy desires likewise grow with anticipation, and if they do not grow they are not really desires. Anyone who succeeds in attaining the truth has burned with such a great love. As David says: My soul has thirsted for the living God; when shall I come and appear before the face of God? And so also in the Song of Songs the Church says: I was wounded by love; and again: My soul is melted with love.

Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek? She is asked why she is sorrowing so that her desire might be strengthened; for when she mentions whom she is seeking, her love is kindled all the more ardently.

Jesus says to her: Mary. Jesus is not recognised when he calls her “woman”; so he calls her by name, as though he were saying: Recognise me as I recognise you; for I do not know you as I know others; I know you as yourself. And so Mary, once addressed by name, recognises who is speaking. She immediately calls him rabboni, that is to say, teacher, because the one whom she sought outwardly was the one who inwardly taught her to keep on searching.”

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Praying with Mary and Ann

The Feast of Saints Ann and Joachim, the parents of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is celebrated on July 26.  Some churches are preparing for the feast with novena services in honor of St. Ann all this week.

A few years ago I visited Jerusalem and the ancient ruins of the temple that once stood in the time of Jesus. Jewish women were fervently praying with their daughters before the temple’s western wall. Thousands of years before, Ann and her daughter Mary must have prayed in this holy place too.

Ann and Joachim were closely connected to the temple of Jerusalem and may have lived near it or in a town close by, tradition says.  The picture above is a model of the temple from Jesus’ time at the Israel Museum. The Pool of Bethesda, where the paralyzed man was healed by Jesus, is to the right of the temple. A church honoring St. Ann stands there today. (below)

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The women at the wall in Jerusalem were probably praying the psalms as generations before them have done. A statue of Ann and her daughter Mary can be found in the Jerusalem church. Statues like it are common in Catholic churches; Ann is teaching her daughter at her side.

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Some statues I’ve seen show her teaching Mary her ABCs; others show her teaching Mary the scriptures. She’s teaching her daughter how to pray and how to live.

These days we’re trying to find ways to form our children in their faith. Here’s  a way that’s worked for centuries. Parents and grandparents are indispensable teachers of faith and the lessons of life. The next generation is at their side.

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Weeds and Wheat (16th Sunday)

Here’s the audio for my homily:

In his parables Jesus often presents God as a human being doing things human beings do. He’s a sower sowing seed, an owner of a vineyard with people working for him, a father dealing with a wayward son, a shepherd caring for his sheep, a king whose son has been killed.

The stories bring God into everyday life, where he interacts with people and shares their cares and concerns. Like Jesus, his Son, God enters into the joys and problems of human life in this world.

In the parable we read today, God is a farmer who has sown seed in his field, but afterwards an enemy comes and sows bad seed among the good. Weeds grow up with the wheat. God, as the farmer, faces one of the great problems we all face–the problem of evil.

Why would anyone want to destroy a good field someone else has planted: revenge, jealousy, envy, or just reckless disregard for what’s good? A further question is: what do you do about this?

The farmer’s servants react with fear when they discover weeds growing up with the wheat.. “Do you want us to go out and pull the weeds up? “ The farmer tells them to let the wheat and the weeds grow till the harvest. Then they can be separated; the wheat gathered in barns and the weeds burned and destroyed.  

A lesson to draw from this parable is “Don’t be afraid of evil.” It’s an important lesson. Certainly we have to recognize evil and fear it, but not get overly frightened by it. God doesn’t according to our parable. Like the farmer who has confidence in his wheat, God has confidence in the good he has put into this world.

His patience allows evil, because he is confident in the power of what’s good. God is not afraid of an imperfect world, and neither should we be afraid of it.  God has confidence in the power of the good, and so should we believe in the good that’s there in life.

In parables like the one we read today, God works in our imperfect world. He’s a farmer who has to deal with a enemy;  He’s a father who doesn’t have perfect children, a shepherd who has to manage wandering sheep, a king whose subjects are bad enough to kill his only Son. 

Jesus is the fulfillment of the parables. He is God present in our world, to care for it, to give it life, to bring it to harvest. He is God’s Wheat, whom we receive to strengthen the wheat God has sown. He is stronger than any evil.  

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Visiting Elizabeth Seton’s New York

Twelve of us from St. Mary’s Parish, Colts Neck, NJ, visited Elizabeth Seton’s New York yesterday. We took the 10 AM boat from Atlantic Highlands for pier 11 in downtown New York City and walked to St. Elizabeth Seton’s shrine and home on State Street nearby.

One of New York City’s distinguished citizens, she was born in 1774, a couple years before the American Revolution.  She’s also the first American saint to be honored by the Catholic Church.

Our first stop was a colonial house and a shrine near the ferry terminal at the end of Manhattan Island where Elizabeth Seton and her family lived for a short time. Most of her New York years were lived in this old section of the city.

Approaching Manhattan through New York harbor let’s you see the city as the earliest European explorers saw it. The island is the gem at the harbor’s center; on its left the Hudson River flows to the north, on its right the East River flows out to the coast.

In 1524 Giovanni Verranzano came upon New York harbor–he thought it was a lake– searching for a passage to the Pacific. The Verranzano Bridge stands at the entrance to the harbor today.

In 1609 Henry Hudson, exploring for the Dutch, sailed into the harbor and then up as far as Albany on the river that now bears his name.  The Dutch realized how valuable this place was and made a small settlement on the island. They called their trading post New Amsterdam and traded with the many Indian tribes here and along the Hudson River. Before any Europeans came, numerous Indian tribes fished, hunted and traded here.

The English had their eyes on the place too and in 1642 took it over. New Amsterdam became New York, and it was under English control till the American Revolution in 1776.

Millions of immigrants have come through New York harbor since then. This was their gateway to the new world.  Through the harbor, this country also traded the new world’s resources with the rest of the world.

We began our tour of Elizabeth Seton’s New York here because she and her family were closely connected to the harbor. Her husband, William Seton, invested in the ships that made New York one of the richest ports in the world.  But ships were a risky investment; they brought handsome profits but they could also bring bankruptcy if they didn’t come in. The Setons experienced both.

William Seton was one of Wall Street’s first venture capitalists. In 1801 the Seton’s went bankrupt after the loss of a ship at sea and the family moved to the rented house on State Street, our first stop on our tour.

Elizabeth Seton’s father, Doctor Richard Bayley, was the first Health Officer for the port of New York; (1796) he dealt with many of the first immigrants and travellers passing through here.

His job was to keep New York City safe from disease, and one of his tasks was to keep travellers who were dangerous health threats isolated. So, quarantine stations were set up for immigrants with yellow fever, cholera and small pox.

On our way through the harbor we saw some of the harbor’s early quarantine stations at Bedloe’s Island (1758-1796), Governor’s Island (1796-1799), Thomkinsville in Staten Island (1799-1858), just south of the St. George ferry station.

In the summer of 1801, Elizabeth was staying with her father at the Thomkinsville quarantine station when a boatload of sick Irish immigrants were brought in. She describes the dreadful conditions in a letter:

“I cannot sleep–the dying and the dead possess my mind. Babies perishing at the empty breast of the expiring mother…Father says such was never known before: twelve children  must die for want of sustenance…parents deprived of it as they have lain for many days ill in a ship without food or air or changing…There are tents pitched over the yard of the convalescent house and a large one at the death house.” (Letter July 28, 1801)

That same year, Richard Bayley died from yellow fever contacted while caring for a boatload of Irish immigrants off Thomkinsville. He’s buried in the family plot next to the Episcopal Church of St. Andrew in Richmond, Staten Island.

From Mother Seton’s shrine and house on State Street we walked to Trinity Church and then St. Paul’s Chapel, the Anglican parish she belonged to until her conversion to Catholicism in 1805. She lived her early years as a happily married woman with five children on Wall Street and Stone Street, close by these colonial churches.

As a devout Anglican, Elizabeth devoted herself to her family and to the poor. In 1797 she and other public-spirited church women began an aid society for destitute women and their children. “The poor increase fast: immigrants from all quarters come to us. And when they come to us they must not be allowed to die.” (Description of the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows and Small Children.)

Looking eastward down Wall Street from Trinity Church on Broadway , you can see many of the founding institutions of America: the docks and slave market (no longer visible) on the East River  the New York Stock Exchange and the Federal building, a short walk from Broadway, and finally Trinity Church and King’s College on the western side of Manhattan. King’s College built on lands belonging to Trinity Church became Columbia University after the Revolutionary War, and later relocated in northern Manhattan.

Our final stop on our visit to Elizabeth Seton’s New York was St. Peter’s Catholic Church on Barclay Street, near to World Trade Center. Here she was received into the Catholic Church.

In June 1808, she left New York City with her family for Baltimore, where she founded a school on Paca Street, the beginning of the Catholic parochial schools system in the United States. Shortly after, Mother Seton moved to Emmitsburg, Maryland, where other women gathered around her and took vows as the Sisters of Charity. Her religious followers continued her work through schools, orphanages and hospitals found throughout the United States.

Mother Seton died at the age of 46 in 1821. She was canonized on September 14,1975

Yesterday, from St. Peter’s Church we walked to Broadway and then down Wall Street to catch the 3 PM ferry for the Atlantic Highlands.

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The Journey of the Mind

You would expect a theologian like St. Bonaventure to tell you to hit the books if you would want to go to God. After all, his treatise we read today on his feast is called “The Journey of the Mind to God.”

Instead he directs us to Christ and the Cross as our way to God.

” If you ask how such things can occur, seek the answer in God’s grace, not in doctrine; in the longing of the will, not in the understanding; in the sighs of prayer, not in research; seek the bridegroom not the teacher; God and not man; darkness not daylight; and look not to the light but rather to the raging fire that carries the soul to God with intense fervour and glowing love.”

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Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680)

Sometime ago, while searching the Internet for a roadmap, I stumbled on a map of New York rivers and lakes.   Centuries ago, Indians and early European settlers would have appreciated a map like this because rivers and lakes were their roads and highways.

The New York Thruway still follows the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers most of the way up to Buffalo and Mohawk villages once dotted their banks. Past Albany, near a town called Fonda, are the ruins of the 17th century Mohawk village of Caughnawaga, excavated in the 1950s by a Franciscan priest,  Thomas Grassmann. It’s the only village of its kind still visible, with traces of 12 long houses surrounded by a fortified stockade. It was built in 1666 after a French army from Quebec destroyed an earlier Mohawk village at Osserneron (today, Auriesville) a few miles downriver.

The French army was punishing the Mohawks for their part in the Iroquois- Huron wars, when they plundered and destroyed villages of Indian allies of the French, the Hurons and  Algonquins, along the St. Lawrence River. As members of the Iroquois confederation, the Mohawks wanted to take over the fur trade from their northern neighbors. They also took women and children captive; at the time, Indians used to replenish their own numbers– diminished by wars or disease– by kidnapping members from other tribes.

In destroying Ossernenon, the French army was probably also avenging the death of three French missionaries  killed in that village some years before: Fr. Isaac Jogues, SJ, and Rene Goupil and Gabriel Lalande,  honored  today by the Church as martyrs.

One of the Christian Algonquin women captured in that earlier raid was married to a Mohawk brave from Ossernenon and they had a daughter,  Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680), whom the Catholic Church also honors as blessed.

When Kateri was four years old, an epidemic of smallpox ravaged Ossernenon, killing   many children and adults. The young girl almost died of the disease that left her disfigured. Her early Jesuit biographer says “ She almost lost her eyesight, and her eyes hurt so much from this illness that she covered herself with a blanket when out in strong light.” (The Life of the Good Catherine Tekakwitha, Claude Chauchetiere, SJ , 1695)

Both parents died when Kateri was a little girl and she was taken in by relatives in the new Mohawk village of Caughnawaga, where she lived most of her life. Her mother was a devout Christian and must have told her about Christianity, but Kateri’s new family and the tribe itself strongly opposed the religion.

However, as one condition for not returning to the Mohawk villages, the French military demanded that Jesuit missionaries be allowed to visit them and minister to captive Christians or others interested in their faith.

Jesuit missionaries visited Caughnawaga for three days in 1667 and received hospitality in the long house where Kateri lived with her uncle, a Mohawk leader opposed to Christians.

According to witnesses, Kateri led the normal life of an Indian girl and young woman.  “She brought wood and tended the fire when her aunt ordered her, and got water when those in the long house needed it. When she had nothing to do she amused herself making small jewels and dressing as other girls of her age. She placed shell bead necklaces around her neck, shell bead bracelets on her arms, rings on her fingers and ornaments in her ears.” (The Life of the Good Catherine Tekakwitha, Claude Chauchetiere, SJ , 1695)

Though sickly, she was not lazy or proud. She never talked about others. Timid, she avoided dances and games. She didn’t like seeing captives harmed or people tortured, witnesses said.

In the spring of 1675 Father Jacques de Lamberville, a Jesuit, visited Caughnawaga . Kateri was alone in her long house because a foot injury prevented her from working in the fields and the priest entered her lodge. She spoke to him of her desire to receive baptism and on Easter, 1676, the young Indian girl was baptized and took the name Kateri, after St. Catherine of Siena, the mystic and a favorite patron of Christian Indian women. She was 20 years old.

Her uncle and relatives in the long house reacted to her conversion to Christianity and pressured her to marry and follow their ways, even when opposed to her beliefs. The early Jesuits considered it a miracle for a Christian to resist family and tribal pressure such as Kateri experienced in Caughnawaga. Yet, her early biographer says “She practiced her faith without losing her original fervor and her extraordinary virtue was seen by all. The Christians saw her obeying their rules exactly, going to prayers everyday in the morning and evening and Mass on Sunday. At the same time she avoided the dreams feasts and the dances,” practices endangering her belief.  (The Life of the Good Catherine Tekakwitha, Claude Chauchetiere, SJ , 1695)

Father de Lamberville finally recommended that Kateri escape to the newly-established  Indian Christian village in Kahnawake near Montreal, where she could live her faith more easily. In 1676, aided by other Christian Indians, she made the dangerous journey northward.  There she lived a fervent life of prayer and faith;  she died and was buried on April 17th, 1680.

Her feast day is July 14. For more on the Martrys of Auriesville and Kateri, see here. for a dvd.

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The Seed and the Sower (15th Sunday A)

In today’s gospel from Matthew 13, 1-23, Jesus offers a parable that interprets the mounting opposition he faces from many sides early in his ministry.  For one thing, people in Chorazin, Bethsaida, Capernaum–cites and towns along the Sea of Galilee that received him warmly for his miracles and his teaching– begin to turn away from him. (Matthew 11,16-24)) The Pharisees and scribes, the Jewish religious leaders, accuse him of breaking Jewish laws and being possessed by the devil. (Matthew 12,22-34) Some of his own family from Nazareth come to take him home because they think he’d out of his mind. (Matthew 12, 46-50) Finally, his own disciples don’t seem to understand him.

What explains the desertion, opposition, lack of understanding towards him and his  ministry that began with great acclaim?

The parable of the seed and the sower is Jesus‘ answer to what he faced, but also what the Word of God faces continually from humanity.  God’s Word is received by the human heart like seed received in the ground.

The seed is life-giving,  but if it falls on rocky ground it’s eaten right away by the birds of the air. If it falls on thin soil it fails after awhile because it has no roots; if it falls among thorns and weeds they choke it. But if it falls on good ground the seed produces fruit beyond anything you expect.

The parable first applies to the world Jesus faced, but it’s also a picture of how  humanity in every age receives the Word of God.  Our hearts can be hard, fickle, vain, proud, unheeding, but we can also accomplish great deeds. The seed’s not at fault, it’s the ground it falls on.

Still, the sower never stops sowing seed. life-giving seed. That’s also important to remember. God never withholds his grace.

In a poem called “Putting in the Seed”  Robert Frost describes a farmer’s love affair with the earth. It’s spring and getting dark, yet the farmer keeps working his field. Someone from the house goes to fetch him home. Supper’s on the table, yet he’s a

  “ Slave to a springtime passion for the earth.

   How Love burns through the Putting in the Seed

   On through the watching for that early birth

   When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed,

 The sturdy seedling with arched body comes

 Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs.”

Is Frost’s farmer zestfully casting seed on the waiting earth an image of God, the Sower, casting saving grace onto the world, in season and out, because he loves it so ?

Jesus’ parable of the seed and the sower seems to suggest it. The land surrounding the Sea of Galilee where Jesus ministered is still a fruitful land where crops grow in abundance, as they did in his time. It’s a blessed place. In a place like that, the sower scatters his seed confidently, not afraid where it goes: on rocky ground, or amid thorns, or on the soil that gives a good return. Because of his love and trust of the land,  the sower keeps sowing.

Can we say that God the Sower sows blessed seed, no matter how badly our human world appears, or how badly it receives? Like the seasons that bring snow and rain, grace is never withheld.  God, who loves it so, blesses the earth and all of us.

The sower still sows; the snow and rain still fall. That brings us hope.

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