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Fury of the Idolaters, Beauty of the Faith

If all we knew of today’s saint were the monuments left in his honor, we would conclude that he was a very great man indeed. July 23 is the memorial of St. Apollinaris, the first bishop of Ravenna in Italy. And the two sanctuaries dedicated to his memory — Sant’Apollinare in Classe and Sant’Apollinare Nuovo — are among the chief reasons why Ravenna appears on lists of the most beautiful cities on earth. (See our previous post on Ravenna. The image at the top of this blog is a sixth-century mosaic from Sant’Apollinare Nuovo.) Here’s what the old Catholic Encyclopedia has to say about our saint:

One of the first great martyrs of the church. He was made Bishop of Ravenna by St. Peter himself. The miracles he wrought there soon attracted official attention, for they and his preaching won many converts to the Faith, while at the same time bringing upon him the fury of the idolaters, who beat him cruelly and drove him from the city. He was found half dead on the seashore, and kept in concealment by the Christians, but was captured again and compelled to walk on burning coals and a second time expelled. But he remained in the vicinity, and continued his work of evangelization. We find him then journeying in the province of Aemilia. A third time he returned to Ravenna. Again he was captured, hacked with knives, had scalding water poured over his wounds, was beaten in the mouth with stones because he persisted in preaching, and then, loaded with chains, was flung into a horrible dungeon to starve to death; but after four days he was put on board ship and sent to Greece. There the same course of preachings, and miracles, and sufferings continued; and when his very presence caused the oracles to be silent, he was, after a cruel beating, sent back to Italy. All this continued for three years, and a fourth time he returned to Ravenna. By this time Vespasian was Emperor, and he, in answer to the complaints of the pagans, issued a decree of banishment against the Christians. Apollinaris was kept concealed for some time, but as he was passing out of the gates of the city, was set upon and savagely beaten, probably at Classis, a suburb, but he lived for seven days, foretelling meantime that the persecutions would increase, but that the Church would ultimately triumph. It is not certain what was his native place, though it was probably Antioch. Nor is it sure that he was one of the seventy-two disciples of Christ, as has been suggested. The precise date of his consecration cannot be ascertained, but he was Bishop of Ravenna for twenty-six years.

I’ve never seen Apollinaris’s see. But it’s on the short list of beautiful things I’d like to see in anticipation of the beauty of heaven.

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Persian Throw Rug

Julian the Apostate has made several appearances on this blog. Raised a Christian, he was a schoolmate of the great Cappadocian Fathers. Eventually, he led the charge to re-paganize the empire. Not too long ago, we observed the anniversary of his battlefield death at the hands of the Persians. Turns out that the Persians preserved that Kodak moment, which you can glimpse at the blog of Julian’s most recent (and very sympathetic) biographer, Adrian Murdoch.

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All for Layna

Today is the feast of St. Mary Magdalene. Start your day by sorting through all the confusions accumulated around this Gospel figure — “apostle to the apostles,” according to Hippolytus. At Catholic Educator’s Resource Center, Father William Saunders has a good, short summary of St. Mary’s life and afterlives. The old Catholic Encyclopedia also does an admirable job sorting it out.

If you want to honor this great saint on her feast day, order yourself a copy of Amy Welborn’s book De-Coding Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legend, and Lies. You’ll find my review of the book right here. As my daughter Mary Agnes would say, it rocks.

UPDATE: Father Z is, as always, right on calendar with the good stuff, and in quantity.

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Newly Disclosed Betrayals of “Judas”

Jim Davila at Paleojudaica reports on the reprehensible behavior involved in the trafficking of the Gospel of Judas.

So not only did National Geographic practice shameless and tasteless hucksterism by foisting the bogus gospel on the world during Holy Week — in an unprecedented media campaign — it also tacitly promoted the mishandling and mutilation of irreplaceable artifacts — another country’s cultural heritage. All of its editors’ protests of scholarly intention ring rather hollow just now.

You don’t have to be a Christian to be grossed out by the whole matter, as Adam Gopnik demonstrated so well in the New Yorker.

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What Has Athens to Do with Bulgaria?

Bulgarian archeologists say they have unearthed an ancient temple-turned-church that is “five times larger than Athens’ Acropolis.” And where there’s a church, there are liturgical items.

A bronze cross containing relics of the Holy Cross was also discovered at the site close to the southern city of Kurdzhali, and is the first preserved woodchip from Jesus’ cross found in Bulgaria.

The Acropolis-rivaling temple dates back to the Bronze Age and is the biggest on the Balkans. The whole complex is spread over 7.5 square kilometres and covers the whole Perperikon peak. People came to pray at that spot for a period of over 2,000 years …

Finders of the bronze cross were thrilled as well, as … its sacred contents were very well preserved, because it was hermetically sealed. The cross [bears] Jesus’ image on the front and the Holy Mother’s on the back…

There are a few more details at Sofia News Agency.

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Word on St. Agatha?

A reader of this blog, Paul Zalonski, is researching the third-century martyr St. Agatha of Sicily — the one mentioned in the First Eucharistic Prayer. Paul’s looking for liturgical, legendary, poetic, and historical texts. If you can help him out, contact him by email:

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Digestive Tracts

Mark Shuttleworth (who wrote the booklet on Theosis) sends word that Shroro: The Syriac Orthodox Christian Digest now posts its content online. Most of the material deals with the life of Syriac Orthodox believers today, as they’re dispersed throughout the world. But there’s also much good material on Christian antiquity. In the current issue, Susan Ashbrook Harvey discusses Women in the Syrian Tradition, with insights on the difference Christianity made by introducing the life of consecrated virginity. You’ll also find a good Life of St. Basil and much, much more. Most stories are accompanied by beautiful icons. Check it out.

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Cairo Technics

Zahi Hawass is the guy you see in the foreground whenever the news crews or documentary makers are training their cameras on Egypt’s archeological digs. He’s secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Cairo. This week he told USA Today that at least a third of his country’s ancient heritage is still waiting to be unearthed.

Maybe it’s hype. Very few people on earth can work the media the way Zahi Hawass can. But imagine the possibilities. The city of Alexandria was the site of many great events and home to great saints and sages of Christian antiquity. Think of the hundreds of lost works of Clement, Origen, Athanasius, and Cyril that might be found.

It’s been a little more than half a century since the discovery of the gnostic library at Nag Hammadi. In the last few weeks alone, this blog has reported the finding of several ancient apocryphal and pseudonymous texts and a complete copy of the Psalms in Coptic, along with ancient Coptic fabrics, and underwater buildings, and assorted Christian artworks and artifacts.

Heck, Egypt is where we got the Gospel of Judas. The country’s climate is singularly suited to the preservation of ancient Christian history. Readers of this blog should wait in joyful hope for what might be discovered.

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Mother Macrina

This week we meet two of the great maternal figures of the patristic age. Yesterday, in the story of Pambo, we encountered Melania, the companion of St. Jerome. Today, July 19, is the memorial of St. Macrina, the big sister of two of the Cappadocian Fathers and three canonized saints: Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Peter of Sebaste.

When she was twelve, her father had already arranged a marriage for her with a young lawyer. Her fiance died suddenly, however, and Macrina dedicated her life to virginity and the pursuit of Christian perfection. She exercised great influence over the religious training of her younger brothers. When her father died, she retired with their mother to a family estate on the River Iris, in Pontus, where they created a small monastic community. Macrina eventually became the head of this community, and she grew in renown for her holiness and spiritual wisdom. Many Christians came to seek her counsel. Shortly before her death in 379 A.D., she received a visit from her brother Gregory, who recorded their dialogues for posterity. Gregory’s Life of Macrina, available in translation at The Tertullian Project, is a must-read.

CLARIFICATION: Father Z has posted, as usual, an excellent profile of the day’s saint. He brings up a good point about the proliferation of Marcrinas in the rosters of the saints. I hope I made it clear which Macrina I’m dealing with. My headline is a curveball, since Macrina’s sainted grandma was also named Macrina. I wished only to emphasize the younger Macrina’s spiritual motherhood among the Fathers of the Church — and, of course, suggest the song “Mother Macree.”

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St. John of Damascus on Islam

Kevin at Biblicalia gives us a fresh translation of one of the earliest (and most knowledgable) Christian witnesses to Islam:

St. John of Damascus is a very important witness to early Islam. He was born into a priveleged family in Damascus (his grandfather had been the administrator of the city at the time the Muslims took it), and he grew up and served in the court of the caliph. He was entirely familiar with Islam (a name it did not yet possess, apparently), and thus what he has to say about it, and the context in which he places it, is of great historical importance. For one thing, this is a single chapter in his work “On Heresies,” part of his larger work, “The Fountain of Knowledge.” Thus, St. John did not consider Islam, as it was during his lifetime, to yet be a separate religion, but rather a Christian heresy. In any case, he mentions several suras of the Qur’an by name, and refers most interestingly to one which is no longer extant.

Read the text.

St. John is also the Church’s great defender of the use of images in worship. His Three Treatises on the Divine Images are passionate works, well grounded in Scripture, tradition, and common sense. An outstanding study of St. John’s life and work is Andrew Louth’s very recent St John Damascene: Tradition and Originality in Byzantine Theology. We cannot understand our own times if we don’t understand the ages that led us here. A far-sighted man, St. John wrote so that we would be able to understand our age, to live in it peacefully, and to evangelize. We have a duty to study St. John of Damascus, the “last of the Fathers.” Thanks, Kevin.

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Pambo: Beloved Basket Case

Today is the memorial of St. Pambo of the Nitrian Desert, who died at age 70 around 375 A.D.

Abba Pambo is one of the ancient “athletes of prayer” known as the Desert Fathers. The movement to the Egyptian desert began with the retirement of Anthony in the late third century. Very young and heir to a merchant’s fortune, Anthony heeded the call to sell all he had, give to the poor, and follow Christ. He went to live alone, in prayer and contemplation, in the desert. But soon he attracted others, men who sought his wise counsel, men who wanted to live as he lived. And soon many men, and then women, fled to the wilderness to live as monks and hermits. It was as if a city had sprung up in the desert. Among Anthony’s noted followers was Pambo.

Like his master, Pambo won great renown for his wisdom and for the severity of his fasting. St. Athanasius, St. Melania the Elder, and Rufinus all sought his spiritual counsel. His disciples recorded (in the oral tradition of the desert) that Pambo was “like Moses, who received the image of the glory of Adam when his face shone. His face shone like lightning and he was like a king sitting on his throne.” God glorified him so, they said, that no one could gaze steadily at him. His disciples also remembered Pambo’s lapidary teachings, like, “If you have a heart, you can be saved.”

But he won as much fame for his silence as for his speech. When he first received spiritual instruction, he stopped his teacher short after just one sentence, and then left — for several months — in order to contemplate that single line.

He prayed, and he kept his hands busy with work, usually weaving baskets.

Once Pambo was summoned to the great city of Alexandria by the archbishop, Athanasius. Arriving in the city, he saw an actress and began to weep. His companions asked him the reason for his tears, and he said, “Two things make me weep: one, the loss of this woman; and the other, that I am not so concerned to please God as she is to please wicked men.”

Palladius included Pambo’s biography in his Lives of the Fathers (known as the Lausiac History):

There were many different qualities which enabled Pambo to govern his life in an upright and virtuous fashion, among which was an ability to despise both gold and silver, according to the command of the Lord, to a greater degree than anyone else. On this subject the blessed Melania told me how she had heard about his virtues from the blessed Isodore … when she first came to Alexandria from Rome. She told me that Isodore had escorted her to Pambo’s secluded cell.

“I brought to him,” she said, “some silver vessels weighing three hundred pounds, because I wanted to share some of my wealth with him. He just kept on working, weaving rushes together, and spoke quite kindly to me in a loud voice with the words ‘May God reward you.’ He then said to Origen his steward, ‘Take them and distribute them among all the brothers in Libya and the islands, for their monasteries are very poor, but don’t give anything to the Egyptians beause they live in a much richer and more fruitful region.’ I just stood there expecting some sort of blessing, or at least praise, for giving so much. He said absolutely nothing at all, so I said to him ‘There’s three hundred pounds of silver there’ to make sure he knew exactly how much it was. Again he showed absolutely no reaction, did not even take the cover off the vessels, but simply said ‘He to whom you have given these things, my daughter, does not need you to tell Him how heavy they are. If He can weigh the mountains and forests in a balance (Is 40.12) how much more likely is He to be aware of the weight of your silver! Of course, if it is me you are giving this silver to, you are correct to have stated the weight, but if to God who values the two mites [of the widow] more than all the rest (Mk 12.42), then you had better stay silent.’ And so, by the grace of God,” she said, “this is the way he shared things out, when I visited him on the mountain.

“This man of God died a short while after this. He wasn’t ill, had no pain in any part of his body, but was just finishing off a basket when he called me. He was aware of a fatal attack coming on, and said to me ‘Let me give you this basket for you to remember me by. I don’t possess anything else that I can give you.’ And when he had said this he just passed away without any fuss, commending his spirit to God. He was seventy years old. I laid his holy body out, wrapped it in linen cloths, buried him, and departed from his retreat. I shall keep that basket till the day of my death.”

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Biblicalia Is Back

Kevin at Biblicalia has been experiencing major technical difficulties. But, he says, all is well now, and the database seems to have experienced a complete healing. So if you’ve tried to visit his blog, only to experience the Screen of Death, try again.

You’ll be glad you did. Kevin brings us glad tidings of Migne’s Patrologia Gracae and Patrologia Latina now available in digital format — just images for now, but XML is soon to come. In the same post, Kevin also gives us a glimpse of his deepest aspirations for his blog and for the worldwide, webwide work of translating the Fathers.

In an email, Kevin revealed what his next translation will be. But this time I’ll resist the temptation to spill the beans (as I did on poor Brad Haas earlier this year). All I can say is it’s timely, and it’s something lots of folks want to see. In fact, one of my college buddies asked me about it this very weekend. Keep checking Biblicalia. You won’t be disappointed. If the new translation isn’t up, you can feast awhile on St. Issac of Syria.

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Not too long ago (I think 2003) the Bulgarian News Network announced the discovery of fourth-century Christian tombs in downtown Sofia. Workers laying down new steam-heat pipes came across the burial chambers. One of the supervisors said at the time: “The tomb is unique because it contains incredible accumulations of cultural and historical information.” He would not, however, divulge any details. The tomb is located underground in front of the entrance of Sofia’s ancient St. Sofia church at the heart of the city.

I was wondering what ever happened with the story. A Google search tonight tells me that Business Hotel Varna, just a minute away from the cathedral, “offers all facilities for recreation and business. In the foundations of the hotel is found and renovated Early Christian Tomb from the west necropolis of Odessos.”

Does anyone know if this is the same burial place?