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Son of Dust

H.F.M. Prescott’s historical novel Son of Dust just came back into print, with an introduction from Yours Truly. It’s a remarkable work — a steamy romance, set in the time of William the Conqueror, with accurate historical details, fully realized characters, and profound religious sensibilities. It’s re-released as part of the Loyola Classics series.

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Poet and Pontiff

Today’s the memorial of Pope St. Damasus I, whose pontificate was certainly memorable. It got off to a difficult start, as a rival faction in Rome announced their own candidate as the true successor to Peter. Riots followed, and even the civil authorities gave up on quelling the violence. The prefect of the city fled to the suburbs to wait it out. After a three-day massacre, the Emperor Valentinian I intervened to establish Damasus and end the contention. Damasus literally left his mark on Church history, as he was the author of many poems in Latin) about the early martyrs as well as his predecessors in the papacy. These remain as inscriptions throughout the city of Rome. They’ve come up on this blog in my discussion of several of their subjects, especially St. Tarcisius, who suffered at the hands of a mob rather than give up the Eucharist. Damasus wrote of the boy’s death:

When a wicked group of fanatics,
wanting to profane the Sacrament,
flung themselves on Tarcisius,
who was carrying the Eucharist,
the boy preferred to give up his life
rather than yield up the Body of Christ
to those rabid dogs.

Pope Damasus was the great patron of St. Jerome. The latter, antiquity’s great curmudgeon, was secretary to the pope, who commissioned him to translate the Bible into a common Latin edition (the Vulgate). In the year 376, addressing Damasus, Jerome witnesses to the ancient Christian doctrine of the papacy: “I speak with the successor of the fisherman and disciple of the cross. Following none but Christ as my primate, I am united in communion with Your Beatitude — that is, with the chair of Peter. Upon that Rock I know the Church is built. Whosoever eats a lamb outside this house is profane. Whoever is not in Noah’s ark will perish when the flood prevails.”

In 382, Damasus presided over the Council of Rome, at which the canon of Scripture was first set down.

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Paul Bearers

I just got back from a week away from the desk. So I’m guessing that most of you have already seen the big story about the possible discovery of St. Paul’s remains. “I have no doubt that this is the tomb of St Paul, as revered by Christians in the fourth century,” archeologist Giorgio Filippi told the London Telegraph. Thanks to those of you, TG first of all, who pointed me to the International Herald Tribune coverage.

Vatican archaeologists have unearthed a sarcophagus believed to contain the remains of the Apostle Paul that had been buried beneath Rome’s second largest basilica.

The sarcophagus, which dates back to at least 390 A.D., has been the subject of an extended excavation that began in 2002 and was completed last month, the project’s head said this week.

“Our objective was to bring the remains of the tomb back to light for devotional reasons, so that it could be venerated and be visible,” said Giorgio Filippi, the Vatican archaeologist who headed the project at St. Paul Outside the Walls basilica.

The interior of the sarcophagus has not yet been explored, but Filippi didn’t rule out the possibility of doing so in the future.

Two ancient churches that once stood at the site of the current basilica were successively built over the spot where tradition said the saint had been buried. The second church, built by the Roman emperor Theodosius in the fourth century, left the tomb visible, first above ground and later in a crypt.

Since our May 2007 pilgrimage to Rome is sponsored by the St. Paul Center, we will (of course!) begin our tour at the tomb of St. Paul. Please consider joining us.

Gashwin Gomes provides some lovely photos of the world’s most a-Pauling site.

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Clement of Alexandria

Earlier this week I spoke with KVSS radio about Clement of Alexandria, whose feast (suppressed) took place over the weekend. Clement is one of my favorites — a great Christian humanist, a lover of literature, and a profound teacher on married life. He thought Athens had plenty to do with Jerusalem.

To listen in, check my audio page.

And if it’s books you like: Read The Exhortation to the Greeks. The Rich Man’s Salvation. To the Newly Baptized and The One Who Knows God.

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Jolly Old St. Nick — a Brawler?

Among those who were imprisoned for the faith during Diocletian’s purge was the beloved bishop of Myra, a poor diocese in Asia Minor. His name was Nicholas.

Bishop Nicholas was a holy man, an articulate teacher, and a staunch defender of orthodoxy against Arianism. Having survived his imprisonment, he lived to see the triumph of the true faith at the Council of Nicaea, where he was an active participant. There, according to later histories, he denounced Arius forcefully. Indeed, some sources (though not entirely reliable) claim that St. Nicholas punched Arius in the nose and brought forth a “profusion of blood.”

At home, Nicholas was best known for his generosity. After his death, the stories of his kindness spread far and wide. On his feast day, December 6, Christians would try to imitate his generous giving. Over time, his name, St. Nicholas, would be slurred into “Santa Claus” and, in some countries at least, the feast of giving transferred (along with “Santa”) to Christmas.

He is the patron saint of children, and my house is full of them.

Christie’s is tomorrow auctioning a tenth-century image of Nicholas carved in a gem. Lovely. (Hat tip on the auction: PhDiva.)

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Making the Most of a Doubtful Moment

You regular visitors know that the Apostle Thomas is one of my obsessions. So I was pleased recently to see Harvard University bring out a new study, Doubting Thomas, by Glenn W. Most.

It’s an unusual and and fascinating book, an extended study of the figure of Thomas, unusual especially as he appears in chapter 20 of John’s gospel. A professor of Greek philology in Pisa and a professor of social thought at the University of Chicago, Most subjects the scriptural texts to rhetorical, literary, and psychological analyses. He notes that John nowhere indicates that Thomas actually touched Jesus’ wounds. Indeed, he argues that, according to John, Thomas did not take Jesus up on His invitation to “Put your finger here, and see My hands; and put out your hand, and place it in My side” (20:27).

Most recognizes from the start that he is swimming against the current of popular interpretation. Still, he goes on to analyze the various interpretations, taking readers through a variety of texts and visual artworks from down the millennia. He tours the apocrypha, the Gnostic gospels, patristic homilies, and the canvases of renaissance masters like Caravaggio. In each case, he considers what “touching” or “not touching” might mean, in religious and epistemological terms. Though Most never reveals whether he himself is a believer, he ends by proposing a singular role for Thomas in the modern world: he is a sort of patron saint for both the believer and the doubter. “Many of us,” he writes in his afterword, “cannot live without doubt any longer and cannot even imagine what a nonskeptical life would be like. Yet living with doubt is not easy … Our involvement with other people — above all in love … constantly requires that we adopt forms of trust that cannot be rationally justified and that a thoroughgoing skepticism would not only question but destroy.” It is Thomas who makes Christians face their own lingering doubts — and makes doubters confront their inevitable faith. Orthodox Christians will balk at the author’s “hypothesis” that John invented the doubting episode and attributed it to Thomas because of the etymology of Thomas’s name (“twin”). Nevertheless, we can certainly appreciate Most’s reverent and meditative treatment of a key text for our times.

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The Last Shall Be First (At Least Today)

It’s the memorial of St. John of Damascus, and I’m on KVSS radio to celebrate. Many scholars and churchmen consider St. John to be the last of the Eastern Fathers — or the first of the medievals. He marks a transition from patristic to scholastic theology.

The Catholic Encyclopedia article really doesn’t do him justice. John was the great synthesizer of the doctrine of the Fathers who went before him. He was also the first to confront the rise of Islam, having himself held a prominent position in the Caliphate of Damascus.

St. John figures prominently in my long post on icons. He also dominates two posts on early contact between the Fathers and Islam (here and here).

You can listen to the SJD interview live at KVSS‘s website this morning, or check the station’s Aquilina archive later in the day.