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A Grace for the Grail

Jim Wudarczyk reviews The Grail Code: Quest for the Real Presence in the publication of Our Lady of the Angels Holy Name Society (Pittsburgh). Some excerpts:

It appears that the latest vehicle for frustrated anti-Catholic writers is the rewriting of the Grail Legend…

So while we are being washed away in the flood of garbage writing, it is extremely refreshing when truly Catholic heroes rise and take on the fallacies of popular books. Two exceptionally skillful writers are Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey. These men are truly scholars. In their book The Grail Code: Quest for the Real Presence, they analyze various medieval writings and successfully uncover the real meaning of the legendary Grail.

Although the combination of Middle Age literature and theology is usually an invitation to shy away from such books, Aquilina and Bailey write with unbelievable clarity. While their joint venture—The Grail Code—is written in a simple, easy-to-understand language, they never sacrifice the scholarly research or theological principles of the book. The authors understand what the great writers of the medieval era knew and loved—that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, and every time that we receive Our Lord in the sacrament of Holy Communion, we enter into the true Grail. In writing about the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table searching for the Holy Grail, Aquilina and Bailey note, “The real miracle of the Grail romances is that they are true—not historically, but morally and spiritually.” …

Since each page is packed with insights into history, literature, and religion, it is almost a disservice to the authors to selectively quote from The Grail Code. Far better is it for the reader to drown himself in this fantastic book.

Aquilina and Bailey sum up the importance of the Grail legends and reinforce what we should learn from each time we attend the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: “They (the Grail romances) show us the world as it really is, with blessing for the worthy and judgment for the unworthy. They show us how to make the miraculous leap from unworthiness to worthiness. They show us how to meet God face-to-face. . . And that’s what we really want. All the other things we think we want are snares—decoys that keep us from pursuing the real object of all desire. It’s right there in front of us, on every altar in Christendom. Are we worthy to achieve the Grail? Are we ready to be satisfied? Are we ready to walk with God in paradise?”

The authors do not hesitate to defend Christ and His Church from past and present heresy. They dismiss the nonsense in Holy Blood, Holy Grail as “a hodgepodge of psuedo-history and anti-establishment rantings.” Then, by citing various Scriptural passages, they dismiss the absurd idea that Jesus was not seen as divine or as the Son of God until the reign of Constantine.

Aquilina and Bailey take off the gloves and land some really good bare-knuckled punches at Dan Brown’s equally absurd novel, The Da Vinci Code. When a reviewer for the New York Daily News took Brown at his word and praised “his research as impeccable,” our Catholic heroes quickly point out, “Most of that research was done in books that come from what we have a right to call the wacky fringe. Many of the ideas Brown puts forth as fact are either unlikely or impossible.”…

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A Fifth of the Good Stuff

Today, Pope Benedict concluded his series on St. Augustine (five parts!). There were so many pilgrims that the overflow had to be gathered into St. Peter’s! Teresa Benedetta, as always, provided almost simultaneous translation (for which she deserves our effusive thanks and ardent prayers)…

Dear brothers and sisters,

Today I would like to conclude my presentation of St. Augustine. After having dwelt on his life, his works, and some aspects of his thought, I wish to go back today to his interior life which made him one of the greatest converts in Christian history.

To this interior experience, I particularly devoted my reflections during the pilgrimage I made to Pavia last year to venerate the mortal remains of this Father of the Church. I wanted to express the homage of the entire Catholic Church but also to show my personal devotion and acknowledgment of a figure to whom I feel very much connected for the part that he has played in my life as a theologian, priest and pastor.

Even today we can retrace the experiences of St. Augustine, thanks above all to his Confessions, written in praise of God and which originated one of the most specific literary forms of the West, the autobiography, that is, a personal expression of one’s consciousness about oneself.

Whoever reads this extraordinary and fascinating book, which is still widely read today, will easily realize that Augustine’s conversion was neither sudden nor fully realized immediately, but that it could be better defined as a true and proper journey, which remains a model for each of us.

This itinerary certainly culminated in his conversion and baptism, but it did not end on that Easter Vigil of 387 when the African rhetorician was baptized by Bishop Ambrose in Milan.

Augustine’s journey of conversion, in fact, continued humbly until the end of his life, so that one can say that its various stages – one can easily distinguish three – made up a unique act of conversion.

St. Augustine was a passionate searcher for the truth – he was from the very beginning and all his life. The first stage of his journey of conversion was his progressively coming close to Christianity. Actually, he received a Christian education from his mother Monica, to whom he was always closely linked, and although he led an undisciplined life in his youth, he always felt a profound attraction to Christ, having drunk love for the name of the Lord with his mother’s milk, as he himself underscored (cfr Confessiones, III, 4, 8).

But philosophy, too, especially Platonic, contributed to bring him closer to Christ by showing him the existence of the Logos, creative reason. The philosophers’ books showed him that there was Reason, from which the whole world sprung, but they did not tell him how to reach this Logos which seemed so remote.

Only reading about the faith of the Catholic Church in St. Paul’s letters revealed the truth fully to him. This experience was synthesized by Augustine in one of the most famous pages of the Confessions: He recounts that, in the torment of his reflections, he retired to a garden, where suddenly he heard a child’s voice which repeated to him a lullaby he had never heard before, “Tolle, legge, tolle, legge…” (Take and read, take and read) (VIII, 20,29).

He then remembered the conversion of St. Anthony Abbot, the father of monasticism, and with great urgency, he turned to the Pauline epistolary which he had in his hands earlier, opened it, and his glance fell on the passage from the Letter to the Romans where the Apostle exhorts the Romans to abandon the ways of the flesh and ‘put on the Lord Jesus Christ’ (13, 13-14).

He understood that at that moment, those words were addressed to him, that it came from God through the Apostle, and showed him what to do right then. Thus, he felt the shadows of doubt dissolve and he found himself finally free to give himself completely to Christ: “You converted my being to you”, he commented (Confessiones, VIII, 12,30). This was his first and decisive conversion.

The African rhetorician reached this fundamental stage of his long journey, thanks to his passion for man and for the truth, a passion which brought him to look for God, great and seemingly inaccessible. Faith in Christ made him understand that God, apparently so remote, was really not. In fact, that he had made himself close to us by becoming one of us.

In this sense, faith in Christ fulfilled Augustine’s long search along the path of truth. Only a God who made himself ‘tangible’, one of us, was a God to whom one could pray, for whom and with whom one could live. But it is a way to follow with courage as well as humility, opening us to a permanent purification of which each of us is always in need.

With that Easter Vigil Baptism of 387, as we said earlier, Augustine’s journey was not done. He returned to Africa where he retired with a few friends to dedicate themselves to a life of contemplation and study. This was the dream of his life. He was called to live totally for the truth, with the truth, in friendship with Christ who is the Truth.

It was a beautiful dream that lasted three years, until when, against his wishes, he was consecrated a priest in Hippo, destined to serve the faithful, continuing to live with Christ and for Christ, but in the service of all.

This was very difficult for him, but he understood from the beginning that only by living for others, and not only for his private gratification, could he really live with Christ and for Christ. Thus, renouncing a life of pure meditation, Augustine learned, often with difficulty, to offer the fruit of his intelligence for the benefit of others.

He learned to communicate his faith to simple people, and living that way in what became his city, he carried out tirelessly a generous and onerous service that he described in these words in one of his beautiful sermons: “To preach continuously, discuss, reiterate, edify, be at the disposal of everyone – it is an enormous responsibility, a great weight, an immense effort” (Serm. 339,4).

But he took this weight on himself, understanding that this way, he was closest to Christ. To understand that one reaches others with simplicity and humility was his true and second conversion.

But there is a third stage in the Augustinian journey, a third conversion: that which brought him every day of his life to ask God’s forgiveness. Initially, he had thought that once he was baptized – in a life of communion with Christ, in the Sacraments, in the celebration of the Eucharist – he would attain the life proposed in the Sermon on the Mount: the perfection given in Baptism and reconfirmed in the Eucharist.

In the latter part of his life, he understood that what he had said in his first preachings about the Sermon on the Mount – that is, that we Christians would thereafter live that ideal permanently – was wrong. That only Christ himself was the true and complete realization of the Sermon on the Mount.

We are all always in need of being ‘washed’ by Christ, who washes our feet, and to be renewed by him. We need permanent continuing conversion. Up to the end we need the humility to recognize that we are sinners on a journey, until the Lord gives us his hand conclusively and introduces us to eternal life. In such an attitude of humility, lived day after day, Augustine died.

This attitude of profound humility before the one Lord Jesus introduced him also to the experience of intellectual humility. Augustine, in fact, who is one of the greatest figures in the history of ideas, wished during his final years to place all his numerous works under lucid critical examination.

That was the origin of Retractiones(Revisions) which, in this way, placed his theological thinking, which was truly great, within the humble and holy faith of what he called simply with the name Catholic, that is, the Church.

“I understood,” he wrote in this very original book (I, 19,1-3), “that only one is truly perfect, and that the words of the Sermon on the Mount are completely realized only in one – in Jesus Christ himself. The whole Church, instead – all of us, including the Apostles – must pray every day: forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”

Converted to Christ, who is truth and love, Augustine followed him the rest of his life and has become a model for every human being, for all of us in search of God.

That is why I wished to conclude my pilgrimage to Pavia by symbolically offering to the Church and to the world, at the tomb of this great lover of God, my first encyclical, Deus caritas est.

In fact, the encyclical owes a great deal, especially in the first part, to the thought of St. Augustine. Even today, as in his time, mankind needs to recognize, and above all, to live, this fundamental reality: God is love, and the encounter with him is the only response to the anxieties of the human heart. A heart that is inhabited by hope, perhaps still obscure and even unconscious in many of our contemporaries, but which for us Christians, already opens the future, such that St. Paul wrote, “in hope we are saved” (Rom 8,24).

I dedicated my second encyclical, Spe salvi, to hope, and even that owes a great deal to Augustine’s thoughts and his encounter with God.

In a very beautiful text, Augustine defined prayer as the expression of desire, and stated that God responds by opening up our hearts to him. On our part, we should purify our desires and our hopes in order to receive the kindness of God (cfr In I Ioannis, 4, 6). Only this, in fact, opening us up to others, saves us.

Let us pray therefore that in our life we may be granted to follow everyday the example of this great convert, encountering like him, in every moment of our life, the Lord Jesus, the only one who saves us, purifies us, and gives us true joy and true life.

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Lumen Christi

CNS posted a nice bit, with photo, on the blessing of the courtyard of St. Gregory the Illuminator at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. St. Gregory’s life began in the third century and illuminated the fourth. He brought Christianity to Armenia in 301.

Junior posted a photo of the courtyard after our visit there last year, but it hadn’t been blessed at that time. Look closely. You’ll see the difference.

If Hollywood had made a movie of the life of “the Illuminator” when I was a kid, it would’ve starred Lou Ferrigno or Arnold Schwarzenegger. Don’t you think? Like “the Terminator” or “the Hulk.” Only luminous.

St. Gregory is pondering the idea.

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The Art Byzness

Reviewed in Bryn Mawr Classical Review:

Liz James, Art and Text in Byzantine Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2007)

Liz James begins her introduction to Art and Text in Byzantium by saying that the interface between the two is one of the oldest issues in art history. She continues by asking if art can stand alone or if it is always expressed in the written and the oral, making it thereby exposed to subjective interpretation. In Byzantium, says James, the very security of the state depended on the right interface between images and words, and, “above all, Christ, the Word of God.” The Empire was the only major world power that experienced political mayhem resulting from arguments about art. Iconoclasm and the accompanying debates about religious images established “the place of art in society and the relationship of art to words.” James concludes her introduction to the essays that follow stating that although art and text may influence each other the contributors to the volume “seek to explore the complexities of the relationship.” This relationship between images and words is the unifying theme of the work…

Read more. Hat tip: David Meadows.

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Augustine’s Legacy

His Holiness, fresh from his Lenten retreat, returned to St. Augustine in Wednesday’s audience. Teresa Benedetta, ever faithful, translated…

Dear brothers and sisters,

After the pause during the spiritual exercises last week, we return today to the great figure of Saint Augustine, about whom I have already spoken in these catecheses.

He is the Father of the Church who has left the most number of works, about some of which I intend to speak briefly today.

Some of the Augustinian writings are of capital importance, not only for the history of Christianity but in shaping all of Western culture.

The clearest example is his Confessions, without a doubt one of the books from early Christianity that is still widely read today.

Like many Fathers of the Church in its early centuries – but in incomparably vaster measure – the Bishop of Hippo has indeed exercised an extensive and persistent influence, which is evident from the abundant tradition and legacy of his works, which are truly numerous.

He himself reviewed his writings a few years before his death in Retractationes, and shortly after his death, they were all carefully recorded in the Indiculus (list) added by the faithful Possidius to his biography of St. Augustine, Vita Augustini.

The list of Augustine’s works was made with the explicit intention of preserving them even as the barbarian invasions were spreading throughout Roman Africa, and included 1,030 writings numbered by the author himself, along with others that he did not number.

Bishop of a nearby city, Possidius dictated his words in Hippo, where he had sought refuge and was present at the death of his friend, so, almost certainly, his list was based on a catalog of Augustine’s personal library.

Today, the Bishop of Hippo is also survived by more than 300 letters and almost 600 homilies, although these were originally so much more – probably anywhere between 3,000-4,000, the fruit of some 40 years of preaching by the ex-rhetoricist who decided to follow Jesus, and instead of addressing himself to the imperial court, spoke to the simple people of Hippo.

In recent years, the discovery of a group of letters and more homilies have enriched our knowledge of this great Father of the Church.

“Many books,” wrote Possidius, “were written and published by him, many homilies were given in Church and then transcribed and edited, both to refute various heresies as well as to interpret Sacred Scriptures for the edification of the children of the Church. ”

“These works,” wrote his bishop friend, “are so numerous that a scholar could hardly find it possible to read all of them and learn them” (Vita Augustini, 18, 9).

Among this vast literary production of Augustine – more than a thousand publications subdivided into philosophical, apologetics, doctrinal, moral, monastic, exegetic, anti-heretical, besides his letters and homilies – there are a few exceptional works of great theological and philosophical weight that stand out.

First of all, the Confessions, which we have already mentioned, written in 13 volumes between 397-400 in praise of God. It is a sort of autobiography in the form of a dialog with God. This literary genre reflects the life of Augustine, which was a life not closed in on itself and dissipated in various activities, but substantially lived as a dialog with God and therefore, a life shared with others.

The very title indicates the specificity of this autobiography. The word ‘confessiones’ in the Christian Latin that was developed in the tradition of the Psalms, has two meanings that are interwoven.

Confessiones connotes, in the first place, a confession of one’s own weaknesses, of the misery of sinners, but at the same time, it also means praise of God, acknowledgment and recognition of God.

To see one’s own poverty in God’s light becomes praise of God and gratitude that God loves and accepts us, transforms us and lifts us towards himself.

About these Confessions which had great success even in Augustine’s lifetime, he himself wrote: “They exercised such action on me while I was writing them and do so even now when I reread them. There are many brothers who like these writings” (Retractationes, II, 6), and I must say that I, too, am one of these ‘brothers’.

Thanks to these Confessions, we can follow, step by step, the interior journey of this extraordinary man who had a great passion for God.

Less well-known but equally original and very important are the Retractationes, written in two books around 427, in which Augustine, then an old man, undertook a ‘review’ (retractatio) of all his written works, thus leaving a singular and most invaluable literary document that is a lesson in intellectual sincerity and humility.

De civitate Dei (of the City of God) – a powerful and decisive work for the development of Western political thought and the Christian theology of history – was written between 413 and 426 in 22 volumes, occasioned by the sacking of Rome by the Goths in 410.

Many pagans who survived, along with many Christians, had said, “Rome has fallen, and the Christian God and the Apostles can do nothing to protect the city. In the days of the pagan divinities, Rome was the caput mundi, capital of the world, and no one could imagine that it could fall into the hands of an enemy. Now, with the Christian God, this great city no longer appears safe.”

So (they were saying that) the God of the Christians could not protect, and therefore, could not be a God to trust. To this objection, which reached deeply into the hearts of many Christians, St. Augustine replied with his great work, De civitate Dei, clarifying what we should expect from God and what not to, what the relationship is between the political sphere and that of faith, of the Church.

Even today, this book is a source for defining well what true secularity is, and the competency (jurisdiction) of the Church, the true great hope that faith gives us.

This great book is a presentation of the history of a mankind governed by Divine Providence but actually divided by two loves. This is the fundamental design of his interpretation of history – as a battle between two loves: love of oneself “to the point of indifference to God”, and love of God “to the point of indifference to oneself” (De civitate Dei, XIV, 28), which leads to full freedom to be for others in the light of God. This, therefore, is perhaps St. Augustine’s greatest book, with the greatest permanent importance.

Equally important is De Trinitate, a work in 15 volumes on the principal nucleus of the Christian faith – faith in the Trinitarian God – which he wrote in two time periods. The first 12 volumes wre written between 399-412 and published without his knowledge, and he completed the work in 420, when it was published in full.

In this book, he reflects on the face of God and seeks to understand this mystery of the God who is unique, the only Creator of the world, of us all, and still, because this one God is trinitarian, is also a circle of love.

He seeks to understand the unfathomable mystery: the Trinitarian being, in three persons, as precisely the most real and most profound expression of teh unity of the one God.

De doctrina Christiana is a true and proper cultural introduction to the interpretation of the Bible, and at the same time, a conclusive interpretation of Christianity itself. It, too, had a decisive importance in the shaping of Western culture.

Even with all his humility, Augustine was certainly aware of his own intellectual stature. But for him, more important than writing great works of high theological value was bringing the Christian message to the simple people.

This most profound of his intentions, which guided his whole life, is expressed in a letter to his colleague Evodius, informing him of his decision to suspend for the time being his dictation of the books making up De Trinitate “because they are too laborious and I think they may be understood only by a few; more urgent are texts which I hope will be useful to many” (Epistulae, 169, 1, 1).

Therefore, he thought it was more useful to communicate the faith in a way understandable to all rather than write great theological works. This acutely felt responsibility regarding the proclamation of the Christian message was responsible for writings such as De catechizandis rudibus, which was both a theory and a praxis of catechesis, or the Psalmus contra partem Donati.

The Donatists were the great problem in the Africa of St. Augustine – a schism that was African in origin. The Donatists affirmed that true Christianity was African and opposed the unity of the Church. The great bishop fought this schism all his life, seeking to convince the Donatists that it is only in Christian unity that Africanness itself could be authentic.

And to make himself understood by the simple people, who could not understand a rhetoricist’s grand Latin, he decided: I should write even with grammatical errors in a very simplified Latin. And he did this, especially in this Psalmus, a kind of simple poetry against the Donatists, to help all the people understand that our relationship with God and peace in the world could only grow in the unity of the Church.

In Augustine’s literary production addressed to a much larger public, particularly important is the sheer mass of his homilies, often extemporaneous but transcribed during the preaching to be published for immediate circulation.

Among these are the very beautiful Enarrationes in Psalmos, widely read in the Middle Ages. The very practice of immediate publication of thousands of homilies by Augustine – often beyond the author’s control – explains their dissemination and subsequent wider diffusion, but also their vitality.

Almost immediately, in fact, the preachings of the Bishop of Hippo became, because of their author’s fame, highly sought texts that served even other bishops and priests, texts that were adaptable to ever new contexts.

The iconographic tradition – which we can see in a Lateran fresco dating to the sixth century – shows St. Augustine with a book in one hand, certainly to represent his literary production which so influenced Christian mentality and Christian thought, but also to show his love of books, for reading, and for gaining knowledge of older cultures.

At his death, he left nothing, said Possidius, but “he urged to always conserve diligently for posterity the library of the Church with all its codices”, as well as his own writings.

In his works, Possidius writes, Augustine is ‘always alive’ and benefits those who read his writings, even if “I believe that those who saw and heard him when he preached in Church had profited more from that contact, but most of all, those who had experience of his daily life among the people” (Vita Augustini, 31).

Yes, even for us, it would have been beautiful to hear him alive. But he truly lives in his writings, and is present with us, and we see the permanent vitality of the faith to which he had given his entire life.

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The Fathers and the Jews

The Tablet published an op-ed that more than hints the Fathers were anti-Jewish. Globetrotting gurublogger Gashwin Gomes gives good graces back to the ancients, linking here once, twice, or thrice along the way.

I think it’s bad form to judge the Fathers anti-Jewish — or, for that matter, the rabbis of the Talmud anti-Christian. Neither the Fathers nor the rabbis were playing by our 21st-century rules. There are no third-century examples of bureaus of interreligious affairs, staffed by career clerical diplomats. Our ancestors, Christians and Jews, did religious controversy the rough-and-tumble way. I don’t want us to return to their modes of argument, but they might eschew ours, and for good reasons.

I’m glad Gashwin quoted Jacob Neusner, who wishes that both Jews and Christians would respect each other’s desire to live by their respective rules. Christians have a mission to all peoples. It’s not anti-Jewish to include Jews in that number and even to pray for their conversion when we pray for everyone else’s. By Christian principles, it would be anti-Jewish not to. I don’t expect my Jewish friends to think I’m right in the matter of Christian mission. If they did, after all, they would be Christian. If they pray for my conversion, even publicly, I’m happy that they wish me the greatest blessing they know.

It’s not anti-Jewish to pray, in St. Paul’s words, that “all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:26), any more than it’s anti-Christian for Jews to wish we wouldn’t.

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Last week I found a clean, well-lighted place to browse the Patrologia Graeca. Lots of sites have dumps of the PG in various states of disarray. But this one is alphabetized by author and then by work. (I’ve used it twice today!)

But what about the Patrologia Latina? Again, you’ll find lots of dumps that are impossible to browse. But, at last, Hermeneutic of Continuity leads us to well-ordered online libraries of the PL: here and here.

Thanks to Father Brian for pointing out these sites.

It’s a great time to be a nerd.

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A Page Into History

The Independent (UK) reports on a big discovery at an ancient monastery in Egypt.

A year after the Romans packed up their shields in AD410 and left Britain to the mercy of the Anglo-Saxons, a scribe in Edessa, in what is modern day Turkey, was preparing a list of martyrs who had perished in defence of the relatively new Christian faith in Persia.

In a margin he dated the list November 411. Unfortunately for the martyrs, history forgot them. At some point, this page became detached from the book it belonged to. Since 1840, the volume has been one of the treasures of the British Library. It is known only by its catalogue code: ADD 12-150

The missing page has always been a fascinating mystery for scholars and historians. Now, after an extraordinary piece of detective work, that page has been rediscovered among ancient fragments in the Deir al-Surian monastery in Egypt. It is, according to Oxford University’s Dr Sebastian Brock, the leading Syriac scholar who identified the fragments, the oldest dated Christian text in existence.

“It is a list of martyrs and it must have been added to the main book at the last minute,” he said. “There were three fragments from the last page. It was a distinctive handwriting, and it was very exciting to identify it. It is very important to complete the book. Many of the names on this list we have not come across before. So it gives us a lot of clues about that half of that century. Rome at the time was officially Christian, so the rival Persians would have persecuted Christians.”

The fragments were among hundreds discovered beneath a floor in the Deir al-Surian, which is itself a treasure trove of ancient books. Dr Brock and his colleague, Dr Lucas Van Rompay of Duke University in North Carolina, are now working on the first catalogue of the many manuscripts that are more than 1,000 years old.

Elizabeth Sobczynski, founder of the Levantine Foundation, which supports the conservation of the mon-astery’s manuscripts, is raising money to build a state-of-the-art library to preserve the remaining ancient books. “I found four fragments, and joined three of them together,” she said. “These fragments survived for so many centuries, which is amazing …. They could so easily have been swept away.”

We’ve mentioned this monastery before.

Who knows what other lost texts are waiting to be found?

HT: PaleoJudaica.

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It Snows in California

I spent yesterday morning speaking to a “History of Christianity” class at California University of Pennsylvania. What a bright and lively group of students! I talked about my book The Mass of the Early Christians. Students kept me in conversation for a long time after class ended — until the gracious prof who invited me, Dr. Paul Crawford, dragged me off to lunch. The student conversations have continued via email.

I have a dread fear of public speaking. But this day was a delight.