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All Good Things…

Pope Benedict spoke today about St. Isidore of Seville, considered by many to be the last of the Western Fathers. But, by my calculation, he still has a few important Easterners to discuss. Teresa Benedetta translated.

Dear brothers and sisters,

Today I wish to speak about St. Isidore of Seville. He was the younger brother of Leander, Bishop of Seville and a great friend of Pope Gregory the Great.

This point is important because it allows us to be aware of the cultural and spiritual closeness [with his brother] that is indispensable to understanding the personality of Isidore.

In fact, he owes much to Leander, who was very studious, demanding, and austere, creating for his younger brother a familial atmosphere characterized by ascetic requirements worthy of a monk and work rhythms appropriate to serious dedication to study.

Moreover, Leander was concerned to pre-dispose conditions necessary for facing the socio-political situation of the moment: In those decades, the Visigoths, who were barbarians and Arians, had invaded the Iberian peninsula and had taken control of territories that had belonged to the Roman empire. It was necessary to win them over to Romanness and Catholicism.

The house of Leander and Isidore was furnished with a library rich in classic, pagan and Christian works. Isidore, who felt attracted to all of them, was educated under his brother’s supervision to develop a very strong discipline of study, with dedication, discretion and discernment. But they lived in the bishop’s palace in a serene and open atmosphere.

We can deduce from the cultural and spiritual interests of Isidore – as they emerge in his own works – that they comprehended an encyclopedic knowledge of classic pagan culture and a deep knowledge of Christian culture.

This explains the eclecticism that characterizes Isidore’s literary production, which ranges with extreme facility from Martial to Augustine, from Cicero to Gregory the Great.

The interior battle sustained by the young Isidore – who succeeded his brother Leander as Bishop of Seville in 599 – could not have been easy. Perhaps it was that constant struggle within himself that gives the impression of an excess of voluntarism [a philosophical school that considers God or the ultimate nature of reality as some form of will] that one gets when reading the works of this great author, considered the last of the Christian Fathers of antiquity.

A few years after his death in 636, the Council of Toledo of 653 described him as “illustrious teacher of our epoch and glory of the Catholic Church.”

Isidore was without a doubt a man of marked dialectic positions. Even in his personal life, he underwent permanent interior conflict, similar to what Gregory the Great and Augustine had known, between a desire for solitude in order to dedicate himself only to meditating on the Word of God, and the requirements of charity towards his brothers for whose salvation he felt responsible as bishop.

For instance, he wrote about Church authorities: “A person with Church responsibility (vir ecclesiasticus – man of the Church] should on the one hand, let himself be crucified in the world with the mortification of the flesh, and on the other, accept the decision of the Church hierarchy when it comes from the will of God, and dedicate himself to governing with humility, even if he may not wish to do so” (Sententiarum liber III, 33, 1: PL 83, col 705 B).

He adds, one paragraph later: “Men of God (sancti viri – holy men) in fact do not want to dedicate themselves to secular things, and groan when, by a mysterious plan of God, they find themselves laden with certain responsibilities… They will do everything to avoid this, but they accept what they wished to escape from and do what they wished to avoid. In fact, they enter into their secret heart, and there, they seek to understand what the mysterious will of God wants of them. And when they acknowledge that they must submit to the plan of God, then they subjugate their heart to the yoke of divine decision” (Sententiarum liber III, 33, 3: PL 83, coll. 705-706).

To understand Isidore better, one must remember, above all, the complexity of the political situation in his time, which I already referred to. During his boyhood, he experienced the bitterness of exile. Despite this, he was permeated with apostolic enthusiasm. He knew the inebriation of contributing to the formation of a people who were finally finding unity on the religious and on the political levels, with the providential conversion of the heir to the Visigoth throne, Hermenegild, from Arianism to the Catholic faith.

But we must not underestimate the enormous difficulty of adequately confronting problems as serious as relationships with the heretics and with the Jews. It is a whole series of problems which appear very concrete even today, especially if one considers what is taking place in some regions today in which it is almost like witnessing a revival of situations in sixth-century Spain.

The wealth of cultural knowledge at Isidore’s disposal allowed him to continually draw comparisons between the Christian novelty and the Greco-Roman classic heritage. But more than the precious gift of synthesis, he also seemed to have that of collatio, of gathering together, which was expressed through an extraordinary personal erudition, even if it was not always ordered as one might desire.

In any case, one must admire his constant concern not to ignore anything that human experience has produced in the story of his country and of the entire world. Isidore did not want to lose anything of what man had acquired in ancient times, whether pagan, Jewish or Christian.

One should not be surprised, therefore, that in pursuing this end, he sometimes failed to adequately pass – as he might have wished – the knowledge that he possessed through the purifying waters of the Christian faith. Indeed, in his own mind, the propositions he made were always in tune with the Catholic faith, which he sustained most firmly.

In discussing various theological problems, he showed perception of complexities and often proposed, with great acuteness, solutions that bring together and express the Christian truth in its entirety. This has allowed believers through the centuries to avail gratefully of his definitions even up to our time.

One significant example is Isidore’s teaching on the relationship between the active life and the contemplative life. He writes: “Those who seek to reach the repose of contemplation should first train themselves in the stadium of active life; thus rid of the slag wastes of sin, they will be in a position to exhibit a pure heart which alone allows us to see God” (Differentiarum Lib II, 34, 133: PL 83, col 91A).

But the realism of a true pastor convinced him, nonetheless, of the risk that the faithful run of reducing themselves to beings of one dimension. Thus he adds: “The middle life, composed of both forms of living, normally results more useful to resolve those tensions that are often sharpened by choosing just one way of living, while they are tempered by alternating the two forms” (op. cit., 134: ivi, col 91B).

Isidore finds the definitive confirmation of a correct orientation in life in the example of Christ, saying: “Our Savior Jesus offers us the example of an active life in that, during the day, he devoted himself to offering signs and miracles among men, but shows us the contemplative life in that at night he retired to the mountain and spent his nights in prayer.” (op. cit. 134: ivi).

In the light of this example by the Divine Teacher, Isidore could conclude with this precise moral teaching: “Thus, the servant of God, imitating Christ, must dedicate himself to contemplation without rejecting the active life. To act otherwise would not be right. Indeed, just as one must love God in contemplation, so must one love his neighbor in action. It is therefore impossible to live without the presence of both forms of living, nor is it possible to love if one does not experience both” (op. cit. 135: ivi, col 91C).

I think that this is the synthesis of a life which seeks contemplation of God, dialog with God, in prayer and reading Sacred Scripture, along with acting in the service of the human community and one’s neighbor.

This synthesis is the lesson which the great Bishop of Seville leaves us, Christians of today, who are called to bear witness to Christ at the start of a new millennium.

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Jordan Backlash

Thanks to David Meadows for bringing our attention to the first broadside against the recent discovery in Jordan. My favorite line from his post: “it’s interesting that the ThaiIndian piece originated at National Geographic … an organization which, of course, NEVER sensationalizes any discoveries and certainly has no archaeologists-in-residence who regularly do such.” Anybody remember the Gospel of Judas?

Critics dub worlds oldest church discovery ridiculous

Washington, June 14 (ANI): The recent discovery of the world’s first Christian church by a Jordanian archaeologist has been dismissed by critics as ridiculous.

A team of archaeologists in Jordan led by Abdel-Qader al-Housan, director of the Rihab Center for Archaeological Studies had announced the discovery of the worlds oldest church dating from 33 AD to 70 AD.

The church was found underneath the ancient Saint Georgeous Church, which itself dates back to 230 AD, in Rihab, northern Jordan near the Syrian border.

Al-Housan also said that the cave showed evidence of early Christian rituals.

However, Ghazi Bisheh, former director general of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities dubbed the claims as “ridiculous,” saying the archaeologist behind them “has a tendency to sensationalize discoveries” and offered no evidence to back his recent assertion.

The team had found a mosaic in church that described these Christians as “the 70 beloved by God and Divine”.

According to Al-Housan it referred to 70 disciples who fled Roman persecution in Jerusalem during the first century A.D., after the death of Jesus Christ.

But Bisheh says the identity of the disciples mentioned in the mosaic is not clear.

The experts widely believe that organized churches didn’t exist until at least the third century A.D.

After the death of Jesus Christ, Christian worship used to be in homes and other domestic buildings or, less commonly, by rivers outside city walls during the first century A.D. The organized churches did not emerge until the Byzantine period, in the fifth century A.D.

“It sounds rather anachronistic,” National Geographic quoted Biblical scholar Stephen Pfann, president of the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem, as saying.

He said that during the first century, the term “church” or “ekklesia” was used for the assembled body of believers and not the building or catacombs where they were assembling.

“If they are talking about a cave, it could have been a hiding place. In timeif there were martyrs there or something significant that took place there or a well-known individual who was among the disciples of Jesusthen you would have had reason to commemorate the site, which could later be used by the church’s monks, he said.

“But the cave that’s there is one that doesn’t necessarily commemorate anything I don’t know how you can take an underground cave and say it could present itself as a first-century church,” he added.

“The experts widely believe that organized churches didn’t exist until at least the third century A.D … The organized churches did not emerge until the Byzantine period, in the fifth century A.D.”

Well, which is it — the third or the fifth? In any event, the statement is a gross over-simplification.

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Getting His Irish Up

What a pope! He’s moved on to St. Columban (or Columbanus, not to be confused with Columba, his near contemporary, or Columbus, which is in Ohio).

And Teresa Benedetta translated:

Dear brothers and sisters,

Today, I wish to speak about the sainted abbot Columban, the most famous Irishman of the Middle Ages. With good reason, he may be called a ‘European’ saint, because as monk, missionary and writer, he worked in different countries of western Europe.

Together with the Irish of this time, he was aware of the cultural unity of Europe. In a letter of his written around 600 to Pope Gregory the Great, one finds for the first time the expression ‘totius Europae – of all Europe – referring to the presence of the Church on the continent (cfr Epistula I,1).

Columban was born around 545 in the province of Leinster, southeast Ireland. Educated in his own home by the best teachers, who started him on liberal arts studies, he was later entrusted to the guidance of Abbot Sinell of the Cluain-Inis community in northern Ireland, where he was able to deepen his studies of Sacred Scriptures.

At almost twenty years of age, he entered Bangor monastery in the northeastern part of the island, under Abbot Comgall, a monk famous for his virtue and rigorous asceticism.

In full harmony with his abbot, Columban zealously practised the severe discipline of the monastery, leading a life of prayer, asceticism, and study. He was ordained a priest there.

The life in Bangor and the example of the abbot influenced the concept of monasticism that Columban matured with time and spread in the course of his life.

When he was almost 50, following the typically Irish ascetic ideal of ‘peregrinatio pro Christo’ – to be a pilgrim for Christ – Columban left Ireland with 12 companions to undertake missionary work on the European continent.

We should remeember that at that time, migrations of peoples from the north and the east had caused entire Christianized regions to fall back into paganism.

Around 590, this small missionary team landed on the Breton coast [western France]. Welcomed benevolently by the King of the Franks of Austrasia [present-day France], they asked him simply for a piece of untilled land. They were given the ancient Roman fort of Annegray, which was in ruins and abandoned, and by now, overgrown by forest.

Used to a life of extreme renunciation, the monks succeeded within a few months to build their first hermitage on the ruins. Thus, their work of re-evangelization started through the testimony of their own life. With their cultivation of the soil, they also started the cultivation of souls.

The fame of these foreign religious people who, living on prayer and in great austerity, built homes and tilled the land, quickly spread, attracting pilgrims and penitents.

Above all, many young people asked to be welcomed into their monastic community to live, as they did, this exemplary life which revived cultivation of the earth as well as of souls.

Soon, it became necessary to establish a seocnd monastery. It was built a few kilometers away on the ruins of an old thermal resort, Luxeuil. It would become the center for radiating out the monastic and missionary tradition of Ireland towards the European continent. A third monastery was erected in Fobntaine, an hour’s walk to the north.

Columban lived in Luxeuil for almost 20 years. here, the saint wrote for his followers the Regola monachorum – monastic rules – which were for some time more widespread in Europe than the Rule of St. Benedict, in which he outlined the ideal image of the monk. It is the only ancient Irish monastic rule that we now have.

Integral to it, he also elaborated the Regula coenobialis, a kind of penal code that is surprising for its modern senisbility, and which can only be explained by the mentality and cultural climate of the time.

With another famous work entitled De poenitentiarum misura taxanda, also written at Luxeuil, Columban introduced confession, with private and repeated penitence, to the continent. It was called a ‘penitence by tariff’ because of the proportion established between the gravity of the sin and the type of penitence imposed by the confessor.

This novelty aroused the suspicions of the bishops of the region, a mistrust that changed to hostility when Columban had the courage to reproach them openly for some of their practices.

An occasion for the manifestation of such a confrontation was the dispute over the date of Easter: Ireland had been following the Oriental tradition rather than the Roman. Columban was summoned in 693 to Châlon-sur-Saôn to answer to a synod about his practices regarding penitence and Easter.

Instead of presenting himself to the Synod, he sent a letter in which he minimized the issue and invited the Synod fathers to discuss not only the date for Easter, a minor problem in his view, “but also – something more serious – all the necessary canonical norms which many have not complied with” (cfr Epistula II,1).

At the same time, he wrote Pope Boniface IV – as he had written several years earlier to Pope Gregory the Great (cfr Epistula i) – to defend the Irish tradition (cfr Epistula III).

Intransigent as he was on every moral question, Columban also came into conflict with the royal house because he had sharply reproached King Theodoric for his adulterous relations.

This led to a network of intrigues and maneuvers on a personal, religious and political level which, in the year 610, resulted in a decree of expulsion from Luxeuil of Columban and all monks of Irish origin, condemning them to exile. They were escorted out to sea to be shipped back to Ireland at the expense of the court.

But the ship ran aground not far from the beach; and the captain, seeing in this a sign from heaven, gave up the undertaking, and for fear of being cursed by God, he brought back the monks to safe ground. But instead of returning to Luxeuil, they decided to start a new phase of evangelization.

They headed to the Rhine and sailed upstream. After a first stop at Tuggen near Lake Zurich, they proceeded to the Bregenz region near Lake Constance to evangelize the Germanic tribes.

Soon after, however, Columbna, because of political events which were not favorable to his work, decided to cross the Alps with most of his disciples. The only one left behind was a monk called Gallus. His hermitage eventually developed into the famous Abbey of Sankt Gallen in Switzerland.

Arriving in Italy, Columban found a benevolent welcome at the royal Lombard court, but he soon had to face remarkable difficulties: the life of the Church was being torn by the Arian heresy which was still prevalent among the Lombards, and by a shcism that had detached the greater part of the churches in northern Italy from communion with the Bishop of Rome.

Columban entered the dispute authoritatively, writing a pamphlet against Arianism and a letter to Boniface IV to convince him to take decisive steps in order to re-establish unity (cfr Epistula V).

When the king of the Lombards, in 612 o3 613, assigned him some land in Bobbio, in the valley of the Trebbia, Columban founded a new monastery whoch would later become a center of culture comparable to the famous one at Montecassino. Here he reached the end of his days. He died on November 23, 615, the day on which he is commemorated in the Roman rite up to our time.

The message of St. Columban is focused on a firm call for conversion and for detachment from earthly goods in the light of the eternal heritage. With his ascetic life and his uncompromising behavior in the face of corruption among the powerful, he evokes the severe figure of John the Baptist.

But his asceticism was never an end in itself – only the means to open himself freely to the the love of God and to respond with all his being to the gifts he received, thus reconstructing in himself the image of God while tilling the soil and renewing human society.

I cite from his Instructiones: “If man correctly uses the faculties that God has granted his spirit, then he will be similar to God. Let us remember that we must give back to him all the gifts which he endowed us with when we were in our original condition. He has taught us the way with his commandments. The first of those is to love the Lord with all our heart, because it was he who loved us first, from the beginning of time, before we even came to this world”
(cfr Instr. XI).

The Irish saint truly embodied these words in his own life. A man of great culture – he wrote poems in Latin and a book of grammar – he showed himself to be rich in gifts of grace. He was a tireless builder of monasteries as well as an intransigent preacher of penitence, spending all his energies to nourish the Christian roots of the Europe which was being born.

With his spiritual energy, his faith, his love of God and neighbor, he was truly one of the Fathers of Europe. He shows us even today the roots from which our Europe can be reborn.

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Fruit of the Vine, Work of Human Hands

Al Ahram reports on several recent archeological finds, including a Byzantine-era wine factory near St. Catherine’s in Sinai. I can’t help but love the presses that made the wine for the Masses of the saints.

The third discovery was made during routine excavation in the area of Sayl Al-Tuhfah, west of Saint Catherine’s Monastery in South Sinai, where an SCA team discovered the well-preserved remains of a limestone wine factory dating to the Byzantine era (sixth century AD).

Farag Fada, head of the SCA’s Islamic and Coptic Department, says the factory consists of two parts. The first is a square basin with a pump at one end; the bottom of the basin is covered with plaster, and some sections still bear traces of red colour. The northern wall of this basin is decorated with a cross-shaped pattern inside a circle, under which is a clay pump. “This type of pump was used to make the wine flow after treading the raisins and dates,” Hawass said.

Fada says the second part of the factory is a circle- shaped basin that looks like a well with a hole. On two sides were limestone slabs which may have been used by the factory workers to stand on.

Tarek El-Naggar, head of South Sinai Antiquities, said the area connecting the clay pump to the second basin had a hole in order to place the jars used to hold the wine. Early studies have shown that the area of Sayl Al-Tuhfah was an industrial region for the production of wine, as there were many vines and date palms.