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Join Me in the Holy Land?

I’ll be there May 16-25, 2009, with Dr. Scott and Kimberly Hahn and Steve and Janet Ray.

We’ll be celebrating the Year of St. Paul and visiting the sites of Jesus: the Sea of Galilee, the Mount of Transfiguration, Capernaum, Peter’s House, the Church of the Visitation, the Holy Sepulchre, Bethlehem, the Church of the Dormition, the Church of the Nativity, the Upper Room, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Via Dolorosa … and many more unforgettable places. We’ll also have optional side trips to Qumran, Masada, Jericho, and the Dead Sea for swimming.

See here for more details.

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Check These Out

* The Knights of Columbus have launched a new parenting site called Fathers for Good. It’s rumored that some Aquilina-authored material will soon appear there.

* Tom Craughwell at Antique Holy Cards is offering my visitors a special 2-for 1 offer. Buy any package of Christmas cards (6 pack or 12 pack) and get another package FREE! This offer is available until August 25. Tom will also be reproducing some newly discovered antique cards, too, so keep an eye on his website.

* Maureen is proposing patristic material that’s ready-made for modern tee-shirts.

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Time Travel Agency

Via Catholic News Service: Syrian monastery gives visitors taste of ancient spiritual life

AL-NEBEK, Syria (CNS) — A sixth-century monastery in the desert of western Syria is giving today’s visitors the experience of ancient spiritual life.

Named after St. Moses, an Ethiopian monk, the Mar Musa monastery is about 20 miles from the nearest town, Al-Nebek. The monastery and its church are staffed with Catholic and Orthodox nuns and priests, and the compound has become a center for Muslim-Christian interfaith dialogue. With its vegetable garden and goat herd, the desert monastery is a model of sustainability.

“I felt like I had a calling to come here, and I felt at home in Mar Musa even before I started living here,” said Father Michel Toma, a Syrian Catholic priest from Homs, Syria, who moved to the monastery several months ago after having visited the remote spiritual oasis several times over the last 10 years. “I love nature. It’s a relaxing and calm place.”

Everyone who visits works to help keep the monastery running. Some tend to the goats and make cheese. Father Toma’s specialty is making candles, something he is teaching the other residents.

He is particularly proud of the monastery’s hospitality to all who visit regardless of race, religion or nationality.

“We welcome everyone,” Father Toma said. “It’s not important that someone prays the same way, but that we all live together. We eat and pray together. That’s the way we live.”

This is what Italian Jesuit Father Paolo Dall’Oglio envisioned when he founded the community about 20 years ago.

After celebrating an energetic Mass in Arabic, Father Dall’Oglio was quick to greet a tour group from Italy.

“Come and see the new church,” he said, leading the group across a bridge and up a cliff to a nearly completed stone church.

When Father Dall’Oglio stumbled upon Mar Musa’s ancient ruins in the early 1980s, the monastery was in severe decay. The site had been long forgotten, known only to a few local goat herders. The ancient monastery is reminiscent of an era when rocky landscapes provided shelters for self-sustaining religious communities.

With the help of volunteers, the Syrian government and international sponsors, the church roof has been rebuilt and medieval frescoes have been restored. More than 340 steps have been added almost seamlessly into the mountain, easing the climb to the monastery for visitors.

According to legend, the son of a wealthy Ethiopian king named Musa founded the monastery. Preferring the monastic life to the throne, he traveled to Egypt, then to the Holy Land, settling in Syria where he became a monk in Qara, southern Syria.

He lived as a hermit in the valley where the monastery is now situated until he died a martyr at the hands of a Byzantine soldier. As the story goes, the king’s family took his body but his right thumb was separated from his body and remains a relic in the Syrian church in Al-Nebek.

Mar Musa once belonged to the Syrian Antiochene rite. It was more than 500 years — in 1058 — before the church was built. The church’s frescoes, which date from the 11th and 12th centuries and depict biblical scenes, are the monastery’s pride.

Restoration work has revealed three layers of artwork: Two are from the 11th century and the other is from the end of the 12th century or the beginning of the 13th century, according to restorers.

The nave of the church is decorated with images of saints, with females on the arches and males on the pillars. A representation of the Last Judgment is depicted on the wall of the nave.

Each evening, there is about an hour of quiet time, followed by a prayer service. The liturgy usually is celebrated in Arabic, French or English.

Recently, the Jameel family made the eight-hour trip to Mur Masa from their home in northeastern Syria, near the Iraqi border, to have their 6-month-old daughter baptized.

During the baptism the priests sang and prayed while a group of about 50 people observed the ceremony. Once the child was dipped in the water, the priests immediately sang a joyful Arabic hymn to the beat of a large drum.

As the Jameel family and other visitors left, a group of French tourists who spent five days at Mar Musa took one last moment to rest under the tent on the monastery’s terrace before returning to Damascus.

Claire-Lise Henge of Alsace, France, said she was pleased with her visit.

“It’s not too strict, not what you’d think a monastery would be like,” she said. “It’s very open here. They joke around and people feel comfortable.”

She welcomed the mandatory participation in daily life, jokingly saying, “It means we’re not just squatters here.”

Carole Perez-Pinard, also from the French group, acknowledged that life at Mar Musa was somewhat of an acquired taste.

“Communal living was a big change for me,” she said. “The first day, I couldn’t imagine staying four nights.”

Like the French visitors, Jane Bornemeier, a tourist from New York, decided to visit Mar Musa out of curiosity.

“I didn’t know what it would be like. But it seemed adventurous, so we did it,” she said.

She admitted it was not what she expected.

“When we arrived, we were dropped off at the bottom of a cliff. When I saw how far up it was that we had to climb, I said, ‘No way.’ It’s much more remote and roughing it than I expected, much more like camping out than I thought it would be.”

But after one night of sleeping under the stars on the monastery’s roof, she quickly warmed to the surroundings.

“It’s an extraordinary place,” she said while helping with a meal for other visitors. “This modern version of an ancient tradition is really something.”

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Holy Martyrs Fun Fair

There’s a town not far from me called Tarentum, and in Tarentum there’s a parish called Holy Martyrs, and every summer the parish hosts the “Holy Martyrs Fun Fair” — the signs for which always bring a smile to the face of my friend and sometime co-author Chris Bailey. He’s imagining, no doubt, Neronian spectacles. The reality is probably more like Bingo and pierogies.

But it seems that the Eternal City is planning its own Holy Martyrs fun fair on a grand scale: a Disney-style theme park. Not even Chris could make this up.

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Pressing for Details

A few weeks ago we looked at the excavation of a Byzantine wine press near or at an ancient Egyptian monastery. Today let’s look at a Byzantine olive press just unearthed in Israel, also quite probably associated with a monastery. Among the artifacts found are two fragments of a marble chancel screen and what seems to be a plate bearing an image of the Madonna and Child.
Olives for anointing … the fruit of the vine … the mother with her suckling infant … these images abound in my new book, Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols, which is lavishly illustrated by Lea Marie Ravotti. No less an authority than Adrian Murdoch has said that Signs and Mysteries is “an essential book to keep to hand when visiting early Christian sites” — even if you’re just visiting them as archeological sites on the Web!

UPDATE: The Jerusalem Post reports on the dig.

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Portrait Gallery

David Meadows leads us to a haunting YouTube slide show of ancient portraits, most of them from Egypt’s Roman period and discovered in the Fayoum. Many are painted on burial cloths. My favorite image from this style and period now hangs in the Louvre. It portrays the deceased, a beautiful young Christian woman, holding the traditional Coptic cross, the ankh. (I discuss this image in my new book, Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols.)

These are lovely images. You’ll see their influence later in Byzantine icons. Enjoy the show!

And may the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

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Question Authority

Some years back, my son contributed to a book project called No Question Left Behind, edited by Maureen Wittmann. The book got spiked just before press, for economic reasons. But now Maureen’s posting its contents, absolutely free, on a blog titled No Question Left Behind. Photos of the contributing authors make the page very appealing. Junior is wearing a red shirt and baseball cap, both of which he probably still wears. The braces, however, are long gone.

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First Review!

“Mike Aquilina’s Signs and Mysteries provides a popular yet academically rigorous guide to symbols in the early church. The immediately accessible prose — which quotes thoughtfully from the church fathers, classical and Jewish sources — is complemented by generous illustrations. He has not only drawn on the obvious archaeological and epigraphic record, he has also delved into the fascinating world of Christian graffiti. An essential book to keep to hand when visiting early Christian sites.”
— Adrian Murdoch
Fellow, British Royal Historical Society
Author, The Last Pagan, Rome’s Greatest Defeat, and The Last Roman

The “generous illustrations,” numbering in the hundreds, are by the great Lea Marie Ravotti. The book is out any day now. Order yours today!

Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols

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Spoils of Egypt

Egypt’s native Christian community, tracing their origins to the apostolate of St. Mark the Evangelist, long marginalized by the Muslim majority, the Copts cling tenaciously to their ancient culture, which finds expression in distinctive and beautiful art — art all but unknown in the West.

The Treasures of Coptic Art includes hundreds of color images, well photographed to highlight even the small details. And the accompanying text is written by two outstanding scholars: Gawdat Gabra, former director of Cairo’s Coptic Museum, and Marianne Eaton-Krauss, a specialist in pharaonic art at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Science and Humanities. The editors use the term “art” broadly, to include many items of material culture: combs, lamps, flasks, and jewelry, for example.

The ancient Copts were aware of their native heritage — the art of the Pharaohs — but they also drew from other influences: Hellenistic, Jewish, Roman, and even Indian. The port of Alexandria was the mercantile and intellectual hub of the ancient world; people of all nations converged there and left their marks on the arts.

Egypt’s Christians experienced their greatest freedom in the three-century interlude between Roman persecution and Muslim invasion, and many of the works included in this book come from that period. Much of the art is in the folk idiom. “Coptic monuments never enjoyed the patronage of emperors, kings, rulers, or sultans,” write the authors. “In the absence of court patronage, the artistic heritage of the Copts [was] expressed in monasteries and churches.”

The varied influences are easy to spot. Like their forebears in the age of the Pharaohs, the Christian Copts favored the brighter hues in the palette. Like the later Byzantines, they rendered proportionally oversized eyes, ears, and foreheads, to suggest prodigious spiritual senses. Coptic icons, however, are often simpler and less ornate than their Byzantine counterpart. Facial expressions tend to be softer; and the figures are usually, of course, darker-skinned. Overall, they have a more “primitive” and even naïve quality, as one might find in the folk paintings of the American South or the self-consciously primitivist works of Edward Hicks or Henri Rousseau.

Egypt’s desert climate has preserved a remarkable number of works that could not survive in other, damper places: textiles, for example, including tapestries, vestments, and carpets; wood carvings; papyrus manuscripts; and, of course, devotional icons and wall paintings. They’re all in this book, alongside the more durable media, like sculpture and architecture, and decorated items from everyday life: dishes, keys, jugs, children’s toys, combs, and brooches.

The illustrations alone tell of the minute particulars of Coptic devotion. Carvings give evidence of the early devotion to the Blessed Virgin, St. Michael the Archangel, and especially the holy family, whose sojourn in Egypt is recorded in Matthew’s gospel. There is a great multitude of portrayals of Coptic saints, most of them monks and nuns of the desert, portrayed in the robes of their habit, with the characteristic wide-eyed frontal stare.

The book, perfectly calibrated for an introduction, provides historical context, made vivid by arresting details from the documentary and archeological record. Egyptian Christians continued to practice the ancient methods of mummifying their dead till well into the eighth century, for example, while the ankh, the symbol of the Nile River god, gradually became Egypt’s dominant Christian symbol, the “cross with a handle,” still a sign of waterborne life.

Pilgrimage has been an enduring expression of the fervor of the Copts. Pilgrim shrines are focal points of devotion, and so are often ornamented by visitors and patrons. The subject merits a full chapter in Treasures.

Most interesting is the treatment of the shrine of Abu Mina, the Lourdes of the ancient world. St. Mina (or Menas) was a third-century soldier who died in the first eruption of Diocletian’s persecution. As he was borne homeward by his comrades, the camels stopped suddenly in the desert and refused to budge. The soldiers, who were Christian, took this as a sign that Mina should be buried there.

A spring miraculously appeared at the site, and its waters were renowned for their healing power. Pilgrims converged on the site from everywhere. Abu Mina flasks, given close treatment in the book, have been found “as far afield as Italy and the Balkans.” Mina always appears in the orant posture (hands outstretched in prayer), usually with the features characteristic of Coptic art: the oversized round head and large, otherworldly eyes.

Other Egyptian pilgrimage sites track the Holy Family’s travels through the land. These, too, inspired many images — the Christ child riding St. Joseph’s shoulders, the Virgin riding a donkey or a horse (symbolizing the flight from Herod). Some ancient renderings of the Madonna nursing the baby Jesus hark back to common pharaonic images of Isis with the suckling infant Horus.

Additional chapters treat the cultures of the Nile, monasticism, Gnosticism, church architecture, and many other subjects. The chapter on the “Glorification of the Holy Virgin” is especially beautiful. Throughout the book, the authors draw from the writings of the great Fathers and the counsels of the desert ascetics.

This is the ancient faith made visible and made durable — a desert faith that has survived almost two millennia of tremendous hardship. The Treasures of Coptic Art invites a new Christian audience to look into the outsized eyes of Egypt’s icons.