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Adore Isidore?

Christians, of course, speak of “adoration” as the honor reserved only to God, while “veneration” describes the respects we pay to our parents and the saints.

But it proved too hard for me to resist the pun in the headline. Isidore, a logophile and etymologist by trade, might forgive me for it — if I were in his confessional and properly penitent.

So the answer to the headline is no. While a rose is a rose, we should praise Isidore in a more proper way, especially today as we unearth his greatest work.

A writer in the London Telegraph opposes the growing movement to make St. Isidore of Seville — the last of the Western Fathers — patron saint of the Internet. And, in the process, he reviews the new edition of Isidore’s work. Some time back, we linked to an earlier review of the same book in the same paper.

They do venerate the Fathers in London, don’t they?

Hat tip: Rogue Classicism.

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Free Book

Bread and Circuses alerts the world to a 1913 Source Book for Ancient Church History from the Apostolic Age to the Close of the Conciliar Period, now posted online in PDF format. It’s a collection of primary texts in English translation, with minimal commentary, arranged by themes within the various periods. The book begins with Tacitus on Nero’s persecution and continues to the seventh ecumenical council, so we’re talking about the entire patristic era. The author is Joseph Cullen Ayer, Jr., Ph.D., professor in the divinity school of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. B&C describes the book as “moderately useful,” and he’s probably right, since quite a few documents have turned up since 1913, and others have been identified, dated, and edited with greater accuracy. Still, this collection’s free, and it doesn’t take up space on your bookshelves.

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The Holy Grail of Brazil

Good news for those of you who’ve been waiting sleeplessly for the Brazilian Portuguese edition of The Grail Code. It’s here. I’m holding it in my hands. Here’s the good word:

“O Código Graal”, Mike Aquilina e Christopher Bailey vão muito além das versões popularizadas por historiadores e arqueólogos sobre a busca do Graal,um tema recorrente, mas não menos instigante na literatura ocidental. A busca pelo cálice usado por Jesus na Última Ceia e, depois, por José de Arimatéia para recolher o sangue de Cristo crucificado impulsiona as lendas sobre o Rei Arthur, estimulou as maiores aventuras de Indiana Jones e mobilizou as pessoas a virarem as páginas de “O Código Da Vinci”. “O Código Graal” representa um tratamento lúcido para as lendas do Graal, baseado na história real, sem falsas teorias conspiratórias ou elementos da mitologia céltica. Para discorrer sobre a história verdadeira do Santo Graal, os autores estudaram séculos de crenças sobre a Santa Comunhão – da Palestina de Jesus Cristo até a Grã-Bretanha nas sombras da Idade Média, das cortes coloridas da França medieval até a Alemanha de Hitler -, a história da literatura européia e as diferentes idéias de amor e pecado. Ao fundamentar as lendas em seu contexto histórico e teológico, os autores, ambos jornalistas, corrigem grande parte das distorções da lenda, tal qual a conhecemos hoje, e mostram por que ela se tornou tão popular e como mudou ao longo do tempo.

I find it for sale — and immediate shipment — right here.

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Five People Meme

The Divine Lamp tagged me for the “Five People Meme.” The question is: “If you could meet and have a deep conversation with any five people on earth, living or dead, from any time period, who would they be?” It’s hard to know what to make of the question. Some of my favorite authors (William Faulkner, Robert Frost) were not known for their sparkling and genial conversation. (Come to think of it, neither am I.) And I don’t know if I could emerge alive from a conversation with Evelyn Waugh or St. Jerome. I can’t imagine what I’d say to St. Augustine, other than “Can I have your autograph — and your blessing?” So some folks probably made my lists just because I know precious little about their biographies or personalities — or because I’ve heard one or two anecdotes that make them seem to be good company. As for the celebrities: At least for some of them, I’d like our conversations to turn into lessons. If I could host all five of them at once, it would make for quite a jam session.

1) The Blessed Virgin Mary (Hi, Mom)
2) St. Josemaria Escriva
3) St. Maximilian Kolbe
4) St. Ambrose of Milan
5) St. Ignatius of Antioch

1) Alvaro del Portillo
2) Solanus Casey
3) John Henry Newman
4) Pope John Paul II
5) Pope John Paul I

1) St. John Neumann
2) Bl. Francis X. Seelos
3) Bishop Michael O’Connor
4) Demetrius Gallitzin
5) Boniface Wimmer

1) Theodore Roethke
2) Wilfrid Sheed
3) David Scott
4) Phyllis McGinley
5) Flannery O’Connor

1) Paul Simon
2) Dion DiMucci
3) Eric Clapton
4) Scott Hahn
5) Rod Argent

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8 Books on Ancient Christian Art

A friend asked me to recommend titles on pre-Constantinian Christian art, to prepare for a trip to Europe. I thought I’d share the list with you. I focused on books that are readily available. Some of the best titles, alas, are out of print, with not a single used copy available on the Web. If you know of other titles, let me know. These are in no particular order. (UPDATE in 2010: a few more recent titles here)

Antonio Baruffa. The Catacombs of St. Callixtus. Decent illustrations and intelligent but non-technical interpretation. This book is unabashedly Christian — theological, and even devotional.

Jean Daniélou. Primitive Christian Symbols. Awesome — erudite essays, but minimal illustration.

Robin Margaret Jensen. Face to Face: Portraits of the Divine in Early Christianity. Beautiful in every way. And you can’t beat the price.

Robin Margaret Jensen. Understanding Early Christian Art. See above. This scholar’s got the goods.

Orazio Marucchi. Manual of Christian Archeology. This is the classic textbook. Still in print. Still useful.

Herbert Musurillo. Symbolism and the Christian Imagination. An extremely rare, but wonderful book.

Erwin Goodenough [ed. Jacob Neusner]. Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period. This is a one-volume abridgement of the 12-volume set. Some of the best Christian material ended up on the cutting-room floor, and what’s left you really have to sift. Goodenough goes a little overboard on the Freudian and Jungian stuff. But it’s useful for placing Christian art in its cultural contexts, both Jewish and pagan.

John Lowden. Early Christian and Byzantine Art. Gorgeous plates, but uninspiring text.

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Grail Sightings

There has been a torrent of activity at, the blog of my colleague and co-author Chris Bailey. Chris has posted fascinating material on the madness of Merlin and the ghost of Emperor Constantine in the Arthurian legends. Don’t miss it.

If you haven’t yet ordered our book, The Grail Code: Quest for the Real Presence, please do. We promise you great entertainment and a good deal of painless education in history and literature (beginning with the Church Fathers). The quest for the Grail is a beautiful story, and its narrative thread begins with the Fathers and continues through your life and mine.

But don’t take my word for it. Check out the reviews upon reviews

If you’d rather read it in Canadian French, go right ahead and order Graal Code: Enquête sur le mystère du Graal. It’ll soon be out in German and Portuguese as well.

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When Isidore a Window?

St. Isidore of Seville, the last of the Western Fathers, is often touted as the patron of the Internet, because of his great interest in building what we might call a “database” of information. Perhaps it was this surge in Isidore’s visibility that led to the publication of his massive work, The Etymologies. It’s out in two volumes, and it’s reviewed in the London Telegraph. The reviewer notes Isidore’s profound influence on subsequent scholarship in several different fields — and she never even gets around to mentioning his most recent technological patronage.

There seems to be a different edition of the Etymologies out in the States, also published in 2006, and available on Amazon here and here.

Hat tip on the Telegraph review: Bread and Circuses.

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The One Book Meme

OK, Kevin at Biblicalia made me do it.

1. One book that changed your life.
Furrow, St. Josemaria Escriva

2. One book that you’ve read more than once:
The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark

3. One book you’d want on a desert island:
The Bible

4. One book that made you laugh:
Helena, Evelyn Waugh

5. One book that made you cry:
A brief memoir written by my dad, found by my sister after he died

6. One book that you wish had been written:
Acts of the Apostles in India, by a Luke-like companion of St. Thomas

7. One book that you wish had never been written:
BabyWise, Gary Ezzo et al.

8. One book you’re currently reading:
The Theology of St. Cyril of Alexandria: A Critical Appreciation, ed. Thomas Weinandy and Daniel Keating

9. One book you’ve been meaning to read:
John Chrysostom and the Jews: Rhetoric and Reality in the Late 4th Century, Robert Louis Wilken

10. Now tag five people:
Penn Jacobs, Rod Bennett, Maureen Wittmann, Chris Bailey [Yes, I can count. My son removed his name from the list!]

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Huge Scoop: Patristic Books Cheap

I hope it’s kosher to do this … I just got the sale flyer from T&T Clark, and it’s got several books I’ve recommended on this site, but at extremely low prices. I can’t find these sale prices anywhere on the Web, so I guess you can only get them by ordering by phone (1-800-561-7704) and mentioning “order ref. TTWS06.” Maybe they’ll send you the flyer, too. Offer ends August 31.

What’s hot? A few examples:

The Theology of St. Cyril of Alexandria (0567089002) by Father Thomas Weinandy — was $89.95, NOW $20!
Spirit & Fire: A Thematic Anthology of the Writings of Origen (ed. Balthasar) (0567041611) — was $39.95, NOW $20!

They’re also offering Robert Murray’s great study of the Syriac Fathers, Symbols of Church and Kingdom, which I recommended earlier today — and it’s at a far lower price than on Amazon (see!

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Good News About the Expanded Fathers

My publisher sends word that the new, expanded edition of my book The Fathers of the Church: An Introduction to the First Christian Teachers will be available at the beginning of September. Teachers who need multiple copies for Fall semester can arrange to have it shipped directly from the printer. If you’re anxious to get yours ASAP, my editor suggests that you call 1-800-348-2440 and ask for the Customer Service department.

There’s a page up on Amazon, too, but I can’t imagine that Amazon will be shipping before late September.

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The Fabric of Coptic Life

Al Ahram Weekly in Cairo brings us tidings of a new book on ancient Coptic textiles. I haven’t seen the book yet, but I’ve seen enough Coptic textiles to know that it’s going on my Amazon Wish List. New York’s Metropolitan Museum houses quite a collection. Online, Coptic tapestries, vestments, and such regularly turn up in the offerings of antiquities dealers and in the collections of museums. See, for example, the Rietz Coptic Textile Collection at the California Academy of Sciences and the Indiana University Art Museum‘s online tutorial.

Anything so beautiful is bound to turn heads. While the religious images may have inspired some folks to great piety, Bishop Asterius of Amasia (c. 375-405) worried that such tapestries were inspiring more Christians to greater vanity. He spoke of it as a “foolish industry,” this “art of weaving in imitation of painting … an art both futile and useless.”

Everybody hastened to purchase for themselves as well as for their wives and children garments covered with flowers and offering images of infinite variety … When they show themselves in public in this sort of attire, they could be mistaken for painted walls … One sees on these fabrics lions, panthers, bears, bulls, dogs, trees, rocks, hunters, in a word everything that the art of the painter who strives to imitate nature can imitate … Those rich people who still have a veneer of piety take designs from the gospel stories and have their artisans execute them. They have them paint Jesus Christ in the midst of his disciples … They believe they are doing something pleasing to the Lord when they wear these fabrics adorned with holy pictures; but if they want to follow my advice, let them sell such garments in order to honor the living images of God.

No doubt, some Christians, then as now, favor beautiful religious articles for the sake of ostentation. But surely there’s a place for such beauty, when it’s crafted and displayed for the glory of God. With all due respect to Bishop Asterius, I’d say that Jesus Himself indicated this (see Mk 14:4-5).

Thanks to Egypt’s dry climate, these Coptic fabrics have survived to glorify God through a millennium and a half.

Muslim Egypt has not always been kind to Coptic Christians, but it’s nonetheless proud of the Copts’ cultural heritage. Al Ahram directs our attention to a new book, The Coptic Tapestry Albums and the Archaeologist of Antinoe, Albert Gayet, by Nancy Arthur Hoskins, who is herself a former college weaving instructor.

“The first time I saw a Coptic tapestry portrait with its soul-searching gaze I was completely captivated,” Hoskins writes in her introduction. “I felt I had connected — through craft — with someone from that far distant time and place. The dancers were enchanting, the angels ephemeral, the flowers ever festive, the weaving free-spirited.”

Hoskins’ book focuses on the textiles produced in antiquity. But Al Ahram’s reviewer points out that for Egypt’s Christians the “Coptic period” is not in the past. The people endure. They have kept the faith — and they’ve handed down the art. “Coptic weavers are still producing tapestries and textiles. Like the painting of icons, and the illumination of manuscripts, weaving is part of a living culture that endures to the present day.”

There’s yet another well-illustrated introduction to Coptic textile art at

For a lively and fascinating general introduction to the Copts, read Father Mark Gruber’s journal of his days spent in the Egyptian desert, as both an anthropologist and a monk: Journey Back to Eden: My Life and Times Among the Desert Fathers. (My review of Father Gruber’s book is right here.) Father Gruber’s more scholarly treatment of the same subject is Sacrifice in the Desert: A Study of an Egyptian Minority Through the Prism of Coptic Monasticism. You’ll find great photos of Father Gruber’s time among the Copts on his personal website.

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Indiana Wants Me

Jeremy at Living Among Mysteries posted an appreciative review of my new book, The Grail Code: Quest for the Real Presence. Jeremy is a Hoosier, a gentleman and a scholar, so you should feel confident basing your book-buying decisions on his judgments. (He also claims the charism of infallibility, which may be a first for Missouri Synod Lutherans.)

My co-author, Chris Bailey, has lots of new material at Chris has moved from the historical Arthur to the historical Merlin and now to the historical Nennius. And he had this to say upon the release of the Canadian French edition of our book.

Well, we haven’t quite caught up to Dan Brown—not yet, anyway—but in June, The Grail Code will be available in a Canadian French edition from Novalis.

“Ce livre,” says the Novalis site, “ne se présente pas comme une nouvelle critique du livre de Dan Brown. Il propose plutôt de comprendre ce qui fascine les hommes dans la quête du Graal.” In other (more English) words, “This book doesn’t offer a new critique of Dan Brown’s book. Instead, it sets out to understand what fascinates people in the quest for the Grail.”

And there you have a measurement of the immensity of the Da Vinci Code industry. You can’t offer a book about the Holy Grail without telling people where it stands in relation to Dan Brown’s book. I’d hardly be human if I didn’t envy Dan Brown’s billion-dollar success once in a while, but I’m happy that Mike and I have more to offer than just another study guide to a popular novel.

Our book is, of course, the best way to counter the historical bloomers in The Da Vinci Code, but we hope readers will still enjoy our book when all the Dan Brown hype has died down. The world of the great Grail romances is much more interesting than the world of paranoid conspiracy theories.

I hear rumors that more languages are on the way. Today, Montreal—tomorrow, the world! (You may imagine a few seconds of unhinged maniacal laughter if you like.)

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Good Thing in a Small Package

Know someone who could use a remedial course in Church history? I know an excellent book, hot off the presses. Diane Moczar’s Don’t Know Much About Catholic History: From the Catacombs to the Reformation is a small book (167 pages) that fits easily in your jacket pocket, your car’s glove compartment, or your purse. (Full disclosure: I live in constant, irrational terror that I will be caught waiting somewhere with nothing good to read. Just as the poet Theodore Roethke used to stash spare drinks behind furniture at cocktail parties, so I stash books in odd corners of my car and clothing.)

Dr. Moczar provides vivid summary treatments of all the major periods, chockfull of memorable stories and characters. She ends each chapter with points to ponder and suggestions for future reading. She ends the book with two helpful and very practical essays on learning history and on evaluating history texts. Anyone who reads this book is well on the way from cluelessness to a lifelong love of learning. And the price is hard to beat, so you should probably buy copies for several friends, and for the back of the church, and for the town library, and …

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The Artful Blogger

I can tell by the clicks that visitors to the site love early Christian art as much as I do. If that’s true of you, I hope you’ve had the pleasure to read Understanding Early Christian Art, by Robin Margaret Jensen. It’s, by far, the best survey I’ve found for the subject. Early Christian art is a difficult field, because the samples are scant and difficult to interpret. There’s a wide range of hypotheses about what the art means, who produced it, and even when it was produced. And that’s just the sort of situation that can make academics go a little loopy. But Jensen is a judicious scholar. She considers all the major interpretations (and even some flaky ones), and she takes what is valuable from each. But she always comes round to sound and reasonable conclusions. For example, many critical scholars in the twentieth century insisted that patristic texts must not be used in the interpretation of artworks — texts are from Venus, as it were, but images are from Mars. One prominent advocate of that interpretive principle goes so far as to say that symbols in catacomb art mean exactly the opposite of what the same symbols mean in the preaching and letters of Saints Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement, and Irenaeus!

Jensen gives that argument a fair hearing, but ultimately rejects it: “in the end, interpretation cannot be done without reference to the community and to the many ways its central values are expressed, including texts, rituals, and artifacts.” This frees her to provide ample historical setting for each artwork, and it also enables her to draw richly from the Church Fathers. Her theological analyses — of the sacramental setting and content of the artworks, of the risk of idolatry, and of the spirituality of praying with images — are profound and generally orthodox in their conclusions (though here, too, she gives some consideration to the arguments of ancient heretics and modern flakes). She writes with clarity, charity, and grace. (I do wish her publisher’s proofreaders worked with equal skill.)

In a more recent book, Face to Face: Portraits of the Divine in Early Christianity, Jensen tracks the Church’s devotional art through the age of the Fathers, from representations that are mostly narrative or symbolic to icons that approach portraiture. The book provides a historically sound, theologically sensitive analysis of the way the Church, in its approach to art, confronted the implications of doctrines such as the incarnation and the Trinity, as well as Old Testament prohibitions against idols. Jensen gives us sympathetic readings of the entire range of ancient opinions. A well-documented work of scholarship in both art history and theology, Face to Face is also an accessible and even enjoyable tour for interested lay readers.

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Saving St. Cyril

St. Cyril of Alexandria ranks high among the “bad boys” of the patristic era, at least in the view of many modern scholars. He was famously intolerant of doctrinal dissent. He steadfastly refused to celebrate religious diversity in his home city. And it was he who brought the Nestorian controversy to its crisis, sniffing out the heresy even before it had been stated explicitly. For a couple of centuries, hostile historians have portrayed Cyril as an operator, manipulating the imperial court and ignoring popular opinion for the sake of his own power. If anything bad happened in fifth-century Alexandria, you can bet that the blame for it has been laid on Cyril.

Now comes a new and more nuanced look at Cyril in Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy by John McGuckin of Union Theological Seminary. McGuckin’s Cyril is no less an operator, but he does it all for holy ends, keeping the means always within the bounds of moral action. Wheeling and dealing are not necessarily incompatible with great sanctity.

Cyril prevailed over Nestorius at the Council of Ephesus — a council that Nestorius himself had maneuvered into being. There the bishops overwhelmingly acclaimed the doctrine long hallowed by the worship of the Church: that Christ the God-man is a single subject, and so Mary could be called “Mother of God.” She must not be called mother of his human nature alone, because mothers do not give birth to a nature, but to a person. The title “Mother of God” (Theotokos, literally, “God-bearer”) preserved the integrity of the incarnation of the eternal Word.

Cyril held the day because of his sustained, consistent, and subtle theological argument. Theological truth won the war, but the victory belonged to more than the theologians. Throngs of common people celebrated the council’s decision by carrying the bishops aloft in a torchlit procession and singing hymns throughout the night…

Read the rest of my review on Touchstone magazine’s website.

I regularly write about the Fathers in Touchstone. You’ll find some of that work by searching Touchstone’s archive here. (Just plug in my last name: Aquilina.)

Touchstone is one of the very few magazines that treat the Fathers as contemporaries and as newsworthy. Subscribe to Touchstone here.