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A Letter to the Newly Baptized

To the Recently Baptized:

You may already feel it- the fact that this journey you are made a significant transition when you were baptized. Though you remain on the same path towards Christ, your landscape and means for getting there have radically changed. In this post I will discuss three ways in which your baptism marked a significant moment in your journey, changing you irreversibly, and then speak to the continuing nature of your journey.

First, in Baptism you were adopted into a new family, one of choice. Though you were born into a birth family many years ago, Robin Jensen in Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity notes that “unlike a birth family, this was a family one chose” (57). Tertullian exhorts the one being baptized saying “when you come up from that most sacred washing of the new birth and for the first time you raise your hands with your brethren in your mother’s house, ask of your Father, ask of your Lord, for special grants of grace and attributions of spiritual gifts” (58). You now have a new mother and a new father, many new sisters and many new brothers. Reach out to your new family now! You will never be alone in this world now- you are a part of a community that will always look out for you. You have been incorporated into the community like a sheep incorporated into a flock. These sheep, symbolic of you now, “were protected and cherished, rescued when in danger, and persistently herded toward their place of safety” (90) like the sheep in the image below from the fourth century.

Shepherd with sheep. Mosaic, Baptistery of Sta. Restituta, San Giovanni in Fonte, Naples. Late fourth century.

Second, at your baptism your journey shifted forever because you were given the gift of knowledge or enlightenment through the Spirit, opening your eyes to see the truth of this world more clearly. Justin Martyr describes baptism “as a means to transform Christians into children of choice and knowledge (rather than of necessity and ignorance) and he goes on to explain that ‘this washing is called illumination because they who learn these things are illuminated in their understanding” (113). The story of Jesus healing the blind man can be seen as an image of receiving this knowledge, as the blind man was transformed from blindness to an ability to see. In the same way, Ambrose says that you have received “the spiritual sight of faith and so perceive the light emitted by the sacraments” (122). Your sight is not the same as before- you can now see more clearly with the eyes of faith as the blind man being cured in this image.

Third, you are radically different now than before your baptism because you have in a very real way died and risen again. In your baptism “the former, sinful self is symbolically crucified and buried in this baptism water” (138). Not only is this death and rebirth tied with the death of your former self, it is also linked to the death and resurrection of Christ. This is great news- though you shared in Christ’s death at the font, you will also share in his resurrection. Since “by figuratively dying in the font, the initiate receives the benefit of Christ’s saving sacrifice”, you can rejoice in your resurrection with Christ. This parallel can be seen in the familiar story of Jonah- Basil interprets Jonah’s “three days in the fish’s belly as symbolizing the triple immersion of the neophyte and identifies Jonah’s font with the belly of the sea creature” (154).

Scenes from the story of Jonah, with Noah, and a fisherman. Sarcophagus, Museo Pio Cristiano, Vatican

Just as Jonah was completely transformed through his time in the whale, for you too “the renewal is a total transformation of the self” (175). Your journey is different now than before because you are different, because you have now died and risen in Christ.

Lastly, though your baptism marked a complete transformation of your journey, it did not mark the end of it. Having risen from the waters of baptism, you have joined the rest of the congregation and “realize that [you] have been allowed only a glimpse of paradise” (213). This glimpse is a “promise that this is [your] future and not [your] present reality” (213). That means you still are still moving on your journey, with the images of the promised land seen at your baptism as your inspiration. Your continued existence here on this earth is “proof that the journey is not yet over, that baptism is only the beginning step toward a final, happy ending” (213). Continue on your journey, newly baptized one, with all of the inspiration that your new eyes, new family and new birth accord!

Deer coming to the stream. Mosaic, baptistery at Bir Ftouha (Carthage), Tunisia, Tunis. Late fourth or early fifth century.

Celebrity Passings and the Memento Mori

Jill Maria MurdyJill Maria Murdy
Director of Liturgy and Music
Saint Frances Cabrini Parish,
West Bend, WI

Since Christmas, I have been involved with seven funerals in the parish where I work. My volunteer choir members and cantors have been out to sing for most of those liturgies. In my profession, death is a constant. Some families have been overwhelmed with grief, others shocked, and others just feeling a sense of grateful relief that their loved one is no longer struggling to live. My own beloved mother has been gone since 1992, and there is probably not a day that goes by when I don’t miss her. Recently I have seen posts of many other friends grieving the loss of a parent, young spouse, nephew, or child, and I have felt the angst with them.

Perhaps this is why I’ve been thinking a lot of all the celebrity deaths that have made the news lately: David Bowie, Glen Frey, Alan Rickman, René Angélil, Dan Haggerty, Natalie Cole, Pat Harrington, and Olympian Bill Johnson just to name a few. Radio playlists and newscasts telling of their life’s work have filled the airwaves, and various organizations have sought to pay tribute in different ways (like the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra who has already announced a program of David Bowie’s music as part of their fall concert lineup).

But why should these deaths shock us? Surely it is a loss when each of these musicians or actors leaves us, but what about the countless other obituaries printed each day? Don’t we mourn the teachers, the scientists? The factory workers, the grandmothers and grandfathers? Are not their legacies as rich and important to us all?

In his Instruments of Good Works, St. Benedict wisely told his monks to “keep death before one’s eyes daily.” This is something our society is not very good at: the health and fitness industries continue to grow, while others spend money on Botox, cosmetics, plastic surgery, whatever will “keep us young.” Everything we hear focuses on “living the good life,” so when life comes to a screeching halt, we are often devastated, even if the life was that of a celebrity whom we have never met.

For celebrities are those whom we have galvanized with Teflon, those who are “larger than life,” and it is unnerving for us to learn that they, too, suffer from cancer, Alzheimer’s, or a stroke. Perhaps the reason their deaths resonate with us is because they bring “death before our eyes daily.” If these seemingly untouchable celebrities are no longer young, are in fact dying, it is a sign that we too are perhaps middle aged, a reminder that this will be us someday, that everyone will eventually face death. This begs the question: are we mourning the loss of these creative artists and their gifts and talents, or are we mourning our own lost youth and inevitable death?

As Bowie himself sang in “Changes”:

Strange fascination, fascinating me
Changes are taking the pace
I’m going through
Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes (Turn and face the strange)
Ch-ch-changes
Oh, look out you rock ‘n rollers
Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (Turn and face the strange)
Ch-ch-changes
Pretty soon now you’re gonna get older
Time may change me
But I can’t trace time
I said that time may change me
But I can’t trace time.

Or, as the book of Ecclesiastes reminds us:

Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,
vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!
What profit have we from all the toil
which we toil at under the sun?
One generation departs and another generation comes,
but the world forever stays.

OCD as Part of Me

Joe Tenaglia

Joe Tenaglia

Notre Dame Vision Mentor-in-Faith 2015

University of Notre Dame,
Class of 2018

“Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.” I’m sure when you read those words you automatically think of certain things. Maybe you or someone you know has OCD, or maybe you’ve never really understood what it means. Regardless, those words have a connotation that comes with them. For me, those words bring to mind thoughts of sweaty hands, a lump in the back of the throat, and a heartbeat that feels like it’s going about five times faster than it really is. Those are the things that I think about, because I have OCD.

OCD works differently for all people. The things that I obsess over are ideas. Thoughts and emotions will get trapped in my mind and it can be incredibly difficult for me to get rid of them, no matter what I might try. I like to use the image of plugging a guitar into an amp: I feel the exact same things emotionally and think about the same stuff as everyone else, but those thoughts get amplified and can overwhelm my normal and rational way of thinking.

The hardest part about my OCD is not feeling like myself. When I first started having feelings of anxiety and fear, I was in the fourth grade. Out of nowhere, I started to become uncontrollably terrified at all hours of the day. When I say terrified I truly mean it. I would be unable to sleep because I was crying hysterically, scared that I was going to get cancer. I’d have a bad dream where I was eaten by a
shark and be unable to get through school the next day because I was convinced that it would come true. As a young kid, I had no idea what was happening to me or why. My parents were at a loss, too. Here I was, the happy and energetic boy they knew and loved, reduced to a puddle of tears. Not knowing what to do, they took me in for help, and I was diagnosed with OCD. Through the grace of God, I have been able to get some great help, and through my therapist and the medicine that I take every morning, I have been able to live a mostly normal life.

However, my OCD is still very much a part of me and it does still rear its ugly head in a big way from time to time. I have had a few really tough times when I’ve struggled with it, and when I’m feeling really anxious like that I feel incredibly lonely. I look around at everyone else and wonder why I can’t be “normal” like them. At those times, it even feels like God has left me.  I ask why this is my cross to carry, and when I get no answer in return, I feel even more lonely.

sad man 2Toward the end of my freshman year of college, I went through a tough stretch with my OCD. I was having trouble with the end of the school year, and this transition brought up a lot of smaller fears and insecurities that I had been bottling up for a while. Altogether, it became really overwhelming. The loneliness I felt then because of the thoughts running around my head was too much for me to handle on my own. So I called Chad, my campus minister from high school, just so I could talk to someone. Over the phone that night, I vented and cried to him and let everything out. Chad helped me by being there for me. He let me know that I was loved and that I wasn’t alone. He couldn’t fix the problems that I was having, but he did so much for me just by listening.

I came to a couple of big realizations when I was talking to him. Ever since I was diagnosed with OCD it had always been a goal of mine that at some point I’d be able to deal with it on my own. I thought that maybe some day it’d just go away.  I would outgrow it, or I’d finally be able to push these debilitating thoughts aside. But when I was talking to Chad, I realized that none of that was ever going to happen. My OCD is always going to be a part of me. Even now, as far as I’ve come, it still bothers me from time to time. And when it does it’s really awful, but it is something I have to deal with.

In that moment I realized that in order to live with my OCD, I need to rely on the community of friends, family, and mentors who surround me. At college, away from my family, I had been trying to keep things to myself. But I found out the hard way that going it alone makes it more difficult.  It led me to feel alone and abandoned by my peers, and even by God.  I felt like there was no one for me to turn to.  Yet when it came down to it, I knew that I had to turn to somebody.  I had resisted being vulnerable with my friends because I was afraid of what they’d think of me, but once I started to let them in they were nothing but supportive and loving.  They helped so much by just being there for me and listening to me.  They were there for me all along, but I had to take the first step and let them in.

Through my friends, I began to feel God’s presence in my life again.  I had thought that God was leaving me alone to fend for myself, but He was there the whole time in the form of my friends.

Not only did my friends listen to me and offer their words of love and encouragement—they were always there for me right when I needed them. One time when I was feeling deeply lonely and overwhelmed, I walked out of my dorm room and saw one of my best friends walking by. I stopped him, and told him I needed a hug. We embraced and then spent some time together. In this brief exchange, I felt loved and knew that I was not alone. At another low point, I ran into a friend from St. Mary’s College (who I usually only see on weekends) and was able to sit down and have dinner with her. She listened to me in my distress and was a calming presence for me in the midst of my inner turmoil.

In these moments, I felt God specifically looking out for me, putting someone in the exact space and time where I needed them. I had thought God was nowhere to be found through my OCD, but here He was by my side, helping me get by. These experiences helped me to be grateful for all of the wonderful people in my life, but they also helped me be grateful for my OCD. I was taken aback when one of my friends told me that he thought my OCD wasn’t entirely a bad thing because, as he saw it, my OCD helped me connect more to other people in a deeper way. I had never thought of my OCD as anything but a hindrance, something that held me back from living the fulfilled life that I assumed everyone else had. But his words invited me to consider the ways that my OCD positively affects me.

I realized that if OCD is and will always be a part of me, it is a part of all of me: good and bad. Somehow, in ways that I cannot even comprehend, my OCD affects me at all times. It affects me when I can’t rid my mind of a worrisome thought, and when I become anxious. It also affects me when I empathize with another person, or when I develop curiosity to learn new things.

In these ways and so many more besides, my OCD is a part of me, making me who I am. And who I am is a child of God, created in His image out of love. My OCD is a part of that image, and I wouldn’t be who I am without it.

Over the years, my OCD has brought me a lot of troubles and has made my life difficult at times. As tough as it can be, it has also helped me recognize the love of God through those around me, who have shown me so much love and shown me that my OCD makes me who I am. My OCD may be a cross that I will carry throughout my life, but with the love of God and the support of those around me, I know that I can bear its weight.

cross

Musical Mystagogy: The Presentation of Jesus

As we celebrate the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple today, we contemplate the revelation of “the light [that] shines in the darkness” (Jn 1:5)—the “light revealed to the nations” (Lk 2:32) that “the darkness will not overcome” (Jn 1:5).

In the world today, evidence of the darkness is not difficult to find; it can be much more difficult to discern those places where the light still gleams. Yet, as Christians, we cling in faith to the truth that Jesus Christ is the true light—the light that has come into the world; the light that conquered the darkness of death precisely by entering into it and emerged victorious in a blaze of resurrected glory; the light that remains with us today through the gift of the Holy Spirit poured forth in the Church; the light that we who bear his name are called to share.

In today’s Gospel, we hear the aged Simeon proclaim his canticle of thanksgiving, prayed each and every night at the end of Compline. Simeon, too, lived in times that seemed to be overcome with darkness, and yet he never lost hope that the Messiah was coming. In the midst of darkness, he continually sought and awaited the light, and rejoiced when at last he held that light in his arms.

Arvo Pärt’s 2001 setting of the Canticle of Simeon—the Nunc Dimittis—captures this interplay between darkness and light in the kaleidoscopic change of colors, and it captures something of the patient waiting, the yearning for the light, and ultimately, the light’s triumph over darkness, even as it somehow acknowledges that the darkness is still very much present. It is fitting that, throughout the world, candles will be blessed today that will be used in liturgical celebration throughout the coming year (hence the occasional reference to this feast as Candlemas). May we who received the light of Christ at our Baptism continue to keep that flame burning brightly, setting it on a lampstand so that it might illuminate the darkness around us and draw all people to Christ, the light of the world.

 

 

Nunc Dimittis and the Art of Dying

TimOMalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

Many evenings since my freshman year of college (when I was in the undergraduate seminary), I have prayed before bed the canticle for Compline, the Nunc Dimittis. The well-known text spoken by Simeon in the Gospel of Luke states:

Lord, now you let your servant go in peace;
Your word has been fulfilled.
My eyes have seen the salvation
You have prepared in the sight of every people,
A light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people, Israel.

Simeon’s words, over the course of years of praying, has become written upon my own memory and shaped my desire. It is no longer a prayer outside of myself, written upon a page, but has become part of my identity. As I prepare to sleep every night, I practice Simeon’s own readiness to die as one who has encountered “the light of the nations.”

In this way, to pray the Nunc Dimittis is a counter-cultural performance in which each day the Christian practices the art of dying. This is not the death of the philosopher, who acknowledges the brevity of life, and seeks to attune the passions to this inescapable reality. Rather, it is the death of those who have seen the very source of salvation made manifest in the weakness of the infant Son. The death of those who have desired to see God enact the definitive plan of salvation and now abide in a world in which God’s glory has taken flesh.  Simeon, who has seen the beginning of this salvation, gives himself over to the Father, already offering the gift of self that is at the heart of the Church’s Eucharistic life.

Of course, the Christian does not pray at the end of every night that he or she may “literally” die in the course of sleep. Rather, the practice of the Nunc Dimittis is a constant reminder that there are innumerous invitations to die each day, to practice that final self-offering each of us will be called to make (sleep being the perfect image or icon of this death). Our death is inescapable but the Christian takes control of one’s death through transforming even these small deaths into moments of self-gift. We take control through losing control. Like Simeon, only those who recognize the gift before their eyes of the Word made flesh, the gift of existence itself, can make this self-offering. Practicing death doesn’t mean denying that the world matters. Only the one who sees the glorious light of the created order can make this offering.

In this way, to pray the Nunc Dimittis everyday is to practice the very art of discipleship, which is nothing less than the art of dying. It is not a morose dying but a Eucharistic gift of self that renews us every evening in the fundamentals of Christian identity: to take up our crosses and to follow Jesus the Christ. It is to receive anew the light of the world in the risen Lord and to offer up the only thing that we have to give to the God who is pure gift: ourselves. The Nunc Dimittis is, in this way, an icon of Christian life as a whole, of our fellowship in the Church. As Rowan Williams writes:

“…we, drawn into communion, into participation with God through the mutual giving of Jesus and his Father, have become part of a fellowship initiated and sustained by gift, and to abide in this fellowship is to learn how we can give, to each other and to God. That we can give at all rests on what we have been given, on the sense of receiving our very selves as gift…If we are to be fully a gift to the Father, given by ourselves yet also by and through the crucified Jesus, by our association with that prior gift, we must bear the cost–which is the loss of all we do and all we possess to defend ourselves against God and others and death…The cost is the loss of images and fantasies, of clear, tight frontiers to the self. If we can even begin to give in this way, it is only because of the depth of the assurance implied in the given given us on Calvary” (Eucharistic Sacrifice–The Roots of a Metaphor, 29).

Therefore, the last gift of the Christmas season given by God through the Church’s celebration of the Presentation of the Lord is a reminder, as we enter into the season of Lent, that the return-gift that God desires is our very selves. Our whole identities, offered to the God who is love. To die into a world that is pure and total gift.

 

 

Taking Stock of Our Gifts: Writing Papers and Helping Friends

Burr, Sami

Sami Burr

Notre Dame Vision Mentor-in-Faith,
2014 & 2015

University of Notre Dame, Class of 2016

Coming to the University of Notre Dame was a very humbling experience for me. After I moved onto campus, I was constantly blown away by the people that I met. Everyone seemed to be good at everything. When I began to make new friends, I found myself constantly in awe of the impressive things they had accomplished in high school, and what they were doing with their talents at Notre Dame. Sometimes, I felt like I wasn’t impressive enough to really belong, and I found myself overlooking my own gifts.

While focusing on yourself too much can be a problem, something I learned this past year is that you can’t be a good friend without knowing what your own gifts are. Friendship calls us to give of ourselves, and if we’re going to give of ourselves, we have to value ourselves first. We have to recognize what we’re good at. We have to understand that God has given us all unique gifts and talents, and that we bring something meaningful to a friendship. Understanding what our own gifts are is the first step in giving them away.

One night this past semester really helped me to understand how recognizing my own gifts is important. My friend Anna was having a really bad night. She was someone whose intelligence always blew me away. She seemed knowledgeable about practically every subject, she always had intelligent things to add to any conversation and she was acing all her classes. But on this particular night, she had to write an eight page paper that was due the day before. Somehow, she had forgotten about it until it was too late, and now she was going to be up all night writing a paper that was already going to be graded down for being overdue. She asked me to stop by her room, and when I saw her I could tell she was really upset, and ready to fall apart.

My first reaction was surprise. I was surprised that Anna, who was so smart and organized, had gotten into this situation. I was also unsure whether or not I could do anything to help her. She began to tell me about the paper and how much she was struggling, and pretty quickly she started tearing up. I said “Do you just want to cry about it for a while?” She nodded, and I think I was able to help her let go of all the stress and frustration just by giving her permission to cry.

That’s when I realized that there was a reason Anna had asked me to stop by. She knew me well enough to know that I could help her. I remembered that I am really good at handling stress. I’m good at persevering and staying focused on the positive.

It was much easier for me to recognize the talents that Anna had, but I needed to recognize my own gifts in order to help her.

After I had that realization, I began tackling Anna’s situation like I would if it were my own. She cried for a little while. We joked about the situation a bit, because nothing beats stress like laughter. And then I helped her make a reasonable plan for getting the paper finished and getting some sleep. I showed her some of my favorite songs and speeches on Youtube that always inspire me to persevere instead of giving up. When I left her room, she was much calmer, and had begun to feel more confident about the work she was doing again. It gave me so much joy to see that she had let go of some of that stress and frustration so that she could do what she needed to do. (And she did end up writing a brilliant paper, finishing just before her class.)

It was only after Isaints, communion of 2 realized what my own gifts are that I was able to give them to Anna. That night helped me to understand that while it’s important to see the good in others, it’s also important to see the good in yourself. God has given us all unique gifts and talents to give away, but we can’t give them away until we take the time to learn about them. Taking stock of my own gifts has made me a better friend, and it’s made me more confident that I have something to offer the people I love. When we have confidence in who we are and what we have to give, we can build each other up and achieve much more than we ever could on our own. On our faith journeys especially, we need each other’s support. Knowing what your own gifts are means that you can give them away to the people who need them the most.

 

Sami’s Playlist of Motivational Videos:

“That’s How I Beat Shaq” by Aaron Carter

Braveheart Speech

Aragorn at the Black Gate Speech

Musical Mystagogy: Conversion of St. Paul

Carolyn Pirtle
Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

Today we celebrate an unusual feast: the conversion of St. Paul. There are countless stories of other holy men and women who experienced profound conversion: St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Mary of Egypt, St. Francis of Assisi, and in our own day Blessed Oscar Romero and Servant of God Dorothy Day. Indeed, one does not become a saint without experiencing not simply a momentary conversion but a lifetime of conversion, a continual turning away from sin and turning toward Christ. And yet St. Paul’s is the only conversion that appears on the liturgical calendar. Why? Because when Paul left Saul behind—the one who had made it his life’s mission to wipe out Christian communities—the entire trajectory of Christianity changed. After his conversion, Paul became the Apostle to the Gentiles, traveling and teaching and dying for the sake of spreading the faith to all peoples in all corners of the world, and in his epistles, he continues to draw souls to Christ even to this day.

Conversion on the Way to Damascus (Caravaggio, c.1600–1601)
Conversion on the Way to Damascus (Caravaggio, c.1600–1601)

In the first reading for today’s feast, we hear Paul himself relate the story of his encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, a scene that has been famously depicted by many artists (twice by Caravaggio alone). In many cases, these paintings focus on the moment in which Saul falls to the ground as the catalytic moment of his conversion. This moment was indeed the beginning: Saul sees a blinding light, falls to the ground, and hears a voice he does not know asking him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 22:7; see also Acts 9:3ff). Yet, this moment was only the beginning. Saul did not rise from the ground as the fully-fledged Apostle to the Gentiles he would become. On the contrary, he was rendered blind and helpless by his encounter with the light of Christ, and it was only with the assistance of his companions that he was able to reach Damascus at all. Then, it was only with the help of Ananias that he regained his sight, discovered the truths of Christianity, and was initiated into the community through Baptism. In other words, Paul’s conversion that we celebrate today was not a just singular moment that could be captured in a painting or a snapshot; rather, beginning from that singular moment, his conversion encompassed a lifetime of turning away from his old ways in order to follow the way of Christ, the way of the Cross.

Felix Mendelssohn, 1809–1847
Felix Mendelssohn, 1809–1847

Felix Mendelssohn’s musical depiction of St. Paul’s conversion in his oratorio Paulus, op. 36 helps to capture this ongoing sense of conversion in a way that perhaps a painting cannot. Musical performance by its nature involves a journey through time, and as such, it can serve as a powerful metaphor for one’s journey through life. The story of St. Paul’s conversion unfolds over several movements in this oratorio, beginning in the fourteenth movement. This movement consists of two parts: in the first part, Acts 9:3–6 is proclaimed in a recitative (sung speech) by a tenor narrator, a baritone (Paul), and a three-part treble chorus (the voice of Jesus). The jagged tenor melody soars at the moment the narrator describes the blinding light. The strings create tension-filled harmonies through a technique called tremolo (literally meaning “trembling”). The hesitant baritone melody conveys the fear that must have overcome Saul. All of these elements work together to create an incredibly dramatic moment, translated from the German below:

And as he journeyed, he came near unto Damascus
when suddenly there shone around him a light from Heaven: and he fell to the Earth;
and he heard a voice saying unto him:

Saul! Saul! Why persecutest thou me?
And he said: Lord! who art thou?
and the Lord said to him:
I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutes.

And he said, trembling and astonish’d:
Lord, what wilt thou have me do?

The Lord said to him: Arise and go into the city,
and there thou shalt be told what thou must do.

What is perhaps most striking about this section is the way in which Mendelssohn chose to set the words of Jesus by using a three-part treble chorus, a marked departure from the model set forth by the Passion oratorios of Johann Sebastian Bach (who greatly influenced Mendelssohn), where the words of Jesus were sung by a bass soloist. The effect is stunning: the drama described above melts away as Jesus speaks; the tension is dissolved and the voice of the risen Christ is heard as something utterly luminous, radiant. Whereas in Caravaggio’s paintings we see the light enveloping Saul through the beauty of chiaroscuro, in Mendelssohn’s setting of Jesus’ words, we hear this light pierce through the darkness, and its radiance penetrates the listener’s heart just as it must have penetrated Saul’s. When we hear or read Jesus’ words proclaimed in Scripture, we might interpret his question to Saul as accusatory, as judgmental; but here, these words are set in such a way that we hear Jesus genuinely questioning this lost son of his. This is the Man of Sorrows speaking, the Good Shepherd himself reaching out to a lost sheep so that he might be brought into the fold. In setting the words of Jesus this simple, vulnerable way, Mendelssohn makes a profound theological statement, calling to mind to the self-emptying love of Christ wherein power is made perfect in weakness. In a way, the unexpected vulnerability of this music hearkens back to the Incarnation itself, when the eternal Word stripped himself of glory to be born of the Virgin, as well as the Passion and Death of Jesus, when the Word made flesh emptied himself all the more for our sakes by enduring a horrific and humiliating death in order to redeem the world from sin.

It is this gentle, merciful beauty that attracts, that draws Saul in, that illuminates his heart even as his eyes are blinded; it is the beauty of his encounter with Christ that provides the catalyst to Saul’s conversion. Yet neither Saul’s story nor Mendelssohn’s oratorio ends with this moment of conversion; Saul must arise and follow the command of Jesus by proceeding into Damascus to find Ananias. Saul must become Paul. And to do this, he needs the love of Christ shown forth in the merciful witness of those around him.

It is at this point that Mendelssohn’s music itself turns, transitioning into a triumphant choral response to the narrative that has just unfolded. Throughout the oratorio, the chorus is designated in the score as Stimme der Christenheit, or the Voice of Christendom, and so it gives voice to the Christian community, encouraging Paul on the road toward Christ. The text Mendelssohn set for this movement (Is 60:1–2) also makes a theological statement by providing a beautiful complement to what has preceded it:

Arise, shine! For thy light is come,
and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.

For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
and gross darkness [thick clouds] the people.

But shall arise upon thee, the Lord,
and his glory shall be seen upon thee.

This is the moment of Paul’s illumination; he has been visited by the very light of Christ, the glory of the Lord has shone upon him, and the Christian community is now exhorting him to arise (as we hear in the glorious ascending melodies) and follow that light (as we hear in the intricate imitation and echoes) so that God’s glory might be seen not only upon him, but through him as well. And for us listening, this music can provide a moment of illumination as well. Just as the Scriptures are never read as a simple story but are proclaimed so that they may take root in our hearts, so too is this music a moment meant to serve as a proclamation, reminding us that we are on our own road to Christ, that we must allow his light to heal our spiritual blindness and be converted ourselves. This music serves as a reminder that, in our Christian journey, we are both Paul and the chorus: called to lifelong conversion and called to encourage others along their path of discipleship.

As we listen to the voice of Christ and the voice of our fellow Christians represented in the chorus, may we pray for the grace of continual conversion for ourselves, and for the conversion of those who continue to persecute Christ in the members of His Body throughout the world. May we hear in this music the radiance of Christ’s light and allow it to permeate our hearts all the more deeply, so that we, like St. Paul, might continue on our journey toward Christ.

St. Paul, pray for us.

On Martyrs and Marchers

Ann AstellSr. Ann Astell

Professor, Notre Dame Department of Theology

Contact Author

Editorial Note: This post was originally delivered as a homily during Vespers on Wednesday, January 20. We are grateful for the author’s permission to publish it here.

Brothers and sisters, in your relations with one another,
clothe yourselves with humility,
because God “is stern with the arrogant
but to the humble he shows kindness.”
Bow humbly before God’s mighty hand,
so that in due time he may lift you high.

Cast all your cares on him because he cares for you.

Stay sober and alert.
Your opponent the devil is prowling like a roaring lion
looking for someone to devour.
Resist him, solid in your faith,
realizing that the brotherhood of believers
is undergoing the same sufferings throughout the world.

The God of all grace,
who called you to his everlasting glory in Christ,
will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish
those who have suffered a little while.
Dominion be his throughout the ages! Amen.
(1 Peter 5:5b–11)

Today is the feast of a martyr, St. Sebastian, who gave his life for Christ in the third century, under the emperor Diocletian. Christian art depicts Sebastian as an alter Christus, muscular, young, bound naked to a post, his body shot full of arrows, as Jesus was nailed to his Cross. The epistle of Peter speaks to Sebastian and to all the martyrs. It rings in their ears: “Your opponent the devil is prowling like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, solid in your faith, realizing that the brotherhood of believers is undergoing the same sufferings throughout the world” (1 Pet 5:–9). A prowling lion! During the reigns of Nero and Diocletian, Christians were literally fed to lions.

Throughout the centuries, however, the epistle’s exhortation sounds in the present tense. When has the age of martyrs ever ended? To Blessed Basil Moreau, C.S.C., who died on January 20, 1873, and whose feast we also observe today—to him too came the call to martyrdom! A martyrdom suffered not with a pagan emperor’s arrows and not through violent death, but through the suppression of the Church in a fiercely laical France. Facing that hostility and the countless challenges that were his as a founder, he looked to the Cross as his—and our—only hope.

We celebrate these Vespers on the eve of the departure of Notre Dame students and faculty who will be traveling to Washington, D.C. to bear witness to the sanctity of human life in the midst of a culture of death. They will end their march at the steps leading up to the Supreme Court Building, where the Roe v. Wade decision was made in 1973, and where an important case with regard to religious liberty and health care is currently being considered. To the Little Sisters of the Poor, their legal defenders, and their co-litigants, the call to martyrdom has also come. Staying “sober and alert,” they have “cast all their care” on the Lord who cares for them, trusting that he “will himself restore, confirm, strengthen and establish those who have suffered a little while” (1 Pet 5:7–8, 10).

According to the epistle we have just heard, Christians undergoing persecution and trial can draw strength from the knowledge that they do not suffer alone, that “the brotherhood of believers is undergoing the same sufferings throughout the world” (1 Pet 5:9). In our day, “throughout the world” brings to mind a litany of place names: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, India, China, the Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Burundi, Mexico, Brazil, refugee camps in Europe. Everywhere the lion prowls. And everywhere brave souls continue to love, to hope, to confess Christ, to bow humbly beneath the cross, terrible and triumphant, that conforms the Christian to Christ. Ave Crux, Spes Unica!

On this day, January 20, in 1942, Servant of God Joseph Kentenich (1885–1968), a Pallottine priest and the founder of Schoenstatt, celebrated Holy Mass in his prison cell. Soon to be sent to Dachau, where he was to suffer for three and a half years, Fr. Kentenich freely laid down his life in union with Christ during that Eucharist, celebrated alone and in secret, but in spiritual union with his followers, some of whom were already prisoners in the concentration camp. “The brotherhood of believers” (1 Pet 5:9)! Fr. Kentenich’s risk-taking, his trusting “yes” to the Cross, expressed his deep faith in Christ, but also in the mystical body of Christ, the communion of saints. “What I do, what I suffer, how I love, affects others,” he wrote.

Let us live our lives, day by day, in a greater consciousness of our responsibility for one another, in solidarity with the martyrs who suffer not only for Christ but, in Christ, for us.

St. Sebastian, Blessed Basil Moreau, pray for us.

Made Perfect in the Image of God

Tully, ErinErin Tully

Notre Dame Vision Mentor-in-Faith 2014

University of Notre Dame,
Class of 2016

I really hate the word “perfect.”  Perhaps it is because I see it as an unattainable goal, or perhaps because I let that goal complicate so many years of my life.  (As a disclaimer, this is not meant to be a Gretchen Wieners apology from Mean Girls.  I am trying to tell you I’m perfect and popular and I’m sorry you’re all jealous.  If I do come across that way, I would definitely not deserve to be caught if I did a trust fall with all the girls in my class.)

I grew up with my best friends from kindergarten on.  We were a bunch of goofballs and weird-o’s, not caring how we looked, and being told in eighth grade that we were “too immature to be pretty”.  We didn’t mind; we were happy and innocent.  We had fun and we had each other.

But when it came time for high school, I decided I wanted to be something more.  I wanted to be liked by everyone, have a lot of friends, and have that high school experience that everyone had told me would be the best four years of my life.  Well, I got to high school and decided to create myself anew.  I thought,

“I should start wearing makeup and caring about my hair…Perfect.”

“I’ll work hard in school to make my parents proud…Number one in the class!…Perfect.”

“I should start having big parties at my house.

Maybe people will like me for having a nice house and cool parents…Perfect.”

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“The coolest people in class like to drink…I guess I will too…Perfect.”

“John said he loves me! I’ll just keeping doing whatever he wants so I can be cool and have a boyfriend…Perfect?”

“Oh and let’s not forget my faith.  I’ll just go to Mass even though I barely pay attention…Perfect”.

I had done it.  I attempted to perfect everything about myself so that I could have friends and be well liked.  I spent every day of high school maintaining an image of perfection – I was the girl who had everything together.  The perfect life, perfect family, perfect friends, perfect grades, and perfect faith.  But towards the end of high school, when my closest friends said, “Oh Erin, you wouldn’t understand because your life is so perfect,” why did I cringe?

Hearing the word perfect was like a sour note in a song.  My life was not perfect.  Insecurity, the feeling of inadequacy, difficulties finding and believing in God, broken relationships with my sister, drinking myself to the point of blacking out, failed attempts at relationships, mistaking love for lust, losing part of myself I promised I would never lose – that’s how I saw my life.  I didn’t actually believe I was perfect, but apparently everyone else did.  I put on an appearance of having it all together and wore a smile to block out how I really felt.  If I appeared perfectly put together, then people would like me, right?  It was not until the end of my senior year of high school that I realized how destructive and hurtful my outward appearance had become.

I went on KairosKairos retreat in the spring of my senior year.  I was really excited because I had heard so many great stories of new friendships, forgiveness, and grace.  My small group in Kairos was filled with members of my class I had never really gotten to know.  During the retreat, I dropped the “perfect” act, and simply talked with people.  I didn’t care about appearances for once, and it felt amazing!

One night, we talked about judgment.  A boy named Joey told me that he had never met me, but he had always hated me.  I seemed like the classic mean girl and a stuck up snob.  There was no way I could be a nice person with the appearance I worked so hard to uphold.  Joey’s revelation shocked me.  And I was more shocked to realize Joey was not the only person who felt this way.  People I barely knew found me irritating.  My closest friends had watched me become superficial and I could feel our friendship dwindling.  Even my younger sister who I had considered my best friend could not stand me.  She felt overshadowed and resented who I had become.

But it was then that I came to realize that the person Joey hated was not who I was at all.  I had worked so hard to be someone everyone would like; yet this very person was someone no one could stand.  Outside I appeared put-together, but inside I was falling apart.  By covering all my insecurities and dissatisfaction with myself with an image of “the perfect girl,” I lost myself.  I damaged relationships and prevented the fostering of new ones.  I had wasted the “best years of my life” trying so hard to be someone everyone would like, while all along I drove them all to despise me.  If I had just let people see the broken girl, sad girl, insecure girl, and imperfect girl, I would have learned what true relationship, friendship, and faith meant.

In the last months of my senior year, I tried as hard as I could to repair the broken relationships I had created.  I gave up the perfect act, and just tried to be Erin.  Erin who likes Chemistry, figure skates, sings off key with her sister, quotes Spongebob too much, makes a fool of herself with her friends, and who has made far beyond her share of mistakes.  Erin who desires God’s love and relationships that reflect it, but has fallen short of those many times.   Erin who is so, so, so far from perfect, and who can finally learn to accept it.

Perhaps I am like Cady Heron, although I did not write in a burn book or try to destroy the reputation of Regina George.  But like Cady, I tried to become someone I wasn’t.  I tried to make friends and get guys to like me by completely forgetting who I was.  I gave up the amazing friends who were there from the beginning to achieve popularity and mold myself into a distorted image of perfection.

Maybe I don’t hate the word “perfect;” I just hate the way I used it.  If you think about it, we are all perfect because we are each images of God.  Every little thing about myself I didn’t like and tried to cover up, was already perfect because God made me that way.  Hiding myself got me nowhere.  Accepting myself is still a work in progress, but I think it’s the way to go.  For the Chemistry nerds, the star students, the students who don’t really think school is their thing, the leaders, the followers, the introverts, the extroverts, the Gretchen Wieners, the Cady Herons, and the people who still don’t know who they are, I hope this can be a story of self-acceptance, self-appreciation, and self-love.  Perfection is everywhere in this world and in all of us.  We just need to have our eyes open to find it and our hearts open to accept it.