Sunday, September 25, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week 39 ~ Our Lady Undoer of Knots

My mother is very patient, especially with tedious tasks. When I was a girl, definitely less than 12 years old, I went to my mother one day with a big, tangled mess of yarn. I asked her would she please untangle it. I was lucky that she had nothing more important to do at that moment, so she patiently started to untangle the mess with her strong, long well-manicured nails. (Unfortunately, I did not inherit these). She patiently continued the untangling, and after about 30 minutes, had undone all the knots, and had wound the yarn into a fairly large, neat ball.

A few years ago, I needed to pray about a very difficult situation. Somehow I stumbled upon the devotion to Our Lady, Undoer of Knots. There was a novena for this.

As I prayed the first day of the novena, I remembered my mother and the tangle of yarn, and her great patience in its gradual transformation into a neat ball. It seemed that the Blessed Mother was quickly making progress with the knots in my life. On the second day of the novena, and again on the third, important events occurred to help begin the process of problem-solving. It's taken a few years to get to this point, where things are substantially better.

The Marian devotion entitled Mary Untier of Knots shares its name with a [400] year old painting depicting Our Lady untying the knots of a white wedding ribbon. This painting played a significant role in the history of Mary Undoer of Knots Devotion. A German nobleman, Wolfgang Langenmantel was distressed when he found his wife Sophia was planning to divorce him.

To save his marriage, Wolfgang sought counsel from the wise and pious Fr. Jakob Rem. Fr. Rem, a Jesuit priest, was known to have a strong devotion to Mary. Dedicated to his marriage Wolfgang brought Sophia to meet with Fr. Rem 4 times in 28 days. On their fourth visit on September 28, 1615, the Langenmantel’s brought their wedding ribbon. In this time period it was customary for the maid of honor to tie together the arms of the bride and groom. This uniting of arms with a ribbon symbolized their union for life.

Before an image of Our Lady of Snows, Fr. Rem took the white ribbon and untied the knots one by one. When he finished the ribbon became dazzling white. This was taken as confirmation that Mary had heard their prayers. Fortunately, the divorce was averted, and the Langenmatels remained happily married.”

Many years later, the couple's grandson donated a family altar, and he commissioned Johann Schmittdner to do a painting for it, and inspired by the story of the ribbon, he painted the Baroque painting ‘Mary Untier of Knots.’

The painting has survived wars and revolutions, and continues to draw people to it. Today the original still hangs over the family altar found at the Church of St. Peter am Perlach in Augsburg, Bavaria, Germany.”

For some more information about the symbolism in the painting, see here.

Our Lady, Undoer of Knots, pray for us.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week 38 ~ St. Joseph of Cupertino

Saint Joseph Cupertino (1603-1663)

Every picture of St. Joseph that I could find portrayed him flying high
in the air--even in death. (Janet)

If Saint Joseph Cupertino had been our Parish Priest I would have denounced him repeatedly as a drooling idiot and and a drivelling nuisance. Cupertino’s biography was composed by an Italian author, Robert Nuti (1678). There is also a saccharine film about his life, Joseph Cupertino: The Reluctant Saint (1962). I chucked it in after seven minutes. I wanted to hang on in there to see him fly, like a charismatic Mary Poppins, but the dollops of sugary pathos put it past endurance. I must confess that the flying is, to me, the most appealing and outstanding attribute of this little known Italian saint.

         My knowledge of Saint Joseph Cupertino’s existence is almost certainly down to a remark about him in a novel by Alice Thomas Ellis, The Twenty Seventh Kingdom. Set in Chelsea in the early 1950s, that is, in the kindgom in which I was born and spent my infancy, this amusing novel features a beautiful young African postulant who levitates. At the end of the story Sister Valentine saves the day for the bohemian scamp of a protagoness by flying off a London bridge. Sister Valentine is on leave from her convent on account of her habit of levitation (unless memory is falsified, but I think that’s the reason). As with Saint Joseph Cupertino, her levitations are an unwanted intrusion of the supernatural in the mundane world of her convent. The dreary side of Alice Thomas Ellis was her incessant and humourless moaning about the ‘New Mass’ and similar artefacts of the ‘spirit’ of the Second Vatican Council. The whimsical and attractive side of her Catholic faith in on display in The Twenty Seventh Kingdom, a novel novel, for which, though only briefly mentioned, Saint Joseph is a kind of patron saint. Here we see a Catholic faith unbothered by moralizing and solidly planted in the aesthetics of old holy cards. It is not easy to say what the real Saint Joseph Cupertino would have made of it. A minor Catholic iteration of the adultery-in-Hampstead lady novelists of her generation, Alice Thomas Ellis is also a minor foot soldier in the French legion of Greene, Waugh and Bernanos in putting a ‘failed’ priest / postulant (Cupertino and Valentine) at the heart of her novel. As with many characters in Bernanos’ French Legion of Misfits, Sister Valentine is a figure who fits into the worldly world very poorly, and yet whose flights of ‘fancy’ make the worldling’s world possible and endurable.

Joseph Cupertino seems to have spent his life shuttling between the Franciscans and the Capuchins, expelled from one to the other and back again after surpassing his confrere’s exacerbation thresholds by standing and gaping, going into prolonged ecstasies at the sound of a church bell or any other pious stimulant (he had to be forbidden from any contact with the choir, as a kind of preemptive trigger warning), forgetting the difference between brown and white bread (Franciscans like to tuck into their food), and above all, the repeated drift into floating one foot in the air. I always retained had the impression, from the novel about Sister Valentine, that Cupertino literally flew up to the roof of the church and flew around. But it seems it was just low level levitation, although even this proved sufficiently ‘inappropriate’ to attract the untoward attentions of the Inquisition.

Saint Joseph Cupertino was ranked as an idiot by many of his contemporaries and is much petitioned today by those sitting for examinations on account of his ability to spout brilliant remarks out of an apparently empty head. Saint Joseph Cupertino pray for us!

Saturday, September 10, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week 37 ~ St. Nicholas Owen

The plight of Catholics in England during the tumultuous generations that followed Henry VIII’s self-investment of ecclesiastical authority has been of long-standing interest to me. Of the many Catholic recusants who suffered and struggled through that period, St Nicholas Owen makes a special appeal to my imagination. 

In most treatments of his historical period, covering the last few decades of Elizabeth I’s reign and the first few years of James I’s — roughly 1580-1610 — Nicholas appears only as a peripheral figure, fascinating but furtive. He was from a staunchly Catholic working-class family in Oxford. As an adult he was, for nearly two decades, a special assistant to Fr. Henry Garnet, the Jesuit Superior in England -- this, of course, at a time when merely being a Jesuit priest on English soil was grounds for arrest and execution. Nicholas was a layman (probably), and he was widely regarded among the Jesuits and the Catholic recusants as a humble and self-effacing man of discretion and trustworthiness. 

He was also a master carpenter and mason, and his principal claim to fame is as the probable architect of many of the most cunningly designed secret hiding places built into the homes of Catholic recusants. All of that romantic tradition of old English manor houses with sliding panels, false floors, pivoting beams, and rotating bookshelves owes much to St. Nicholas, and has its roots in the real, and decidedly unromantic, peril faced by priests at the time. Nicholas’ ingenious priest-hole designs were credited with saving the lives of many Catholics, both priests and laymen. A number of his projects still survive, and I hope to one day have an opportunity to tour through the English countryside to see a few of them.

One of the most dramatic episodes in Nicholas' life was when he helped a priest, Fr John Gerard, to escape by night from the Tower of London. The story of how this came about, involving oranges, loose bricks, and a line strung over the Tower's moat, is gripping, and can be found in Fr Gerard's autobiography (an essential read for those interested in Catholicism under Elizabeth).

In 1606 Nicholas was arrested in a series of general raids upon Catholic homes during the fallout from the Gunpowder Plot. When the authorities realized whom they had captured, they had him interrogated in the Tower of London. Because of his close relationship with Fr Garnet he was considered a high-value prisoner, and the fate of many English Catholics rested on his shoulders. After several days of torture his long-standing hernia burst and he died in the hands of the authorities, not having revealed anything to compromise the safety of the recusants. The authorities put out a story about his having committed suicide, but few, I think, have given it much credence.

The Church certainly has not. St. Nicholas Owen was canonized in 1970 by Pope Paul VI as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. His particular feast day is March 22.

St Nicholas has become an important saint to me, despite the relative poverty of knowledge about him. I think of him often and admire him, and even adopted him as patron saint of one of my sons. In part this admiration is rooted in the aura of gallant adventure that surrounds the secret hiding places he devised and the world of subterfuge and misdirection of which they were parts. Stories about him can be relished, and in my experience children love to hear them. But there is another reason too: St Nicholas lived at a time in which faithful religious belief and practice faced formidable challenges, and although I do not foresee us in the modern West facing forces comparably dire, I do think that, in my lifetime and in the lifetimes of my children, the sheep will more and more find themselves among wolves. Insofar as this is true, St Nicholas models one way that we can respond, for he was not only a man of humility and courage, but a man who lived Christ's injunction to be as cunning as a serpent and as gentle as a dove. 

St Nicholas Owen, pray for us!


To learn more about St Nicholas Owen, one could consult a recent biography  (my notes, from which this post was largely adapted, here).  A very interesting book has been written about priest-holes in England, many of which are thought to be Nicholas' handiwork. There are also a few toys for the infant in your life.

Craig Burrell, another friend from Light on Dark Water, has his own wonderful blog, All Manner of Thingwhich is one of the three blogs I read at this point, and where you can find out about everything from gravitational waves to opera to Antarctica (which was an especially fascinating series of posts).

If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week 36 ~ St. Teresa of Calcutta

I was sitting here, desperately trying to pull together a post on Blessed Lucy of Narnia for today, when I had what people nowadays call a Duh! moment. Mother Teresa! Of course! How could I write on anybody else today? I'm not going to write about any of the facts of her life, however. Those facts are everywhere to be found and written by people who do a much better job than I would.

I had a really good chance to meet Mother Teresa once when she came to Memphis for the dedication of the Missionaries of Charity homeless shelter here. My husband was at that time the photographer for our local museum, and so he was there with the press. I'm pretty sure I could have tagged along with him. For some reason, I didn't go. I don't know why. I could kick myself.

For a time my friend Cathy and I used to take dinner once a month to feed the women and children who were staying with the MCs. At that time I had never had any personal contact with people who were really poor, and being shy by nature, I always felt very awkward, although I was always really glad I had gone once it was over. I was always impressed by the very real joy that was evident in the sisters, and their very real trust that Jesus was taking care of them. Frequently, we see them at church for one reason or another and their pew is like a little circle of light.

The sisters had a very humble little adoration chapel, and once I went in there to pray. There were no chairs there, and I sat at the back of the chapel so I could lean on the wall. There were two sisters sitting in front of the 4 or 5 visitors, and I will never forget the way they sat, straight and motionless, their attention riveted on Our Lord. It was one of the most peaceful places I have ever been.

Shortly after the new saint died, the MCs had let Cathy borrow a first class relic of M. Teresa so that she could pray a novena for a medical problem that she had. The novena being finished, Cathy was anxious to get the relic back to the sisters before something happened to it, so she called and asked if it would be a good time to come. They said yes, they would be there and would be looking for Cathy and her husband. Well, they got to the convent and nobody was around. They honked the horn. They looked everywhere. Nobody. So they got in the car and went home.

When they arrived home, the phone rang. It was Sister asking when they were coming. Cathy told them what had happened, and Sister couldn't understand it because they had definitely been there waiting. Then, shortly afterward, Cathy heard that a 15 year old friend of our daughters had tried to commit suicide by taking a lot of pills.

The girl was in the hospital and the doctors told her parents that although she looked fine at the moment, she was going to die. There was a long time span between her taking the pills and her arrival at the hospital, and it was too late to do anything. She would have increasing toxicity in her liver over the next few days, and then she would die.

So, Cathy took the relic to the hospital. They prayed, and later, the sisters came and prayed a novena with her. Shortly after this, they checked her toxicity level and it was better. The doctors said this just never happens. They were hesitant about using the word miracle, but they said there was no explanation for what had happened. A couple of days later, she walked out of the hospital and has never suffered any after-effects.

Today, this young wife and mother of two is in Rome with her husband and parents for the canonization.

These are my memories of the events, and I may not remember completely accurately, but all the main points are correct.

I chose the above picture even though it's out of focus because it accompanied an article about the miracle that led to St. Teresa's canonization. The headline is She Healed Me.... I'm sure there are many more stories out there like the one above.

P.S. If you haven't read the post below, please do.


Janet Cupo is the proprietor of this blog.

If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Saints and Prayers and Help Needed

As many of you already know, my daughter is pregnant with a little girl who will be born in early October.

 The baby, Abigail Marie, has a condition called Congenital Diaphragmatic Hernia, which means that there is a hole in her diaphragm and currently her stomach, spleen, and parts of her large and small intestines are in her thoracic cavity. Remarkably, this can be fixed, but the problem is that it keeps her lungs from developing properly. So, she will have to have surgery as soon as she is born and it will be a long time before she leaves the hospital. This is the best case scenario.

 Anyway, the reason I am writing this, aside from asking for you prayers, is that I don't think that I can keep up with the Saints very much longer. The only way I can do it is if someone helps, or if people volunteer for a lot of definite dates. I might not have time, and frankly, I'm running out of the mental wherewithal to keep up with things. I am working on something for this week, but after that, I don't know.

With regard to the prayers, week before last, the Saints post was about Ven. Andrey Sheptytsky, and a very sick little girl, Martha Charron, whose parents were praying for his intercession in her regard. A few days later, Martha went home from the hospital. Bill and I have been praying for his intercession for Abigail.

If you are interested, my daughter has a blog with about 4 posts that keeps us updated about what is going on with the baby.


Sunday, August 28, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week 35 ~ St. Augustine of Hippo

Saint Augustine [Born 354 Died 430]

 Classical civilization was born in the Mediterranean basin in the eighth century BC. Classical civilization first came about in ancient Greece. Picture the Parthenon, with its ordered objective architecture and those symmetrical columns, and you have a good image of the birth of Classical civilization. Rome was a kind of pragmatic, more workable version of Greece. So when we say 'Classical Civilization' we often mean a merger of Greek culture and Roman political pragmatism. This ‘Classical Civilization’ dominated Europe for six centuries.

St. Augustine Refuting a Heretic
 Augustine was born into such a civilization in 354 AD. He grew up reading Virgil, that brilliant mimic of Greek epic poetry. He grew up in a relatively ordered world, in a North African outpost of the Roman Empire. When Augustine died, in 430 AD, the African city in which he lived was besieged by Vandals [Vandal is the name of a German tribe, not a derogatory adjective]. Rome itself, the eternal city, had been sacked by Visigoths, twenty years before. (I do not know the difference between Visigoths and Goths: the particular set of Visigoths who sacked Rome in 410 were led by a chap named Alaric the Goth, so perhaps they were not very clear on this either).

 It was more than just the Roman Empire which was falling. It was classical civilization. One of the keys to Augustine’s importance is that he was both the last classical thinker, and the first really great Christian philosopher. You will find in Augustine’s theology a sort of buried Parthenon. His theology is founded on the classical principles of objectivity, unity and order.

 Augustine was born in Carthage, which is in Africa. He grew up speaking Latin; he learned some Greek, but was never especially proficient at it, you budding theologians may be glad to hear. His principal schooling was in the Latin classics, such as Virgil. He became a lecturer in Rhetoric. That is, he wasn’t really trained as a philosopher; but as a public speaker. Rhetoric is the art of verbal persuasion. In 383, Augustine moved; he took up a new lectureship in Milan. In Milan, Augustine was converted to Christianity. As everyone knows, Augustine sent his girlfriend packing, and then later he himself returned to Africa.

 By this time, Christian bishops were taking over the function of civic leadership. The things which Roman magistrates once had done, now were being done by Christian bishops. To act with authority, you have to understand yourself as having an authoritative status: you have to think that what you represent is important. The Roman magistrates didn’t believe that the culture of Romanitas was important, they let people call them by their first names, their oratory was not convincing, and everything went down hill. The Bishops did believe in their culture. In 395, Augustine became Bishop of an African city called Hippo. He drew on the experience of Christian community, and Christian leadership, in his writings. In the year 410, the Vis-Goths marched into Rome and the Eternal City rolled over with its feet in the air. In spiritual and in imaginative terms, it was an almost unimaginable disaster. Rome stood for everything which people had believed in for five hundred years. Some people grumbled that this was all the fault of Christians.

Bishop Augustine now sat down to write The City of God. In The City of God Augustine argues that the real abiding city, which will last forever, is the City of God. Not the Roman Empire, but the City of God is the truest form of human community. Augustine argues that the Roman Empire was just a lot of power grabbers. In the Roman Empire, Augustine argues, under a decent guise of civility, the heart of the matter was the advantage of the stronger. This is the City of man, the human city, and it is founded on love of self, egotism. On the other hand, there is the city of God. It is based on love of God. It is built on the Love of God and the love of neighbour at the expense of love of self-ego. These two loves have built the two cities which dominate world history, love of God and neighbour, which constructs the City of God, and love of self-ego, which lies at the basis of all the politics of the city of man.

 Augustine believed that truth matters. In that way, he was a real old fashioned classicist. Suppose that someone comes along and tells you that you [know] nothing, that everything is an matter of opinion. Augustine says that, you can reply that, on the contrary, you know at least two certain truths. One is that you exist, because you can’t make a mistake about a thing like that unless you are around to do so. Granted this one truth, then you have two truths, that you know that you exist.

 Augustine is arguing that there is at least one thing that we can be certain of: that we exist, and that we know ourselves, and love ourselves. He says: “It is beyond question..that I exist, and that I know and love that existence. In these truths there is nothing to fear from the arguments of the Academics [sophists]: what if you are mistaken? Since if I am mistaken, I am. One who does not exist, cannot be mistaken. Thus, if I am mistaken, this very fact proves that I am. ..since I must exist in order to be is beyond doubt that I am not mistaken in this, that I know myself as knowing. ..For, as I know myself to exist, so, also, I know this, that I know. And to these two, since I love them, I join that love as a third element of equal value to those things I know.’

 Its somewhat like Julius Caesar’s tri-partite Gaul. My own self falls into three parts: my deep, memorial recognition of my self-existence, my knowledge of myself, and my love of myself. Augustine sees the tri-partite nature of the human self as an image of the Trinity, with Father, Son (word or knowledge), and Holy Spirit (or love).

 So what Augustine did, as classical civilization fell all around him, was to give the West new grounds for believing in objective truth. If you are going to say anything at all is true, you must have some standard, or ground for saying so. The standard by which Augustine judges all human rationality is the Christian God, the Trinity.

Augustine defined God in terms of truth. You know that your own opinions are always changing. And you know that the world around us changes all the time - it can’t function as a ruler or standard, because it never stays still. And yet, despite all this change in our thought processes, and all of the transience and illusion in the world around us, we have some idea of objective truth. Augustine has a subjective argument for an objective reality: if you are honest and not just trying to make debating points, and if think back over your own experience, and if you reach into yourself, you know that occasionally you have some experience of truth. Somehow, the mind can know truth: it can know that two and two are four. It can somehow reach out of its own materialness, and into some transcendent realm of truth. Augustine was going to argue that the only way one could account for these experiences of truth was by reference to the existence of God. God is the eternal truth, who is outside the whole process of change, transience and decay. God is the unchanging, immutable, in a world of constantly moving goal-posts. We live in a world of changing goal - posts, and yet, amongst all the mistaken enthusiasms and rationalisations, we sometimes see the light, and on the basis of it, form a true judgement. The basis of that inner rationality, Augustine argues, is God.

 Augustine’s Confessions is his most readable book. It is only about three hundred pages long and it is crazy not to read it and re-read it throughout your life. It’s one of the greatest works of Christian philosophy ever written, and one of the most accessible, because its an autobiography. It tells the very human story of Augustine’s life, his education, his intellectual search for truth, his progress through the various ‘new age’ cults which existed at that time, his ambition - to be a famous rhetoric lecturer - and his eventual conversion, in which his search for truth comes to rest in the Christian God. In the Confessions, Augustine has an inner drive, a desperate need to find out the truth about reality; but at the same time, he was not born St. Augustine. He says that, all the time that he was seeking truth, he would sort of put off the moment when Truth would start giving him orders: he says ‘I always prayed: give me poverty and chastity but not yet.’

 Augustine says that he kept on and on trying to imagine what God is like and could not get beyond a material picture, a physical picture. He says that he would picture God as a sort of infinitely extending invisible fluid, and the world floating in it like a sponge in the bath. He tried and tried to get past this material idea of God, but couldn't quite do it. He was picturing God as in everything, and as everywhere, or as everything, but not as transcending everything. Then, he says, in the Confessions, ‘I read the books of the Platonists.’ And these books enabled him to envisage God as entirely transcendent. The way in which these books showed him how to envisage God as transcendent was by telling Augustine to look for God within his own soul. This is the most characteristic feature of Augustine’s theology. You can journey round the external world as far as you like, but just journeying amongst physical objects won’t take you any closer to God. You have to look for God, not outside in the external world, but inside, in your soul. Because, inside in your soul, you find a spiritual medium, a capacity for transcendence. Unlike the Platonists, Augustine didn’t think the soul is divine. But he did think the soul is spiritual, transcendent, not physical. The capacity for thought rises above brain processes; it is spiritual, transcendent. So he went ‘up’ to God, by going ‘within’, to his soul. He says in the Confessions: ‘If I am to reach Him, it must be through my soul’. The soul is like the inner door which leads to God. The external world doesn’t contain the door; the access is through the soul. Augustine is always said to have embarked on an ‘interior’ journey to God. But he didn’t think his soul was inside him, like his appendix. He thought that if, in inverted commas, you go inside the self, you are going to find an opening to the infinite. So the self in Augustine’s thought is not a closed box, like a refrigerator; the self has this openness to transcendence and infinity.

Focussing a portrait of Saint Augustine on his Confessions may seem very partial. As Joseph Ratzinger says, Augustine went through three conversions in his life. His first conversion is simply to belief in truth, to a simple Platonism or Classicism. Then there is the conversion described in The Confessions, where he gets down as far as a kind of Christian platonism (and send his girl friend packing)! But then there is the deeper conversion of the years following his return to Africa, when Augustine becomes a Bishop, and has to give up being a philosopher, and playing with ideas, to serve the wider Church. Now he writes his great commentaries, on the Psalms and other Scriptural texts, and The City of God, and De Trinitate. And it's in his years as a Bishop that Augustine engages in controversies with Pelagius and with the Donatists. All these things are much more important for his influence on Christianity, most Catholics-who-know will say, than The Confessions. All that is true. And yet. You can go out and read The Confessions in about a month, and identify with Augustine and make sense of his journey. Unless you are a professional academic theologian or a Bishop yourself, you are not going to read many of Augustine’s sermons or his commentaries on the Psalms or the thousand page City of God. You could read The Confessions and you should.

Grumpy is a professor of theology in the Midwest. 

If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.