Monday, December 21, 2015

A Saint of Joy Amidst Suffering. A Book Review

What’s the first image that pops into your mind when someone mentions “the saints?”

Perhaps you think of the Twelve Apostles traveling the back roads of first century Judea with Our Lord. Or do you conjure up images of the early martyrs being eaten by lions for refusing to offer a pinch of incense before a statue of Caesar? Or perhaps you think of the Church Fathers like St. Augustine of Hippo or St. Athanasius standing firm for orthodoxy even as the world around them seems bent on embracing error and heresy. Or do the great Medieval theologians, like Thomas Aquinas or Francis of Assisi shaping Christendom with their intellect and love for poverty come first to mind?

All these, of course, are great examples of the holiness God calls all men to, but what about a saint who lived and breathed in our own twenty-first century?

That might be just what we witnessed in the life of the young Italian woman Chiara Corbella Petrillo, whose brief life has been an inspiration to many, especially as told by her close friends in Chiara Corbella Petrillo.

Chiara’s heart wrenching story, taking us through her marriage to Enrico (who authors a moving preface to the book), through her pregnancies which saw her children born with life threatening defects to such a degree that abortion was seen as the normal course of action to be taken. Chiara, however, strengthen by her Catholic Faith, embraced these troubles - risking even her own life when she decided to delay chemotherapy when she learned that she had cancer during her second pregnancy - and found at the bottom of them all - joy.

Her story is stunning. The amount of physical and emotional pain Chiara suffered in her brief 28 years is more than most will be forced to deal with in a lifetime and yet her experience of these sorrows is best summed up by her response to her husband’s question as to whether the yoke of Christ is sweet after all,  “Yes, Enrico, it is very sweet.” Thus answers a saint. 

If you need a good Christmas read to motivate you to take stock of your own relationship with Christ, especially in the rough patches we all face in this vale of tears, you ought to check out this inspiring story.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Three Advents of Christ in Dante

This Advent we've been looking at the traditional Three Advents, or comings, of Christ. First, in a general way, then sitting at the feet of the great Bernard of Clairvaux. Today, let's see what the greatest Christian poet, Dante Alighieri, can tell us about these comings by looking at his greatest work, The Divine Comedy, in which all three Advents are symbolically present.

First Advent of Christ - The Incarnation
In Canto IX of the Inferno (wherein Dante travels through Hell) we read how he and Virgil (Dante's guide) are barred from passing into the Infernal City of Dis (the deepest part of the Netherworld). Dante's trip has been ordained by Divine Providence and his passage cannot be stopped by Satan. To open the doors to the doleful city an angel suddenly appears amidst the terrors of Hell (just like Christ appeared amongst a sinful world). This mirrors the culmination of the First Advent of Christ - The Harrowing of Hell, when Christ "preached to those spirits that were in prison" (1 Peter 3:19)

and then, above the filthy swell, approaching,
a blast of sound, shot through with fear, exploded,
making both shores of Hell begin to tremble;

it sounded like one of those violent winds,
born from the clash of counter-temperatures,
that tear through forests; raging on unchecked...

As frogs before their enemy, the snake,
all scatter through the pond and then dive down
until each one is squatting on the bottom,

so I saw more than a thousand fear-shocked souls
in flight, clearing the path of one who came
walking on the Styx, his feet dry on the water.

From time to time with his left hand he fanned
his face too push the putrid air away,
and this was all that seemed to weary him.

I was certain now that he was sent from Heaven.
I turned to my guide, but he made me a sign
to keep my silence and bow low to this one.

Ah the scorn that filled his holy presence!
He reached the gate and touched it with a wand;
it opened without resistance from inside.

"O Heaven's outcasts, despicable souls,"
he started, standing on the dreadful threshold,
"what insolence is this that breeds in you?"

Second Advent of Christ - Conversion
In Canto VIII of the Purgatorio we see the Second Advent of Christ. Here Dante is traveling through the valley of the Princes in the anti-purgatory (the area just outside of Purgatory proper) when, just as night is about to fall, Dante learns that a serpent (symbol of the devil) comes into the valley each night to tempt the departed. Of course, the souls in purgatory are beyond the reach of Satan, so two angels appear to protect the holy souls from his reach. This mirrors the daily coming of Christ into the hearts of believers, giving them the grace to stay away from sin and the grasp of the prince of this world.

and then I saw descending from on high
two angels with two flaming swords, and these
were broken short and blunted at the end.

Their garments, green as tender new-born leaves
unfurling, billowed out behind each one,
fanned by the greenness of their streaming wings...

"From Mary's bosom both of them descend
to guard us from the serpent in the vale,"
Sordello said. "He'll soon be here, you'll see."...

"But then Sordello clutched his arm and said:
"Behold our adversary over there!" -
he pointed to the place where we should look...

I did not see, so I cannot describe,
how the two holy falcons took to flight,
but I saw clearly both of them fly down.

Hearing those green wings cutting through the air,
the serpent fled, the angels wheeled around,
flying in perfect time back to their posts. 

Third Advent of Christ - Final Judgement 
In Canto XXX of the Purgatorio, Dante is met by his beloved Beatrice who sternly judges him for his past sins before allowing him to move forward with her into Paradiso, into Heaven. Here we see the final of the Triplex Adventus, the Triple Advent of Christ, where Christ comes in glory to judge the living and the dead.

then, one of them, as sent from Heaven, sang
Veni, sponsa, de Libano, three times,
and all the other voices followed his.

As at the Final Summons all the blest
will rise out of their graves, ready to raise
new-bodied voices singing 'Hallelujah!'

just so rose up above the heavenly cart
a hundred spirits ad vocem tanti senis,
eternal heralds, ministers of God,

all shouting: Benedictus qui venis! then,
tossing a rain of flowers in the air,
Manibus, O date lilia plenis!...

I sensed the regal sternness of her face,
as she continued in the tone of one
who saves the sharpest words until the end:

"Yes look at me! Yes, I am Beatrice!
So, you at last have deigned to climb the mount?
You learned at last that here lies human bliss?"

I lowered my head and looked down at the stream,
but, filled with shame at my reflection there,
I quickly fixed my eyes upon the grass.

I was the guilty child facing his mother,
abject before her harshness: harsh, indeed,
is unripe pity not yet merciful. 

What do you think? How does reflecting on this sublime poetry from the height of Christendom help deeper your devotion to the Advents of Christ?

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Three Advents of Christ in Saint Bernard

Last Week, we looked at the Three Advents of a Christ, today let's take a moment to listen to what a great saint and Doctor of the Church has to say on the subject - here is St. Bernard of Clairvaux from a sermon he gave on this topic (with my emphases)

 We know that there are three comings of the Lord. The third lies between the other two. It is invisible, while the other two are visible. In the first coming he was seen on earth, dwelling among men; he himself testifies that they saw him and hated him. In the final coming all flesh will see the salvation of our God, and they will look on him whom they pierced. The intermediate coming is a hidden one; in it only the elect see the Lord within their own selves, and they are saved. In his first coming our Lord came in our flesh and in our weakness; in this middle coming he comes in spirit and in power; in the final coming he will be seen in glory and majesty.

 In case someone should think that what we say about this middle coming is sheer invention, listen to what our Lord himself says: If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him. There is another passage of Scripture which reads: He who fears God will do good, but something further has been said about the one who loves, that is, that he will keep God’s word. Where is God’s word to be kept? Obviously in the heart, as the prophet says: I have hidden your words in my heart, so that I may not sin against you.

 Keep God’s word in this way. Let it enter into your very being, let it take possession of your desires and your whole way of life. Feed on goodness, and your soul will delight in its richness. Remember to eat your bread, or your heart will wither away. Fill your soul with richness and strength.
Because this coming lies between the other two, it is like a road on which we travel from the first coming to the last. In the first, Christ was our redemption; in the last, he will appear as our life; in this middle coming, he is our rest and consolation.

 If you keep the word of God in this way, it will also keep you. The Son with the Father will come to you. The great Prophet who will build the new Jerusalem will come, the one who makes all things new. This coming will fulfill what is written: As we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, we shall also bear the likeness of the heavenly man. Just as Adam’s sin spread through all mankind and took hold of all, so Christ, who created and redeemed all, will glorify all, once he takes possession of all.

Sermo 5, In Adventu Domini, 1-3: Opera Omnia, Edit. Cisterc. 4 {1966}