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Archive for the ‘Feasts’ Category

Today marks the feast of Dame Julian of Norwich in the Anglican and Lutheran churches, and by blessed serendipity, my one year of affiliation with the Order of Julian of Norwich — the feast day is actually on May 8th, but as a minor feast it is moved when the feast day falls on a Sunday.

She was believed to be an anchoress attached to the church of St. Julian in Norwich, England — of her personal life we know almost nothing, save from her visions and her remarkable theological explorations of them — in a near-death experience, Blessed Julian received visions of Jesus Christ, which she wrote down as what we now call the Short Text; the expanded version, which she wrote several decades later, the Revelations of Divine Love, is believed to be first book written in the English language by a woman.

This fact alone is quite remarkable — what makes it even more so is how hopeful and progressive her vision was. Amidst Black Death epidemics and revolts, her vision is that of a God of Love, not one who punishes the wicked. In a patriarchal society, she casts Jesus as a universal mother. This love is expressed in her most oft-quoted line: All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well — a remarkable and soothing expression of trust!

The collect for the day, from the Episcopal church’s Holy Women, Holy Men. In Rite II (contemporary language), since that’s what the Order uses (those who, like me, have an attachment to the language of the King James Bible can find that version in HWHM):

Lord God, in your compassion you granted to the Lady
Julian many revelations of your nurturing and sustaining
love: Move our hearts, like hers, to seek you above all
things, for in giving us yourself you give us all; through
Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and
the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Find out more about Dame Julian on the Episcopal Church’s HWHM blog — and if you feel drawn to the vision of this remarkable woman for the church, the Order of Julian of Norwich and the Friends of Julian would love to hear from you.

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This is a belated write-up for this site’s patron saint, Albertus Magnus, whose Feast Day of November 15th was recently celebrated by Catholics; this year’s feast being the 730th anniversary of his death — I had originally intended to be spending the week on which the Feast occurs in TaizĂ©, but due to scheduling conflict ended up canceling that trip. Instead, I ended up going a few days later to the Episcopal Discernment Conference, which I posted about previously. Unfortunately that meant I did not have time to write this until now!

It might seem odd for scientists to have a patron saint — indeed, the concept of sainthood itself has become quite controversial these days. As an Episcopalian, my idea of what sainthood entails certainly does not involve the power to intercede with the Almighty; nor does the Episcopal Church require someone to have performed miracles to be commemorated; only that three successive General Conventions assent to it (one learns useful tidbits like this from being in a Discernment conference with three priests, one of them previously a Catholic
nun!).

Ironically that is actually harder than it is to be beatified and canonized in the Roman Catholic church, since John Paul II opened the floodgate by his 1983 “reform”

So what do we know about Albertus Magnus? He was a Dominican friar from Bavaria, who served as Bishop of Ratisbon (Regensburg); he had a reputation for humility, refusing to ride a horse, and resigned after three years. A polymath, he is renowned for his breadth of knowledge, especially his commentary on Aristotle; despite being a theologian, he argues for a study of nature free from supernatural suppositions:

“In studying nature we have not to inquire how God the Creator may, as He freely wills, use His creatures to work miracles and thereby show
forth His power: we have rather to inquire what Nature with its immanent causes can naturally bring to pass”

De Coelo et Mundo, I, tr. iv, x

To me, Albertus Magnus symbolizes what it means to be a Christian and a scientist: cultivating rationality, having faith that what we discover about how Nature works glorifies, rather than diminishes, our Creator. He was a man of his time — as reflected by his interest in subjects that modern-day scientists would consider bizarre, such as astrology and phrenology — but the scientific process is iterative, not a big-bang revelatory process; indeed, the same is true of theology, despite its mischaracterization by both religious fundamentalists (who insist in a perfect, eternal, revelation) and fundamentalist atheists (who insist in the irrevocably flawed nature of revelatory religions).

As scientifically-minded Christians, may our faith evolve as we discover more of the splendor of God’s creation. And may we be witness to others, through our work, to the complementary role of faith and science, and thus help heal the long-lasting, acrimonious split between the two camps.

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Interpreting Pentecost

Today is Pfingstmontag in Germany (Whit Monday; Pentecost Monday to Americans). For most people it’s the end of a long weekend; for the Eastern Orthodox Church, it’s the second day of a three-day feast, and fasting is not allowed for the entire week. In Erlangen a beer festival, Bergkirchweih, is in full swing. But what does this period mean for the scientific-minded believer?

Of all the feasts in the liturgical year, I must admit that Pentecost is the one that traditionally causes me the greatest discomfort. I’m very uncomfortable with the Pentecostals’ practice of speaking in tongues, and interpreting the speech. It felt too undignified, a crass parody of a divine mystery that could be interpreted in many different ways, of which speaking a “divine” language on a regular basis is but one interpretation. Not to mention that it is unheard of for someone to speak in a multitude of languages during a Pentecostal service, as the Bible records happening on that first Pentecost.

A symbolic reading would consider Pentecost to be the anti-Babel event. Just as pride leads to the fall of humankind, to people misunderstanding each other, to enmity and hatred and destruction, so does the Divine Love of God, through Christ and the Spirit, for us, is a healing power that should encourage us to see the Christ in each other, whatever our denominations, languages, race or religion (or lack thereof). We are all God’s creation, and as the pinnacle of such creation (until evidence shows otherwise) we are entrusted to behave responsibly in our dealings with each other, and in our stewardship of the earth and its resources — mineral, vegetable and animal.

We do not have a single language, have not had one ever since we spread out of Africa, though at one time or another a particular language gains prominence over others — whether Latin, Sanskrit, French, English or Mandarin. There is not even a single liturgical language for all Christendom — Latin, Greek, and Old Slavonic are but a few examples. Yet people have invariably managed to communicate, when they really make an effort.

Languages carry historical baggages with them. It is convenient for us Christians that, in many cases, the liturgical language is either a dead language or the vernacular, and thus it carries no colonial connotations. It is more problematic in some other religions. And there is invariably something lost in translation: from biblical Hebrew to Greek, from Aramaic and Greek to Latin, from Latin to modern languages, and even from the original sources directly to our vernaculars. Historical circumstances change as well, so even if we could recapture the exact meaning of our scriptural texts, we would still have to reconstruct the historical context. Reading a text involves having a conversation with it, and as in conversations between human beings, even those nominally speaking the same language, misunderstandings often ensues.

Some people, myself included, find the idea of auxiliary languages — such as Esperanto — to be a potential solution to communication problems due to our language soup. Rather than requiring everyone to learn a second natural language to communicate across linguistic barriers — a language that is native to some people, and therefore put the rest at a disadvantage, one instead encourage the use of a language that is native to nobody (there actually are native Esperanto speakers, but it’s a very recent development) and therefore put everyone at an equal footing (though, even in this case, one is more equal than others if one starts out speaking an Indo-European language). But all the wars humankind has fought between belligerents that are co-linguists — the American War of Independence, the Civil War, the War of Roses, the wars of Yugoslav partitions, and many others — certainly should discourage us from thinking that language division alone is the issue dividing us.

The message of Pentecost is one of unity. Language is the example used in the story, but we should not narrowly interpret it to be the key issue. For such misinterpretation, despite reading the text in the vernacular, is itself a self-illustrating example.

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