Friday, April 30, 2010

Bloody Wipers

This article was also published in Vol 5 Issue 10 of the St. Austin Review

Recently I was talking to my wonderful wife about the West at the turn of the century...not this century, the other one, the old one, the twentieth. I'd been listening/watching a couple of Debussy favorites on YouTube: Afternoon of a Faun, and Sacred & Profane Dances. When I listen to these, and other pieces from that era, I hear (this will sound corny) the promise of the West to itself on the cusp of a wonderful new century. I hear 1912 Europe: aeroplanes, automobiles, cruise liners, all growing faster, larger, more powerful, more glamorous. New art, new music, the cinema, new ways to hear and see. Elegant Beaux-Arts architecture. Handsome and beautiful royal families intermarried from England to Russia, their Crown Princes turned out as little sailors. Vast empires. World-class capital cities (I always think of fin de siècle Paris as the last Capital of the World).  Prosperity and progress extending into a bright future. And every bit of it affirming every other bit. It must have been so exquisite, so...everything.

Why, just look at this picture of the 20th century:

Even writing this now, it feels dislocating to accept that this is what the 20th century looked like, what it was, for many years. I think of it as the first, the original 20th century.

So when I listen to Debussy, I hear the promise of the First Twentieth Century. But I also hear her untimely death, which came not after 100 years, the natural lifespan of a century, but when she was still a girl of 14. I say she, because the First 20th Century was as feminine as the Second was masculine.

The Great War of course, is what killed the First 20th. And as gruesome and awful as it was objectively, it's worse when one realizes the self-image of the West was ground up along with the Poilus and Landsers (the French & German soldiers). That sense of beauty, brightness, peace, optimism, confidence, and hope would never be recovered, not even until today.

It's probably impossible for us Americans to understand the horror that gripped Europe during the War. Without recounting all the stuff anyone can find on Wiki about 1914-1918, here are 3 battlefields from those four years of industrialized killing:

Ypres in Belgium, gave its name to four battles (1914, -15, -17, -18). Known to the British as "Bloody Wipers", total casualties (both sides) were about 1.1 million.

On the Somme River in late 1916, the British notoriously suffered about 60,000 casualties on the first day of an offensive that ran for 5 months. Total casualties for both sides: about 1.1 million

In early 1916 the Germans launched a 10-month attack on the French forts around Verdun. Total casualties: 900,000, including 300,000 dead. No wonder both sides' soldiers called it the 'bonemill' and the 'mincing machine.' Many of the dead were so churned-up in the moonscape-like battlefield that there was no way to identify them. Today you can visit the Ossuary at Verdun, which is full of their random, nameless bones.

The Ossuary is divided by region into rooms of bones, heaps of them behind glass:

The Ossuary contains the remains of an estimated 130,000 soldiers.

Along with these uncounted young men, the civilized sensibilities of the First 20th Century died as well. And we, having lived in it, know what a mixed bag the Second one was. But when someone dies young, they're still remembered for who they might've been.

Imagine after the war the spiritual exhaustion of those left alive, aptly described as the Lost Generation, or le Génération au Feu, (the Generation of Fire), and their elders; how they would have tried to make sense of a 4-year catastrophe that killed, if not everyone, then everything. Maybe it exceeded men's faculties to make sense out of it, and it was better to leave it to God. Or nobody, if you didn't believe in God anymore. Sit with Hemingway at a cafe and wonder why you are still alive when so many others are dead.

Between winning and losing, more is learned from losing, even though it's not as pleasant. I say that as an American, and a Southerner. 35 years ago I watched Bill Buckley interview Malcolm Muggeridge, who at some point said, "you know, every important thing I've learned, I learned by suffering." He was right, unfortunately.

So what did the losers learn? Put it this way: once the war was over (or at least Phase 1 was over; the Second Thirty Years' War ran from 1914 to 1945), how did the West memorialize a four-year reality that was worse than any nightmare? I write as one who is generations removed, but I've only read, seen, or heard one work that best remembers it to me. I wish it were music; that would bookend well with Debussy, but it's a sculpture.

My name in the blogworld is kkollwitz, a tribute to Käthe Kollwitz; here's a bit on her from Wiki:

Käthe Schmidt Kollwitz was a German painter, printmaker, and sculptor whose work offered an eloquent and often searing account of the human condition in the first half of the 20th century. Her empathy for the less fortunate embraced the victims of poverty, hunger, and war.  

Käthe lost her son Peter during Phase 1, in 1914. She also lost grandson Peter during Phase 2 in 1942, although she hadn't yet suffered that blow in the 1920s when she produced Die trauernden Eltern / The Grieving Parents:

  I like Kollwitz' work; she's influenced me more than any other artist. And while this expresses her own ineffable sorrow, and in a universal sense that of all such parents, it doesn't point me toward the spiritual devastation, loss, and mystery of sadness that affected, and affects, a Continent, a Civilization, the West.

Let's try another artist, Ernst Barlach, who fought in the war himself. Here is his Magdeburg Memorial:

The client paid for something heroic; he didn't get it. Not unlike Kollwitz the grieving mother, Barlach the soldier eschews politics to express the shared loss of his French, Russian, and German brothers-in-arms. But what about the larger tragedy that's bigger than the war? By showing specific ideas, Kollwitz and Barlach preclude showing something bigger and less defined. And neither of these pieces offers any hope; they simply commiserate with the viewer.

Maybe the way to say everything is to say nothing, as I believe Barlach does with Der Schwebende Engel/ The Hovering Angel:

It doesn't impress right away. The Angel hangs above a stone on the floor that simply says

I like the little penetential bare feet in the back:

Here are the Angel's face and gently crossed arms:

A close-up of the face:

  Barlach, who experienced the enormity of the war and its consequences, instead of expressing this or that aspect of the whole, elects to say nothing about the war, because nothing adequate can be said.  The angel floats in serene grief, in a posture of quiet acceptance.  The sadness won't recede, won't heal, there's nothing for it but to endure. But the angel doesn't just hover in sorrow; he prays, and not without hope.  He is sad, but doesn't despair. Barlach's angel, created to memorialize 1914-1918, goes beyond the war to remember the loss of everything the West might have been in the First 20th Century; beyond that even, to remember more dreadful events yet to come in the Second 20th. Furthermore, by being so unspecific, the angel accepts the universal sadness of the human condition, but offers hope in return. Through its physical disengagement with the Earth, the angel points away from human perspective and toward God. Are children of the last century sometimes simply existentially sad about everything?  So is the angel, who hints that in such cases, the best thing is not to try to figure it out, but to shut up, pray, and not despair.

Only a loser could have created this.

So when I listen to Debussy, and think of beginnings, I remember Barlach's Angel, who marks an end.

Finally, the angel calls himself to my mind when I see this photo, taken at Verdun, the Bonemill, in 1984:

Two children of the Second 20th, who like the angel, shut up and pray.
Hope does spring eternal.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Tents, Temples & Churches

In 6th Grade Wednesday Sunday School ™ any discussion of something in the New Testament is usually connected to an Old Testament counterpart: Loaves & Fishes/ Manna;  Mary/ Eve;  Jesus/ Isaac;  John the Baptist/ Isaiah.  Continuity is important.  So anytime something about the church (that is, the building) comes up, which happens about every 15 minutes when we discuss the Mass, I reference the Heavenly Temple, Solomon's Temple, or Moses' Meeting Tent.  For example, our church has two very sober wooden angels flanking the tabernacle.  I tell the kids that they are analogous to the two wooden cherubim and the Ark of the Covenant.  It shows that the Church doesn't just "invent" things, as some critics would say.

I have drawn some of these parallels between the OT/NT worship structures in class, but only as fragments, such as the aforementioned cherubim/ angels, or the Ark and the Tabernacle.  My lesson plans have doodles in the margins illustrating this or that bit of church, temple, or tent; I've never gotten around to doing any comprehensive images until this month.  There's no opportunity in the current lesson plan for what follows, but next year's curriculum will be very different; I expect this information to be absorbed into the fabric of those classes.

Here's the plan of Moses' Meeting Tent. Just to remind you, during the Israelites' 40 years in the desert they lived in tents. Because God dwelled with his people, he needed a tent, too...a deluxe tent:

This plan resembles many such plans drawn over the centuries; now they're a dime a dozen on the Net.  It's easy to draw from scratch (not that I did) by reading in Exodus 25+ God's very detailed instructions to Moses as to how to build it.  This doesn't show everything, nor is it to scale; it's a liturgical plan. It only shows what matters in class. The book of Hebrews says the Temple, and by extension the Meeting Tent, is "a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary; for when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, "See that you make everything according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain."  These earthly structures model the "sanctuary and the true tent" in heaven.

The "Meeting Tent" has two main parts: the Outer Court, an open space enclosed by a curtain fence, and the Tabernacle (little house/ tent), which itself is divided in two.  The faithful enter the outer gate to bring offerings to the Levite assistants and Aaron's sons, the priests, who receive them in front of the altar.  There's a washbasin nearby for a priest to clean his hands before and after he handles each sacrifice. (I haven't found any specific testimony, but I don't think the people could go beyond the front of the altar.)

Beyond the washbasin (the formal term is Laver, as in lavatory) is the Meeting Tent proper; God's Dwelling; the Tabernacle.  Inside the front of the Tent is the Holy Space, containing a lampstand, a table for bread offerings, and a small incense altar.  The incense was so fabulously expensive that it was considered an offering in itself. Beyond the incense altar is the Veil, a very thick and heavy curtain.  Only Aaron could go past the veil into the Holy of Holies, where God dwelled between the two Cherubim which flanked the Ark. Before the Ark, Aaron burned incense and sprinkled the blood of a sacrificed bull.

Notice across the the the top of the plan is shown a progression of increasing holiness, and decreasing access: from the earthly, sinful world where everyone lives; to the Outer Court, accessible to the royal priesthood of all believers; to the altar and Holy Space, where the priests work; to the Holy of Holies which is accessed only by Aaron once a year, after much purification; to the Ark, where God dwells.  And the process doesn't stop at the physical limits of the Tent, it jumps to heaven where the "sanctuary and the true tent" are.

Next comes the Temple in Jerusalem, first built by King Solomon and described in 2 Chronicles 2-5. It's a much larger Meeting Tent and Outer Court, built of stone: a permanent Dwelling.  Again, it's not to scale, and stripped down to liturgical essentials: I don't show the multiple washbasins, tables, lampstands, etc.  The only notable change is that the Levites, the Priests, and the High Priest are now the descendants of Aaron and the tribe of Levi.

Now here's a liturgical plan of our parish church:

Proportions have changed, and fixtures have moved over a few thousand years.  It's still recognizable as a Meeting Tent, but one where the New Covenant's sacrifice is offered.  Hebrews quotes Psalm 110 in describing the risen Jesus: "Thou art a priest for ever, after the order of Melchizedek," who offered not animals as a Levite would, but bread & wine.  The faithful enter at the left, and process to the front of the altar and stop where the boundary of a communion rail used to be; the bread & wine is received by the priest and his assistants in the Holy Space.  The priest uses a washbasin to clean his hands before & after the offering; incense is burned; Angels flank the Tabernacle. There's the same process of increasing holiness and decreasing access.  All very familiar.  But notice that the Holy of Holies isn't on Earth anymore; Revelations explains, "the temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple."  The High Priest isn't on earth either; Hebrews explains: "we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God." Our High Priest is now continually offering the sacrifice directly before God's throne, "And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain." Of course we can't see any of this, because our earthly sight is veiled by sin. But as St. Paul reminds us "now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face," so we have something to look forward to.

This next catechetical year (2010-11) I'll use a revised curriculum which will go through the Bible chronologically, Genesis to Revelations (not every book).  After that, we'll tie all we've learned into 3 classes on the Mass. I expect to split the above information into chunks digestible by 6th-graders.  Using handouts of the relevant plan, we'll cover the Meeting Tent in Exodus, and Solomon's Temple in 2Chronicles. We'll also discuss the Heavenly Temple in Revelations.  When we cap off the year with the Mass classes, the kids will get the Church plan.  At this point they'll be prepared to understand not just the liturgy in its historical fullness, but also the building which contains it.

This post is also available at the Amazing Catechists website.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Big Pictures

It's good for the kids to have some concepts of The Big Picture. That's concepts, as in more than one. Usually in the first class of the year I give a short pitch on the Bible as outlined in the article Two Minute Cadre, which is as stripped-to-essentials as possible while still being useful. That's one concept. I'll refer to that Big Picture throughout the year. But as we come to the last class, on Revelations (makes sense: last class/ last book) there are themes about our bodies'n'souls that also need to be integrated into a Big Picture. The unity of bodynsoul plays a critical role in the Catholic worldview, and the kids are repeatedly exposed to the importance of that unity: faith & works, sacraments, Jesus, a visible Church. And on this last night, they should see the significance of bodynsoul in the grand sweep of Salvation History before we get started on Revelations.

"This is our last class...please, don't cry....and we're going to learn about the last book in the Bible, which is....?  No takers?  Y'all know this, it's the book where all kinds of stuff is...revealed...oh, Revelations!  Yeah, that was tough wasn't it?  But to learn about the last book, Revelations, we have to start with the first book which is...Genesis!  Right.  Y'all always get that one.

"Hey, tell me again about Adam & Eve in the garden.  They hadn't sinned. Yes, more please? They couldn't die.  Right, because if there's no sin....there's no death.  Yes.  And if I went to Eden where there's no sin, and asked Adam if he wanted to go to heaven when he died, what would he think?  He wouldn't understand you. Probably not...death? heaven?  He & Eve were already perfectly happy hanging out with God, what else could he imagine?  And ummm, what was Adam made of?  Dirt!  Yes, but I mean his two parts...oh, bodynsoul!  That's it, and bodynsoul never separate, except when?  When you die!  Yes, and death is a consequence of...sin!  Yes. [On the board goes 'Eden' and beneath it 'Bodynsoul.'] So Adam was in Eden with God, bodynsoul. His soul was perfectly happy and....? his body was too. Yes, both parts were perfectly happy. The whole Adam.

"Then Adam & Eve sinned, got thrown out of Eden, grew old, and died. Where'd their bodies go? In the ground!  Yes, they just turned back into earth. And their souls? Heaven?  C'mon now, why couldn't they go to heaven? Jesus hadn't opened heaven yet!  Right...remember last week, we read the story of scabby Lazarus who rested in the Bosom of Abraham after he died, where was that? Hades!  OK, that's the Greek word, what's the Hebrew word? It starts with an 'S.' Yes, let's see [on the board goes S-H-E-] oh, Sheol! Yes, Sheol. Remember Lazarus and the rich man were both there, but Moneybags was in the fiery part. So Sheol had a nice area, and a not-nice area. Remember the Anastasis picture, Jesus 'descended into Hell' to pull out people who could go to heaven. And were people's bodies in Sheol? No we said they were in the ground! Right, only souls were in Sheol, both good and bad. [on the board under 'Sheol' goes 'Soul', and beneath that, a decaying skeleton]

"Later on Jesus opens heaven, also called Paradise, like Eden.  But in Eden, Adam and Eve were bodynsoul. Souls in heaven are happy there, but they are missing something, what? Their bodies! Yes, even if the souls are happy, a soul isn't a complete person, so the happiness isn't complete. [on the board goes  'Heaven' and beneath it 'Soul']

"Now let's review the beginning of Acts of the Apostles when Jesus ascends to heaven: "as [the apostles] were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven." So, is Jesus coming back?  Yes.  And how exactly?  Well...on a cloud?  Yes, that's what the angels said. What will we call that, when he comes the second time? The second coming? Geniuses, yes. Revelations discusses the Second Coming and lots of other stuff, but for now I want to just stick to the problem that souls in heaven don't have their bodies.  Let's see, remind of this part of Creed, "...I believe in the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the.....resurrection of the body!  Yes, our bodies are reunited with our souls at the Second Coming.  Here's what Revelations says: "I saw the souls of [the martyrs]. They came to life... And I saw the dead, great and small, standing... And the sea gave up the dead in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead in them, and all were judged by what they had done." This is the Bible's way of saying everyone who ever lived will have their bodies reunited with their souls before the final judgement.

"Why does it matter to God that we get our bodies back at the end?  'Cause that's how He made us?  Yes, we were made one whole person at a time. And a soul isn't a person, and a body isn't a person...what's a person? A bodynsoul!  Yes. And if we're saved, and have our bodies back, we'll need a physical place for our bodies'n'souls to live with God.  As we'll see shortly, that place is called the New Jerusalem, not heaven.  [on the board goes 'New Jerusalem' and under it, 'bodynsoul']

"OK, review: Adam in Eden was a... bodynsoul!  Adam in Sheol was a...soul!  Yes, and his body was...ummm dead?  Yes, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Adam in heaven (assuming he is there) is a...soul!  Yes, and his body?  Still dead!  [I add some more stuff to the board so it looks like the image at the top] And Adam in the New Jerusalem will have... his bodynsoul back together!  Yes! The whole Adam is back!  Good children!

This ends the introduction; discussion of Revelations will take the rest of the period.

This post is also available at the Amazing Catechists website.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


We have ummm, bird tabernacles (Latin, little dwelling) in the front yard. Here's one we just put up, art by my wife:

Inspired by the Annuciation by Alessio Baldovinetti :

(With colorful wings inspired by artists such as Fra Angelico and Jan van Eyck.) 

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Integrated Arks

Anything understood in isolation is not really understood.  Knowledge exists as a continuum even though we may learn it as discrete bits.  Even something as obvious as a fork isn't fully understood without reference to knives, spoons, types of food, etiquette.  Remember the blind men feeling the pachyderm: a rope! a treetrunk! a fan!   That's no way to learn faith, as a mere concatenation of facts.  So a constant goal of Wednesday Sunday School is to show the kids broad relationships which connect small bits of what they mostly already know.  They should learn to see the whole integrated Catholic Elephant.

Last week as part of the lesson plan we discussed the Monstrance (like Spanish mostrar, to show) and the Tabernacle (the little tavern, the little house). This week we started with some review which began with Noah, and ended back at the Tabernacle, like so:

Y'all remember last week we were talking about this thing [on the far right I draw a little house with a cross on top]...what is it? A tabernacle.  Yes, a little tavern, a little house.  Whose house is it?  Jesus' house.  Yes.  He has a house because he lives with us.  I like tabernacles that look like houses, because that's what they are: houses.

Hey, who was Noah? (this sort of abrupt change of subject always perks them up) Noah put all the animals in the Ark!   Yes! And umm, how long did it rain?  40 days!  Yep. Jesusinthedesert?  40 days! Israelitesinthedesert? 40 40 years!  Ha, I almost got ya!  Y'all are too smart! So, Noah put 'em all in what?  The Ark!  Which is?  A big boat, a ship. this an Old Testament or New Testament story?  Old!  Yes, how do you know?  'Cause Jesus wasn't born yet!  Right.  And the Old Testament was mostly written in Hebrew, which I bet ya'll forgot.  I remember!  OK, good...I believe you.  Well, the Hebrew word for ark doesn't mean boat or ship, it means container, more or less. (תֵּבָה tebah: a chest, a coffer, a box, a vessel.  I don't mention the word to the kids; this is fyi, dear catechist.) How do we know this container was a boat?  'Cause it had to float!  Right.  [I draw the Ark on the far left.]

Let's see now...what did Moses' momma do when he was born?  Moses?  Yeah, we're talking about Moses now....well?  She hid him!  Yes, why? The king was killing all the babies. All the babies? The ones two years old, the boys.  No wait, you're talking about King Herod, that's a good guess, but that's when Jesus was a baby, not Moses.  C'mon, where was Moses born?  In Egypt.  So the king was called?  Pharaoh. Yes.  The Israelites had moved to Egypt a long time before Moses because there was a drought...why would they think there would be food in Egypt in a drought? Because the Nile river is there. Yes. The Israelites stayed there after the drought and were fruitful & multiplied so much that Pharaoh got nervous and decided to kill all their firstborn boys.  That's why Moses' momma hid him.  But she couldn't hide a growing baby forever, so what did she do?  Put him a little boat and Pharoah's daughter found him. Yes, Moses was put in an ark, a container, made of reeds. [to the right of Noah's Ark I draw a very bad reed boat with a baby in it] Of course the container floated on the Nile, so we know it was....a little boat! Yes. Hey, what did the Angel of Death do to the Egyptians on Passover? Kill all their firstborn sons! Yes...see, it was payback for Pharaoh killing the Israelite firstborns years before!

So Noah and Moses both used arks which happened to be boats. Their arks contained precious, valuable things. Noah's contained what? All the people and animals!  Yes, and Moses' ark contained...?  Just Moses. Yes, just the baby, but a baby is very precious thing.

After Pharaoh finally let Moses' people go, they wandered in the desert for...40 years!  Yes, and in the desert they made a box to hold their precious things.  What do you suppose the box was called? Umm, an ark? Yes indeed, the Ark of the Covenant. [To the right of baby Moses I draw the Ark with the angels and the carrying poles] In that Ark they kept some miraculous food, manna; the Ten Commandments; and Aaron's staff. (They are fine on the manna and commandments; Aaron's staff is new to most of the kids.) The box, the Ark, held all their God Stuff. God the Father doesn't have a body, but God's spirit was in the box along with the Stuff. The Ark was so precious the average person couldn't touch it, so they carried it with these poles.

While wandering around the desert, the Israelites' houses were tents.  Because God dwelled with his people, his family, they had a tent-house for him too: in English it's called a tabernacle...imagine that.  The Ark stayed in the tent unless the Israelites were on the move. Later on when King David made Jerusalem Israel's capital, they built the Temple for the Ark to stay in.  They always felt kind of bad that God had to live in a tent for so long.

By the way, the Ark disappeared long before Jesus was born; nobody knows if it exists anymore.

All these Arks are in which Testament?  The Old Testament!  Yes, but now we're going to learn about another Ark which has to do with Jesus; so it'll be in...the New Testament!  Yes, and if the Ark of the Old Covenant was in the...Old Testament, yes, then the Ark in the New Testament must be called...?  Ummm, the Ark of the New Covenant?  Yes genius, let's look at the Ark of the New Covenant. [I pull out my plastic fetus.]  This is Little Baby Jesus before he was born.  He's not God's Stuff, like manna, he's God. But he's not born yet, kinda he still God?  Yes.  Right...but how about when he was conceived and only the size of this dot, was he God then?  Yes.  Right, he was Jesus as soon as he was conceived. And so far we've seen that God's Stuff, even God Himself, gets put in an Ark for safe keeping on Earth.  Where's Little Baby Jesus before he was born?  What?  C'mon, what was Jesus' container before he was born? Where was He? Mary? Yes, growing in Mary; what's the Ark of the New Covenant then?  Mary?  Yes, we might say specifically Mary's womb, where babies grow. [between the Ark of the Covenant and the tabernacle I draw Mary with a baby in her tummy]  You know: "blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus." Like baby Moses, baby Jesus was a precious, valuable thing.

After a while Jesus was born; he wasn't in Mary anymore. And nowadays on Earth where is Jesus' ark? the tabernacle? Yes, just like when God dwelled spiritually in the ark & tabernacle in the desert with his family, Jesus is physically with us in his little house, his tabernacle. Manna was in the old ark; Jesus in the Eucharist is in the new ark. So we see that after thousands of years God's children, that's us, still make arks and tabernacles for Him to live with us.

So why do we call the church God's House?  'Cause that's where he lives.  Yes, with his family.


Oh yeah, the image at the top: I couldn't find a picture of integrated arks, so I used this image of integrated arcs instead.

 This article is also available at the Amazing Catechists website.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Anastasis 2

This article is also available at the Amazing Catechists website.

Teaching the tired Wednesday-night crowd can take a lot of energy, a lot of work.  One of my favorite tactics to conserve teaching energy is to use art...oops, I mean Art.  Content-loaded Art carries part of the teaching load for me, I just have to point stuff out and run the discussion.  And the best Art can be used more than once per year, building on prior exposure in earlier lessons, thus making new lessons easier to learn. Plus using the same image to teach different concepts helps the kids integrate the knowledge into the Big Catholic Picture.

Yes, that's fine as far it goes....but what Art, exactly?  Mmm, let's look at an example.

Here's a fresco of a standard Eastern Christian image known in English as the Harrowing of Hell; in Greek, the Anastasis (ανάστασις), the Resurrection. [Hey, let's check out the Greek on the fresco: Over Christ's head is HANAcTACIC,  Anastasis (the odd-looking T is a contraction of a lower case s and and a capital T). To the left is IC, short for IECUC, Jesus; to the right, XC, you guessed it, XRICTOC, Christos. I wonder, considering all the time a fresco or mosaic takes, why save 10 minutes by abbreviating? Am I digressing?]

In the Anastasis we see Jesus, descended into Hell (Sheol). He tramples the gates of 'Hell,' and beneath them lie shattered locks and keys. Darkly visible, Death lies bound and conquered, a captive.  Grabbing them firmly by the wrists, a vigorous Jesus forcefully yanks out Adam & Eve.  Adam is the oldest man in the picture, the patriarch.  Following Adam are old King David (now there's an expert sinner...can you say Uriah and Bathsheba?  The kids know the story), young King Solomon, and John the Baptist (the 'Forerunner'), whose long hair gives him away.  Sometimes John also wears a rough garment, or carries a scroll indicating his status as Jesus' herald.  Waiting their turn behind Eve is her son Abel (the 'Protomartyr') with his shepherd's crook, and (I'm guessing) Noah, Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Isaiah and Jeremiah.

The almond-shaped object behind Jesus is a mandorla (Italian for almond), which shows up in all sorts of images of Jesus, from paintings to cathedral entrances.  It predates Christianity, has some pretty complicated meanings.  I tell the 6th graders that in the West it usually symbolizes Mary's womb and leave it at that.

This Anastasis is in Istanbul, not a common destination; but if you ever visit St. Mark's in Venice, keep an eye out for the Anastasis there.

So that's the picture, and here are some occasions that I use it as a teaching tool:

1. To discuss Easter.

2. To explain what the Nicene Creed means when it says "He descended into Hell."

3. To explain in the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man where Lazarus was as he lay in the Bosom of Abraham.

4. To show that after death, Heaven or Hell have not been the only options. This helps in understanding Purgatory and the concept of Limbo (if it comes up).

5. Learning about Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, and Hell.

6. To show the Eastern Catholic understanding of when the Resurrection begins, and in general to make the kids aware of the Eastern Catholic Churches.

7. Discussing saints and their attributes (Peter's keys, e.g.).

8. To comment on the Transfiguration: if heaven wasn't available yet, where were Moses & Elijah hanging out before their chatfest with Jesus?

The great thing about teaching from a picture like this one is that for any of the above 8 topics, I don't need any notes...the lesson plan just says 'Anastasis' at that point.  I pull out the pic, and it remembers for me.

And it's a very easy way to review on the fly as well.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Love Creates

A standard theme in Wednesday Sunday School is that love creates. Begin with God. God is Love; hence, God creates. God is all Love, thus God creates all. As Dante observed, "L'amor che muove il sole e l'altre stelle/  Love that moves the sun and the other stars."  Acting as God's agents, husbands and wives love. Their love creates children. All people love; they create all sorts of stuff. Humans are so love-infused they create all the time, can't stop themselves. And sometimes God's creativity is most winsomely revealed in the most offhand things people do.

I'm thinking especially of the things people do on YouTube in venues where they're half-ignored.

To introduce a single example, I assume you're familiar with two small pieces of music (even if you don't know their names):

Gymnopedie #1 by Erik Satie  (short version)

and Take Five by Dave Brubeck

Once you're reacquainted with these two, listen to this beguiling bit.   It's all the more appealing for being performed amidst the clink, clatter & conversation of a banquet hall dinner. Ofttimes the smallest, most unremarked stuff can be shot through with God's grace.

Even if no-one is really listening I imagine He is happy.     

Thursday, April 1, 2010


This article is also available at the Amazing Catechists website.

Teaching the tired Wednesday-night crowd involves two overlapping issues: what material is going to be learned, and how to get the kids to learn it. The 'what' comes from the lesson plan which is done before class. The 'how' is more a matter of sticking to some rules (not for the kids...for the teacher) about keeping the kids engaged, such as:

A recap of where we left off last week, which leads into this week's topic.

Asking constant questions to elicit the children's participation and keep them alert.

Asking leading questions to steer the discussion.

Asking ridiculous questions to jolt their brains into an answer.

Refining a good rough answer into something more germane to the subject.

Giving an answer only as a last resort due to time considerations.

Regular encouragement for good efforts.

Review of past material as part of learning the new material.

Some repetition.

Connecting catechetical knowledge to the wider word of "regular" information.

A bit of concluding review.

Here's a recent bit of class that shows these concepts in action:

"Y'all remember last week we were looking in Acts of the Apostles to see how the the Apostles organized the Church after Jesus went up to heaven. Quick review now, instead of a President, congressmen, governors & mayors, the Church has other offices...what's the top office?  Pope.  Yes, what is it in Greek? Papa!  Right, the Father; and after the papa, there are... bishops. Yes, which in Greek is 'episkopos' (επίσκοπος, fyi), like telescope, periscope, and microscope, (far-see, around-see, little-see, fyi) and it means what?...the umm, the seer? remember, it's 'overseer'. Oh, yeah. C'mon say it, bishop means...Overseer! Yes.

Now we get to the next office in the church which is....? No guesses?  Who runs our parish, the bishop? Does he run around the state every Sunday saying Mass as fast as possible in all the churches? Ha, no! So, who takes of business at the parishes? Oh, the priests! Yes. Priests are next."

"Class, remind me please, who was going to sacrifice Isaac?  Abraham.  Yes, and who killed the ram instead? Well, wasn't it still Abraham?  That's right...just checking.  And who killed all those lambs at the first Passover?  Moses?  Moses ran around all night killing lambs? was the fathers or the grandfathers.  Yes, whoever was the oldest man in the family. Then later on out in the desert all the tribes but the Levites worshipped the Golden Roach, was a Golden Calf!  Oh yeah, right, a image of a made-up Egyptian god.  Anyway, God said, "All you Calf-worshipers can't be trusted to make a proper sacrifice. From now on y'all have to pay the Levite men to do your sacrificing for you." That's why the book of Leviticus is full of blood'n'guts: the Levite elders offered sacrifices for a living. What do we call people who offer sacrifices? Umm, sacrificers? Well, that's not what I'm looking for. What's Fr. Newman's job? His job? Yeah, is he a bus driver? Ha, no he's a priest. OK then, what does he do at Mass? Do come along, we just learned this last month....the angel carries a pizza to heaven...oh, he offers bread and wine? No, he offers something better, not $10 worth of bread and wine...oh, Jesus' body and blood! Yes, the Paschal Lamb who was...sacrificed! Yes, so what do we call people who offer sacrifices? Umm...priests? Yes, all those Levite elders were priests; they offered sacrifices. Fr. Newman offers the sacrificed Jesus so he is...? A priest. If you don't offer sacrifices then...? You're not a priest! Yes."

"Hey, I read an interesting article today When You Can't Seem to Get Used to Bifocals -; here's the opening sentence:

"Presbyopia, which typically starts in the early-to-mid 40s, is an aging of the eye's lens that results in an inability to focus on nearby objects. Symptoms are blurred vision, a tendency to hold reading material at arm's length and headaches when doing close work."

"I have presbyopia [on the board]; I can't see stuff close-up anymore. Presbyopia is Greek, it means old-eye. What might 'Presby-' mean?  Old?  Yes, old.  The Greek word for an old man, the eldest, is Presbyteros [on the board] (πρεσβύτερος, fyi).  Remind me please, in the days of Abraham, and at the first Passover, who did the sacrificing? The fathers? Yes, the elders; and if they did the sacrificing then they were also...? Priests? Yes [on the board under presbyteros], but since being a priest wasn't a special job until the Israelites worshiped the Calf, they were just elders. If I fix a toilet at home, I'm not called a plumber, it's just something I do as the eldest man in the house. But if I make a mess and water sprays all over the place, my wife will be like God after the Calf: "You made such a mess I don't feel good about you fixing leaks anymore...I...want....a....? Plumber! Yes, who I have to pay!

So an elder who sacrifices is a plumber!  What? He's a priest!  Oh. Oh, yeah, an elder who sacrifices is a priest. Let's look at presbyteros again, what's it mean? Old man. Yes, let's say elder [on the board next to presbyteros] in this case. Presbyteros is a very old word, a few thousand years old or so. We use it all the time in English but it's changed so much we don't recognize it anymore. It's gotten shorter, look: [I rub letters out of presbyteros so that it reads presbyter--]. That's like the word Presbyterian. Presbyterian churches are run by elders but not bishops and popes. But it got even shorter: [more rubouts] pres--ter. Nowadays it's real short: pres--t...what's that word now? Is it priest? Yes, good (having the word 'priest' right under the diminishing 'presbyteros' means at least one child will get it quickly). So when we say 'priest' we also are saying.... elder? Yes, good. Hey, who's the President? Obama? Yes, where's he from, a big city....Washington? No, where's he from? Umm, Chicago? Yes, Chicago. In Chicago they elect elders, who are right under the mayor. They call them 'aldermen', it's just a way to say 'elder-men'. Kind of like the way our priest-elders are under the...bishop? Yes.

So, the top office is....?  Pope! Meaning...papa!  Next is...bishop!  Yes, meaning...overseer!  Yes, and next are...priests, yes again, which comes from the Greek word for...elder!  And who sacrificed the Passover lambs?  Elders!  Yes, geniuses, elders who functioned as priests!

This isn't the end of the discussion, which next treats deacons, and concludes with some comparison of the complete hierarchy of the Catholic Church (Jesus-Pope-Bishops-Priests-Deacons-laity) to other churches which have a partial heirarchy. But these few minutes should be adequate to show how the texture of the learning experience is determined by the teaching rules.

That pic at the top shows a recent archaeological discovery: the Ax of the Apostles.