Propositions for the Pious

I offer the following propositions to my readers in a spirit of inquiry. Are these not edifying, pious, and – in many cases – straightforwardly true maxims? I have arranged them in thematic paragraphs, but beyond that, they do not issue from my hand. They are indeed far older maxims, drawn from the writings of certain noteworthy Catholic divines. Nevertheless, I should be very curious what my readers think of them – especially those with a theological background.

Are these not, on the whole, quite salutary? Do they not breathe the spirit of the best Fathers and Doctors, especially of those glorious Patriarchs of the West, SS Augustine and Thomas? Or, if anyone should find anything objectionable in them, what is the flaw? I ask sincerely. Those with ears to hear, let them hear.

In vain, O Lord, do You command, if You do not give what you command. Thus, O Lord, all things are possible to him for whom You make all things possible by effecting those same things in him.

All knowledge of God, even natural knowledge, even in the pagan philosophers, cannot come except from God; and without grace knowledge produces nothing but presumption, vanity, and opposition to God Himself, instead of the affections of adoration, gratitude, and love. As there is no sin without love of ourselves, so there is no good work without love of God.

A mark of the Christian Church is that it is catholic, embracing all the angels of heaven, all the elect and the just on earth, and of all times. What is the Church except an assembly of the sons of God abiding in His bosom, adopted in Christ, subsisting in His person, redeemed by His blood, living in His spirit, acting through His grace, and awaiting the grace of the future life? The Church or the whole Christ has the Incarnate Word as head but all the saints as members. The Church is one single man composed of many members, of which Christ is the head, the life, the subsistence and the person- it is one single Christ composed of many saints, of whom He is the sanctifier. There is nothing more spacious than the Church of God; because all the elect and the just of all ages comprise it.

It is useful and necessary at all times, in all places, and for every kind of person, to study and to know the spirit, the piety, and the mysteries of Sacred Scripture. The reading of Sacred Scripture is for all. The sacred obscurity of the Word of God is no reason for the laity to dispense themselves from reading it. The Lord’s Day ought to be sanctified by Christians with readings of pious works and above all of the Holy Scriptures. It is harmful for a Christian to wish to withdraw from this reading. It is an illusion to persuade oneself that knowledge of the mysteries of religion should not be communicated to women by the reading of Sacred Scriptures. Not from the simplicity of women, but from the proud knowledge of men has arisen the abuse of the Scriptures and have heresies been born. To snatch away from the hands of Christians the New Testament, or to hold it closed against them by taking away from them the means of understanding it, is to close for them the mouth of Christ. To forbid Christians to read Sacred Scripture, especially the Gospels, is to forbid the use of light to the sons of light, and to cause them to suffer a kind of excommunication. To snatch from the simple people this consolation of joining their voice to the voice of the whole Church is a custom contrary to the apostolic practice and to the intention of God.

A method full of wisdom, light, and charity is to give souls time for bearing with humility. and for experiencing their state of sin, for seeking the spirit of penance and contrition, and for beginning at least to satisfy the justice of God, before they are reconciled.

To suffer in peace an excommunication and an unjust anathema rather than betray truth, is to imitate St. Paul; far be it from rebelling against authority or of destroying unity.

Nothing engenders a worse opinion of the Church among her enemies than to see exercised there an absolute rule over the faith of the faithful, and to see divisions fostered because of matters which do not violate faith or morals. Truths have descended to this, that they are, as it were, a foreign tongue to most Christians, and the manner of preaching them is, as it were, an unknown idiom, so remote is the manner of preaching from the simplicity of the apostles. and so much above the common grasp of the faithful; nor is there sufficient advertence to the fact that this defect is one of the greatest visible signs of the weakening of the Church and of the wrath of God on His sons. Stubbornness, investigation, and obstinacy in being unwilling either to examine something or to acknowledge that one has been deceived daily changes into an odor, as it were, of death, for many people, that which God has placed in His Church to be an odor of life within it, for instance, good books, instructions, holy examples, etc. Deplorable is the time in which God is believed to be honored by persecution of the truth and its disciples! This time has come…. To be considered and treated by the ministers of religion as impious and unworthy of all commerce with God, as a putrid member capable of corrupting everything in the society of saints, is to pious men a more terrible death than the death of the body. In vain does anyone flatter himself on the purity of his intentions and on a certain zeal for religion, when he persecutes honest men with fire and sword, if he is blinded by his own passion or carried away by that of another on account of which he does not want to examine anything. We frequently believe that we arc sacrificing an impious man to God, when we are sacrificing a servant of God to the devil.

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A Century on the Precious Blood

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The Golden Tree and Achievement of the Holy Grail, Edwin Austin Abbey, c. 1895. (Source)

1. When the Holy Ghost hovered over the waters, the uncreated light that shone from His face turned the waters red after the likeness of the Most Precious Blood.

2. The Most High made all things with breath and water and fire. He made all things for His love, that is to say, under the Blood. At the beginning were breath and water and fire under Blood. At the end will be breath and water and fire joined to Blood.

3. The four rivers, when traced back to their source, become one in the Garden, and the source of that one river is the well in Christ’s side.

4. The juice in the fruit of the Tree of Life is the Precious Blood.

5. When Cain murdered Abel, the Lord reproached him with the words, “Thy brother’s bloods cry out to me from the dust,” thereby speaking for the blood of all the generations of Abel destined never to bear fruit. Likewise, when Isaac was led to sacrifice, it was the first thirst of the Precious Blood of Christ contained therein. Its presence by anticipation in Isaac’s blood both set him apart as a sacrifice and saved him from death.

6. The flood that cleansed the world of sin was the earthly mirror of the heavenly flood of Divine Blood.

7. Yet even a flood that covered the whole face of the earth is as nothing before the torrents of Blood stored up in the Heart of the Most High.

8. When God set His bow in the clouds, every color spoke of some hidden secret. Red, the color of Blood, spoke silently of the mysterium tremendum.

9. The sacrifice of Isaac was a consecration of his blood into an eternal likeness of the Lamb’s Precious Blood.

10. When Moses prayed, and the Nile turned to blood, that blood was but an imitation of the Heavenly Blood that would deal death to the wicked powers.

11. When the Jews covered their doors in the blood of the Passover, that blood was but a foretaste of the Heavenly Blood that would deliver the whole world from death and bondage.

12. The sea that bowed before the people of Israel but covered their persecutors worked after the pattern of the Precious Blood.

13. The Martyr is like unto the rock that sent forth pure water at Massah and Meribah. The life-giving stream let loose from the stricken flesh of the Martyr is the very Blood of Christ.

14. The name of God, Jehovah-Jireh, refers to the Blood of Christ unfurled upon the Cross Triumphant.

15. The true and eternal Israel is constituted by the anointing of the Most Precious Blood.

16. The Precious Blood covers all who seek it with a dazzling darkness.

17. When the face of Moses shone, it was because his blood had been made like the Lamb’s. Truly, he had washed well in the torrent of the Word.

18. The cord of Rahab the Prostitute took its crimson hue from the Precious Blood.

19. The blood-stained cord of Rahab brought salvation to her household and joined her to the Nation of Israel. So it is with all who trust in the Precious Blood.

20. The blood-stained cord of Rahab is the earthly likeness of that heavenly cord that ties together the World.

21. The Precious Blood built the Temple.

22. The Precious Blood hallowed the Temple.

23. The Temple and the Precious Blood are, in their innermost being, one and the same.

24. The Blood belongs to the Altar, as the Altar belongs to the Blood.

25. The Precious Blood speaks from the Altar.

26. The Precious Blood is never apart from the Altar. Wherever it flows, it is an offering to the Most High.

27. The Altar of the Blood is the World’s foundation. None can hope to build anything that lasts if he would forsake this cornerstone.

28. Before the third and celestial Temple was built, the Lord was content to dwell in darkness. This was the time when the Precious Blood grew and resided in the Ark.

29. The Precious Blood is a sea in which Leviathan drowns.

30. The Lord leadeth me by the still waters, lays out a table before me, anoints me with oil, and maketh my cup to run over. All of these, like the four rivers of the Garden, go up into one great deed; for the Lord has given me His Blood.

31. The Lord hath founded the Earth upon the floods, and Zion upon His Blood.

32. As the hart panteth for the water of the brooks, so must our hearts pant for the Blood of the Lamb.

33. Though our tears be our meat in this day of mourning, soon we shall have the Blood of the Lamb and His heart for an imperishable repast.

34. The Lord is my Rock because His Blood rests on the Altar.

35. The Most Precious Blood is the help of my countenance.

36. The flood and waters that speak in the Heavens are drawn from the Precious Blood.

37. When God blots out our transgressions, He uses the Most Precious Blood.

38. Idols are bloodless gods.

39. The gift of the Bride is water. The gift of the Bridegroom is Blood.

40. The Precious Blood delights, nourishes, bears, imparts, and sanctifies all Wisdom.

41. The Precious Blood is the storm out of Heaven.

42. The Precious Blood may be consumed in two ways: on a scroll, or in the cup.

43. When the Prophet came to a valley of bones, he saw that they were dry. He said this because they had lost their blood.

44. The dry bones rose again when they were watered with the Precious Blood of the Lamb, that is, when the Prophet let loose the supernal fountains of the Word.

45. Blood flows from the Temple and sweetens the Sea. The Kingdom is re-drawn from the boundaries of Blood.

46. The Kingdom and the Temple are one in its Priest-King, that is to say, they join in the Precious Blood.

47. All the fruits in the Land of Zion are watered by the Blood of the Lamb.

48. Where there is no blood, there is the Desert.

49. Some are led out to the Desert for battle. If they fight with the luminous arms of the Precious Blood, they will triumph.

50. The Desert will bloom in Blood then, and the warriors will discover surpassing delights beyond all imagining.

51. Any seed that the Precious Blood waters will bloom into a great and mighty tree, and the birds of the air will come to nest in its branches.

52. The Pearl of Great Price is hidden in the Sea of the Precious Blood.

53. Oh wonder of wonders! The Mercy of God took up matter, and manifested itself to the senses of mortal men. For it clothed itself in the red raiment of the Precious Blood.

54. The Word is written in the Precious Blood.

55. Every letter in the Word is a bottomless well and roaring flood of the Precious Blood.

56. The torrents of the Blood sing only one word, the Name.

57. The Angels take their song from the voice of the rivers, from the pulse of the High Priest’s heart, from the roars of the waterfalls of His Blood.

58. The Forerunner rejoiced and cried aloud, “Behold the Lamb of God!” He did so because he saw the one who would fill the rivers of repentance with His Blood.

59. The Precious Blood is deathless life and Fleshless food.

60. The Precious Blood, let loose by wounds and sins, can heal every wound and sin.

61. We who are born of blood must be born of a new and supernal Blood, hidden from the beginning of the world.

62. We are called sheep because we have been covered in the Blood of the Lamb.

63. Providence writes the history of the Last and Everlasting Day in the ink of the Most Precious Blood.

64. Most lamps are fed with oil. The seven lampstands of the Temple are fed with oil and the Precious Blood.

65. The seven lampstands of Mount Zion take their oil from the Mount of Olives and their Blood from the hill of Golgotha.

66. The Precious Blood is the triumph, shield, and banner of the angels.

67. The firstfruits of the Lamb delight only in His Blood.

68. The Book of Life is alive indeed, for within it courses the imperishable Blood of the Lamb.

69. No name written in the Blood of the Lamb can ever die.

70. The Precious Blood bears supernal illumination.

71. The Precious Blood is at once the river and the bridge.

72. The Precious Blood is abroad in the world, riding the Green Lion.

73. The eternal marriage is consummated at the feast where the Precious Blood fills the chalice.

74. The robes of the Arch-Prophet, High Priest, and Emperor are red, for they have been dyed in the Precious Blood.

75. To live is to exist through the Blood and in the Blood and with the Blood – and for the Blood.

76. The Christian is the one who has the Precious Blood of Jesus coursing through his veins.

77. The demons tremble and quake before the Precious Blood, for it is their utter ruin.

78. If anyone should wish to confound the demons, let him call upon the Blood of the Lamb in confidence and hope.

79. There is absolute safety in the Precious Blood of Christ.

80. There can be no peace without the Precious Blood.

81. There are seven steps to the Temple: red, black, white, red, white, black, and red. The red steps take their hue from the Precious Blood.

82. No one may stand on the seventh, scarlet step but the Lamb, the Great High Priest, the Master of the Holy of Holies.

83. No one could begin the ascent if the Lamb had not cast His Blood upon the lowest step.

84. Most souls can only aspire to the middle, red step. But this step possesses nobility beyond all telling.

85. Very few souls are called to the white step above the red. Indeed, no one can mount to the second white stair without one foot ever on the middle red one. But blessed are they who may ascend to that stair!

86. On the last and deathless day, we shall all be carried up to the white step. But our feet shall be red with the Blood of the Lamb, the dye of the middle step.

87. Sober inebriation, the delight of the saints, comes from drinking of the Precious Blood without cease.

88. The wicked drink the Precious Blood as bats, cursed creatures of night. The penitent drink the Precious Blood as hummingbirds, remaining in bliss before the fragrance of Christ’s wounds.

89. The blood of the martyrs is one with the Blood of the Lamb.

90. The whole of heaven and earth is watered by the Precious Blood. If that flow should fail at any second, an untold ruin would fill all things.

91. The Precious Blood hides under three veils: the black, the white, and the red.

92. The black veil is the water of cleansing.

93. The white veil is the oil of illumination.

94. The red veil is the wine of union.

95. The most perfect of these veils is the red, for it perfectly manifests the ineffable truth it conceals.

96. The black and white veils lie outside the red – but once they are removed, they can never be put back on.

97. Those who see the red veil now may hope to see it removed when the Book is opened and all have their names restored to them in the Precious Blood.

98. The Precious Blood is the red candle enkindled by the Uncreated Fire.

99. The Lamb bleeds on seven seals within the seven bloodstained pillars, and these become the seven supernal fountains.

100. When the Precious Blood is poured out, it becomes still as wine held in a chalice. The Dove broods over it, and with the Light of the Dove on the surface, the Bride can find her true face as in a mirror of crystal.

Unfashionable Thoughts on the Proliferation of Bibles

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A depiction of Pentecost (and thus Our Lady of the Cenacle) in an illuminated A from a Lombard antiphonal, 1430’s. Attributed to Stefano da Verona and now in the possession of the Getty Museum. Not a Bible, though. (Source)

Erasmus, that mercurial fellow of the Renaissance who did so much damage with such good intentions, hoped that the humanist scholarship then revolutionizing Biblical studies would produce a popular spiritual awakening. He foresaw a time when, the Bible having been translated into vernacular languages, “the farmer would sing parts of the scripture at the plow, the weaver hum them to the movement of his shuttle, the traveller lighten the weariness of his journey with like stories.” What he got was the Reformation.

Those of us Catholics who have the benefit of historical hindsight can perhaps treat Erasmus with a degree of charity. He did not foresee the storm that he was helping to prepare. At best, his image of the Word-infused society is one that we can and ought to strive for. But things have gone rather differently in what used to be Christendom. The plurality of conflicting Biblical interpretations, stemming both from theological divisions and from theologically-motivated translations from the standard scriptural texts of pre-modernity, has eroded the communion of the full body of Christians. Though by no means the only factor in secularization, this loss of even the pretense of unity significantly impaired the Church’s evangelical witness.

But of course, certain divisions along theological lines always existed in pre-modernity as well. Heretics, mystics, and scholars often disagreed with the orthodox establishment over various exegetical points, and sometimes those divisions were backed by political force. So, what made the Reformation different? Perhaps it was the material condition that stands behind Erasmus’s vision – the advent of the printing press. After all, the mass dissemination of information that the printing press spread and entrenched the Reformation (and the Catholic Reformation) as early as Luther’s first moves in 1517.

But I wish to speak less of early modernity and more of our own era. And, standing firmly in our present moment, I must conclude that printing the Bible was a mistake. Or, to be precise, the mass production of Bibles was a mistake.

An Observation

Walk into any sizeable book store – a Barnes and Noble or Books-A-Million, perhaps. Wander the shelves and you will no doubt eventually come upon the Bible section, sometimes rows and rows of it. I recently did, as I have done many times before. On this recent occasion, I came upon more Bibles than I could count. There were dozens of different translations into English, often sold by competing Bible companies.

Leaving aside that variety, I was struck by the sheer overwhelming diversity of the Bibles as physical objects. I found Bibles in boxes, Bibles in plastic, Bibles in hardcover and paperback. There was an art-journalling Bible that seemed to combine the recent coloring fad with the word of God (curiously, there seemed to be no human faces in any of the images, rather reminding one of another religion’s sacred art). There was a “Rainbow Bible,” not a camp copy of the scriptures but a text pre-highlighted in various hues to illustrate thematic points. There’s a C.S. Lewis Bible for those who like to take their Jesus in leonine form. There’s a Lego-illustrated Brick Bible, and, let the reader carefully note, it’s not the same thing as The Brick Bible for Kids. Erasmus would be pleased to see that there are occupational Bibles, such as Bibles oriented to students, doctors, nurses, firefighters, police, and soldiers. There’s even an American Patriot’s Bible.

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This is a real thing. (Source)

But perhaps the greatest division beyond the inevitable Catholic/Protestant scriptural distinction is gender. Many of the Bibles (and Bible accessories such as carrying cases) are very clearly oriented to men or women. For instance, who is the intended buyer for a Bible in pink pleather binding with floral design on the cover? And who is targeted by a camo Bible carrier with the words “Armor of God” on it? One could cite similar examples ad nauseam. Again, go to your local bookstore. While you may be more likely to find a Bible section in the South or Midwest, I’d wager you could locate one in almost any part of the country. You’ll see what I’m talking about.

Some of these phenomena are not limited to Protestant Bibles, though Catholic Bible companies clearly lack the inventiveness and marketing ingenuity displayed by purveyors of Protestant Bibles. They are guilty of another sin. Mostly, Catholic Bibles just look bad. Many of them are just dumpy paperback bricks that no one wants to read, let alone have around the house. When your Bible fails even on a coffee table, you know you’re doing something wrong.

The Problem

These trappings are all deeply insidious for several reasons.

First, they enlist the Word of God in the maintenance of fallible worldly systems such as the nation, the state, the military-industrial complex, and various forms of social authority, thus stripping the Word of its critical power.

Second, they subtly encourage an unhealthy personalization of spiritual life. We are not Christians alone with God, but part of one Body of Christ. Ultimately, we can’t really own the Bible – not by ourselves. It can never be a private document, subsisting in a personalized meaning.

Third, in a perverse inversion of the last point, these trappings turn the Bible into a physical totem of a human subculture with its own recognized social-symbolic markers and status symbols. The Bible does not belong to the world of conspicuous consumption.

Fourth, the gendering of the Bible is a uniquely vicious practice, probably intended for what are innocently if cynically capitalist reasons. These Bibles sell, no doubt. But they also reinforce problematically rigid gender norms which speak to a wider cultural bifurcation of the Word of God into a Gospel for men and a Gospel for women. I have seen this phenomenon with my own eyes in both Evangelical and Catholic contexts. I have known people who have suffered because of it, some even falling away from the Faith entirely. Have we so easily forgotten the words of St. Paul that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus?” (Gal 3:28 KJV).

Fifth, these trappings commodify and trivialize the Word of God. The Bible is something to be sold. It becomes one item in the marketplace among many others. If you don’t like it in black, you can have it in any color under the sun. You can get a version that says things the way you like. The capitalist system affords the Bible no special treatment as a text; it is a book to be sold like any other book. And how it sells!

The Decay of the Scriptural Aura

There are those who will here object that I am taking too material a view of the Bible. After all, they will say, isn’t it better that the message of the Bible is dispersed far and wide, even if some of the editions are trivial or problematic? Why should it matter if some editions have silly themes or appear as commodities among other commodities? Isn’t it worth it?

I take exception with this attitude for a few reasons. My first is purely sectarian, in that, as a Catholic, I object to the unaided reading of scripture and the erection of private judgment as any kind of rule in its interpretation. The Church is the preeminent exegete, and without her, we are liable to fall prey to our own sinful reasonings. Some Protestants will find this objection unconvincing; Catholics, at least, should find it uncontroversial.

But the issue cuts deeper than that. We should treat the Bible as a sacramental. It is not just any book. The visible scriptures convey grace by summoning the heart to an awareness of what is invisible. And this precisely because we, as human beings, are sacramental. We are body and soul, matter and spirit. Our religious lives are healthier when both are brought together under a common obedience to Christ in a biune ministration of grace. The sacraments are fitted to our nature. So are sacramentals; so are the scriptures. Turning the Bible into a personalized commodity cheapens its quality as one of the paradigmatic sacramentals.

We ought not lose sight of the fact that this deadening process of commodification, however far-rooted it may be in history, has taken off with alarming speed in our own time precisely because of the cultural features of postmodernity. We live in a sign-saturated age. Both words and images fill our view at almost every waking moment, whether they be painted, printed, written, or digital. And signs, like coins, lose their value with over-production. Is it any surprise then that narrativity has become strained as well? Can we be shocked that those explanatory schemes which once held together our culture and our own personal sense of meaning have long since melted into air? Nothing has survived the thoroughly American logic of consumerist capitalism; can anything withstand the acid-bath of “innovation?” These questions have been with us since the 1970’s, when philosophers first began to take note of, as Lyotard called it, “the postmodern condition.” They have yet to be fully resolved.

One other feature of postmodernity with direct bearing on our subject was first examined by Walter Benjamin in his 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Benjamin notes that, in premodern conditions, art objects were imbued with an “aura,” a sense of absolute singularity and unique presence that belonged to the artifact under the eye of the viewing subject. It was this quality that bound art to its original context in ritual. Indeed, some of you may notice that this idea is latent in Aquinas’s idea of claritas, without which nothing can be beautiful. But in an age where art can be reproduced again and again, an image can proliferate, as can the experience of seeing the image, without any of the unique presence that comes from contact with the original. We have witnessed the “decay of the aura.” And since, in Benjamin’s words, “The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being embedded in the fabric of tradition,” then the “tremendous shattering of tradition” in postmodernity has thoroughly dispensed with the aura.

Bibles used to have an aura. Before the advent of the printing press, Bibles were expensive, rare, hand-crafted codices, often illuminated with historiated capitals and copious illustrations that drew upon pigments as rare as lapis lazuli and gold itself. So were other prayer-books – and the Bible was indeed meant for prayer. For the monks who labored over their manuscripts in their scriptoria, the Bible was not just a status symbol for the noble or prelate who had ordered it. The Bible was a liturgical book; the monk knew the scriptures precisely because of his immersion in the liturgy of the Church, which at Mass and the eight offices of the Opus Dei presented the Bible to him as the very marrow of prayer. The Bible belongs to the liturgy, for both reveal Christ.

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The Bible historiale, Clairefontaine and Paris, 1411. Now in the British Museum. (Source)

The Psalter, which is prayed in full by Benedictine monks each week, was yet another stand-alone portion of the scriptures that was often luxuriously illuminated as sacred art. The Books of Hours were also richly illuminated. These declensions of the Divine Office especially intended for laymen are yet another example of a scriptural prayer-book that was routinely infused with an “aura.” Those of us who have been lucky enough to see illuminated manuscripts of any sort in person can attest that they’ve still got it.

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The letter B from the Breslau Psalter, Psalm 1. (Source)

At a certain level, the question of the “aura” is a purely natural one. But the “aura” points to a supernatural reality, the underlying sacramental possibility of all creaturely matter. Because the Word has taken flesh in Christ, matter can take on divinity – it can become theophoric, bearing God, and theophanic, manifesting Him.

The aura inspires reverence. And it is meet and right that the very book where we find unfolded before us the Face and Name of God, the Bible, should make us turn towards heavenly things. The Jewish mystical tradition provides insights into the profound holiness of the Bible. We read, “We have learned that the Holy One, blessed be He, is called Torah…And there is no Torah but the Holy One,” (“Zohar” 2:60a, Beshalach). Likewise, St. Augustine would find much to agree with in the words of the Jewish mystic who writes,

It is also true that the upper root of the holy Torah is in the highest level of the worlds that are called the worlds of the Infinite Godhead [Ein Sof]…That is why the Sages say that the Torah preceded the world, that is it preceded all worlds. For they even say that it preceded the Throne of Glory. (“Nefesh Hachaim” 4:10).

The truth at the heart of this mystery is that of the Logos, the Word who is God, manifesting himself in creation, in natural law, in revelation, and then definitively in the person of Jesus Christ. Thus, the holiness of the Bible partakes of Christ’s own divine holiness. Our starting point for any discussion of the scriptures as physical texts must be the sentiment that Louis Bouyer describes,

“No man can see God and live”: this means that the vision of God would bring death to a human being. The idea contained in this saying is a basic idea of the whole of Jewish revelation which we have lost all too completely, for with it we have lost the sense of the sacred, that is, ultimately, the sense of God. If anyone has not understood…that not only for men, but for all other creatures too, God is the Sovereign, the Utterly Other, the Pure, the Inaccessible, then he does not know what God really is. (The Meaning of the Monastic Life 41).

Once the aura has decayed, what are we left with? We are like those benighted souls described by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch who “carved out of the ponderous old rock-hewn Tablets of the Law ornamental figures so tiny that people gladly found room for them on smart dressing tables, in drawing-rooms and ballrooms.” Was there ever a more apt description of what we have done to the Word of God, materially and spiritually? For when we commodify the Bible, we commodify its message. When we objectify the Bible, we objectify its message. When we trivialize the Bible, we trivialize its message. Is there anything more dangerous in a world grown cold to the Gospel? The same can be said of the liturgy. Banality in the ars celebrandi vitiates the aura embedded in the ritual. We have a responsibility to maintain higher standards.

A Return to the Family Bible

Let me be very clear. My objection here is to both the mass proliferation and the sheer diversity of Bibles on the market. These two phenomena, even more than the underlying condition of their quality as printed material, have destroyed the aura of the Word of God. But I should note in all fairness that many Christians, at least in the English-speaking countries, used to maintain a strong sense of the Bible’s auratic sacramentality. That time-honored institution of the Family Bible, often an enormous and ornamental tome passed down from generation to generation as an heirloom and a testament of enduring faith, once preserved a kind of aura. What undermined this institution and the kind of home liturgies that once sustained it? Was it the Gideons? Was it the travelling Bible salesmen satirized so acerbically by Flannery O’Connor in Good Country People? Or was it the broader cultural force of capitalist individualism exacerbating the collapse of narrativity and traditional community, rendering the search for salvation even more personal – and thus lonelier and more consumerist – then ever before?

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A typical “Family Bible” of the nineteenth century. (Source)

I recognize that I am complicit in this problem. I own several Bibles, not all of which were gifts, and not all of which are very good. But I believe that most of us Christians are bound up with the cultural conditions which have produced so many and such shoddy copies of the scriptures. We can’t start to imagine a better way until we re-assess our relationship with the sacred. While it’s impossible to go back to the scriptoria of Cluny or Clairvaux, we can begin to appropriate their view of the Bible as a liturgically-grounded manifestation of the Divine Word. Perhaps we can start to produce more beautiful Bibles – even auratic ones. More depends on it than we might think. After all, the illumination of the page was always an anticipation of and metaphor for the illumination of the soul.

Springtime Sophiology from St. Nicodemus

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Gate on Addison’s Walk, Magdalen College, Oxford. Photo by author.

Now there are of course those who do not use the senses and the subsequent meditation on creation and Holy Scripture to rise through them to the knowledge and love of God, who both spoke the Scriptures and created the world. On the contrary, such people use this sense perception simply for human aggrandizement, for the marvel and mere pleasure of the corruptible beauty in creatures, and for other bodily purposes. Or, at least, they simply remain on the level of the limited purposes of the creatures and of the Scriptures. They thus neglect to proceed further, to rise to the catholic and comprehensive view of things, to God’s wisdom through which all things are known and in which all the reasons for each creature are to be found, according to St. Maximos. “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth…When he established the heavens, I was there” (Prv. 3:19, 27). St. Basil the Great too had something to say on this point: “There are indeed certain reasons why the primordial wisdom of God was laid as a foundation to nature at the time of creation.” Now, those who do not rise – through the reason endowed in nature and in the Holy Scriptures – to the hypostatic Logos of God, those who do not love Him “through whom all things were made” (Jn 1:3), as most of the worldly philosophers do not, all of these people act contrary to the Creator’s purpose in nature and in Holy Scripture. And according to the wise and most insightful Kallistos, the thought of such people has lost its natural tendency and has become unnatural. This has occurred because they use the means as ends in themselves, and the causes as results, and they love the gifts more than the Giver and the creatures more than the Creator, as St. Augustine has said. Since creation was not created for itself, but for the vision and glory of its Creator, it is not proper that it should be seen and admired for its own sake, but rather for the sake of its Creator. It is the same with the mirror which one does not look at for its own sake, but for the sake of the one reflected in it.

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St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (Source)

We may add, finally, that the secondary goal and purpose for the creation of the senses is so that the material body may be able to enjoy through them material nourishment, growth, and life. Truly, I do not know what to marvel at most: the “palace” that is so intricately constructed or the “king” who dwells therein. But of these two, I must certainly marvel most at the master artist and the Creator who with infinite wisdom not only created both of them, but also united the mind and body in such perfect harmony.

Quoted from Chapter One of A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel by Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, Trans. Peter A. Chamberas, Paulist Press, 1989, pages 73 and 74. 

“And the Light Shineth in Darkness; and the Darkness Comprehended It Not.”

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Cybele, the Magna Mater, on her triumphal car pulled by two lions. Has there ever been a more perfect likeness to the Whore of Babylon? (Source)

March 24th is the traditional Dies Sanguinis of the ancient Roman calendar, when the painted eunuch-priests of Cybele and the votaries of Attis in their Phrygian caps would join with the servants of warlike Bellona in the most vile public atrocities. On that day, hideous pipes stirred the wicked throng into a fever of unutterable terror, and as the revelers danced in an ever more demoniac fashion, they mutilated their flesh and let out copious torrents of blood upon the stones of forum and temple. Then they drank from their own spilled blood, descending even lower than the beasts in their frenzy and taking on instead the aspect of lustful aegypans. The summit of these evil ecstasies came when, before the altar of the Magna Mater, devotees castrated themselves. Only thus could they enter the service of that infernal priesthood.

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The Triumphal Entrance of Christ, mosaic, Palermo. (Source)

This was the culture that Christianity conquered. And it is with these satanic rites in mind that we look forward to a double feast of rather a different sort tomorrow. For tomorrow, on the 25th of March, we celebrate Palm Sunday and the Annunciation, falling providentially on the same day.

“And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”

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The Cestello Annunciation, Botticelli, 1489-90. My favorite of all Annunciations. (Source).

 

Terrible as An Army Set in Array

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Our Lady of Guadalupe, pray for us. (Source)

“Your deed of hope will never be forgotten by those who tell of the might of God. You are the highest honor of our race.”

Thus does the whole Church sing at Mass today, on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. And no mean words are they! The Psalm is drawn from the Book of Judith – a frequent verse for feasts of Our Lady – and it lands on our ears like a shout of proleptic joy in this season of preparation and penance. The liturgy draws two special comparisons between Mary and the women of the Old Testament: Mary as the new Eve, and Mary as the second Judith. Today’s feast draws its special energy, its exegetical verve, from the mystical connection between Mary and Judith.

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Our Lady of Guadalupe painted by the Trinity. An image worth meditating on. (Source)

The particular verse that the Church applies to Mary comes from Uzziah’s praise of Judith after she has already beheaded Holofernes the Assyrian. Let us turn briefly to the immediately preceding passage.

Then she took the head out of the bag, showed it to them, and said: “Here is the head of Holofernes, the ranking general of the Assyrian forces, and here is the canopy under which he lay in his drunkenness. The Lord struck him down by the hand of a female! Yet I swear by the Lord, who has protected me in the way I have walked, that it was my face that seduced Holofernes to his ruin, and that he did not defile me with sin or shame.” All the people were greatly astonished. They bowed down and worshiped God, saying with one accord, “Blessed are you, our God, who today have humiliated the enemies of your people.” (Judith 13:15-17).

Then come our Psalm verses.

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Judith Beheading Holofernes, Caravaggio, c. 1602. (Source)

Why would the Church draw our attention to this violent episode on a feast of Our Lady falling so soon after the Immaculate Conception? Haven’t we just contemplated her Sophianic existence? Haven’t we just basked in the light of the Holy Spirit resting upon her Immaculate Heart? Why must we leave those pleasant snow-caps of the spirit? Why turn instead to this grisly tale of murderous deliverance?

We must recall that, although Mary is all sweetness and concord to those who love her Son, she is the terror of demons. Her litanies and devotions include many titles that evoke the clamor of warfare: “Tower of David,” “Tower of Ivory,” even “Gate of Heaven.” She crushes the head of the Serpent. The sword that pierces her heart becomes, by the union of her suffering with that of her Son, a fearful weapon in her mighty hands.

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“Hail Mary, full of grace, punch the devil in the face.” (Source)

The story of Guadalupe is just one example of Our Lady exercising this power. Her appearance on Tepeyac, and the miracle wrought on the tilma of St. Juan Diego, was the beginning of the end of Aztec paganism. The demons that held that great people in thrall to the murderous rites of human sacrifice were totally vanquished. Like Judith, Mary rode out from Heaven into the  very camp of the enemy. Like Judith, she conquered. Like Judith, she proclaimed her victory with a visible sign – only, Our Lady’s sign was far more glorious. Judith held up the head of the vanquished foe, the bloody remains of a wicked oppressor. The Mother of God gave us her own image, miraculously imprinted into the convert’s cloak.

Judith delivered the Jews from the army of the Assyrians. Mary came forth to Tepeyac to convert the Mexican people, lifting from them the demonic yoke of a bloodthirsty paganism. What a glorious victory she won! Nine million Aztecs converted within the first ten years of the apparitions. Even today, she continues to spur us to conquer those terrible forces of injustice that oppress so many of God’s people. The collect prayer for today’s feast reads:

O God, Father of mercies, who placed your people under the singular protection of your Son’s most holy Mother, grant that all who invoke the Blessed Virgin of Guadalupe, may seek with ever more lively faith the progress of peoples in the ways of justice and of peace. (Source; emphasis mine)

These days it is rather in vogue to lament a certain kind of triumphalism that is built on self-centered pride. But too often we forget that there is another triumphalism, the shout of a people who have seen their salvation coming from the Lord:

Blessed are you, daughter, by the Most High God,
above all the women on earth;
and blessed be the LORD God,
the creator of heaven and earth
(Judith 13:18).

The Church herself enjoins us to celebrate the works and ways of God through His chosen instruments. And in today’s Mass, we are called to join that praise to the sacrifice of Christ in the Eucharist.

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Our Lady of Guadalupe, Victrix over All Heresies and Demons. (Source)

In considering Our Lady of Guadalupe and the zeal with which she overcame the forces of evil and in contemplating the beauty of her miraculous portrait, a verse of Scripture comes to mind.

“Who is she that cometh forth as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army set in array?” (Cant. 6:10 DRA)

We who have seen the tilma through the eyes of faith know the answer.

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Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mystical Rose. (Source)

On the Coronation of the Coredemptrix

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Corredenzione, by Giovanni Gasparro. This painting convinced my heart of the doctrine of the Co-Redemption of Mary. (Source).

It is appropriate on this Feast of Our Lady’s Coronation and Everlasting Queenship that we contemplate the fleeting thrones of this lesser world. Let us commemorate the loss of two great English dynasties, fixed on this day by Providence.

On Aug. 22, 1485, His Majesty King Richard III was defeated on Bosworth Field by a usurper from the House of the Tudors. The Red Dragon of Wales eclipsed the White Rose of York; years later, T.S. Eliot would wear the flower every 22nd of August.

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The Personal Standard of Richard III. (Source).

On Aug. 22, 1642, His Majesty King Charles I raised the Royal Standard at Nottingham. This act has widely been considered the formal start of the English Civil War that would end in Puritan dictatorship, the slaughter of the Irish and Scots, and the martyrdom of the King himself for the doctrine of Episcopacy.

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The Royal Standard of the Stuarts, 1603-1649. (Source).

Consider the leaden weight of these crowns. Worn by men alternately noble and feeble, loyal and inconstant, heroic and fearful, they rot away with the passage of time. The gilt of their craft and the earthly acclaim of their subjects have gone the way of all flesh. Those crowns are memories, but even in memory they do not earn the glory and affection they once inspired. Their reputations are occulted with cumbersome connotations. Richard has been much maligned ever since his death, in part by no less a personage than Shakespeare himself. Charles, a more complicated figure, has been swallowed up by his role as the symbolic center of Tory anxieties and Whig acrimony for the better part of four centuries. More bitterly, both kings “Accept the constitution of silence/And are folded in a single party.” They have become an unimportant datum of historical trivia for most people, even in England.

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The Coronation of the Virgin, by the Limbourg Brothers. (Source)

How unlike those crowns is that won by Mary! She who was immaculately conceived and preserved from every stain of sin never sullies her crown by any failure of virtue. Having borne the Son of God in her womb, no other glory could ever outstrip what she has already known in her perpetually virginal maternity. Assumed into heaven, she is preserved from the terrible corruption of the grave. And now, as the Church celebrates the Octave Day of the Assumption, we contemplate the eternal joy which her coronation engenders in all the ranks of the blessed. All generations have called her blessed, and all will forevermore. She will never be reduced in the eyes of the world, because no one is more perfect in the eyes of God.

Has there ever been so marvelous a creature as Mary? Can we name, in the orderly chaos of the creation, a being more closely united to the Trinity? Who else among mere mortals has been lauded as “More honorable than the Cherubim, and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim?” In her burns the fire of charity; in her grows the ground of humility; in her flows the water of purity; in her soars the mighty wind of patience. She is the New and Sophianic Eve, in which the Wisdom of God is most clearly manifest.

And why? Because she is the threefold Mother of the Redeemer. First, by her Fiat, she assents to a physical maternity of the Word Incarnate. Second, by the sorrows of her Immaculate Heart at the Cross, she wins a sacramental maternity of Christ in the Eucharist. And third, by her prayer in the Cenacle on Pentecost, she gains a mystical maternity of Christ in the whole Church. This threefold motherhood is but one theandric maternityand thus we see the Trinitarian character of Our Lady’s co-redemption. She and she alone of all mankind is so favored and so bound to the work of Christ.

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Coronation of the Virgin, Enguerrand Quarton. 1454. (Source). Mary crowned by the Trinity is surely an icon of the Eschaton.

A friend of mine passed on this passage from St. Amadeus of Lausanne, a Cistercian most famous for his eight homilies in praise of the Mother of God. He took it from Universalis, which gives the full liturgy of the hours online. Thus, the Church particularly commends these words to us on this holy day:

Observe how fitting it was that even before her assumption the name of Mary shone forth wondrously throughout the world. Her fame spread everywhere even before she was raised above the heavens in her magnificence. Because of the honour due her Son, it was indeed fitting for the Virgin Mother to have first ruled upon earth and then be raised up to heaven in glory. It was fitting that her fame be spread in this world below, so that she might enter the heights of heaven on overwhelming blessedness. Just as she was borne from virtue to virtue by the Spirit of the Lord, she was transported from earthly renown to heavenly brightness.

So it was that she began to taste the fruits of her future reign while still in the flesh. At one moment she withdrew to God in ecstasy; at the next she would bend down to her neighbours with indescribable love. In heaven angels served her, while here on earth she was venerated by the service of men. Gabriel and the angels waited upon her in heaven. The virgin John, rejoicing that the Virgin Mother was entrusted to him at the cross, cared for her with the other apostles here below. The angels rejoiced to see their queen; the apostles rejoiced to see their lady, and both obeyed her with loving devotion.

the-coronation-of-the-virginCimaThe Coronation of the Virgin, Cima da Conegliano. (Source).

Dwelling in the loftiest citadel of virtue, like a sea of divine grace or an unfathomable source of love that has everywhere overflowed its banks, she poured forth her bountiful waters on trusting and thirsting souls. Able to preserve both flesh and spirit from death she bestowed health-giving salve on bodies and souls. Has anyone ever come away from her troubled or saddened or ignorant of the heavenly mysteries? Who has not returned to everyday life gladdened and joyful because his request had been granted by the Mother of God?

She is a bride, so gentle and affectionate, and the mother of the only true bridegroom. In her abundant goodness she has channelled the spring of reason’s garden, the well of living and life-giving waters that pour forth in a rushing stream from divine Lebanon and flow down from Mount Zion until they surround the shores of every far-flung nation. With divine assistance she has redirected these waters and made them into streams of peace and pools of grace. Therefore, when the Virgin of virgins was led forth by God and her Son, the King of kings, amid the company of exulting angels and rejoicing archangels, with the heavens ringing with praise, the prophecy of the psalmist was fulfilled, in which he said to the Lord: At your right hand stands the queen, clothed in gold of Ophir.

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An illustration of “The Woman Clothed With the Sun.” (Source)

St. Amadeus is right; “Has anyone ever come away from her troubled or saddened or ignorant of the heavenly mysteries? Who has not returned to everyday life gladdened and joyful because his request had been granted by the Mother of God?” We who still struggle with sin on the path to beatitude cannot hope to achieve our goal if we will not be with and like Mary. We, too, are promised crowns. The scriptures mention five: the imperishable crown (1 Cor. 5:24-25), the crown of rejoicing (1 Thess. 2:19), the crown of righteousness (2 Tim. 4:8), the crown of glory (1 Pet. 5:4), and the crown of life (Rev. 2:10). Our Lady wears all these and seven more, for she is the “woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars” (Rev. 12:1 KJV). Are these other seven stars the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, her spouse? Or the seven cardinal virtues? Or the seven sacraments that constitute the Church? Or the seven lesser ranks of the angels in praise of their queen? Impossible to say. Mary is not only the fountain of all holiness, but the mother of the Church’s deepest mysteries.

How might I end this praise of Our Lady that could properly continue ad infinitum? By returning to those lesser crowns with which I began.

Earthly splendor is no great thing. It can only be built on sufferingeither our own or that of others. Even when turned to good (as, I would argue, Charles I attempted to use his power), it reflects something of our fallen state. It is slippery, contingent, and as mortal as we are. But the glory of heaven is without end. Incorrupt and incorruptible, it abides in the gaze of the Father. Mary, above all creation, receives this kind of glory. She, the New Eve to the New Adam, mirrors Him in all things. Let us run after the course she trod before us, the course of Her Son’s redemption! Only by pursuing a life like Christ’s can we hope for a reward like Mary’s.

May she pray for us as we celebrate her feast today.

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“Coronation of the Virgin,” Fra Angelico. (Source). The Blessed Angelico returned to this subject throughout his career, but this version, hanging in the Uffizi Gallery, is my favorite.

An Addendum on Charlottesville

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Fascists surrounding student protesters on the steps of the Rotunda, UVA, Charlottesville, Virginia. This photo was taken last Friday night, August 11th, 2017. (Source).

One last word.

Although it does not come from yesterday’s readings, a verse has been threading through my mind for the course of the weekend. Nazis brought burning torches onto the Lawn that was once my home, but those torches cast no light. They bristled with a darkness blacker and thicker than the shadows that lay all around in the night. The real illumination came from those few brave students under the statue of Jefferson, who resisted the onslaught of wicked men streaming down the steps of the Rotunda. Watching their courage, I can only think of those words from St. John the Divine:

“And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

The Uncreated Splendor of this Day

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Transfiguration, Fra Angelico. Convento di San Marco, Florence. (Source)

I am currently engaged in an argument on Facebook over whether the Transfiguration or Pentecost is the most Sophiological Feast of the Church. Although I hold that the Descent of the Holy Spirit upon Our Lady and the Apostles in the Cenacle is, in fact, the most Sophiological event commemorated on the Kalendar, I’m willing to concede that today’s liturgy is refulgent with the splendor of Eternal Wisdom. I had the opportunity to attend a Solemn High Mass, complete with asperges and vesting at the chair. All the propers, all the readings, and all the prayers were as so many lights set one by one upon the altar, until their glow was consumed in the Uncreated Light of the Eucharist.

Consider the Propers. At the Introit, we pray:

Illuxerunt coruscationes tuae orbi terrae: commota est et contremuit terra. Quam dilecta tabernacula tua, Domine virtutum! concupiscit, et deficit anima mea in atria Domini.

Your lightening illumined the world; the earth quivered and quaked. How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of Hosts! My soul years and pines for the courts of the Lord.

Here, the Church introduces us to one of the great motifs of this holy feast: light. And not just any light. A totally beautiful, all-pervading illumination. The whole of creation responds to this light, and we who have the grace of observing it are inspired to think of the eternal “dwelling place” and “courts of the Lord” [Ps. 82:2-3].

St. Peter takes up this theme, writing to us in his epistle:

And we have the word of prophecy, surer still, to which you do well to attend, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. [2 Peter 1:19]

The Prince of the Apostles knows that the Light of Lights, glimpsed first on Tabor, enkindles the hearts of all Prophets. That is why Our Lord appears there with two of the greatest Prophets. That is why the Holy Ghost, “who has spoken through the Prophets,” descends upon the assembly to announce the voice of the Father [Nicene Creed]. Yet even the light of Tabor will fade before the dawn of the Eschatonthe “morning star” of the Holy Spirit that “rises in your hearts” [2 Peter 1:19].

Moving on, we come to a Gradual in which the words of David are taken up by the whole Church as she addresses her Spouse with intimate delight:

Speciosus forma prae filiis hominum: diffusa est gratia in labiis tuis.
V. Eructavit cor meum verbum bonum: dico ego opera mea Regi.

Fairer in beauty are You than the sons of men; grace is poured out upon Your lips.
V. My heart overflows with a goodly theme; as I sing my ode to the King.

If you wanted to make the argument that the Transfiguration is the most Sophianic feast, the Alleluia would be particularly pertinent. For we pray the words of the Seventh Chapter of the Book of Wisdom (words, I might add, that are usually read in the feminine and applied to Our Lady):

Alleluia, alleluia. V. Candor est lucis aeternae, speculum sine macula, et imago bonitatis illius. Alleluia.

Alleluia, alleluia. V. He is the refulgence of eternal light, the spotless mirror, and the image of His goodness. Alleluia.

These prayers are like steps to the Temple. For, can we not see in all of these verses the very picture of the Last and Glorious Day? Are we not cast off into a vision of the Heavenly Courts, and of the Everlasting House of God? The Offertory confirms our path and calls to mind our mystical destination, where, by the Epiclesis and Consecration, we shall soon worship the Eucharistic God. We pray the words of Psalm 111:

Gloria et divitiae in domo eius: et iustitia eius manet in saeculum saeculi, alleluia.

Wealth and riches shall be in His house; His generosity shall endure forever. Alleluia.

But the Communion Verse warns us with a passage from St. Matthew:

Visionem, quam vidistis, nemini dixeritis, donec a mortuis resurgat Filius hominis.

Tell the vision you have seen to no one, till the Son of Man has risen from the dead.

Whenever we are privileged enough to enter into a Sophianic mystery, the Blessed Mother is never far away. Nor can she be ignored in this, the month of her Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart, the month in which we celebrate her Glorious Assumption and her Queenship over all Heaven. We should be extra attentive to her quiet presence. Thus, in this Communion verse, we learn to be like Mary. For, “Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” [Luke 2:19 ESV]. That is the rule Jesus teaches to the Apostles who witnessed His Transfiguration. This, too, is an expression of Holy Wisdom, in the virtue of Prudence. An experience of such mystical consolation, like the Mustard Seed we learned about in Monday’s Gospel, would one day grow into an enormous tree where “the birds of the air come, and dwell in the branches thereof,” [Matt. 13:32]. But first, it had to be watered by the Blood of Christ.

So must we. If we are to make good use of the many graces we receive, we must offer them back up to Christ to receive His Blessing. Only He can make our hearts Eucharistic like His own; only He can send the Spirit to enkindle our souls with charity and wisdom; only He can impart the Uncreated Light that He first manifested on Mount Tabor.