On Joy

Le Christ aux outrages, Philippe de Champaigne, 17th c. (Source)

“Jesus Christ will be in agony until the end of the world” – Blaise Pascal

We shall not be blamed for not having worked miracles, or for not having been theologians, or not having been rapt in divine visions. But we shall certainly have to give an account to God of why we have not unceasingly mourned.” – St John Climacus

Recently I have had occasion to consider the role of joy in the Christian life. While I don’t believe that any particular emotions as such are intrinsic to Christianity, I sometimes feel that there is in the Church’s culture a kind of low-level idolatry of affective joy that makes it a good in itself and, more poisonously, demonizes those who do not share in it. This rather shallow (and ultimately false) view of joy as relentless and mandatory happiness has at times eclipsed the demands of the Cross, and has little to offer the suffering, the infirm, the distressed, the depressed, the sorrowful, the anxious, and the temperamentally gloomy. Are they to be excluded from heaven if they cannot force a smile? This soft and implicit Pelagianism of the emotions is a greater discouragement to souls than an honest reckoning with the sorrows of life and the terrible demands of the Cross.[1]

So, I thought I would put down a few very brief meditations on true and false joy. I would not wish to speak in absolute and general terms, but rather, out of the fullness of my heart, and all that I – a mere layman – have gleaned from seven years in the faith, the reading of Scripture, and the study of the Church’s spiritual history.

St. Paul tells us that joy is a fruit of the Spirit; he does not promise us that we shall have all those fruits at all times, or that they grow in us for own profit alone.[2] If I may alter the metaphor a bit for illustrative purposes (without in any way denying the truth St. Paul teaches), I would say that joy is the flower, and not the root or the fruit, of the Christian life as such.[3] It is chiefly given to us by God so that we might advance His Kingdom. Like the pleasant blooms of spring, joy is meant to attract souls who do not yet know the grace of God, and thereby to spread the life of the spirit. As soon as we have it, we must give it away. It is like an ember in our hands – giving light and heat, but liable to burn us if we hold on to it. For who are we to keep it, we who are nothing? And so, we should not be surprised if even this true joy is fleeting, and given to us only in rare occasions as a special grace. For the joy of God is not like the joy of the world. The former is rare as gold, and the latter as common as fool’s gold.

And as fool’s gold will not purchase what true gold can buy, so does a false joy fail in this paramount duty of conversion. We should not force ourselves to seem happier than we really are; a certain virtuous attempt at good cheer in the face of sorrow is always welcome, and we generally should not air our griefs too freely. I believe this virtue, built upon a detachment from our worldly disposition, is what the Apostle refers to when he tells us to “Rejoice always.”[4] But let us not delude ourselves into thinking that this human cheer can ever compare with the supernatural joy that comes only from God, and which many just souls have not been granted. To do so approaches dishonesty, both to ourselves and to our neighbor. Let us not pretend that our faith cheers us more than it really does; let us instead recognize that it promises us suffering, and a yoke that, though light, is nevertheless still a yoke.[5] And under that yoke, someone else will lead us where we do not wish to go.[6]

Joy is only true if it comes from, is ordered to, and brings us back to the Cross. The joy that God gives is always stained with the Precious Blood. But even then, we are not entitled even to this joy in our present life; rather, we are given the Cross as our inheritance. For what is the world if not a land of false joys? They come from nothing, they come to nothing; in their essence, they are nothing. Well and truly does the Sage condemn it all as vanity.[7] Well and truly does the Psalmist speak of it as “the valley of the shadow of death.”[8] Well and truly do we address the Mother of God from “this valley of tears.” We can do no other.

This life of the Cross is a gradual annihilation – what the French call anéantissement – a fearsome but salutary tutelage in humility and in the growing recognition of our own nothingness. To live and die on the Cross is to say every day with St. John the Baptist that “He must increase, I must decrease.”[9] Yet how hard this is! We lose sight of the fact that at the end, when we are nothing again, we can grasp the God who is No-Thing, the One who is beyond the traps, illusions, trinkets, clutter, disappointments, and, indeed, the joys of this world. We efface ourselves now so we may one day face Him. We mourn our sins today so we may rejoice in attaining God on the last day.

That is the true joy of the Cross – that, in mounting it, we can see God. But how rare is such a grace in this life! Most of us are caught up into the business of the world. Most of our lives are a long distraction. Most of us will only achieve the vision of God after the sorrows of this life and the pains of purgatory. And so, let us never forget that to be a Christian is to let Christ suffer and die in us, so that one day, we too may rise with Him.[10]


[1] James 4:4.

[2] Galatians 5:22-23.

[3] The root is faith, and the fruits are redemptive suffering and acts of charity.

[4] 1 Thessalonians 5:16.

[5] Matthew 11:28-30.

[6] John 21:18.

[7] Ecclesiastes 1:2.

[8] Psalm 22 (23): 4.

[9] John 3:30.

[10] Galatians 2:20; 2 Corinthians 4:11; 2 Timothy 2:11; Philippians 1:21

On Frequent Communion

The Last Communion of St. Mary of Egypt, Marcantonio Franceschini, 1680 (Source)

One of the more shocking ecclesiastical news stories of 2019 was a survey from the Pew Research Center showing that only 28% of American Catholics know and believe the Church’s teaching about the Eucharist. The numbers look a little less grim when one breaks down the data by Mass attendance. 63% of weekly Mass-goers know and believe in the Real Presence. Yet that leaves a whopping 37% of weekly Mass attendees who do not believe in the Real Presence; the numbers are much higher for Catholics who don’t go to Mass as frequently. 75% of those who go to Mass monthly or yearly believe the bread and wine are only “symbols” of Jesus’s Body and Blood, while the number rises to 87% of Catholics who go to Mass even more rarely.

In view of this alarming data, I think we can safely say that one benefit of the present shut-down of public masses is that there will be far fewer sacrilegious communions. Possibly none, if the priests who offer private masses are doing so in a state of grace. I can only think that, in a time of international tumult, this fact, at least, is a good thing. Worthy communion is more important than frequent communion. Yet our ecclesiastical culture has, over the decades, become so fixated on frequent communion and liturgical participation as to neglect the all-important question of preparation for communion. The whole mystagogical apparatus of the early Church is against this attitude, as was the lived practice of most Christians throughout a great portion of Church history. Even St. Philip Neri, who devoutly encouraged frequent communion when this practice was rare, nevertheless made his spiritual sons at the Oratory confess to him every single day.

We have sadly now come to a point where many believe they are entitled to receive the Blessed Sacrament, simply by virtue of showing up to Mass. But this mentality vitiates our recognition of its quality as a work of supernatural grace – of something gratuitous, freely given to us by God without respect to our own merits. For what is the grace of the Blessed Sacrament, but the very life of Our Lord, Jesus Christ? It is the epitome of grace, for in the Blessed Sacrament we encounter the Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, and Priestly Intercession of the Lord. This is why we must make a good preparation for reception of Holy Communion: in a worthy communion, that infinite Life merges with our own, and gradually assimilates us to Itself. Thus we discover the profoundly Eucharistic sense of the Apostle’s words, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

We should all take this time when we are unable to avail ourselves of the Blessed Sacrament to consider how frequently and in how many ways we outrage the Sacred and Eucharistic Heart of Jesus through sacrilegious communions, doubt in the Real Presence, and other manifold sins. This is a time for Acts of Contrition and Reparation. We must turn to God in a spirit of penance. To do so would be to transform this unhappy situation into an occasion of grace for ourselves, our neighbors, our Church, and the whole world.

The Eucharist is essential to the supernatural life, as are the sacraments more generally. Nevertheless, one worthy communion is so infinitely full of grace that we could (in theory) go a lifetime without receiving again and still gain heaven. This may seem unlikely; most souls do indeed need to receive more often than that.

But let us consider the case of St. Mary of Egypt, a saint who is venerated in a special way during the penitential season of Lent among the Eastern churches. Having lived a sinful life as a prostitute, Mary decided to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem as a kind of tourist. Yet when she attempted to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to behold the True Cross, she was repeatedly held back by an invisible force. Distraught, she beheld an icon of the Mother of God. In a moment of grace, she repented of her sins with tears and trembling. The invisible barrier lifted. She was able to enter the church. The graces of that pilgrimage inspired her to go into the desert around Jordan, where she spent forty-seven years alone as a hermit. In that time, she overcame the Passions and received marvelous gifts, including an infused knowledge of the Holy Scriptures. Her ascetic labor has enshrined her as one of the most powerful and beloved of the Desert Saints. Eventually, the hieromonk St. Zosima met her and heard her story, which is how it has come down to us through the ages.

St. Mary of Egypt, pray for us (Source)

Here’s the thing: in her long life, St. Mary is known to have received the Blessed Sacrament only twice. Once, when she stopped at the Church of St. John the Baptist on the Jordan River as she was just beginning her ascesis. Then again shortly before her death. As she tells Zosima in her Vita,

“Remain, Abba, in the monastery. And even if you wish to depart, you will not be to do so. And at sunset of the holy day of the Last Supper, put some of the lifegiving Body and Blood of Christ into a holy vessel worthy to hold such Mysteries for me, and bring it. And wait for me on the banks of the Jordan adjoining the inhabited parts of the land, so that I can come and partake of the lifegiving Gifts. For, since the time I communicated in the temple of the Forerunner before crossing the Jordan even to this day I have not approached the Holy Mysteries. And I thirst for them with irrepressible love and longing. and therefore I ask and implore you to grant me my wish, bring me the lifegiving Mysteries at the very hour when Our Lord made His disciples partake of His Divine Supper.”

The Life of Our Venerable Mother Mary of Egypt, St. Sophronius of Jerusalem
Source.

I am quite certain that St. Mary was sustained throughout her forty-seven years in the desert by the grace of that one worthy communion. Happy are we, who are not so deprived! We can make spiritual communions, we can adore the Blessed Sacrament mentally, we can stream Mass, we can pray the Divine Office, and so much more. I genuinely believe that this time away from the Sacrament, if we dispose of it well, can remind us of the proper disposition we must bring to the altar – and which we so often lack! A keener appreciation and deeper faith in the great mystery of Holy Communion would be a salutary fruit of this crisis, and a great grace for the people of God. So, too, would a more robust and multifarious approach to Eucharistic devotion.

Let us remember that God does not abandon us. We may not be able to receive Him, but He still abides in the tabernacles of His Church. He has given us this crisis as an opportunity to purify our hearts and to restore our faith in Him. He is ever near us. He is ever willing to help us. He will not forget us or turn away from us. Let us follow that great archetype of the Christian life, St. Mary of Egypt, and return to Our Eucharist Lord only after doing proper penance for our sins during our stay in the desert. And in the meantime, let us cleave to Him as to the only rock of safety in a violent storm.

O Eucharistic Jesus, grant us the grace of loving Thee more perfectly while we must be far from Thee. Help us to cultivate a spirit of true contrition for our many sins against Thee, and grant us the grace of making worthy reparation. By the invincible, infinite, and everlasting merits of Thy Precious Blood, do Thou conquer everything base, everything impure, and everything sinful within us. And do Thou cleanse us, body, soul, and spirit, that we may enter into Thy sanctuary at the end of our days. Amen.

Our Lady of the Cenacle in Armenian Iconography

ArmenianOLCenacle

Figure A. Our Lady of the Cenacle, pray for us. From the source: “MINIATURES – Erevan, Matenadaran, MS 8772, Gospel, Aght’amar, Vaspurakan, 1391, artist Dzerun, Pentecost. Photo: Dickran Kouymjian.” (Source)

Throughout the Latin Church, Saturday in the Ascension Octave is kept as the Feast of Our Lady of the Cenacle. On this holy day, we remember the Mother of God keeping vigil with the Apostles in the Upper Room, or “Cenacle.” The place is significant. Here, Christ gathered the Twelve on the night of his betrayal, Maundy Thursday. At that time, He instituted the priesthood and the Eucharist. Later, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit will descend upon the congregation and truly constitute the Church as such, confirming its sacramental essence and mission in the world of time.

Mary’s position in this unique place at this unique time is captured in the title, “Our Lady of the Cenacle.” But that name conceals a much deeper mystery. What, precisely, was she doing in the Cenacle? Why was she there? And does her presence, never mentioned in the Bible, nevertheless retain important meaning for us today?

As with any mystery unspoken in Scripture but passed on to us by the Tradition, we can approach it by many paths. One of the wonderful things about the Church is that, in her sacramentality, she recasts everything in the light of Christ and opens all things to a deeper meaning than we ordinarily encounter. So today, I’d like to consider Our Lady of the Cenacle through art. Specifically, iconography. Even more specifically, Armenian illuminated manuscripts.

pentecost_kirillo-belozersk-c-1497.jpg

Figure B. A Greek-style Russian icon of 1497. Note the emptimess of the “Teacher’s Seat” at center. (Source)

In the Greek iconographic tradition, Pentecost is usually depicted with an empty seat in the center…the place of Christ the King and Teacher, who has ascended and sent the Holy Spirit in his stead. The icon for the feast of mid-Pentecost dovetails with this custom, as it depicts Jesus the youth instructing the teachers of the Law in an arrangement that approximates that of Pentecost proper. The Russian and Slavic iconographic tradition largely copies this model, with one notable exception. Many Russian iconographers include the Mother of God in what would ordinarily be the empty “Teacher’s Seat.” As one writer puts it, “Mary is therefore shown in the ‘teacher’s seat’ as the best example we have, and the person on earth who most resembled Jesus Christ (both physically, as His mother, and spiritually as His disciple).” Indeed.

Icon-The-Descent-of-the-Holy-Spirit

Figure C. A Russian-style icon with the Mother of God in the “Teacher’s Seat,” date unknown. (Source).

The Armenian iconographic tradition differs from both the Greek and Russian streams in important ways, not all of which we can get into here. For our purposes, it is enough for us to observe that the Armenians have a tendency to place the Mother of God at the center of the Pentecostal scene.

Examine, if you will, the illumination at the top of this essayFigure A.

Mary is, by far, the largest character. The Apostles crowd around her on both sides expectantly. Her hands are lifted in the orans position of prayer. She stands in a red mantle and a dark blue robe that matches the hue of the Holy Spirit alighting above her. Every one of the bird’s tongues of flame move through her nimbus to reach the Apostles, some of whom even raise their own hands as if to reach out and take hold of the mystical fire.

A similar placement and posture is written into the following icon:

Pentecost2

Figure D. Description from source: “This Armenian Gospel book was produced in 904 of the Armenian era (1455 CE) at the monastery of Gamałiēl in Xizan by the scribe Yohannēs Vardapet, son of Vardan and Dilšat, and was illuminated by the priest Xačʿatur.” (Source)

Mary is the central pillar of the icon. The Holy Spirit does not just descend, but rests upon her as He sends forth his tongues of flame. Here, too, their colors match. We can see that the Holy Spirit is customarily written in blue for this festal icon.

Blue is an interesting color, one with mystical associations. I won’t attempt a full symbolic analysis here, but it is worth contemplating the range of natural and supernatural meanings which Christianity has invested in this delicate shade. It suffices to say that blue is a sophianic color, calling to mind the wisdom and beauty of God (see the pertinent chapter in The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, by the great Russian theologian Father Pavel Florensky). The iconographic tradition is of great help in this subject as well; besides gold, blue is the only other color allowed for the background of icons in the Greek and Slavic canons.

DarkDove1

Figure E. An Armenian Pentecost icon without Mary, but with a blue dove of the Spirit. (Source)

SmallIcon

Figure F. Pentecost icon of unconfirmed but probably Armenian origin. Same blue Spirit, roughly the same placement of the Theotokos. (Source).

It is also perhaps worthy of note that in Figure D, Mary doesn’t just match the hue of the Spirit. The colors she wears also match the architecture of the Cenacle. She is one with the Cenacle; the Cenacle is hers, and hers alone. The Cenacle is the Church, the Cenacle is every tabernacle in the world, the Cenacle is Heaven, the Cenacle is the New Jerusalem, the Cenacle is the Throne of God, the Cenacle is the Eschaton, the Cenacle is the final consummation of sophianic being brought about by Christ’s gloriously triumphant Incarnation, sacrifice, and Resurrection.

And in all these mystical dimensions of the Cenacle, Our Lady is Queen.

Mary is the woman who bears the Holy Spirit, the living icon of the Church. When we look at Mary, we are to think of the Spirit. The Mother of God always points us to her son, but also to the Holy Spirit, and through both, to the Father. She is never apart from the Holy Spirit. They abide together, and the Cenacle is where her truly Eucharistic and sophianic state of being is manifested for the awe-struck view of the whole Church. She is the consummation of what is accomplished by the Trinity in the Cenacle, the woman who fully cooperates in the salvation of the world, the Co-Redemptrix and Mediatrix of All Graces. Indeed, do we not read the latter title in the first illumination above? Do we not see it in the slim orange lines of fire that move through her halo to the Apostles below? They only receive the Spirit as it passes through Mary.

Mary does nothing of her own effort. God does all in her, and she freely agrees to accept and work for God’s will. St. Paul can speak of “those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh” (Col. 1:24 DRA). Not so with Mary. In her, the cross’s victory is complete. In her, it has become the Tree of Life, “so that the birds of the air,” such as the blue bird of the icons, “come and lodge in the branches thereof” (Matt. 13:32 KJV).

On this feast day, let us remember the manifold graces that Our Lady showers upon us from her throne in the eternal Cenacle. Let us also take heart that, with so powerful an advocate at the heart of the Church, no controversies or troubles can ever overwhelm the Barque of Peter. Finally, let us pray to Our Lady of the Cenacle for the Benedictines of Silverstream on this, their patronal feast.