Saturday, September 29, 2012

Prostitutes, hot pokers, and the Angelic Warfare Confraternity.

Chapel at Dominican House of Studies

I had never been to the Dominican House of Studies when Christine invited me to the enrollment ceremony for the Angelic Warfare Confraternity (AWC) on the Feast of the Archangels one year ago. I knew very little about the AWC and had no intention of joining. But the Dominicans, aptly named the Order of Preachers, put on a good show and I rashly decided to just go with it.

According to the AWC website, "the Angelic Warfare Confraternity is a supernatural fellowship of men and women bound to one another in love and dedicated to pursuing and promoting chastity together under the powerful patronage of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Blessed Virgin Mary." The main spiritual fruits of the AWC are the protection of chastity and purity, the healing of the stains of sin against chastity and purity, and the protection from the occasion of sin against chastity and purity and from scandal. Some people have reported intellectual benefits attributed to the intercession of the patron, St. Thomas Aquinas. The AWC is centuries old and some of the deceased members have been beatified.

Two of the most obvious qualities of Thomas Aquinas were his superhuman intellect and his childlike innocence, reasons for which he is called the Angelic Doctor. The title Doctor of the Church is given to a Saint whose writing has been especially important to our understanding of theology and doctrine. GK Chesterton speculated that Thomas spent so much time in intense thought that he channeled all of his other energies, including sexual energy, into thinking.

When Thomas was a young man he ran off and became a Dominican which ticked off his parents who wanted him to be a Benedictine. Mom was so upset that she sent Thomas' brothers to drag him home and lock him in the family tower. They tried to wait him out but couldn't get him to leave the Dominicans. So his brothers came up with the fool proof plan of sending a prostitute into his room to tempt him out of celibacy. (No one could possibly turn down SEX!) Well, Thomas chased the poor prostitute out of the room with a hot poker, slammed the door behind her, and burned a cross into the wooden door before collapsing to the floor, probably nearly having heart attack because Thomas was never a slender guy. Then he went into a sort of unconscious ecstasy during which angels tied a cord around his waist that would protect his chastity and purity from any further attack. Supposedly when he woke up there was a cord around his waist.

AWC members wear either a blessed cord around the waist or a blessed medal, in honor of St. Thomas and Our Lady of the Rosary. Fr Brent informed us that, "You should wear it at all times until someone removes it from your dead body."

Fr Brent admitted to removing his before surgery and forgetting to put it back on after. He remembered it when he had unusually unchaste and impure thoughts, but the thoughts went away after putting it back on. He cautioned us that this spiritual chastity belt won't help if we don't take it seriously. One has to actually want to live chastity.

Anyway, Christine and I went into the chapel and sat quietly and I started to feel awkward, not knowing what was going on. Eventually Fr Brent and some dangerously good looking Dominican men showed up to explain the details. There were seminarians and even some priests there to be enrolled and we were told that in some places entire seminaries have joined the confraternity.  Our job as members is to pray for each of us to receive the graces mentioned above. The prayers include a prayer of St. Thomas and another prayer asking for his intercession and 15 Hail Mary prayers in honor of Our Lady of the Rosary (after the original 15 decades of the rosary). We were given some time to decide if we could commit to the prayers and the lifestyle.

We went into another room to fill out a form for the records and then we were each given a candle and processed back into the chapel. We entered by twos, so of course we stood by our buddies. But once we were inside the pairs were split up on either side of the chapel. The girl in front of me seemed really confused and tried to complain and follow the older woman she was partnered with but the Dominicans politely guided her to the other side. As soon as I sat down she said to me, "I'm deaf, can you help me?" There was a lot of reading from the booklets they gave us and I tried to follow the text with my finger in case she got lost trying to lip read what Fr Brent was saying. Sometimes we had to read responses, but that wasn't made clear in the text, so she would try to watch me and see if I was talking. It wasn't the best system but we made it through.

The candles were dripping and Fr Brent sprinkled us and our cords and metals with holy water. There was water and wax everywhere! Then some Dominican brothers came in to ceremoniously put the medals around our necks. This took forever because the cords were too small to fit over some of our heads. The deaf girl next to me took down her hair as her Dominican repeatedly tried to force the cord over her head. Eventually some of them gave up and started battling with the clasp. Finally everyone was medalled and we processed out and down the cloister walk with live Gregorian Chant. One by one our names were entered into a huge old book, again very ceremoniously. Then Fr Brent gave some final instructions and I watched the deaf girl ask her companion what he had said. The old lady helplessly shook her head until the girl gave up and asked me. After some pointing and waving around and speaking as clearly was I could she repeated back what I had told her. I wonder if she often has to deal with people who are too afraid even to attempt communicating with her.

A year later, I think it was the best way to celebrate the Feast of Sts. Michael and Gabriel and Raphael, the Archangels.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

By the intercession of the dead monk skulls.

When I was on a Foreign Study Program in Greece in 2002 we went to Meteora, one of the coolest monasteries ever. We wore long skirts so as not to offend the Greek Orthodox monks. They have a room filled with dead monk skulls. It seemed strange at the time, but maybe not as weird as the tiny petrified body of a little boy that's on display at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington DC. What's the deal with the dead people (or pieces of dead people!) on display for public veneration? What's the deal with relics?

Assuming there's an afterlife (which we do), then what happens when I die? I leave my body behind, right? I don't need it anymore, right? Well... sort of. But it's still my body even though it's going to rot away. And I will still need it. But don't worry, it will be restored in a miraculous way during the resurrection of the dead. No biggie. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead and restored him to earthly life even after Martha said, although not in these words, "ummmm... he's been dead for four days. Are you sure you wanna go in there? It's gonna be super stinky." My body is me. It's not just a possession that I own, like my old t-shirt that can be thrown away if I die. Angels may be pure spirit but humans are spirit and body so if I'm going to have a human life after death (instead of one of those creepy ghost lives like in Hades/Sheol) then, at some point, I need my body back! When Jesus was resurrected he let the Apostles poke at him and eat with him so they could make sure he was a living person and not a ghost. A living human being has a body.

So at the end of the world my rotten body, or my cremated body, or my disintegrated body, or my fill-in-the-blank body will be restored and become my 'glorified' body. What happens in the meantime? It's still my body even though it's no longer animated because it's separated from my soul. Sure, in some sense it doesn't matter what happens to it because it'll get patched up later. But it should be respected because it's still part of me.

And--brace yourselves!--my body is a holy object. (Although certainly not as holy as it should be.) When a person is Baptized, he or she becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit, meaning that God comes to live within him or her. Fr. Dale says that when he's celebrating a funeral, he bows to the body while incensing it. Not because he's worshiping the body but because God is still at home in that body. Grace is God's life within us, i.e. the presence of God. A special grace is attached to any object, like a rosary, that has been blessed. When the blessed object is no longer usable it gets either burned or buried so that it won't be defiled. The same thing is done with bodies.

The more we're freed from sin the more 'space' there is for God to live within us (cause God doesn't fraternize with sin). So a holy person, or a holy person's body, will be more strongly steeped in God's grace--hence, the seemingly superstitious practice of venerating relics. The relic is venerated; God, present within the relic, is worshiped. Idol worship? No! Neither the relic nor the person it came from is being worshiped. As usual, God is being worshiped. No surprise there.

What about praying to St. Anthony, for example, in the presence of his relic? Praying in the presence of his relic reminds me that he is still alive and that the spirit world is closer than I realize. And, because his body is still his, I'm in the same room with him and we're praying together! Just like praying in the same room with my friend Jeremy is different from texting to ask him to pray for me. But again, the most important thing about a relic is the presence of God. And if I know this person is a Saint then I know that he is full of grace, because that's one of the conditions of being in Heaven.

A first order relic is an actual piece of the body of a Saint. Lots of churches have sarcophagi to display the bodies of Saints, and sometimes small pieces of tissue are removed to make relics for other churches, like the piece of petrified flesh at the Shrine of St. Anthony in Ellicott City. Sometimes the bones of a Saint are dug up to make relics--there's a tradition of embedding the relic of a Saint in every altar. But just like every other fun thing, sometimes people go overboard. After Catherine of Siena died her body was kept in Rome until her head was smuggled out by some people of Siena. They felt sure that she would rather be kept at home but doubted that they could smuggle the entire body.

A second order relic is something that was owned by the Saint, usually a piece of clothing. The presence of God within the Saint sanctifies his or her clothing and possessions so that they carry a special grace, just like the blessed rosary. Remember that Luke 8:40-48 tells of a woman who is instantly healed after touching the cloak of Jesus. Her faith was strong enough that just touching his garment was enough.

A third order, or higher, relic is a piece of cloth that was touched to a second or third order relic and now retains some extra grace. These minor relics can be bought and sold. In the YouTube video Blessing of Cloth for St. Anthony Relics, Fr. Richard Jacob touches a large cloth to the reliquary of the major relic of St. Anthony, his petrified flesh, in Ellicott City.

But just remember, it's all fun and games until someone desecrates a body!