Saturday, December 19, 2015

A Glorious and Erudite Chronicle of the History of the Sodality of Garcia Diego, Year 3

A blessed Advent and Christmas to all of our readers. This year, as may be guessed by the infrequency of blogging, the activities of the Sodality’s members have turned inward. We have pursued our own vocational goals, rather than embarking upon noble requests to recruit new members and undertake grand liturgical activities and pilgrimages as a group. We still attend, when schedules allow, benediction at the Poor Clares' monastery, and visits to Harry’s have still been known to happen.

The bulk of our socializing, however, is under the auspices of our Tehom Bible Study (profiled by Barbara in a post this summer). This “abysmal” group is still separate from the Sodality, but does contain most of the Sodality’s members (notably with the absence of Sean), and most of those members not proclaiming themselves sodalitiers are aware that they may still be associates.

Tehom has met nearly every week this year, undertaking lengthy studies of the Book of Revelation and the Epistle to the Hebrews; we recently shifted away from the Bible to study Pope St Pius X’s encyclical against modernism. Tehom has also had some other social gatherings, and we have been grateful to Michael for his frequent hosting. Michael also hosted a Fiesta party in August and a Transitus party on his birthday, October 3, where Tehom and the Sodality met some of his other good Catholic friends. Last Sunday (Gaudete Sunday), after Benediction and a gathering at Michael’s, much of the group, along with some old friends, attended a concert of the Santa Barbara Mission choir, featuring our very own Liz. There was also one other significant event attended by all of Tehom, the Sodality, and our friends from a previous overlapping group, which shall be discussed shortly.

One member was recruited to our merry band through the Sodality website itself. Jeff recently moved to Santa Barbara and was directed by Matt to Tehom when he wrote for more information about our group. He was a part of somewhat similar groups before, and immediately distinguished himself with his essential services.

All of us have embarked upon great new adventures of a Catholic nature; Liz, as aforementioned, joined the Mission Choir. Some members attended retreats and or investigated religious orders. Though I am a biased source, there is no doubt that the premier event of the Sodality took place this year  on October 24, when TMR (now known as TMRC) and I were joined in the sacrament of holy matrimony, in a traditional Latin mass at Saint Mary Magdalen Chapel in Camarillo. Matt ably served as best man. Our visiting royal founders, Anthony and Nikki, were able to attend; their own wedding nearly two years ago was among the first opportunities for TMRC and me to begin our friendship. We cultivated our new friendship as I did my best to respond to her early blog posts. When we began courting, we undertook writing collaborations last year. We are truly grateful for the support of all Sodality and Tehom members through our engagement and wedding. True Catholic friendship is indeed a great help to the formation of a new Catholic family.

I will not try to make a list of goals as I did last year. No matter what, let the record hold that the Sodality has been a resounding success, even if not yet in the public square.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015


This sodality blog has been dormant for a season, though Barbara has valiantly posted on our Tehoming instincts and Matt has offered spiritual reflections on desert and on gazing heavenward (both at Ascension and Epiphany). Previously, we sodalitiers had offered sporadic and eccentric musings on various points of the Liturgical Year; more derivative than original, such posts were intended to highlight favorite feast days.[1] Such articles will undoubtedly crop up from time to time as the spontaneous overflow of who-knows-what recollected in tranquility (apologies to Mr. William Wordsworth for that phrasing).

Some other ideas for posts might be:
  •  reviews of books or other resources
  • QuickTakes from our weekly discussions on- and off-topic
  • a series offering some glimpse into the life, work, and perspective of individual sodality members (perhaps “How I Pray” interviews, or reflective essays on their work in the light of faith[2]).

What would you like to read? Let me know.
That’s enough of an editorial headnote[3]. Here is my reflective essay on what some colleagues call “stewardship of words.”
“Save the rhinos. Extinction is forever.” So reads a sticker on the bathroom mirror near one of my classrooms. I keep thinking about this during teaching prep. Not because of the eco-rhetorical appeal for charismatic megafauna: I have not mustered any particular sentiment, fellow-feeling, or activist thought concerning the rhinoceros—but extinction, yes. And the foreverness of it, yes. A different kind of extinction, though, is one of my greatest and deepest fears:[4] cultural extinction, intellectual extinction. I also fear the Age of Conshush, as I will explain later.
  •  Everyone has a right to follow their own conshush.
  •  She conshushouslly insisted that no one can force someone else’s conshush.
  • 595154-jiminy1 super
    Jiminy Cricket
  • It needs to be a conshush decision in that it has to be conshushual.

I fear the death of ideas: strong, resilient, and adaptable as ideas are, they cannot survive the loss of their habitat. They do not live in the wild. They do not live in books, though we can find some record of where they have roosted and nested and bred from the signs and material evidence they leave in the written record. But ideas are human creations, by God’s great grace in permitting us to be little makers in His image, sub-creators. Our ideas can only live in human minds, minds that are awake and cultivated (as with that “constant and assiduous Culture” and daily weeding of the mind that Joseph Addison discussed). Since the human mind is in a mortal body, ideas will die unless they can live on in other minds. Behold! How fragile are the humanities at any given moment!

Ideas feed on words: when words are killed or diseased, ideas flatten, shrivel, gasp, swell, shudder, constrict, and die. Words do die regularly; it’s an inescapable part of the ecological dynamics of language. But when a new linguistic disease is introduced, when whole ecosystems of words fall ill in one season, then the death rate and the statistical models for ideas must certainly change: I write today to raise awareness for the plight of a cluster of words and ideas that are in acute danger of extinction now. How fragile is this handing over of ideas, this traditio! How quickly ideas and traditions could go extinct without even being listed as “endangered”!

My ecological analogy is not meant as a mere metaphor. I believe language truly is a resource as precious as any of our natural resources. Marilyn Chandler McEntyre has also made this point: “like any other life-sustaining resource, language can be depleted, polluted, contaminated, eroded, and filled with artificial stimulants.” She elaborates on the consequences and our responses to this in a book I sometimes use for class discussions, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies. No doubt dead and dying ideas distort and disease the host mind, but that is beyond my scope here. Moreover, I am not an intellectual historian; I don’t study the history of ideas, nor even of one idea. Nor am I setting out to write something on the “problem with young people today”—not the Closing of the American Mind a generation ago, nor the Coddling of the American Mind now, nor yet edutainment, nor selfie culture, nor relatability. Instead, I offer my impressions from my field notebooks, if you will. I know my observations are limited to the little corner of the world I work in, though I do have a surprisingly large sample from my small purview. Since last fall, I have taught ten of my own college courses, assisted with five discussion sections, and read nearly a thousand (placement) exams. Thus, compared to my previous five years of teaching in my doctoral program, I have seen a staggering 8-10X the amount of student writing this year.

This large volume of student writing has been written at the first-year college (freshman) level—or placing into it. Aside from the placement exams, I’ve seen each student essay develop from initial fumbling, to first draft, to submission draft, to final revision draft; I’ve checked in on various other stages in between. I haven’t taught upper-division courses in a while; I remember fondly the best papers I read, especially in elective courses that had really captured student interest, but those haven’t looked like the last 3000 course assignments I’ve graded. There is no need here to detail the grading rubrics or comments that I give or the pedagogical recommendations at my two institutions; suffice it to say that I know the student writing process in all its messiness.

I also know that I do not see students’ best work, for at least two reasons: firstly, what they turn in to me is all more or less coerced writing, since no one chooses first year composition as worthwhile in its own right, merely a requirement to be “gotten out of the way” if one hasn’t tested out of it; secondly, to quote the textbook I use “As we struggle to master new ideas, most of us write worse than we do when we write about things that we understand. If that sounds like you, take heart: you will write more clearly when you more clearly understand what you are writing about.” The nature of college writing is that students are forced to write about things they are still struggling to grasp.

Yes, first-year composition (FYC) papers present a distorted picture of undergraduate education today. I understand that. But I am alarmed by one trend I’ve seen in my classroom, and my alarm waxes greater and more urgently every time I see the same thing in the wider world outside my classroom. It’s not that I’m surprised to find typos, nor even the kind of typos that spell checkers miss, nor that students mistakenly use the wrong word, nor that misplaced politically-correct sensitivity can led to confusion: the alarming problem is that some such corrections can become uncorrectable. It’s one thing to circle “for all intensive purposes” and discuss changing it to “for all intense and purposes”—the student heard a common expression wrongly, as I hear song lyrics wrongly so often—and perhaps another round of revision will eliminate the clich├ęs and filler words altogether. It is very different to find oneself repeating this conversation several times for one course: “I circled the word ‘distress’ so you could replace that with the word you mean.” “You know what I mean.” “I truly don’t know what you mean. Do you find the beach distressing?”

If students don’t know (and don’t know that they don’t know) the word they want to use, nor the word they actually did use, nor similar words; if they can’t distinguish as readers or writers between two different concepts; if they are passively resistant to further instruction on these points—then surely they are functionally illiterate, even if they go on to be awarded a baccalaureate degree! My students “know not what they do”: as much as we lose our ability to distinguish between words, our ability to think is diminished. (Eskimos and other Arctic peoples have hundreds of words for snow; surely they can think far more extensively and intensively about snow than I can! By comparison, how many names and titles do we have for our Lord and our Lady? And how carefully might we use those as tools to help us think more about divine matters?) My students’ paucity of vocabulary is nowhere more painfully evident than in the verbs used to respond to a book, article, or other materials: merely the verbs “like” and “dislike.” How flat is such thinking! Fortunately, by the end of the term, they do make good progress on this point. 

In teaching, I can usually call out some distortions, inversions, and so on that crop up in our public discourse and committee-speak. I’d rather face an inversion than entrenched murkiness.This is the different, more incorrigible problem: to illustrate it, I will choose one cluster of words. My freshmen students choose to write about current events and political discussions, concepts that come up in other intro courses, and their extracurricular experiences or concerns. Every term, students’ own choices for paper topics include
  • healthcare, women’s issues, reproductive rights, parental rights, vaccines, and autonomy: questions of individual choice, collective responsibility, and conscience clauses.
  • first-year psychology (one of the most popular majors): questions of (un)consciousness in decisions and human behavior, Big Five personality traits (including conscientiousness)
  •  sometimes related to either of the foregoing categories, sometimes not: consensual sexual relations, consensus in group dynamics or political activity.

In the past year, I have seen all of these “con-“ words confused, and my circling or writing WW (wrong word) on graded work seems to some students to be utterly arbitrary. Sometimes there are multiple levels of confusion in one sentence. Stop for a moment and think up sentences that would draw on 3-4 of these concepts; there are indeed crucial points of contact between and among these ideas. Now make them into a verbal smoothie and taste the horrid sludge. It’s strange, because it’s seemingly a little problem, a surface-level correction, just a word or two to tweak in a sentence while revising for clarity and precision.

Sometimes in the context of a sentence the correction would not be a simple substitution; sometimes the sentence makes no sense with any existing word—utterly incomprehensible; far more often it is a murky confusion of these several ideas, none of which the poor student has been able to grasp fully. This is far, far more effort and more time-consuming to grade than the honest typos, or stylistic infelicities, or translation difficulties: it is the most alarming and least rewarding to attempt to correct, because students often still fail to see the problem. Yes, there is always some slippage of words; poets use such slippage to brilliant effect--but they and their readers must work through it, not simply pretend muddy waters are clear.

In the Age of Conshush, any vague impression of mumbled phrasing will do—the prefix con- followed by a sibilant, a syllable or two, and a closing sibilant. Conscience, conscious, conscientious…fade to conshush. Even the dictionary does not help if students are not willing to distinguish [there are 12 entries for “con” alone]. Conscience is defined at first as a “consciousness of morality”; Conscious, awareness in an “active and waking state” of mind, these are definitions 9 & 10 of the Oxford English Dictionary; the word originally meant sharing in knowledge, awareness, and so on. Trace both words back through other romance languages to find they draw from con-, with and scire, to know (the word that also gives us science, as well as decision, incision, excision—a cutting off doubt, cutting into, cutting out). In class and in student meetings, though, there is no time for this; students do not even stop to think how the words are used now, to find and think about any examples of them in print, nor do they care about previous developments.] As my alarm grows, I think how all dictionaries now are descriptivist and how digital editions even of the OED are more quickly changed than previously: these new meaningless uses will become the useable meanings very, very soon. These will gum up the political machine even more, hamper evangelization efforts, and hasten our doom. What should the history books say about the decline and fall of our technologically conceited civilization? Some insufferable future historian addicted to wordplay might sum us up:
First they were conned; then they were shushed; they couldn’t help conning and shushing others until the end of their days.
These poor students do not share in knowledge, are not aware; they are not sufficiently con- scire. They are sadly lacking in consciousness, conscientiousness, conscience—and, remember this is a required course, and college is all but required—consent. In a Catholic context, last week we saw that even some synod fathers were confused. (Samuel Gregg’s article at Crisis Magazine today is worth reading, especially the section starting with “conscience doesn’t create its own truth.”; Cardinal Arinze’s interview is also helpful.)

Sometimes I wonder why God bothered to reveal Himself to us in our feebleness, pettiness, frailty—and with our genius for distorting messages and words. Our Lord founded His Church to redeem sinners, and He put it in the hands of imperfect, sinful men; He gave to sinners the power to forgive sins. God entrusts us with the responsibility for cultivating and correcting, even though we ourselves are in need of such correction—surely a mystery! In my own case, He gives to a very slow and clumsy writer the responsibility to cultivate better writing. As the Year of Mercy begins, I should remember that my repetitive and sometimes disheartening work can really be a work of mercy: “All the ordinary deeds of every day to relieve the corporal or spiritual needs of others are true works of mercy if done in the name of Christ.” Of such is the kingdom of heaven.

Please pray for me as I write in my small way:
 “And knowing the whole world stiff with the crack of doom
I pick up my pen and correct and make notes and write small
And go on with the task of the day, seeing unseeing what hangs over all
The awful eyes of our Lady, who hangs so straight upon the crooked wall.”[5]

Would you please comment? And consider writing a post reflecting on your own work and faith?

[1] The most  noteworthy development in those posts is not the writing itself but the development of a collaboration between TMR and scovich. This collaboration has grown in other ways than drafting and editing sodality posts: this week, it will become an all-encompassing collaboration, lifelong and life-giving. It will be a formal contract, indeed, elevated to the dignity of a sacrament, signifying and conferring grace. Deo gratias.
[2] Matt’s last few posts are examples of this. I’m sure he could expand more, but he does have the courtesy to be brief for the sake of busy readers—whereas, today, I seem to expect readers to clear their calendars to make time to read.
[3] I have been an inactive editor for some time; if any sodalitier wants to take up the position and email address, I’m sure that can be speedily arranged.
[4] As Tehomies know (because they spent six months studying John’s Apocalypse with me), I fear many things. And I feel the burden of the past and the responsibility for the future. My childhood fear was that future archeologists would not be able to read anything from my era because they would lack something like the Rosetta Stone; my current fears might include that they would understand my era all too well—and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.
[5] From “Crooked” by G. K. Chesterton

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Tehom Bible Study and St. Leonard of Port Maurice

I'm not sure if it's ever been brought up that quite a few Sodality members have invaded the same Bible study, affectionally called the "Tehom" Bible Study, and associated with the predominantly post-undergraduate group sponsored by FOCUS missionaries at St. Mark's University parish in Goleta.  If you're the sort of person to look up what "Tehom" means, you'll fit right in with half the people here, who can be found with multiple texts in hand or backpack.  If you're the kind who hears "Tehom" and says "Gesundheit" with a grin, you can come sit right next to me.  We're currently meeting on Mondays at 8 pm [EDIT: now meeting Tuesdays at 8pm], usually at someone's house in or near Goleta.  Let us know in the comments or by contacting the blog administrators, if you're interested in joining us.  Expect a riot of Catholic non sequiturs that'll leave you eager to open your Bible and curious what in Heaven's name is going on.  These discussions can be intense and hilarious and inspire reflective (reflexive?) spiritual reading for the (cheap?) thrill of baiting Dominicans (... mmm... not cheap.  They make you pay for that.)

I missed Bible Study the other night, so I read through a recent sermon in spiritual solidarity (yes, the 1700s count as recent, and yes, that does come up more often than you think).  The sermon, however, was not at all as light-hearted as our discussions, though it was actually shorter.  Having said that, if you read it, prepare for a Catholic punch in the face.  It's pretty intense, and a couple of parts can stop you cold:

"For mercy's sake... Either you understand what it means to be saved and to be damned for all eternity, or you do not. If you understand and in spite of that, you do not decide to change your life today, make a good confession and trample upon the world, in a word, make your every effort to be counted among the littler number of those who are saved, I say that you do not have the faith. You are more excusable if you do not understand it... To be saved for all eternity, to be damned for all eternity, and to not make your every effort to avoid the one and make sure of the other, is something inconceivable."

  "... You know how many others I set back on the right path to give you the good example.  ...  Remember that sermon that touched your heart?  I am the One that led you there.  And what has happened between you and Me in the secret of your heart, ... that you can never forget.  Those interior inspirations, that clear knowledge, that constant remorse of conscience, would you dare to deny them? All of these were so many aids of My grace, because I wanted to save you. .... And you... you turn your back on Me..."

".... it shows that you do not care very much for your salvation!"

I've joked that I'm just hoping to claw my way into purgatory.  Not exactly a winning strategy, and setting such a low bar is probably pretty close to presumption.  But I'm afraid I'm quite comfortable in my little rat race of ambition, gluttony, sloth, and luxury.  

And for that, I am now actually afraid.  And also curious - what does repentance actually entail? 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Why do you stand looking into heaven?

Earlier, I was thinking about the Ascension and about what happened just after:

And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? (Acts 1:10-11, RSVCE)
I thought, "Ah, the apostles were gazing into heaven. Maybe I can post something to the blog tying together astronomy and the Ascension." Naturally, a Dominican has beat me to it:
There is something proper about being astounded and in awe of a mystery, but there is something dangerous about being embarrassed by it. Sometimes it seems like we drift too close to the second option with the mystery of the Ascension. In addition to the nagging “why” questions, wondering if things wouldn’t have been better off if Christ had just stuck around, there are the dumbfounded “where” questions that wonder where Christ went when he left the apostles’ sight and where he actually is right now...

Read more at Dominicana

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

In Jest and in Earnest: Holy Week Updates

Scroll down to see information on visiting seven churches on Holy Thursday and for some texts to read during private reflection this week.

St. Dodolinus's Day Special Report
Aboard the (grounded) papal plane: The Holy Father Pope Francis is not travelling this week, but he boarded a grounded plane to meet with reporters, because off-the-cuff interviews given on aircraft garner more media attention than any number of his Wednesday general audiences do. (Incidentally, the dogma of papal infallibility applies narrowly to ex cathedra definitions "of a doctrine of faith or morals to be held by the whole church," not to such ex alitalia discourses as these.) 

Pope Francis exhorted Catholic laity to pray and do good works of penance and alms-giving for their own salvation, for their families, and for their pastors and bishops--most urgently in these next six months. The Holy Father first recognized how busy Catholics are  now in their personal and professional and liturgical lives (and ever more so with the year of consecrated life and the coming jubilee year of mercy and right now with Holy Week), but he reminded them that the III General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops will convene Oct 5-19 to address 'pastoral challenges of the family in the contexts of evangelization.'

Speaking from remarks he had hastily prepared while browsing and annotating a sporadically active blog for a certain Catholic social group which emphasizes prayer, tradition, spontaneity, and family, the Holy Father declared, "I'd like to dedicate this synod to the special patronage first of Our Lady Refuge of Sinners, in hopes that we will have the moral courage to confront sin--to put the sense of "sin" back in "synod" as it were--and secondly to St. Dodolinus, a model for twenty-first century prelates if only because  'no details of his ministry have survived'--which in itself might be worthwhile given the confusion over last October's drafts of the relatio."

It is indeed an honor that the Holy Father has added this blog to his RSS feed; the editors are spurred on to post more assiduously now that they know what a difference their earlier, more tentative writing has made. As of press time, there were no alterations to the papal itinerary for the September US visit, though Pope Francis is certainly welcome to attend a Sodality Mass, Bible study meeting, rosary on the beach, or dinner at Harry's.

Holy Thursday Seven Churches "Pilgrimage"
Please see last year's post for some background. Begin at 5:30 at San Roque. 
This year, we will visit these seven churches:
1. San Roque
2. Our Lady of Sorrows
3. Our Lady of Guadalupe
4. Our Lady of Mount Carmel
5. Santa Barbara Mission
6. Poor Clare's Monastery
7. Holy Cross

email with any additional questions.
Selections from St. Peter's Complaint by Robert Southwell, S.J.
(Read the full text here.)
Published in 1595, the poem consists of 132 six-line stanzas, as if spoken by St. Peter when he went out and "wept bitterly" after denying Jesus on the night of His arrest. The poem starts with boating imagery apt for his fishing background; many stanzas reflect on the special graces he'd received and has now thrown away; there is also a long passage on Christ's eyes and His tenderness, as Peter turns toward repentance and seeks forgiveness. The selections below give a sense of the depth of his grief and the extreme contrasts he now recognizes, his contrition and shame, and finally his plea for forgiveness.

I fear'd with life to die, by death to live;
I left my guide,—now left, and leaving God;
To breathe in bliss I fear'd my breath to give,
I fear'd for heavenly sign an earthly rod;
These fears I fear'd, fears feeling no mishaps.
Oh! fond, oh! faint, oh! false, oh! faulty lapse!

How can I live, that thus my life denied?
What can I hope, that lost my hope in fear?
What trust in one, that truth itself defied?
What good in him, that did his God forswear?
O sin of sins! of ills the very worst;
O matchless wretch! O caitiff most accurst!

Vain in my vaunts, I vow'd, if friends had fail'd,
Alone Christ's hardest fortunes to abide:
Giant in talk, like dwarf in trial quail'd,
Excelling none but in untruth and pride.
Such distance is between high words and deeds!
In proof, the greatest vaunter seldom speeds.

Ah! rashness, hasty rise to murdering leap,
Lavish in vowing, blind in seeing what;
Soon sowing shames that long remorse must reap,
Nursing with tears that over-sight begat;
Scout of repentance, harbinger of blame,
Treason to wisdom, mother of ill name.
Is this the harvest of his sowing toil?
Did Christ manure thy heart to breed him briers?
Or doth it need this unaccustom'd soil.
With hellish dung to fertile heaven's desires?
No, no, the marl that perjuries do yield.
May spoil a good, not fat a barren field.
A poor desire I have to mend my ill,
I should, I would, I dare not say, I will.

I dare not say I will, but wish I may;
My pride is check'd, high words the speaker spilt.
My good, O Lord ! Thy gift. Thy strength mistay,
Give what Thou bidst, and then bid what Thou wilt.
Work with me what of me thou dost request,
Then will I dare the worst and love the best.
Redeem my lapse with ransom of Thy love,
Traverse th' indictment, rigour's doom suspend;
Let frailty favour, sorrows succour move,
Be Thou Thyself, though changeling I offend.
Tender my suit, cleanse this defiled den,
Cancel my debts, sweet Jesu, say Amen!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Beauty in the Desert

How has your time accompanying Christ in the desert been?

On the first Sunday of Lent, we heard the gospel about how "the Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert" (Mk 1:12). We were called then to follow Christ into the desert for a forty day season of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, in preparation for Easter.

As I often remind my friends, I grew up in a desert. I spent my first twenty-one years in the Mojave Desert near Joshua Tree National Park. So, I know a thing or two about being in the desert. When we think of the desert, of course we think of aridity and heat. I'll add one more attribute that is more controversial. I think the desert is ugly. All I see as I look around are different hues of beige, some dry brush, and the occasional cactus.

There are three things, though, that I appreciate about the desert. I miss these three moments of beauty, even while living in the paradise known as Santa Barbara.

The first is the clear night sky. Wander out into the desert at night and you will find yourself surrounded by all the hosts of heaven (Ps 33[32]:6, Neh 9:6). Away from the distracting light of the city, you can peer deep into the heavens (as far as 2.5 million light-years, with the unaided eye). When there is less to look at nearby, there is more incentive to look up and take in a larger view of things.

The second moment of beauty is the arrival of a thunderstorm. I fondly remember days where we had to turn off all the electronics in the house and had nothing to do but to watch out the window with awe and wonder, as a massive thunderhead rolls in to dump heavy rain on the arid terrain. Sometimes, God makes us stop what we're doing just so we can gaze in wonder at the work He is doing in our lives.

The third moment of beauty is sunrise, when all the beige, hidden in the darkness of night, is replaced by vibrant colors. The sunrise of Easter is coming very soon. A time is coming when we can look back on our time in the desert and see it in an entirely different light.

My friend Raini is better than anyone I know at capturing the beauty of the desert. (She'd probably be the first person to object to me calling the desert ugly. You should listen to her rather than to me. She knows the desert better.) You'll notice that most of the links above are to her website. I humbly suggest that in your Lenten reflections, it might be a good idea to spend some time viewing her photos of the desert.

Holy Week is nearly upon us. Appreciate the last few moments of Lent you have left.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

O Star of Wonder, Star of Night

"The heavens are telling the glory of God"
Psalm 19(18)

"A star shall come forth out of Jacob and a scepter shall rise out of Israel"
Num 24:17

In the Liturgical Calendar there appears to be precisely one day where my specialty (astronomy) is particularly relevant, and since I haven't written a post for the blog for a little more than a year, I have no excuse to not write one now. The feast is the Epiphany, when we celebrate the magi travelling to see the Christ child, after seeing what has become known as the star of Bethlehem.

So, this is when I should apply my special training in astronomy and explain to you what the star is. What exactly did the magi see? Short answer: I don't know. However, there is no shortage of people who claim they have the answer. Generally we can divide them into those that think the star was a purely supernatural event and those that think it was a natural astronomical event. Of course, I'm not including those who think the whole story of the magi is merely a quaint fable, or those that think it was a UFO.

Adoration of the Magi. 19th century. The star shines a beam of light toward the Christ child.
In considering the various theories, let's start with the text where we find the story:

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him." ... Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared; and he sent them to Bethlehem, ... When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.

Matt 2:1-2,7-11, Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition. Emphasis mine

Notice that the text does not mention several things that we commonly think of as elements of the story. The text does not say how many wise men there were, let alone name them. It does not say they were kings. Rather it seems they were astrologers. It does not say they rode on camels. It does not say the magi found Jesus in a manger, but in a house. It does not say they followed the star to Judea. Rather, they saw the star in their homeland first, and went to Jerusalem to ask Herod where the king was to be born. Then, on their way to Jesus, they saw the star a second time over where they were heading.

The text does give a number of clues about what the star might be, but not enough, I think, to definitively say what it was. Also, what clues you see in the text depend on how you interpret the text. So, it turns out, you don't need an astronomer to unravel this mystery, but someone who can read Biblical Greek. For that, I would point you in the direction of Jimmy Akin.

If we go along with the tradition that the star lead the magi on their journey (by the nose), and even pointed them directly to the house where Jesus was, then we will have to conclude that the star was supernatural. Normal stars don't behave this way, and they certainly can't point out a particular house. This is the conclusion of a number of Church Fathers (e.g. St. John Chrysostom ). Maybe it was an angel or something like the pillar of fire and cloud that led the Israelites through the desert.

But if this is the case, then I don't get to say anything about astronomy. So, let's assume the magi were not led by the star in this way, and see what astronomical explanations present themselves. The options usually listed are comets, supernovae, and planets (during conjunctions).

  • Comets are hunks of ice and rock in very elliptical orbits of the sun. They become visible when they are near the sun, and can make for spectacular shows in our night sky.
  • Supernovae are exploding stars. One way this can happen is a large star runs out of fuel, collapses in on itself, and then rebounds out. On Earth, it would look like a new star had appeared in the sky one night and then disappear after a few weeks or months.
  • A conjunction occurs when two or more celestial objects appear close together in the sky, sometimes close enough that they appear to merge into one object. These are not very rare, but astrologers may have ascribed meaning to certain groupings of objects.
Adoration of the Magi by Giotto c. 1306. In this painting the star of Bethlehem is a comet.

A complication in looking for historical instances of these astronomical events is that people tend to disagree about when Jesus was born. Depending on which date they like, people look for and sometimes find these types of events in windows of either 7 - 4 B.C. or 3 - 1 B.C.

I think the most attention has been given to planets, because they move in the night sky a bit differently than the stars. This allows them to have more interesting behavior than stars, which may have interested astrologers. The movement of stars over the course of a night is due to the Earth's rotation. This means that stars far from the North Star rise in the east and set in the west, just like the sun. Planets do the same, except that they are also orbiting the sun, so they move westward a bit faster than the stars do. If you looked at the same part of the sky at the same time every night, you would see the planets move relative to the stars, a little more west each night. Except you would sometimes see the planets stop their motion relative to the stars, backtrack a bit, and then move westward again. This is called retrograde motion. A triple conjunction can happen when a planet has a sequence of three conjunctions with the same object before, during, and after exhibiting retrograde motion.

When people ask me about the star of Bethlehem, they sometimes ask about a particular video, in which Frederick A. Larson, a lawyer, presents a case that a certain sequence of conjunctions of Jupiter matches the clues in the text. In 3 B.C., there was a triple conjunction of Jupiter and the star Regulus, both of which were associated with kingship. Later in 2 B.C., Jupiter has a conjunction with Venus, close enough that they would have appeared to merge into one object. In December 2 B.C., Jupiter would have appeared generally toward the South at night, so the magi travelling south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem would have said it was above where they were heading. Larson also thinks that the part of the text where the star "came to rest" was talking about a stopping point in Jupiter's retrograde motion. You can read about Larson's argument at his website. You can also watch a video of the conjunctions in his theory.

I find Larson's argument plausible, and it seems more developed than other theories I've seen. I think, though, that he reads into the text more requirements for the star's behavior than necessary, particularly when it comes to the part where the star "came to rest." Jimmy Akin points out that the Greek text does not imply an unusual stopping of the star. So, when you take out the requirements that are not necessary, there may be quite a few objects that would work, without any way to decide in favor of just one.

So, we are back to my short answer. What was the star? I don't know. It might be Jupiter as Larson argues. It might have simply been a miracle. I don't think the text gives enough clues to say anything for certain, though it is fun to speculate. Regardless, the story of the magi is well worth reflecting on. As the bumper sticker says, wise men still seek him!