Steve Timm's Blog
FATHER BRENDAN’S PICKLE JAR
During the formative years of my youth, I learned many of life’s lessons from an elderly Irish priest. His name was Father Brendan Shea and he was the pastor of Saint Agatha Catholic Church in Sellwood.
Father B loved to use physical props in making a point and he was forever bringing out objects to drive the message home.
One lesson I will never forget is what I think of as Father Brendan’s Pickle Jar. Let me tell you about it.
FATHER BRENDON’S PICKLE JAR
One lovely summer evening in the early-1960s, Father Brendan and I were sitting on the back porch of his rectory. We were deep in a theological conversation and each enjoying a Cuban cigar and a wee drop of what the beloved priest called, “The Tears of the Angels.”
During a lull in the conversation, Father B put an empty one-gallon wide-mouth pickle jar on the table. He looked at it with a shy grin on his face and said. “Steve, Old Son, this is your life.”
With that, I knew another wonderful lesson was about to reveal itself and I braced to enjoy the special moment.
So, I said, “OK, Father, the empty jar is my life.”
After letting that sink in, Father B reached into a box and extracted a very large stone. Then, he put the stone in the wide-mouth jar … the stone was so large that it barely cleared the jar’s opening.
With a HUGE smile, the Padre announced, “This large stone represents God. God should always be the biggest thing in your life. And, if He isn’t, there is something radically wrong.”
Then, Father Brendan put several two-inch rocks in the jar and filled it to the brim. With this, he asked me if the jar was full.
I answered, “Yep, Father, the jar is totally full.”
Father B then told me, “Steve, the medium-sized rocks represent the many gifts that God so freely puts in our life. These are reflections of God’s Incredible Love for us. Among those wonderful gifts are your future wife, Karen, your family, your Brothers and Sisters in Christ, your loving Catholic parish community … you get the picture.”
My answer was, “Yes, with God and all of His wonderful Gifts, my ‘life jar’ is totally full. Indeed, these are the important things … things, that if everything else was lost and only they remained, my life would still be incredibly wonderful.”
He grinned at my answer and said, “Old Knocker, I’m glad that you understand the concept … we have to do one more thing.”
THE LESSON OF THE SAND
Finally, Father Brendan brought out a bag of sand. He added the sand while gently agitating the jar. The grains of sand filled every single void that was between the large stone and the two-inch rocks.
When the jar was once again filled to the brim, Father B told me, “The sand is all of the background noise in your life; the things that don’t really matter and can separate you from God. The sand represents hurtful relationships, the bad influences and the emptiness that can enter your life when you are not focused on God.”
Then, Father B added, “Take care to make God the very most important aspect of your life and surround yourself with Godly people and Godly relationships. Do that and you will lead the life that God intended for you.”
He finished the lesson by saying, “Steve, never forget that if you fill your ‘life jar’ with sand first, that leaves absolutely no room for God and His Gifts to us. Be sure to avoid that temptation.”
A VERY SHORT REFLECTION
Friends, it’s been well over five decades since that wonderful evening that Father B and I spent together. I often think of Father Brendan’s Pickle Jar and it always brings a smile to my face.
Father’s message was pretty clear; make God and Godly folks your priority … After all, the rest is just worthless sand.
May God Bless You
THE SEVEN WONDERS OF THE WORLD
The pastor at our Catholic parish is a superb homilist. Father Rick Paperini normally combines a series of simple stories that, when woven together, illustrate how the Old and New Testament Bible readings at Mass apply to our everyday lives.
This last weekend’s homily was one of the finest Karen and I have ever heard. And one of the stories that Father Rick told was especially beautiful.
The story went something like this:
THE SEVEN WONDERS OF THE WORLD
A grade school teacher asked her students to list what they thought were the “Seven Wonders of the World.” She told the students that there was an official list, but that she wanted to know what THEY thought the Seven Wonders should be.
After a while, the students turned in their lists. No two lists were the same, but when the teacher tabulated the results; the following received the most votes:
1. Great Pyramid of Giza
2. Taj Mahal
4. Panama Canal
5. Empire State Building
6. Basilica of Saint Peter
7. Great Wall of China
It was then that the teacher noticed her youngest student, a girl named Mary, was still busily working on her list of the Seven Wonders. The teacher asked Mary if she was having trouble finishing the lesson.
Mary answered, “Yes, there are so many Wonders that I’m having a problem making up my mind.”
The teacher then asked, “Mary, please read your list aloud and maybe we can all help.”
Mary drew in a deep breath and said, “OK, I believe that the Seven Wonders of the World are:
1. To See
2. To Hear
3. To Touch
4. To Run
5. To Laugh
6. To Hug
7. AND TO LOVE “
Mary’s teacher and classmates sat in awe of Mary’s list of the Seven Wonders of the World. They suddenly realized that the Wonders that really matter cannot be built or bought by man.
Indeed, we don’t have to travel around the world in search of the Wonders … the truly REAL Wonders of the World are those that God so freely gives each and every one of us.
A SHORT REFLECTION
Friends, I tend to view the world through Catholic eyeglasses and I believe that there is a logical extension to the seventh item on Mary’s list.
When Mary said, “AND TO LOVE,” I immediately thought of the Holy Eucharist. GOD IS LOVE and when we receive the Lamb upon our tongues, Jesus becomes a part of us and we become a part of Him.
In other words, we receive LOVE and, at the same time, we are immersed in HIS LOVE.
And it is the Gift of God’s Love that is absolutely the Greatest Wonder of All.
A CHANCE QUESTION
A couple of summers ago, I was enjoying a particularly gorgeous Sunday morning in our front yard. The sun was warming my shoulders, I was deep in contemplative prayer and generally enjoying my time with God.
After a while, a well-dressed man and woman walked up our driveway and indicated that they wanted to talk. It turned out that they were Jehovah’s Witnesses and they were on a daily mission to convert what they called “the lost ones.”
After listening to them for a few minutes, I assured them that my wife of fifty-some years and I were devout in our Catholic faith. I also complimented them on their evangelization efforts … surely a continual “cold sale” took a great deal of effort and faith in their religious tradition.
We passed pleasantries for a while and during the course of our conversation, the lady of the couple made a startling admission. She said, “I was born Roman Catholic, baptized Catholic, confirmed Catholic, attended Catholic grade and high school and thought I’d be Catholic for the rest of my life. BUT, I became a Jehovah’s Witness about five years ago.”
The way she said it was a statement of fact. It wasn’t presented in a way that implied, “But, now I know better.”
We talked for a while longer; then, they bid me, “Have a great day” and walked back down our driveway.
A CHANCE QUESTION
When the JW couple was almost on the street, a question popped into my mind. Our conversation had been so wonderfully civil that I felt totally at ease to ask.
I said, “Ma’am, I have a question … Don’t you miss the Holy Eucharist?”
Her reaction absolutely startled me.
She started crying; not little leaky tears, but a river from each of her eyes accompanied by deep, uncontrollable convulsions. It was like she had just learned that her entire family had died.
The man took her in his arms and she continued to sob. The lady was truly inconsolable.
The pair slowly walked back up our street, got into their automobile and drove away.
For a few minutes, I regretted the question, thinking I had somehow been cruel. A short time later, however, I realized that the JW lady had spent most of her life enjoying the many Sacraments and Graces of the Church that Jesus Christ started upon this earth … and that somehow, she had lost her way.
Truly, it was one of the saddest things I have ever seen. And I wished I could help … and I did so in prayer.
Friends, this Sunday morning visit with the JW couple left me convinced that we Catholics are truly enormously blessed. I cannot imagine living life without the wonderful sacraments of the Catholic Church, and especially the Holy Eucharist.
After all, the Eucharist is literally the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. And to be able have Him within our body on a regular basis is the wellspring of our very lives as Catholics.
It is no wonder that the JW lady reacted as she did when I asked the “Chance Question.” She truly knew what she had given up; she truly knew what she had lost and, at least in my mind, she devoutly wished to return.
Ever since that beautiful Sunday morning, it has been my prayer that the JW lady had the will and strength to return to the sacraments of the Catholic Church.
Indeed, we should pray for every single one of our lost brothers and sisters. It would be an incredible honor greeting each of them back into the Church.
May God Bless You
FATIMA - A PLACE OF GOD
A little over three years ago, we went on a Catholic pilgrimage that included several days in the country of Portugal. The majority of that time was spent in Fatima.
Karen and I really enjoyed the many things we saw there. Having said that, we eventually concluded that the sights were only a tiny aspect of the Fatima experience. What was exponentially more wonderful was the feeling of holiness that was so obvious at Fatima.
Fatima is what I think of as a “Place of God” … we’ll get to that a bit later.
First, let’s take a very brief look at what happened at Fatima during the first quarter of the Twentieth-Century.
THE APPARITIONS AT FATIMA
Fatima, Portugal, was the site of three Angelic Apparitions and six Apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary, spanning the years of 1916 and 1917. The Angels and Mary appeared to three shepherd children; nine-year old Lucia Dos Santos and her cousins, Francisco and Jacinta Marto. Francisco and Jacinta were ages 8 and 6, respectively at the time.
The “Grand Finale” of the Marian Apparitions took place on October 13th, 1917. On that day, the children were surrounded by a crowd that exceeded 70,000 people. When Our Lady appeared to the children, Lucia asked for a sign. And upon that, Mary caused the sun began to spin and seemingly throw off sparkling colors. The phenomenon lasted for several minutes; surely long enough to absolutely convince everyone in the crowd that a miracle of some magnitude had just taken place.
The principal anti-Catholic publication of the day was O Dia, a major Lisbon newspaper. On October 17th, O Dia reported the following:
“At one o'clock in the afternoon, midday by the sun, the rain stopped. The sky, pearly gray in color, illuminated the vast arid landscape with a strange light. The sun had a transparent gauzy veil so that eyes could easily be fixed upon it. The gray mother-of-pearl tone turned into a sheet of silver which broke up as the clouds were torn apart and the silver sun, enveloped in the same gauzy gray light, was seen to whirl and turn in the circle of broken clouds. A cry went up from every mouth and people fell on their knees on the muddy ground. The light turned a beautiful blue as if it had come through the stained-glass windows of a cathedral and spread itself over the people who knelt with outstretched hands. The blue faded slowly and then the light seemed to pass through yellow glass. Yellow stains fell against white handkerchiefs, against the dark skirts of women. They were reported on the trees, on the stones and on the serra. People wept and prayed with uncovered heads in the presence of the miracle they had awaited. “
WOW, just WOW! Apparently, even the anti-Catholic newspaper reporters were convinced that what they and 70,000 others had seen was absolutely real.
There is a great deal more to the Angelic and Marian Apparitions that took place at Fatima, but this gives the reader a thumbnail sketch of the incredible Miracles of God that took place there almost precisely a century ago.
OUR EXPERIENCES AT FATIMA
During those two+ days, we saw and experienced many things. We visited the area where Our Lady appeared, we attended a nighttime vigil in the Chapel of the Apparitions, we celebrated daily Mass and we even were able to slowly walk through the shepherd children’s homes.
And at all times, both Karen and I felt the incredible Peace and Grace of God. It was a strong presence, without being overwhelming. The feeling was more like a protective and warm loving shield that God placed over us during the entire period of time that we were in Fatima.
During those days, Karen often commented to me, “Steve, I can just FEEL the holiness here.”
And every time Karen said that, I answered with something like, “Yes, I can absolutely feel the holiness, too. This is a very, very special place. It’s a Place of God.”
As we left Fatima, I wrote these words into my Pilgrimage Journal: “There are no words that can adequately describe the downright holiness of this area. The feeling of the Presence of the Blessed Virgin Mary, of Jesus Christ, of the Holy Spirit and of Our Loving God is absolutely vibrant in Fatima.”
A FEW THOUGHTS
Since we returned from our pilgrimage, I’ve often been asked questions about Fatima. The questions are pretty much as follows:
“Is Fatima, the place of the Angelic and Marian Apparitions, all that some say it is? When a Catholic goes to Fatima, does he or she experience anything ‘special?’ And a final question, perhaps the most important of all … Were the Angelic and Marian Apparitions real?”
My response to those questions, and more, would be yes, yes, yes, and a million more yeses.
In very possible way, Fatima is a “Place of God,” a place of incredible holiness set apart from the rest of the world. It is a place where the pilgrim can totally immerse himself into the Loving Presence of God.
And Thanks Be To God for that.
May God Bless You
Scottish terriers have been an integral part of our tiny family for well over four decades. We simply love Scotty dogs and sharing our home with the joyful little critters brings a great deal of happiness to our lives.
Stuart came to us as a total God-incidence. Our first Scotty, a wonderful dog named Mac, had gone over The Rainbow Bridge and we were mourning his death. Then came a phone call; a breeder friend of ours had a dog named Stuart and he was available immediately.
The breeder had sold Stuart, as a puppy, to a dog aficionado in Columbia. Within the first year, Stuart had grown too big to be “competitive” in the South American and Caribbean dog circuit. Apparently, some negotiation took place because Stuart was a little over two years of age when he was air-shipped back to the breeder.
Our friend had way too many dogs at the time, so she wanted to find Stuart a good, loving home. And, of course, that’s where Karen and I came in; she thought that we needed a dog.
I was pretty sure we needed more healing time, but I drove out to see Stuart anyway. I’ll never forget the moment I first saw him.
It was summertime and Stuart was in an X-pen in front of the breeder’s garage. Nobody had trimmed him for a very, very long time, so he looked like a furry black medicine ball. He was barking insanely when I drove up the driveway and I muttered to myself, “Nope, this is NOT going to work.”
In spite of my misgivings, I parked our Suburban and walked over to the pen. Then, he suddenly stopped barking and came as close to me as he could. He looked up at me with those beautiful chocolate Scottie dog eyes, as if to say, “You’re my new dad and I need you soooo badly.”
I picked him up in my arms; he snuggled close to my neck and just stayed there for several long minutes. At that moment, I believe we both knew that he was going to his forever home, a home where he would be loved for the rest of his life and beyond.
Stuart lived with us for the next seven years and he was a wonderful member of our family. He loved to walk and he loved to ride in the truck. Stuart was a master of making little everyday occurrences into things to be remembered.
Stuart loved life and we loved him.
It was around his ninth birthday that Stuart’s time with us became very limited. Karen has always groomed our Scotties and she discovered a grape-sized growth on the end of Stu’s tail and what appeared to be a swollen toe. We immediately took him to the veterinarian and the diagnosis was grim … the insidious cancer, melanoma.
The vet’s suggestion was to amputate the toe and tip of Stuart’s tail. X-rays taken at the time gave us some hope that we’d caught the malignancy at an early stage.
Two weeks later, a follow-up x-ray revealed that Stuart’s lungs and other organs had little white spots. The cancer had spread and it was throughout his entire body.
Of course, during all of this time, Stuart was blissfully unaware that he was rapidly dying. Stuart was still the fun-loving goofball of a Scotty dog we’d loved for so many years.
A little after his ninth birthday, Stuart started to cough pretty regularly. He was not going to be around for long, so we thought we’d give our little Scotty gentleman a treat … a trip to the Oregon Coast.
We took our trailer house down to Pacific City and walked on the beach a couple of times a day. Stu couldn’t walk far or fast, but how he loved digging in the sand and rolling in stinky dead things and doing all of the things that doggy-dogs love to do.
He was off leash and he could do anything he wanted … Stuart was in Heaven.
Back at our trailer house, Stuart slept a lot in his padded dog bed. He was rapidly losing muscle mass by this time, so doing almost anything became an enormous effort for him.
On our last short walk on the beach, we’d just gotten back to the truck when Stuart did a very strange thing. His last effort at the beach was to bring a golf ball-sized pebble to me and drop it on my boot ... then, he got another identical one for Karen and put it in front of her shoe.
Slowly, very slowly, Stuart then collected a little pile of rocks. There were just enough to give one to his veterinarian, Dr. Kirsten Shaw, who took such loving care of him, and all for his favorite vet techs.
Not long after that, our beloved Stuart died.
I took each of the rocks, cleaned them thoroughly and carefully painted Stuart’s name on them. I wrote a little note describing his act of gathering the rocks. And when we collected Stuart’s ashes at Southgate Animal Clinic, we gave Dr. Shaw and the vet techs each a rock and a note.
Karen and I still have those two little stones, Stuart's Precious Gifts. They are cherished and each rock bears his name. The rocks are in a large brass-and-glass display case above our aquarium.
Every couple of weeks or so, I walk up to the glass display case, look at the two rocks and remember Stuart … and SMILE.
One day, both Karen and I will be dead and on our way to Heaven. We have no children, so some stranger will be going through our things and throwing out the junk … our two little “Stuart Rocks” among them. And that’s OK; that person will not have known us and surely wouldn’t know (or care) about a loving little Scotty dog named Stuart.
The rocks will go back to wherever rocks go … but the love, Stuart’s love for us and our love for him … That love will never die.
There probably isn’t a great Christian revelation here. I have no idea if dogs go to Heaven, as Pope Paul VI and Pope Saint John Paul II believed. That’s way above my theological knowledge and spiritual pay grade.
I do know that GOD IS LOVE and that Love Never Dies. We are born in Love, we receive God’s Love every single day of our lives and when we pass on to the rest of our Eternal Life, we bask in God’s Love Forever.
Hopefully, when Karen and I get to Heaven, there will be a few Scottie dogs up there … and maybe, just maybe, one of them will be named Stuart.
May God Bless You
THE TOMB OF SAINT PETER
We’ve been to Rome three times and it was on our last pilgrimage that we were finally able to secure permission to visit the Tomb of Saint Peter. It’s pretty obvious that the Scavi Tour (Scavi is an Italian word meaning “excavation”) is the hottest ticket in town and we were delighted to finally have the privilege of exploring the separate world that exists deep under the Basilica of Saint Peter.
LET’S START AT THE BEGINNING
The Apostle Peter was crucified, Origen tells us upside down, within the oval race-course of the Circus of Gaius and Nero, on October 13th, 64 AD. After he died, Peter was buried in a small tomb in the above-ground Roman necropolis on nearby Vatican Hill.
Later, a small shrine was built over Peter’s Tomb.
In 319 AD, Constantine commissioned the first Basilica of Saint Peter to be built over the tomb and shrine. Eventually, the 4th century church fell into total disrepair and it was replaced by the present Basilica of Saint Peter.
It was probably at some time between the destruction of the old basilica and the construction of the new one that the Roman necropolis (city of the dead) and Saint Peter’s Tomb got totally buried under rubble.
The cornerstone of the new basilica was consecrated on April 18, 1506 and the building was finished in 1626. The tradition of the church was that Saint Peter’s Tomb was precisely under the center of the new basilica’s main altar.
THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL EXCAVATION
Now, let’s fast forward to the Vatican-sponsored archaeological excavation under Saint Peter’s in the years 1940-1949. The excavation was done at the request of Pope Pius XI who wished to be buried as close as possible to the Apostle Peter.
In the course of the excavation, the archaeologists found a buried Roman road, lined on both sides by two-thousand year old above-ground crypts. At the end of the road was a small tomb that was marked with the Greek words, “Petros eni”, or “Peter Is Within.”
A variety of bones were found in the tomb; they included pieces of a skull and jaw, vertebrae, pelvis, legs, arms and hands. After careful study, the forensic anthropologists concluded that the bones belonged to a 1st century man between 60 and 70 years of age; about 5 feet, 7 inches tall; and of robust constitution; an apt description of the fisherman, Saint Peter.
Some of the bones had been wrapped in a purple fabric with gold threads that dated back to Imperial Roman times. The cloth was befitting the first Pope of the Church.
SEEING THE TOMB OF PETER
The Scavi Tour was a real adventure. At dawn, we passed through a side door of the Basilica of Saint Peter and descended about thirty feet down a stairway. Then, we entered a humidity-controlled area that was surrounded by glass.
Once inside the glassed-in area, we slowly walked along the ancient Roman road. On each side of us were large rooms where the remains of many Roman patrician family members had been interred. The paintings, frescoes and mosaics were incredible.
What a treasure this was … looking into the highly decorated crypts of early Christians (and a few pagans, too).
At the end of the Roman street was a humble tomb marked by a red-painted lentil. This was the Tomb of Saint Peter. And there were actually several small bones at the entrance.
We stopped before Peter’s Tomb and knelt … each praying in our own way … Prayers of Thanks to Jesus for His Love of Peter and of Us.
After a while, I had an epiphany, an overwhelming sensation that was almost like the Holy Spirit whispering in my ear. The message went something like this:
“This man, Peter, was the very first Vicar of Christ and it was he who sent Christ’s salvific teachings to every corner of the earth. Untold billions of Catholics span from Peter’s time and our own, yet the Plan of Salvation remains the same.”
It was a watershed moment for me. Praying in front of Saint Peter’s Tomb and seeing his bones. Here was the physical link between the very-early beginnings of the church and our time, two-thousand years later.
Friends, the definition of FAITH is believing in something for which there is no physical proof. Most of us have lots of faith; we’ve never seen God, but still, we believe. And we’ve not seen Jesus or the Holy Spirit … still, they are very real in our minds and faith in them refreshes our very souls.
Seeing the Tomb of Saint Peter, complete with his bones, was a solid and tangible thing. Indeed, seeing the Tomb of the Prince of the Apostles is something I will remember and cherish for the rest of my days.
Truly, it was a Gift From God.
May God Bless You
THE LEGEND OF TWO LETTERS
Friends, there is a Christian legend that has fascinated me for many years. The legend is about two letters; one sent by King Abgar V, the ruler of the Kingdom of Osroene, to Jesus Christ and the answering letter, dictated by Jesus to a scribe and delivered to the King.
Like all legends, the story is undoubtedly based on truth. Having said that, there are most likely threads of untruth woven into the fabric of the tale.
We also need to keep in mind is that the legend of King Abgar’s letter and Jesus’ return letter is just that … it’s a legend. We should be ever mindful that any legend, however compelling, is NOT the Gospel; the Inerrant and Inspired Word of God.
Still, I find the Legend of the Two Letters to be totally intriguing. Let’s take a look at it.
The “Father of Catholic Church History”, Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea tells us that King Abgar V of the Kingdom of Osroene contracted an incurable illness (probably leprosy). Apparently, the King had heard from travelers about a man called Jesus who performed miraculous healings, so he decided to contact Jesus via a letter carried by a courier.
According to the legend, after Jesus received the King’s letter, he dictated a letter of reply to a scribe and sent it to King Abgar.
The earliest complete version of the letters and the accompanying story was discovered by Eusebius among a cache of Syriac documents in the Archives of Edessa. The city, Edessa, was the capitol of the ancient Kingdom of Osroene. Today, the city is known is now known as ?anl?urfa and it in Turkey’s southeastern Anatolia Region.
Eusebius relates that he personally examined both King Abgar’s letter and Jesus’ letter of response, both of which were well-preserved, in the Archives. He translated the letters from Syriac to Greek and published both letters in his book, “The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine”.
Eusebius’ translation of King Abgar’s letter reads as follows:
“Abgar Uchama the Toparch to Jesus, who has appeared as a gracious savior in the region of Jerusalem – Greetings.
I have heard about you and the cures which you perform without drugs or herbs. If the report is true, you make the blind see again and the lame walk about; you cleanse lepers, expel unclean spirits and demons; cure those suffering from chronic and painful diseases, and raise the dead. When I heard all of this about you, I concluded that one of two things must be true – either you are God and came down from Heaven to do these things, or you are God’s Son doing them. Accordingly, I am writing to you to come to me, whatever the inconvenience, and cure the disorder from which I suffer. I may add that I understand that the Jews are murmuring against you and are plotting to injure you. But I have a very small yet noble city which is great enough for us both.”
Eusebius translated Jesus’ letter of reply in the following fashion:
“Blessed are you who believed in me without having seen me! For it is written of me that they who have seen me will not believe in me, and that they who have not seen me will believe and live. But in regard to what you have written me, that I should come to you, it is necessary for me to fulfill all things here for which I have been sent, and after I have fulfilled them thus to be taken up again to Him that sent me. But after I have been taken up I will send to you one of my disciples, that he may heal your disease and give life to you and those with you.”
JESUS KEEPS HIS WORD
At some time around 30-33 AD, after Jesus’ Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension into Heaven, Saint Thomas sent Thaddeus (also called Addai) to Edessa. Thaddeus was called “One of the Seventy,” meaning the seventy disciples (or 72, depending on tradition) sent on missionary work by Jesus. (Luke 10:1-24.)
Eusebius relates that when Thaddeus arrived in Edessa, he began to heal people in the name of Christ. When word of this reached Abgar, he suspected this was the follower Jesus had promised him.
A short time later, Thaddeus was summoned before the King and, upon this, Abgar saw a "great vision." He asked, “Are you, in truth, a disciple of Jesus, the Son of God, who said to me, ‘I will send you one of my disciples who will heal you and give you life’?”
According to Eusebius, Thaddeus replied, “Since you have a great confidence in the Lord Jesus who sent me, on this account have I been sent to you. And again, if you believe in Him, in so far as you believe, the requests of your heart shall be yours.”
At this, Abgar testified to his faith in Jesus and Thaddeus healed him of this life-threatening ailment. Others were healed at the same time and Thaddeus continued to preach and heal in Edessa with the support of King Abgar V.
Thaddeus became the first Bishop of Edessa and remained there until he was martyred by a pagan after King Abgar’s death.
EUSEBIUS, EGERIA AND MOSES OF CHORENE
Eusebius wrote his incredible book, “The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine”, in 325 AD. It was the first history written about the Church and it is an absolute “must read” for all Christians, Catholic or not.
By the way, Eusebius of Caesarea was the bishop who baptized Constantine. Eusebius was also Saint Helena’s spiritual director. In truth, Eusebius was a bit of a scoundrel and he was definitely a political player, but he was also an excellent source of information about early-Church history.
My favorite Holy Land pilgrim, Egeria, went well out of her way to visit Edessa in the mid-380s. Egeria specifically traveled to the city with two distinct purposes in mind; she wanted to visit the Tomb of the Apostle Thomas and she wanted to compare her copies of the letters between King Abgar and Jesus with the original ones in the Archives of Edessa.
In her book, “Egeria’s Travels”, the nun-pilgrim from the Roman province of Galicia describes being guided around Edessa by the local bishop. The bishop showed her the Abgar/Jesus letters in the Archive and after careful inspection, undoubtedly using a Syriac translator, Egeria declared that the letters essentially matched her copies.
The only discrepancy that Egeria found was that the Archive letter from Jesus to Abgar was a little longer than her copy. The longer version contains the following promise from Jesus at the end of the letter; “thy city shall be blessed, and no enemy shall again become master of it forever.”
Egeria gave an incredibly detailed account of her visit to Edessa. She meticulously described the thriving Christian community in Edessa, the Tomb of the Apostle Thomas, the great cathedral dedicated to Saint Thomas, the Palace of the long line of kings named Abgar and the ornamental fish ponds that graced the palace. Egeria even mentioned that the fish in the ponds were, “… large and brightly colored and tasted so good.” (I get a huge belly laugh every time I read that)
Moses of Chorene (410-490 AD) was called by his Armenian countrymen the “Father of History” and the “Father of Scholars.” Moses studied in the Library at Edessa for several years and was articulate about the history of the area. In his book, “The History of Armenia”, Moses wrote about the letters between King Abgar V and Jesus Christ. He also includes the full text of both letters and several comments on each.
Moses of Chorene wrote that after King Abgar’s conversion to Christianity, he did not force his subjects to convert to his new religion. He did, however, put cloth covers over the many pagan statues that were present in Edessa.
There are several solid facts that are related to the Legend of the Two Letters. Among them is the fact that King Abgar V was one of the first converts to Christianity. Further, Abgar must have been a very fine Christian because he is considered to be a Saint in both the Eastern Orthodox and the Syrian Orthodox traditions. His feast days are May 11th and October 28th.
Also, it is a fact that parts of the letter reportedly written by Christ were occasionally used in Roman Catholic Mass Collects until the 11th century. This tradition made it as far west as the British Isles.
So, my friends, that is the Legend of Two Letters.
Obviously, the Legend leaves us with more questions than answers. Did King Abgar V actually write a letter to Jesus and did Jesus answer the back? Did Saint Thomas, at Jesus’ request, send Thaddeus to Edessa after Our Savior’s Resurrection? And, finally, was King Abgar miraculously healed by Thaddeus?
Truly, all of these things could have happened and we have no evidence that they didn’t happen. And, of course, we have little corroborating evidence that they did happen.
So, in the end, for most folks, the Legend of Two Letters will forever remain simply that … a legend … but, a tantalizing one.
May God Bless You
REFLECTIONS ON THE SEA OF GALILEE
One of the many things I love about being Catholic is that there are always new things to learn. Yes, we Catholics wholeheartedly believe that the Holy Bible is the inerrant, inspired Word of God, but our quest for knowledge does not stop with the Scriptures.
Indeed, we Catholics love exploring the world and finding things that expand upon the Holy Bible.
For instance, consider the Sea of Galilee. Without a doubt, most folks believe that the Sea of Galilee is both a huge body of water and that it is salty. After all, it’s a “sea,” right?
THE “SEA” OF GALILEE
I guess we’d never thought of it, but when Karen and I first saw the Sea of Galilee, we were totally surprised. It wasn’t a “sea” at all; it was a pretty little oval-shaped freshwater lake that is about thirteen miles long and eight miles wide.
The River Jordan, the primary water source, flows in from the north and exits the south end of the lake. After the Jordan leaves the Sea of Galilee, it wanders generally south and eventually flows into the Dead Sea.
The Israelis know the Sea of Galilee as Lake Tiberias or by its modern and much more common name, Lake Kinneret. In the Gospel According to Luke, this body of water was called the “Lake of Gennes’aret.”
A BIT OF HISTORY
The first people to live in the area of the Sea of Galilee arrived during the early-Bronze Age; probably around 3,300 BC. The settlers found that the land around the lake was both fertile and flat enough for agriculture.
Unlike most desert regions, the availability of clean fresh water made the area very agreeable to human settlement and for raising both livestock and crops.
During Jesus’ time, there were at least fourteen towns on the Sea of Galilee that exported fish. Several of the towns had net making facilities and at least five lakeside villages built and maintained boats.
The 1st century Jewish historian, Josephus, tells us that at the time of Christ, there were 230 fishing boats working the Sea of Galilee. Further, he mentioned that Capernaum was the major fishing center, with an improved harbor that extended more than 2,500 feet along the shoreline.
SPEAKING OF FISH
Let’s talk fish. There are about twenty types of fish in the Sea of Galilee, but only three are mentioned in the Holy Bible. The staple food for the locals was the Galilean sardine that was commonly salted or brined for preservation. Sardines were probably the “two small fish” which Jesus used to feed the multitude in the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes.
The second fish that is common to the Sea of Galilee is called “musht” by the locals. Believe it or not, this fish is the one that we Americans know as tilapia. Yep, the same fish that we buy frozen at the supermarket and eat almost every Friday evening. In fact, we ate what was called “Saint Peter’s Fish” at the local restaurant in Tiberius; it was perhaps the finest tilapia I have ever tasted.
The third fish is a form of catfish that actually grows to well over twenty-five pounds in weight. Catfish have no scales and are therefore not kosher.
In Matthew 13:48, Jesus referred to the bad fish that would be thrown away. These “bad fish” were without a doubt the local catfish that the Jews were forbidden from eating. The Romans taxed literally everything, including levying a tax on every single fish that was brought ashore.
Matthew was a tax collector in Capernaum and there is no doubt that part of his job was collecting the taxes on each fishing boat’s catch. Because of this, Matthew would have been totally aware of the “good fish,” “bad fish” situation.
JESUS AND THE SEA OF GALILEE
Fully three years of Jesus’ public ministry were spent in the area of the Sea of Galilee. It was also in this area that He told more than half of His parables. Simon Peter and Jesus called Capernaum home and several of Our Lord’s miracles took place there.
My goodness, so much of Jesus’ ministry happens near, by or upon the Sea of Galilee. It was on the shore of the sea that he called His first four disciples; Simon, Andrew, James and John from among the area’s fishermen (Matthew 4). He stilled the water when the storm threatened to swamp the boat (Luke 8:22-25) and walked upon the water of the Sea of Galilee in Mark 6:47-52.
During our pilgrimage, we visited the partially rebuilt ruins of Capernaum, Mensa Christi (The Table of Christ), the Mount of the Beatitudes, Magdala (the home of Mary Magdalene), Tabgha (the place of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes) and many other biblical sites. All of these places are on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and we celebrated the Holy Mass at each of them.
When we returned from our pilgrimage to the Holy Land, God played a couple of jokes on us.
The first one had to do with the lectionary at our parish. When we celebrated our first Holy Mass after returning home, I was shocked to see a huge gold Jerusalem Cross on the cover of our lectionary. I’m sure it was always there, but I’d never actually seen it before.
And what was the Gospel Reading during that first Mass? It was John 21:1-19 … Yup, it was the story of the fishermen returning from a fruitless night of fishing and Jesus’ miracle of filling the nets almost to the point of bursting. It was the story of Jesus preparing a charcoal fire on the huge rock and cooking fish and bread for His friends. And it was the story of Our Lord lovingly forgiving Peter and reaffirming his status as leader of His church, the Catholic Church.
For several weeks after that first Mass, the Gospel Readings seemingly all involved the Sea of Galilee in one way or another. Having just been there, having spent several days experiencing the sights, the smells and the sound of the lake, it was easy for us to turn the words into a mental images.
Indeed, that is what pilgrimages are all about; experiencing holy places so that we might increase our faith in God.
May God Bless You
There is no doubt that every single one us have had awkward and embarrassing moments in our lives, but being BLINDSIDED is entirely another matter.
My personal definition of the social aspect of the term “blindside” is as follows: “To instantly thrust a person into a situation for which he, or she, is totally unprepared.”
Friends, I’ve been blindsided precisely once in my long lifetime and it was a doozy. In fact, my blindside experience undoubtedly qualifies for the American, Olympic and World Record, if there was such a thing.
Let me tell you about it, but I have to set the scene first.
When Karen and I decided to become Catholic, we asked a neighbor of ours if we could attend Mass with him. The neighbor, Jim “JR” Rueck, was absolutely delighted to help us every step of the way. He showed us how to use the Missal and explained the various parts of the Mass. In truth, it would have been almost impossible to have chosen a finer mentor in all things Catholic than JR.
We started going to Mass in April of 2005 and immediately signed up for RCIA. While waiting for the RCIA Program to start in September, it was JR and the occasional Adult Faith Formation class that helped us along the way.
One Saturday evening in August, as we were leaving Vigil Mass, I asked JR if he would be my sponsor in RCIA. His answer was an immediate, “Yes, Steve, I’d be happy to do that.”
To be honest, I was a bit surprised that JR agreed to be my sponsor. After all, he was seventy-seven years old at the time and he was fighting skin cancer. That was Jim, ever the joyful giver and wonderful friend.
JR sat by my side during almost every one of the RCIA meetings. And during the breaks, we’d talk about both the spiritual and practical aspects of being Catholic. Jim gave everything he had when it came to launching me into the Catholic faith and I knew very well that he was constantly in pain. Still, he trucked on and I will be everlastingly appreciative to JR for that incredible effort.
JR’S FUNERAL MASS
My friend and RCIA sponsor, literally my godfather, died of a blood leakage in his brain on October 15th, 2012. He was eighty-four years of age and had led a long and fruitful life, but those of us who knew the wonderful man wanted more, much more.
And when Jeanie, JR’s wife, asked Karen and I to do the First and Second Readings at the Funeral Mass, we instantly accepted. To be sure, this would be very difficult; neither of us are the kind of people who do public speaking. Still, this was for Jim and he’d done so much for us that we would face our greatest fear … standing in front of a crowd and proclaiming Holy Scripture.
We were free to pick the readings from a little book that Father Richard loaned us. Karen picked Romans 5:5-11 and I selected 2Maccabees 12:43-46. It was an unusual scene, I suppose, because for a couple of days, Karen and I walked around our home practicing our readings like a couple of thespians preparing for a play.
During Jim’s Funeral Mass, both of us read our Scripture readings relatively well. Karen read perfectly and I stumbled over the word “expiatory.” Afterwards, we both sat down in our pew and were incredibly relieved that our part in the Mass was successfully completed.
About one minute after we sat down, Jim’s Funeral Mass took an unexpected turn. A blonde-haired lady walked up behind the ambo and cheerfully announced, “Now, Steve and Karen Timm will deliver Jim’s Eulogy!”
I looked at Karen and she looked at me … both with “Deer in the Headlights” expressions. Then, Karen snuggled back into her pew and gave me that “You’re totally on your own, Sweetie” look.
I’ll never forget sloooowly genuflecting to Jesus in the tabernacle, taking my dear sweet time in mounting the sanctuary stairs and rounding the ambo. During all of those seconds, I was desperately searching my brain for things I could say about JR and his wonderful influence upon my life.
My brain kept sending the message, “Duuuuh, I’m going to be standing up in front of all those folks with nothing prepared and this is gonna be really, really BAD.”
And, yes, the term “blindside” popped up more than a few times.
So, I just started talking about JR and Jeanie and what great neighbors and friends they had been. I talked about how Karen and I had chosen to become a part of the church that Jesus Christ formed upon earth during His lifetime … the Catholic Church … and how much that decision delighted Jim.
I reminisced about asking Jim to be my sponsor in RCIA and how he immediately answered “YES,” even though his body was racked with pain. I also opined that our friend Jim might have made a short pit stop in Purgatory, but that he was surely in Heaven by now and that he was no doubt totally enjoying his Glorified Body.
Finally, I told the crowd that I would pray for JR’s beautiful soul, in Maccabee’s Style, for the rest of my life.
And then it was over and I walked back to my pew.
Karen and I were asked to stand with Jim’s family as folks processed out of the church. I could not believe that many of the people liked the Eulogy. I supposed that they were just being nice, but maybe not.
What really amazed me was the fact that I received three requests for copies of Jim’s Eulogy in the weeks after the Funeral Mass. The folks were totally surprised to learn that nobody asked me to do the Eulogy … that what they heard was simply my unprepared memories of the man.
It’s been over four years since JR died and, in retrospect, I now believe that an off-the-cuff Eulogy might actually have been best. For sure, it was honest, spontaneous and it contained the aspects about JR that were most memorable.
JR IN THE REARVIEW MIRROR
My friends, I believe that God sends people and things into our lives as a way of teaching us. I believe that JR was placed in my life so that I could learn, by his example, how a caring and faithful Catholic leads his life.
I truly believe that God had a hand in blindsiding me into an “Instantaneous Eulogy Experience.”
Being a wordsmith, had I known that I was to give Jim’s Eulogy, I would have created a lovely artsy picture of the man. The Eulogy would have been really beautiful, but it would have been more of a display of my God-given writing skill than a true reflection of Jim’s well-led Christian life.
By compelling me to dig deep, and simply talk about JR and his incredibly profound Catholic faith, I believe God forced me to say precisely what needed to be said about the man.
And Thanks Be To God For That.
May God Bless You
THE ANCHOR OF OUR FAITH
Friends, I’m sure that we’ve all had a chance conversation with a friend and the result of that exchange was life-altering. I had just such an experience while talking with our Israeli guide, Amer, at Caesarea Philippi.
In order to understand the conversation, we need to start at the beginning.
Karen and I spent a fair amount of time at Caesarea Philippi when we were on our pilgrimage in Israel; it was a fascinating place. Let me try to “paint a picture with words” to describe the place, so please open your mind and imagine … just imagine.
We left the Sea of Galilee and traveled about twenty-five miles north by bus. Reduced to ruins by an earthquake in 363 A.D., the city of Caesarea Philippi was on the southwestern slope of Mount Hermon. This area was the northernmost extent of Jesus' ministry.
When we arrived at Caesarea Philippi, we first saw a verdant park area with a rushing stream running through it … this is the largest of the four springs that form the origin of the River Jordan.
Walking upstream and following an improved pathway, we eventually came to a red stone cliff. The cliff is about four-hundred feet wide and well over one-hundred feet high. On the right side, a huge spring of water gushes out of the side of the cliff. There is a large cave on the left side of the cliff that the pagans believed to be the birthplace of the Greek god Pan.
Scattered randomly on the face of the cliff are five large and small niches. Three of the niches bear inscriptions in Greek mentioning Pan, Echo and Galerius, one of Pan's priests. Apparently, statures of deities and near-deities were placed in the niches and worshipped by pagan peoples.
At the time of Jesus, Caesarea Philippi was one of the most active centers of the pagan world. There are still remnants of temples and baths in front of the cliff. In standing back and looking at the scene, it’s easy to imagine pagan priests chanting, worshippers walking from temple to temple and folks buying amulets and statues of Pan from vendors.
JESUS AT CAESAREA PHILIPPI
Never a shrinking violet, Christ walked into Caesarea Philippi with his followers and there He said to the Apostle Simon, “And I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)
Just think of that for a while.
In order to realize what Jesus was doing, we need to step away from our American culture. Jesus, in Old Testament tradition, renamed Simon and called him by his new name “Petros” … “Peter” … “Rock.”
Being Americans, we think of the term or name “Rock” associated with toughness. To us, rock is solid, rock is something firm and permanent. We almost have the idea, but not quite.
THE CONVERSATION WITH AMER
As I mentioned in the first paragraph of this blog, I had a life-altering experience during a conversation with our Israeli guide, Amer, at Caesarea Philippi.
Before describing the conversation, however, I must relate Amer’s qualifications. Not only is Amer a university-level history teacher and a devout Catholic, but his family has literally lived in Nazareth for well over fifteen-hundred years.
Beyond that, Amer’s family has worshipped in the Grotto of the Annunciation of Mary for all those years. At first, the family celebrated Mass in the open area, the Grotto, in front of Mary’s Cave and later, when Saint Helena the Great commissioned a Byzantine church building built over the site, they worshiped in the church.
Said simply, Amer has “on the ground” knowledge that is beyond incredible. He intimately understands the ancient culture of the Holy Land and he is also an incredible teacher. In short, Amer is the perfect Catholic pilgrimage guide.
Now, about the conversation; Amer and I happened to sit side-by-side on a rock wall together. After enjoying a bottle of ice-cold bottled water, Amer asked me a question.
Amer said, “Steve, Our Lord Jesus Christ changed the Apostle Simon’s name to ‘Rock’. Would you like me to tell you the significance of Simon’s new name?”
I answered, “Absolutely. I realize that our separated brethren, the Protestants make a big deal about the linguistics of the word ‘Kepha’ or Cephas, but I’ve never read about the significance of the name Peter or Petros .”
At that, Amer proceeded to describe Jesus’ followers. Most were fishermen, like Simon-Peter, James, John and Andrew. The rest of those followed Him worked at various occupations, but every last one of them had at least some connection to the earth.
Then, Amer asked me, “Steve, what would a fisherman do with a rock?”
Immediately, I knew … “A fishermen would use a rock as an ANCHOR.”
Amer grinned widely and said, “Right, Steve. That was 2,000 years ago. Metal was exceedingly expensive and the last thing a poor fisherman would ever do would be to throw a heavy piece of metal overboard. What if you lost it?”
Amer continued, “Rocks are everywhere along the shore of the Sea of Galilee and in the hills above. Given a fifty-pound rock, a length of rope, plus an easily-tied serpentine knot and your boat has a proper anchor. The best part of it is that our new anchor is totally without cost.”
Amer went on to say, “Steve, when Jesus uttered those wonderful words in Matthew 16, ‘… you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church’, He was doing something very special. At that point in time, Simon, now Peter, became ‘first among equals’. And, after Christ’s Resurrection, the Apostles became Bishops of the Church, but Peter became the leader; literally, the Vicar of Christ. Peter became the anchor of the new church, Christ’s Church upon earth.”
WOW, what an amazing concept … and it was then that I realized that it was all TRUE.
My mind reduces things to the simplest possible terms, so I will always remember our conversation with an almost mathematical equation; “Peter=Pope=Rock=Anchor.”
Since that day, every time I read Matthew 16:18, about Jesus renaming Simon to Peter, I cannot help but think, “Anchor, Anchor, Anchor … Peter became the Anchor of our wonderful Catholic Church and every one of his successors have become an Anchor, too.”
My friends, I sincerely pray that this mental journey back in time to ancient Israel, specifically to Caesarea Philippi, has left you with a slightly enhanced perspective of Jesus, the church Jesus started upon this earth, Simon-Peter and the Papacy.
In a very real way, the Vicar of Christ and the divine leadership of the Catholic Church is our Anchor and our rock while we are on our earthly journey.
Just think about that. God, in His Divine Wisdom and Love, caused it all to be … Indeed, God Is The Ultimate Anchor of Our Faith and of Our Lives.
May God Bless You
STAGES OF LOVE
Well over fifty years ago, I courted a young lady, a certain Miss Karen Ann Ellstrom. My spiritual and life mentor during that time was an elderly Irish priest by the name of Father Brendan Shea.
Father Brendan and I met whenever I needed advice and guidance. Mostly we discussed subjects of faith and, of course, how I might successfully win Miss Karen’s hand in marriage.
I can honestly say that Father Brendan’s wisdom, life experience and maturity made up for many things I lacked at the time. He was truly the “father” I needed at that most formative period of my life.
Father Brendan told me that marital love, the love of others and the Love of God evolves over time. He called this “The Stages of Love” and he opined that our capacity for love grows as we experience more and more of it. Further, it had been Father’s experience that each stage is infinitely better than the last.
He also reminded me that ALL LOVE comes from God Almighty and that is because God’s Very Nature is LOVE. And, of course, Father Brendan quoted 1 John 4:8, “” (Emphasis both his and mine)
Because of God’s Love, Father Brendan told me that the last Stage of Love went exponentially beyond anything we can experience on earth … we’ll talk more about this later.
Regrettably, Father Brendan, passed on to spend Eternity with Our Lord a mere two years after Karen and I were married. I pray for his beautiful soul every day and I think he somehow knows that he has always been a wonderfully powerful influence on our lives.
STAGES OF LOVE
In looking back at it, when Karen and I uttered our wedding vows in 1964, we didn’t understand a lot about life. About all we knew was that we were very much in love and that we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together.
It was love; the kind of love that can only be shared by young, strong, active folks. Father Brendan called this stage “Young Love,” because that’s what it was.
As the years passed, we shared a great number of experiences. We finished our university education, we worked endless hours together in our family jewelry store and we played hard whenever we could find some spare time.
After about twenty years of marriage, our relationship entered an easy, contented stage. Father B dubbed this phase as “Mature Love.” At this point, we knew each other almost perfectly and we shared everything together … and it was good.
I’m not really sure when Karen and I entered what Father Brendan called “Old Love.” If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that it started when we had been married for fifty-years and we were both seventy-years of age.
Old Love is a wonderful stage where our lives are punctuated by physical ailments and our happiness stems from making things better for each other. It is a selfless stage … it is the purest expression of human-to-human love.
Many times Karen has said, “You and I are just like a pair of old shoes.” And she is right about that; we are so used to each other that it is sometimes impossible to discern where one personality ends and the other begins.
I might add that, like old shoes, we’ve become worn, tattered and a bit dog-eared, but we are absolutely comfortable.
Father Brendan told me that when we have finished our earthly journey we enter the “Ultimate Stage of Love.” This is the last phase, one where we will spend all Eternity with God.
It seems like only yesterday that Father Brendan Shea said to me, “Steve, Old Son, I pray that you and Karen will enter the Presence of God together. And that, in your Glorified Bodies, you’ll be able to love both each other and Our God Forever and Ever … That is my prayer.”
Friends, that is our prayer, as well.
In truth, Karen and I wish the very same for each and every one of you.
May God Bless You
THE CHURCH OF THE NATIVITY
Friends, it’s the Christmas season and what could be more fitting than a blog about the very birthplace of Our Lord? That place, of course, is the cave that was being used as a stable in Bethlehem.
Some would say, “Cave, what do you mean cave? Jesus was born in a nice little wooden stable with all kinds of cows, lambs and cute little donkeys looking over the precious event. Oh yeah, and the lighting was great, so the scene would be perfect for the photograph in next year’s Christmas cards.”
Sorry to disappoint, but it simply wasn’t that way.
Linda Mainard, our Bible Study teacher, often remarks, “Most of what we know about the Nativity of Jesus comes from Hollywood and Hallmark.” Linda is absolutely correct.
YA GOTTA BE KIDDING … A CAVE?
OK, let’s look at the remark I made about Jesus being born in a cave.
The geological nature of Israel is apparently conducive to the formation of caves. Indeed, when we were on our pilgrimage to the Holy Land, we saw caves everywhere we traveled. Amer, our incredible Israeli guide, pointed out that using caves for human habitations and animal shelters was common during biblical times.
I suppose that it would be logical to assume that after finding that there was “no room at the inn” (which was probably also a cave), Joseph and Mary found themselves in a predicament. And, apparently, the owner of the inn, or some other friendly resident of Bethlehem, noted Mary’s late-term pregnancy and allowed the Holy Family to use a local cave-stable for shelter.
We Americans tend to view Christ’s birth in a stable-cave as being an almost untenable circumstance. In truth, Joseph and Mary undoubtedly viewed it as a wonderful shelter and as a gift of incredible hospitality.
IN THE BIBLE
Both the Gospel of Luke and Gospel of Matthew give accounts of what theologians call the “Infancy Narrative of Jesus Christ.”
Matthew supplies us with the Genealogy of Jesus; then, Matthew gives us the account of an unnamed Angel of the Lord coming to Joseph in a dream. The Angel told Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary into his home and that the Holy Spirit has conceived a child within her. Joseph obeys the commands of the Angel of the Lord and the last few words of Matthew 1 are, “He had no relations with her until she bore a son, and he named him Jesus.”
From this point, the Gospel According to Matthew totally skips over the actual birth of Jesus. The first two verses of Chapter Two read, “When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herrod, behold magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem saying, ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.”’
Later on in the Gospel According to Matthew, the magi followed the star until it “…stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.” (Matthew 2:9-11)
Let’s note here that Matthew does not mention the number of maji. Had there been one, Matthew would have used the singular form of the word, magus, instead of the plural, magi. Also, there were three gifts, so we could conditionally assume that there were three foreign dignitaries … maybe. Matthew is the only gospel writer to mention the magi, so he must have seen something incredibly compelling in their presence after the birth of Jesus.
The magi mentioned in the Gospel According to Matthew were “from the East” (probably Persia), so they were most likely the first Gentiles to recognize and give reverence to the Kingship of Christ.
It would be good to mention here that Matthew has the Holy Family staying in Bethlehem for a spell. Then one night, an angel visited Joseph in a dream and warned him to flee to Egypt with Mary and the Christ child. Joseph immediately left Bethlehem and, with the Holy Family in tow, fled to Egypt. Later, Joseph learned of the death of King Herrod and the Holy Family returned to Nazareth.
Luke conflicts with this in that he has the Holy Family returning to their home in Nazareth by way of Jerusalem. The Naming of Jesus, the Circumcision of Our Lord and His Presentation in the Temple are important parts of this narrative.
Luke gave us the only description of the birth of Jesus itself when he states, “she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:6-7)
The word “manger” comes from the Latin verb mangiare which means to chew or to eat. A manger is literally a food trough from which livestock animals eat.
There is an incredible amount of symbolism here. The name “Bethlehem” literally means “House of Bread.” And at the Last Supper, Jesus essentially told His Apostles His flesh and His blood was what we Catholics know as the Eucharist. He gave Himself over for us to eat … He became our Spiritual Food. Let’s take a look at that.
“ my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.(John 6:53-57)
All I can say is WOW !!!!!!
A VERY SHORT HISTORY OF THE CHURCH OF THE NATIVITY
Shortly after Jesus’ crucifixion upon the Cross, His death and His Resurrection, the people who started to call themselves “Christians” began to visit the major sites of His life. These places naturally included the cave-stable where Jesus was born, as well as Nazareth, Capernaum, Cana, Caesarea Philippi, the Mount of the Beatitudes, Gethsemane and, of course, both Calvary and His Tomb.
Bethlehem, the village of Jesus’ birth, is about five miles south of Jerusalem. The actual cave where Jesus was born had been a place of worship and veneration since the middle of the 1st century. The holy site of Our Lord’s birth was known to Christians as The Grotto.
Now, let’s fast-forward to the early-4th century, to the time the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and his mother, Saint Helena. Empress Helena was a Christian and even in her advanced age, she took an extended pilgrimage to the Holy Land. During that pilgrimage, she commissioned churches to be built over several biblical sites that were important to Christians.
Saint Helena initiated the building of at least three, and possibly four, churches in the area of Aelia Capitolina (Jerusalem). One of these was the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which was christened in AD 327 and consecrated by Bishop Krakarios in the year AD 333.
The original Church of the Nativity featured an octagonal-shaped rotunda over the cave where Jesus of Nazareth was born. Attached to this structure was an atrium and a double-aisled forecourt. This structure was destroyed during the final Samarian Revolt in AD 529.
The current structure of the Church of the Nativity was built in AD 565 by Emperor Justinian I. The Emperor ordered the “new church” to exactly fit over the footprint of the original. Because of this, the present church is about as close to the one ordered by Emperor Constantine and Saint Helena as we are likely to see this side of Heaven.
Today, the Church of the Nativity is not only the oldest Christian place of worship in Israel, it is one of the oldest in the world. In fact, I ran into several online sources that stated that it is the “oldest complete and still functioning Christian church in the world.“
OUR VISIT TO THE CHURCH OF THE NATIVITY
When we were on our pilgrimage to Israel, Bethlehem was one of our prime interests. After all, Our Lord was born there and we wanted to see both the idyllic “Little Town of Bethlehem” and the Catholic Church of the Nativity.
In truth, the experience was far different than we’d imagined.
On Thursday, May 21st, 2009, we ate breakfast at the Vatican-owned Notre Dame Guest House and headed out for a day in Bethlehem. It’s only a five or six mile trip, but the progress is impeded by “The Wall.”
When we passed to the Palestinian Authority side, the area run by the terrorist organization, Hamas, it was like going through Checkpoint Charlie and into East Berlin. On the Jerusalem side, there were coffee shops, cars, busses and crowds of modern, happy folks going about their everyday business.
The other side of The Wall was dead. There were practically no people on the street, other than roaming gangs of predatory children. Almost every business was boarded up and covered with protest-themed graffiti. There were very few vehicles on the streets.
I have been a very active big game hunter all of my life and I have seen a lot of places where humans were living under exceedingly challenging conditions. For years, I thought that Kuujjuaq, Nunavik and Nyamandlovu, Zimbabwe were the stinky armpits of the world … I was wrong; that lofty title totally belongs to the Palestinian Territory in general and Bethlehem in particular.
I’m ashamed to say this, but I did not recognize either Manger Square or the Church of the Nativity when we our tour bus arrived there. Honestly, I’d expected a stand-alone Basilica that was really pretty, something like the Wedding Church at Cana. That surely was not the case.
After the church was pointed out to us, I saw a tiny cross on the roof and a crooked neon star that was left over from a Christmas past. The Church of the Nativity was shorter than I’d expected it to be and there were two rather nondescript buildings on each side literally growing into it.
Originally, there were three entrances to the Church of the Nativity. Raiding and looting became such a problem during the late Crusades and the Ottoman era that two of the entrances were walled up.
The remaining entrance was originally at least eight-feet high, with an arched top; this became a problem because mounted riders and raiders pulling wheeled carts could easily raid the church. Eventually, this opening was artfully filled with native stone, leaving a small four-foot by two-foot rectangular entrance.
Almost every adult person is forced to bend over in order to navigate the small entrance to the Church of the Nativity. For this reason, the small opening in the wall is known as the Door of Humility.
Our local guide commented to me that entering the church through the Door of Humility is like going into a cave. Further, he pointed out that there was a symbolic link between the church entrance and Jesus’ birth in a cave.
Only one person at a time can make it through the Door of Humility, so it took fully ten-minutes for our group of 100+ pilgrims to enter the church. It was early afternoon and Manger Square was sunny and uncomfortably hot.
When I passed through the Door of Humility, the scene changed from one of bright light to extreme darkness … it was like crawling through a small hole and standing up in a cave. Yeah, it’s that Jesus Cave symbolism again.
Immediately upon entering, I almost bumped into a gorgeous 6th century baptismal font. The baptistery was monolithic and octagonal in shape. Originally, the baptismal rite was for the catechumen to arrive from the outside and receive his baptism as he entered the church.
Looking straight forward, the interior of the church was remarkable mostly because of its simplicity. There were four rows of large stone columns; eleven columns per row. Each of the forty-four columns were painted during the Middle Ages with frescoes of the birth of Jesus, the Holy Family, the Apostles and many of the Saints.
The floor is interesting. Following the 1934 earthquake, the Greek Orthodox covered the original mosaic floors with two-feet of imported soil and created a pavement of marble slabs. In the middle of the church is a glassed-over area where we could view the original 4th century fine mosaic floor. The mosaics depict sea waves and a fish inscription which forms the five titles of Jesus. This was the floor that Saint Helena ordered when she supervising the building of the church in this holy place.
The Church of the Nativity is jointly administered by the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic Oriental Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Church. We were told that the two Orthodox branches basically tend the main floor of the church while the Roman Catholics are responsible for the Grotto of the Nativity.
Walking down the nave of the church, we saw a Greek Orthodox sanctuary on the left. Like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, there are a zillion gilded brass lamps hanging from the ceiling in no apparent order.
As we walked toward the Grotto of the Nativity, the entire back wall appeared to be alive with glittering gold and iconic crosses. The wall above the Grotto is literally covered with hundreds of gold-leaf and painted icons of Jesus, the Nativity, the Apostles, Saints and such. As we got closer, the individual pieces became apparent; Karen and I were amazed by their beauty.
In truth, I could easily spend a half-day just looking at the icons, crosses and beautiful ancient artworks that are on the far wall of the church. As usual, Karen and I were at the rear end of our group of pilgrims, so we had lots of time to appreciate the icons.
Shuffling slowly ahead, in the line of pilgrims, we eventually approached the stairs that go down into the Grotto of the Nativity. Once on the stairs, I had to stoop to clear the low doorway.
The Grotto of the Nativity, the traditional site of Jesus’ birth, really feels like a cave. An altar was erected over the birthplace and a fourteen pointed silver star was embedded into the white marble of the altar. There is a hole in the center of the star and pilgrims traditionally place their hand inside the hole to touch the stone manger.
The fourteen-pointed star is engraved with the Latin inscription: Hoc De Virgine Maria Jesus Christus Natus Est, which translates, “Here Jesus Christ Was Born To Mary.”
Just think of that … Jesus Christ was born right there and you can put your hand down the hole and actually touch the stone manger … WOW!!!
Over the years, debris, fill and other stuff has raised the level of the bottom of the cave. Because of this, the marble slab and star are precisely at floor level and there is an altar above. Actually, I do not know the nomenclature for the upper altar, nor why it is there. The effect is that it looks like a fireplace mantle over the white marble and fourteen-pointed silver star.
Karen and I each placed our hands in the hole in the star while Steve Ray, our pilgrimage leader, took our photograph. Then, we took out our pilgrimage rosaries, gifts for friends at home, and touched them to the bottom of the hole. Literally, every rosary we brought home had touched the place where Jesus was born.
We were allowed perhaps two minutes at the star and then we joined other pilgrims at the far end of the Grotto. Everybody was kneeling on the floor of the Grotto and praying the Holy Rosary, so we joined them.
I looked around as we prayed and the walls of the Grotto are covered with icons of Joseph, Mary and Jesus. There is one theme to the artwork in the Grotto of the Nativity; the birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary. It is beautiful and holy beyond the power of human’s words to describe.
After all of our group of pilgrims had spent time at the Birthplace of Jesus, we slowly climbed up the back stairway and into the church. I had assumed that we would leave by way of the Door of Humility, but I was mistaken.
As we retraced our steps down the nave of the Church of the Nativity, there was an opening in the right wall and our leaders told us that we should go through the door.
The exit led us into the Church of Catherine of Alexandria and by the entrance to the cave in which Saint Jerome, Saint Paula of Rome and Saint Eustochium translated the Holy Bible from Greek and Hebrew into the Latin Vulgate Bible.
From that point, we exited into the gray, deserted and unbelievably sad streets of Bethlehem.
My friends, Karen and I wish all of you a very Merry Christmas and a Blessed New Year.
THE WEDDING CHURCH AT CANA
Friends, almost four years ago, I wrote a blog chapter about our visit to the Wedding Church at Cana in Israel.
Surprisingly, I get from one to three inquiries about that little piece of writing every month … and it’s not slowing down. Some folks want to know more, but most simply want my personal reflection on what it’s like to renew wedding vows in that amazingly historic Christian place.
Because of the interest, I thought it would be helpful to take another look at the Wedding Church at Cana and our visit there.
The Bible Story
The Gospel According to John gives us a picture of Jesus that is totally missing in the Synoptic Gospels. John 2:1-11 describes a wedding in Cana in Galilee that Jesus, Mary and Jesus’ first disciples attended.
As the story goes, the wine ran out and “the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’” Being a typical Jewish mother, Mary was concerned about the host’s embarrassment at running out of celebratory libations at the worst possible moment.
I find the next statement by Jesus to be fascinating and I’m sure that we all wish we understood more. He said, ”Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.”
And, again being the typical Jewish mother, Mary ignored Jesus’ statement and told the servers, “Do whatever he tells you.”
So, Jesus asked the servers to fill stone jars, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons, to the brim with water. After the stone jars had been filled, Jesus told them, “Draw some out now and take it to the headwaiter.”
Upon sampling the liquid, the headwaiter said to the bridegroom, “Everybody serves good wine first, and then when people have drunk freely, an inferior one; but you have kept the good wine until now.”
John tells us, “Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs in Cana in Galilee and so revealed his glory, and the disciples began to believe in him.”
This was literally the first recorded miracle performed by Jesus and it was the very beginning of His ministry.
A Little History
The scene of the original wedding was a Jewish synagogue. This is not surprising because proper Jewish weddings at the time were religious events.
The ruins of the original synagogue have been exposed in an archaeological excavation below the present Wedding Church at Cana.
Above this level the archaeologists found the ruins of a cross-shaped Christian church building that dates to the 4th century. The facts are sketchy at best, but local legend has it that Saint Helena commissioned the construction of this church. This doesn’t seem unlikely because Saint Helena was on a church building mission when she went on a pilgrimage to Palestine in 326-328.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, The Church of the Mount of Olives and The Church of the Nativity were all built under Saint Helena’s watch. It is certainly within the realm of possibility that she also ordered and supervised the building of the original Christian church over the site at Cana.
The 4th century church was in ruins when it was visited by Father Boniface da Ragusa in 1551. Interestingly, at that time, the local Muslims owned the property and they were in the business of showing Christian pilgrims the place where Christ turned water into wine.
Soon after that, the Muslims built a mosque over the site.
In 1641, the Franciscans purchased a house that was adjacent to the mosque and over the next 200+ years, they were able to acquire the entire property. In 1881, the Franciscans built a chapel that totally covered the site where Christ’s first miracle took place.
Apparently, the pilgrims flocked to the place because, by 1901, the original Franciscan chapel was found to be too small. At that time, the present Franciscan church was built and named, “The Wedding Church At Cana.”
Our Visit To The Wedding Church At Cana
Monday, May 18th, 2009, was the fourth day of our pilgrimage to Israel. We were staying at the Kibbutz Ginosar on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. This location worked out very well for exploring the many sites of Jesus’ ministry near His home.
The day was to be spent close to Tiberias and Nazareth. After breakfast, we would celebrate Mass in the Grotto of the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth Then, we’d visit the Home of the Holy Family and, after lunch, the plan was to travel the five miles to the town that is now known as Kafr Kanna … the ancient Cana.
We were to renew our wedding vows at The Wedding Church at Cana. After the ceremony, we would explore the archaeological excavation deep underneath the church. We were really looking forward to this part of the pilgrimage. Let’s fast-forward to that point.
My first impression of The Wedding Church at Cana was one of beauty; it’s simply a gorgeous little jewel box of a church. Everything about the church is white, clean and absolutely sparkling. Karen and I fell in love with the church almost instantly.
After we all got settled in our pews, Steve Ray, the owner of Footprints of God Pilgrimages, talked for a while about the Gospel of John’s account of Jesus’ first miracle. Then, Steve connected Jesus with the Sacrament of Marriage. He finished by reading CCC 1613 straight from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
CCC 1613 - On the threshold of his public life Jesus performed his first sign - at his mother's request - during a wedding feast. The Church attaches great importance to Jesus' presence at the wedding at Cana. She sees in it the confirmation of the goodness of marriage and the proclamation that thenceforth marriage will be an efficacious sign of Christ's presence.
Next, Amer, our incredible Israeli guide, talked about the local wedding practices, how engagements are traditionally from three to five years long and that the families meld together during this long betrothal period.
In our mind’s eye, I believe that every one of us could visualize the wedding party that was gathered in the original synagogue and we could truly understand Mary’s request that Jesus “save the day.”
Then, it was time for our Catholic priests to aid us in renewing our wedding vows. Karen and I faced each other, joined hands and followed the verbal instructions. After we’d both sworn, once again, to love each other unto death, I was free to “kiss the bride.”
After the ceremony and taking a few personal photos, it was time to descend into the archeological excavation below the present Franciscan church. The dig is well lighted and it is quite safe for pilgrims to explore.
It is easy to see the foundation of the 1st century synagogue and the transition into the 4th century Byzantine church. There was also a remnant of the original stone mosaic floor that was part of the original synagogue. It struck me that it was entirely possible that Jesus and Mary walked there.
For Karen and me, the most stunning thing was the single stone water jar. The cavity would hold, as is said in John 2:6, “twenty to thirty gallons.” The jar is protected from damage by a heavy plexiglas shield, but it is still very easy to see every aspect of the artifact.
The fact that the stone water jar was found in the ruins of the buried 1st century synagogue is something that added greatly to my faith. The stone water jar is real, it is there and it is exactly as described in the Gospel of John. Actually SEEING that enormous stone water jar added another dimension to our understanding of Scripture.
Well, my friends, I sincerely hope that you enjoyed my reminiscences of our visit to The Wedding Church at Cana.
Indeed, this is a very special place and one that is unique in all the world.
May God Bless All of You,
THE TABLE OF CHRIST
One of the most fascinating biblical sites we visited in Israel was the Church of the Primacy of Saint Peter, near Tabgha. This church is the most recent of the three churches that have been built over a large limestone rock … the rock is known as Mensa Christi; The Table of Christ.
The Bible Story
The Gospel According to John, Chapter 21, tells us that Jesus appeared to His disciples while he was on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
As the story goes, Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, two of Zebedee’s sons (John and James) two others of His disciples had fished all night and they caught not a single fish.
At dawn, a man appeared on the shore and advised the fishermen to throw their net out of the right side of the boat. They did as they were told and the net instantly filled with fish. The net was so full of fish that the fishermen could not drag the catch back into the boat.
By this time, Peter recognized the man as Jesus, so he jumped out of the boat, waded ashore and greeted Our Lord. The rest of the fishermen/disciples followed in the boat, dragging the heavily-laden net behind them.
Eventually, the disciples got their catch of fish secured and they joined Jesus and Peter. During this interval of time, Jesus started a charcoal fire on a large flat rock. Jesus cooked a breakfast for Peter and His disciples on the fire; the breakfast consisted of fish and bread.
We remember that at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus had placed Simon Bar-Jonah in charge of His earthly church and renamed him Peter, when He said, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” Matthew 16:18
Then, Peter denied Christ three times in the courtyard of the high priest and he “wept bitterly.” (Matthew 26:69-75, Mark 14:66-72, Luke 22:54-62 and John 18: 15-27) Obviously, this action by Simon Peter was adjudged to be important by all four Gospel writers, so it was a major defection.
It was after this breakfast, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, that Jesus forgave Peter. In doing this, Our Lord reaffirmed Peter as the leader of His Apostles, His disciples and of His Universal Church upon earth; the Catholic Church.
The Gospel According to John is incredibly rich in the forgiveness of Simon Peter. Let’s look at it:
“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs’.
He then said to him a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’
He said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, ‘Do you love me?’ and he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus then said to him, ‘Feed my sheep’.
“ ….And when he had said this, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Follow me’." John 21:15-19
It is noteworthy that in the Jewish culture, swearing to something once made it pretty true. Swearing to something twice made it more true. And swearing to something three times made it absolutely positively true.
At the Mensa Christi, Jesus literally asked Simon Peter to swear his love for Him three times … that assured Jesus that Simon Peter was once again worthy of leading His Apostles and His Church.
Historical Mention Of Mensa Christi … The Table Of Christ
Egeria, my favorite Galician nun and Holy Land pilgrim, visited the area of Mensa Christi in 382 AD. Egeria made a single cryptic comment about the site, “Not far away from there are some stone steps where the Lord stood.“ These four ancient steps still exist today and it was probably here that the disciples moored their boat during that wonderful breakfast with Jesus.
Many parts of Egeria’s pilgrimage journal are missing, so it is possible that she wrote about the Byzantine church that was erected over the Table of Christ and we simply do not have Egeria‘s comments on it.
Several other sources relate that the first church was finished by the late-4th century, so I’m inclined to believe Egeria saw it and prayed at the Mensa Christi with her entourage. If so, these details have been lost in the last sixteen hundred years.
Some 9th and 10th century documents (the earliest is in 808 AD) variously call the original Byzantine church by the names the “Church of the Twelve Thrones“ and the “Church of the Charcoal Fire.“ Both of these names recall the Apostles and disciples and Our Lord cooking their breakfast.
The present church was built by the Franciscans in 1933 on the foundations of a Crusader church that was destroyed in 1263 AD. An archeological excavation in 1969 revealed that there were the remains of two older churches under the present one.
The older ruin dates to the 4th century and was undoubtedly the one that Saint Helena commissioned to be built. The second church was built of basalt and it is thought have been the structure built by the Crusaders. Both churches were exactly centered on the large limestone rock which is known to pilgrims as Mensa Christi, or The Table of Christ.
Visiting The Table Of Christ Today
Our guide, Amer, told us that Catholics often visit the Church of the Primacy of Peter. It is an incredibly Catholic place; it is about Our Lord performing one more miracle for His disciples, it is about Jesus being of service to His friends and it is about Our Lord’s loving forgiveness of Peter.
We went into the small church, knelt before the huge limestone rock and prayed. After we‘d spent adequate time praying while touching the Table of Christ, we all filed into a beautiful circular stone grotto. This is where we celebrated the Holy Mass under the massive shade trees with songbirds for our choir.
Later, Karen and I stood on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, just imagining the sequence of events that are described in the Gospel According to John.
Eventually, Karen went wading in the water and I sat on the time-worn steps where, as the pilgrim Egeria wrote, “The Lord stood.”
It was a tranquil afternoon when we were there … the lake had no waves and it was absolutely quiet. So many wonderful things had happened here.
Now, rather than reading about it, we’d actually seen and prayed before the Table of Christ.
And Thanks Be To God For That
CABINET OF CURIOSITIES
A few days ago, I happened to notice something about the various curio cabinets in our home. In a very real way, the contents of the cabinets revealed snapshots of our lives, travels and pilgrimages. The collection spanned many decades and, like our own individual personalities, the subjects were delightfully diverse.
There was a mini-herd of hand-carved ivory elephants that I brought home from a lengthy safari in Zimbabwe. And, on the same shelf was a giant land snail shell that I picked out of the sand in South Africa’s Northern Transvaal.
The next shelf down displayed several more eclectic objects. Amongst them was my great-grandfather’s drawtube telescope from the 1850s. Considering the many trails over which Henrik Timm carried the telescope, it’s incredible that it survived at all … but it did and the optics are in perfect shape.
Another prize is a fired .50-110-450 cartridge case that I found lying on a boulder while I was exploring a remote ridge in the Hell’s Canyon wilderness. The round was most likely fired from a Winchester Model 1886 lever-action rifle. The “Big .50” was unnecessarily powerful for the mule deer and sheep that are native to the area, so it’s likely that the hunter’s query was one of the resident Rocky Mountain elk.
In studying the head stamp and manufacturer, it was pretty easy to date .50-110-450 cartridge case to around the turn of the 20th century. I’d like to think that the hunter of the past killed his family’s winter meat supply with that single shot. In truth, I believe that is precisely what happened.
Another item on that shelf is a piece of quartzite that looks for all the world like a human thumb; fingernail, first joint and all. I found “The Finger” on the gravel bar while fishing for large brown trout just south of the Woodside Bridge on the Bitteroot River. I was a Montana farm kid at the time, but the image of a perfectly formed finger and joint was never missed on me.
And finally, there is the piece of burial jade that a dear friend gave me. Believe it or not, it’s a very large nephrite jade ceremonial axe blade that has seen a lifetime (or more) of use. The blade is well over two-thousand years old and it was discovered in a grave with the remains of a Chinese priest. Indeed, the jade instrument is the weirdest and coolest piece in my collection of arcane and downright interesting things.
Karen’s additions to the curio cabinets seem to be centered around a single subject; Scottish terriers. Yep, Karen loves everything about Scotty dogs and her brass-and-glass cabinet is overflowing with Scotty figurines, Scotty stuffed toys, Scotty napkin rings, Scotty … well, you get the picture.
Karen and I also collect religious books that reflect our intense interest in our Catholic faith. Obviously, this is a “centered” collection and our “Catholic bookcase” is truly a curio cabinet.
The Age of Discovery
The Age of Discovery began in the late-15th century and it was an unparalleled time of world exploration. The age was ushered in by the voyages and discoveries of Bartolomeu Dias, Christopher Columbus, Vasco de Gama, Ferdinand Magellan and many others.
It is said that the Age of Discovery didn’t truly end until the extensive exploration of the earth’s polar regions in the 20th century.
Personally, I see this as being in error; I believe that the greatest era of the Age of Discovery is yet to come with the exploration of the moon, the planets in our solar system and, beyond that, the very stars of our galaxy.
Cabinet of Curiosities
The concept of the “Cabinet of Curiosities” was born in the early-16th century when the explorers and others came back to Europe with things that were beyond common knowledge. It soon became popular for folks to collect such items, if for nothing else than to stimulate their imaginations.
At the time, the word “cabinet” meant two things; it could either be a piece of furniture that was designed for the display of “curiosities” or an entire room.
Basically, the concept was that the curiosities were a collection of objects that were beyond the categorical boundaries of common definition. Also, the collections could either be random items of interest or they could relate a central theme.
The collections that are in our curio cabinets are examples of this. Karen’s glass-and-brass display is centered around “anything Scotty dog” and my small accumulation is made up of random items that happened to interest me.
Friends, it’s only human nature for each of us to surround ourselves with items that interest us or stimulate our imagination. These items are as diverse as our individual personalities.
Oh, one final point, the word “curio” is a mid-19th century abbreviation of the word “curiosity.” The Oxford Living Dictionary defines a curio as “a rare, unique or otherwise intriguing object.”
GOD’s Cabinet of Curiosities
Granted, it sounds peculiar to consider ourselves to be the points of interest in GOD’S Cabinet of Curiosities, but that is precisely what we are.
God created our souls, He made the act of our conception possible and He implanted our souls within us at the very instant of that conception. Further, He gave us life outside of the womb and He has played an active role in each one of our journeys through life.
He also gave us individual personalities and free will. God is saddened when we make wrong choices and He rejoices when we follow the Path that was plainly laid out for us by Jesus, His Son.
There can only be one reason for this … it because of the inescapable fact that GOD LOVES US.
And Thanks Be To God For His Love.
May God Bless You
CHUB AND STEVE’S SPECIAL THANKSGIVING
For well over a decade my friend, Chub Eastman, and I enjoyed an annual big game hunt in central Alberta. It was always a relaxed hunt.
It was a time for us to just open ourselves to God’s Wonders of the Wilderness. It was also a time to enjoy a full week with each other’s companionship and to be with our Albertan friends.
Big game season opens on November 1st in Alberta. Chub and I loved hunting on opening day, so we usually flew to Canada and arrived mid-day on October 31st. Philip, our outfitter and chief guide, always picked us up at Calgary International and drove us a couple of hours north to his guiding headquarters.
On one of our last hunts together, both Chub and I were lucky enough to harvest our big game animals within the first couple of days.
When I arrived back at the ranch house with my last critter, an ancient mule deer buck, I was met by Philip’s wife, Sheila. Apparently, she’d made a decision … we were going to celebrate our good fortune.
Chub and Steve’s Special Thanksgiving
Sheila told me, “Steve, Canada was the first country to celebrate Thanksgiving and it is a tradition that goes back fully forty years before your Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock.”
She went on to say, “We Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving on the second Monday of October. And I realize that you Yanks give thanks on the fourth Thursday of November. In light of your bountiful harvest, why don’t we split the difference and share a prayerful meal of thanks? … We’ll call it Chub and Steve’s Special Thanksgiving.”
Then, Sheila asked me if I knew the name of the Thanksgiving holiday in Canada. Of course, I pled ignorance and with great feeling she told me, “Steve, our official name is as long as it is reverent. In 1879, the Canadian Parliament designated the holiday as ‘The Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God’.”
All I could say was, “WOW!”
Chub finished the conversation by adding, “I’ve already switched our return flight to Friday at noon … so, we’ll have plenty of time to celebrate Steve and Chub’s Special Thanksgiving Feast on Thursday afternoon.”
With that, Sheila marched to the back door and started preparing for the celebratory meal.
During the next day and a half, Chub and I boned our game animals, went coyote hunting and explored the local backwoods general stores. It was a fun time, two brothers of the hunt just spending quality time together.
For Sheila, the proposed Special Thanksgiving seemed star-crossed from the beginning. That afternoon, Tuesday, the propane froze up and it took until Wednesday morning for the bonfire under the tank to rectify the situation. The temperature plummeted to -25º Fahrenheit that night, so we all put four or five extra blankets on top of our bedcovers.
On Wednesday, the sewer line that ran the full length of the ranch house froze solid. Charlie, the local Ukrainian plumber, finally got the pipe snaked out. That chore alone took twelve hours and several trips under the house with a blowtorch.
By the time Charlie was done with the snaking and the blowtorch work, the home fairly reeked of … well, sewer stuff. Sheila placed scented candles everywhere and, after a few hours, declared that her home now smelled like summer season lilacs … or something. I remember thinking, “The ‘or something’ still stinks.”
The biggest problem was the turkey. Apparently, Philip bought a mammoth frozen turkey and there was no way it was going to fit into the oven. Sheila came up with the solution; she would finish the thawing of the gobbler with Charlie’s sewer blowtorch. Then, we’d solve the size problem by splitting the turkey lengthwise and she’d shoehorn it into a special cooker she borrowed from Philip’s mum.
Chub, Philip and I were given the task of splitting the turkey. So, bright and early on Thursday morning, we faced the challenge. Sheila thought it would be tacky to halve the bird with an axe, but left us men to find another way to do it.
Philip came up with the perfect solution. Visiting hunters always want to take their moose antlers home and Phil had a special chain saw that was dedicated solely to this purpose. Even better, the chain saw has always used vegetable oil as bar lubricant, so we’d have no nasty petroleum in our turkey bird.
Philip was the owner of the chain saw, so he got the honor of lowering the business end of the bar through the carcass. Chub and I were assigned the chore of holding the turkey solidly to the dining room table. Obviously, Sheila was out of the house for a spell; otherwise, she would never have allowed this type of men’s shenanigans to happen.
So, with a valiant pull, Philip started the chain saw. It burped and belched blue exhaust smoke and eventually the engine caught. Then, he lowered the bar to the center of the turkey’s breast. And through the blue smoke and incredible noise, I could see turkey mist flying … all over the kitchen window, in a line across the ceiling tiles and all over Philip’s face and chest.
Down, down, down he cut and when the saw started digging into Sheila’s treasured dining room table, he stopped. With a HUGE grin, Philip proclaimed that the turkey bird was cut in half, fair and proper.
Actually, it looked pretty good, except for the deep slice in the table and the ground-up moose hair that was spread uniformly through the flat surfaces of the split turkey breast.
About that time, Sheila walked in the door. She stopped, looked at the copious blue air, the sprayed turkey chips and her butchered dining room table. Sheila’s face said it all, she was a little disappointed in her men-folks ability to cut a turkey in half.
Then, we all started laughing. The absurdity of the total event was the stuff of which memories are made. There are good memories, bad memories and those like this … incredibly hilarious memories.
We all pitched in and helped with the final preparation. Chub peeled, boiled and mashed the potatoes. Sheila fussed around the turkey and wrapped it like a mummy in aluminum foil. And after a while, I was assigned to tend the gravy and to extricate any potential lumps.
Sheila gave Philip “THE LOOK” and told him that he should do anything of which he was capable… just as long as it didn’t involve his moose-antler chain saw.
When Sheila pronounced the dinner ready for serving, we all carried our particular dish to the table. I noticed that Sheila carefully covered the chain saw ding with a huge doily and put the serving tray the held the turkey pieces on it.
Then, we all sat down to share in the feast. Sheila told us that this was a special dinner, one giving Thanks to God because their friends Steve and Chub had come for a visit and that they had harvested their family’s winter meat supply.
And, finally, Sheila asked us to all join hands and join her in saying Grace.
She did the Sign of the Cross and said, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.” Sheila continued, “Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy Gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty, through Christ our Lord. Amen.” She sealed the prayer with another Sign of the Cross and we all joined in a loud, “AMEN.”
As we all filled our plates and engaged in a rowdy conversation, I looked around at my friends. There was Chub, a good friend that I loved like a brother. And there was Philip, Sheila and their son, Jason … good folks and true friends.
I sat there in total awe, just drinking it all in.
If there was friendship and love anywhere in the world, it was surely there at Sheila’s table as we celebrated Steve and Chub’s Special Thanksgiving Feast.
It was a Thanksgiving I will never forget.
May God Bless You,
PS. Chub is gone now; gone to meet Our Lord in Heaven. I pray for his soul every day. Please join me this Thanksgiving in praying for my forever-friend Chub. God Bless, Steve
A SPHERE OF PUREST GOLD
As many of you know, I was a goldsmith for most of my working life. Goldsmithing was like any other job; there were many routine chores and then there were some that absolutely brought my soul alive.
The facet of goldwork I enjoyed the most was taking “old gold” and returning it to new life. Let me explain more thoroughly:
A Sphere Of Purist Gold
A few times every month, customers would bring in their family’s old gold. Normally, the client wanted me to take the gold item that had seen a lifetime of use and turn it into something fresh and new.
The gold itself had significance to these folks. It was not about monetary worth, but rather a sentimental value that goes well beyond measurement in dollars and cents. The pieces I worked with were usually deceased spouse’s wedding rings and gold jewelry inherited from the passing of parents and grandparents.
Believe it or not, the surface of gold jewelry has pores and after a lifetime (or two) of use, the metal has to be refined. Goodness knows what was in the pores, but I always imagined they were packed with skin dander, hand cream, remnants of fifty-year old meatloaf and … well, you get the picture. Take my word for it, old gold can be truly nasty.
In a small shop setting, the best way to return the gold to its original “fine” state is to carefully go through a few simple steps.
First, the old gold is put into a ceramic crucible with an aspirin-sized dollop of borax crystals. Then, the gold is melted with an oxygen-acetylene torch until it loses all of its previous shape and collapses down into a ball.
The borax acts as a flux; it remixes the alloys and brings oxidized impurities to the surface of the gold ball in the form of “slag.” The last step in refining the gold is to carefully spoon off the slag.
At that point in time, the gold in the crucible is an incredible sight. The metal has now become what I’ve always thought of as “A Sphere Of Purest Gold.” The molten gold sphere is now the most glorious shiny red-orange-gold color and it is beautiful beyond description.
Many times, while the refined gold was still molten, I’ve called Karen over to my goldsmithing bench, just so we could share in the beauty together. It was literally like watching a perfect sunrise with the lady I love.
And, of course, from this state of perfection, I was able to fashion the gold into a new form … a form that pleased my client.
The lesson here is that fire and great heat can be an enormously cleansing force. It can bring beauty out of ugliness … it can bring new life from old.
Father Rick’s Homily
Father Rick gave our congregation an amazing gift last Sabbath; his homily was about Purgatory. This was absolutely the perfect subject because November is the month that we Catholics dedicate to the Holy Souls in Purgatory.
One of Father Rick’s points stood out above all the rest. He told us that Purgatory is “One of God’s Most Wonderful Gifts to Us.”
Frankly, I’ve not thought of Purgatory as being a “Wonderful Gift,” but Father Rick is absolutely correct in his assessment. In truth, Purgatory is a God-Made place or action (it could be considered either a noun or a verb) that assures all of those who follow Jesus a place in Heaven with God.
Another bullet point of Father Rick’s homily was that we should consider Purgatory to be an entry hall to Heaven. When we are in Purgatory, we are not quite there yet, but we’re surely well on our way to spending Eternity with God.
Finally, the good Father touched upon the fact that our souls are cleansed of all vestiges of sin in Purgatory. In this statement, I believe he was referring to 1 Corrinthians 3:11-15.
Father Rick’s homilies are always excellent, but this was one that really spoke to my heart. Truly, I will remember this homily for the rest of my life.
At some point near the middle of the homily, a lightbulb went off in my brain. I equated our souls being purified in Purgatory to my goldsmithing experience. Indeed, the purification of holy souls is an exact parallel with the refining process of old gold.
In the case of gold, the metal is transformed from a dirty, used state to a perfectly pure condition. And it is only after the refining process that the gold is ready to be formed anew.
It only makes sense that if we arrive at the Entrance to Heaven with the stains of forgiven sins still upon us, there should be some sort of purifying. And that process of purification undoubtedly involves the “Fire” of God’s Love.
At least in my mind’s eye, I can imagine holy souls that have been cleansed looking very much like my “Spheres of Purist Gold” … they are beautiful, they are absolutely perfect in every way.
Indeed, it is the ONLY by the Grace and the Fire of God’s Love that we are able to spend the Rest of Eternity with Him in Heaven.
Thanks Be To God For That.
May God Bless You
THE STORY OF A HOME
In July of 1964, shortly before our marriage, Karen and I bought a brand new house. We were starving students at the time and working our way through college. Being levelheaded kids, we decided that making mortgage payments would eventually give us something of value, while renting an apartment would not.
We spent our wedding night in the house and from that point in time, we made it our home. We’ve lived here ever since.
There is a distinction to be made here; a house is an empty living structure; it is a shell. And a home is a place where a family lives; a home is full of loving, both between family members and with God.
During the last fifty-two years our home has “grown with us.” We added a covered back deck and, when we needed a workout room and office, we built a 450 square-foot addition. We also poured a concrete trailer pad and had the electrical system beefed-up to accommodate a plethora of new electronic gadgets. Actually, the list is almost endless; over the years, we “tweaked” our home to fit our lifestyle.
Forced to guess, I’d say that our home attained its finest condition about five or ten years ago.
Today, our home is in very slow decline. Our side and back fences are rotting and rickety, I haven’t cleaned the gutters for a spell and there are a million little things that need to be fixed. Our home isn’t collapsing around us, but it isn’t as pristine as it used to be.
Still, our home is precious to both of us. It was the place where our Young Love veritably blossomed and it is the place where our Old Love continues to flourish and thrive to this very day.
We are totally aware of the fact that age and health issues will eventually force us to move to an adult living facility (a cutesy PC term for “Old Folks Home”). However, we also feel that we’ll stay younger and more vital by living here as long as we can.
When our physical condition forces us to sell, hopefully a young family will buy our home and return it to its past glory. And we pray that our beloved home will once again be place where Young Love blossoms.
At least in my mind’s eye, I can see the young family raising a flock of kids, adorable dogs and maybe even a few kitty cats in our home. Hopefully, our home will again be a place of incredible laughter, noise and total chaos; that would be a wonderful thing.
If the young family is lucky enough to live long and prosper, they will repeat the cycle that Karen and I have experienced; … living, loving and eventually growing old together.
In time, perhaps in another fifty years, our home will be bulldozed to the ground and a new living structure will take its place. That’s simply inevitable; it’s the Cycle of Life.
A VERY SHORT Reflection
Friends, our physical bodies are very much like the house-versus-home distinction. Without a soul, without a Love of God and without Jesus for a guide, we are an empty shell. But, when the soul, the Love of God and Jesus are added, we are then ready to lead our life upon earth as God intended.
I believe that the Young Love-versus-Old Love component is there, as well. As “young” Catholics, we are blushingly in love with God and as we mature, we love Him to the very center of our souls; that is when the wonderful element of Old Love develops.
Eventually, like the structure of our home, our bodies break down and we die. Again, that is the Cycle of Life.
And it is then that we who have loved Him enough during our short lives on earth are given the unmerited favor of spending all Eternity with God.
May God Bless You
THE ICON OF LIFE
Friends, by now you know that my earliest Catholic mentor was a wonderful Irish priest. His name was Father Brendan Shea and I’m convinced that he was sent into my life by God Almighty. To say that Fr. B was a positive influence on my life during my formative years would be an incredible understatement.
During one of our last meetings, Father Brendan brought up a very interesting subject; that of what he called the “Icon Of Life.”
I’d heard about icons, but I knew very little about them. And, frankly, the addition of the term “life” totally threw me for a loop.
Father Brendon went on to explain; “Traditionally, icons are a pieces of religious art. They can be statues or carvings, but the vast majority of icons are paintings. By definition, icons are sacramentals; objects of faith that help the worshiper “channel” their adoration and worship of God. Oh, and just so you will always use the correct terminology, icons are referred to as having been ‘written,’ not painted or carved.”
He went on to say, “This type of art form comes to us from the very-early Catholic Church and they are incredibly important in the worship of the Eastern Orthodox tradition. We Roman Catholics love icons, as well, but they are not used in our liturgy.”
Then, the good padre gave me a thumbnail sketch of what makes up an icon. First of all, an icon tells a story but, like God and Eternity, there is absolutely no timeline.
In other words, an icon could depict Adam and Eve, Moses, the Blessed Virgin Mary and Jesus in the same artwork, even though they did not all exist at the same time. It’s the story itself that is important, not the timeline of the persons and events in the story.
Secondly, the main character is always the largest and most prominent image in the artwork. The other characters depicted in the icon are given physical sizes that are relative to their importance to both the main character and the telling of the story.
Father Brendan told me that iconography, the study of icons, is a deep and rich field. He went on to say that our little ten-minute introduction to icons wasn’t even one-thousandth of one-percent of the average iconographer’s knowledge. It was just enough to introduce the main part of our lesson … The Icon Of Life.
The Icon Of Life
The conversation then shifted to the subject at hand; the Icon of Life.
Fr. B started the lesson by saying, “Steve, Old Son, I’d like you to adapt the “Icon Principle” to your own life. I want you to think about the most important person or thing in your life. That person or thing can be alive, dead or entirely spiritual. And if you come up with anyone other than Jesus, I’m gonna cut off your supply of Cuban cigars.”
At that, I responded, “Yes, Father, I understand perfectly. God is by far the most important thing in my life and the figure of Jesus, God totally reduced to human form on earth, is the perfect representation. Jesus will be the largest image in my Icon of Life and every other character or event will be both smaller and behind Him.”
With a HUGE grin, Father Brendan said, “Good Boy, your supply of Cubanos is secure; at least for the time being.”
Father got out a large piece of drawing paper and asked me to draw a large figure of Jesus in the lower center. This was the beginning of my Icon of Life.
From this basic start, we went on to order the most important people in my life. All of them standing behind Jesus and their sizes were in proportion to their standing.
At first, I ranked the people by order of their positive effect on my life. Father B. noticed that instantly and he pointed out that we often learn by negative example. He suggested that I should put the “good folks” on the right of Jesus and behind Him. Similarly, the “baddies” went to the left of Our Lord and to the rear.
Then, he asked me to list the events of my life by order of importance and their influence on the person that I had become. This time, Father Brendon asked me to put the “good events” on the far right side of the piece of paper and the “bad ones” on the extreme left.
After I’d done that, Fr. B told me that this was the icon of my life at that particular moment, but that the relationships of life were constantly changing. Because of this, my Icon of Life would also in constant flux.
He pointed to the figure I’d placed right behind Jesus; it was Grandpa Hank. Fr. B then said, “Steve, I know that you are currently courting a wee lassie named Karen. I see the love in your eyes and I highly suspect that you will eventually enter into the Sacrament of Marriage with her. Trust me, Old Son, Karen will soon take Grandpa Hank’s place and the old fella will be shuffled back a place or two … and I know for a fact that Hank would have it no other way.”
After a while we broke for a wee drop of that fabulous single-malt Irish whiskey that Fr. B called “Tears of the Angels” and a Cubano. It was then that Father Brendon told me that the Icon of Life is a concept that had always helped him keep centered. He recommended that I follow his example and keep my own up-to-date Icon of Life throughout the rest of my journey on this earth.
He also told me I could draw my Icon of Life on a piece of paper, just as I did that evening, or I could simply make a list; either on paper or simply in the privacy of my own mind.
It’s been over a half-century since that watershed visit with Father Brendon. Given the wisdom of time, I can honestly say that our discussion changed my way of looking at the many aspects of my life.
Fr. B taught me the proper order of things; my Love of God will always be “front and center” and that love has greatly influenced every other relationship. And that is as it should be.
Father Brendon was absolutely correct when he opined that the “Wee lassie named Karen” would take Grandpa Hank’s place as the second most important person and influence in my life. Somehow he had known what I only suspected, but I guess that came from his many years of priestly insight.
When I get to Heaven, I pray that I will be fortunate enough to meet Father Brendan Shea again. I’d love to hug him one more time and thank him once more for being such a wonderfully positive influence on my life.
I have no doubt that the resourceful priest smuggled a few Cubanos and a wee dollop of Tears of the Angels through the Pearly Gates. And hopefully he will share.
As our beloved Monsignor Rick once told me, “Anything, absolutely ANYTHING, is possible for an Irish priest.”
I believe him.
May God Bless You.