Random musings after mass on this Feast of the Assumption

It’s not a holy day of obligation in my diocese, but because I had taken the day off work, I went to the noon mass today, which had about 4 times the usual number of attendees. There was a lily-ish white flower in front of the statue of our Lady. No musicians, so we sang a capella: the opening and closing songs were not Marian.

Listening to the first reading, I thought of Mary as the Ark of the Covenant, visible in the Temple. What I noticed about the last part of the sign in the sky of the woman with twelve crowns and the dragon with seven heads, when the child is born and taken up by God in safety, and the woman flees to the desert where she had a place prepared by God, is that this suddenly sounded like the story of Hagar, who was sent into the desert to die with her baby, to whom God sent an angel to provide water, and who eventually finds a place in which to live out the rest of her life safely. Hagar’s story is presented in elaborated form in the Qu’ran, and I believe that a re-enactment of her searching for a place in the desert is a traditional part of the Hajj.

I couldn’t remember what the gospel would be for the feast day, and I was pleased that it was the story of the visitation. When I was in high school, one of the catechists (a lovely irreverent woman from whom I learned that it was possible to be a devout Catholic with an irreverent sense of humor) pointed out that after the Annunciation, Mary was essentially a teenage girl who had turned up pregnant. And like pregnant teenagers to this day, she went or was sent off to a relative conveniently out of town. That made a lot of sense to me then. Today it additionally occurred to me that Mary might have made this visit to test the proof that the angel had offered her: that her older barren kinswoman was with child. I imagine her thinking, Maybe it was all my imagination. Maybe I’ll get there and Elizabeth will have no idea what I’m talking about; then I can relax and go back to my normal life. But if it is true — if it is, then… then at least I can ask Elizabeth, how do you cope with such a miracle? How do you reconstruct your life around such an intimate and life-changing divine action?

I imagine her planning what to say.. planning not to say anything, unless Elizabeth told her she was pregnant. And then, oh, then when she arrives, Elizabeth rushes outside to greet her and immediately confirms the angel’s message and speaks of the child in her own womb… and then it’s all real, and she is overwhelmed with joy.

The story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth is one of my favorites.

During the sermon, when the priest was describing Mary as the vessel or the tabernacle of the Lord, I realized that’s not true, that’s not right. Those images present Mary as an empty space, in whose body Jesus came to dwell before being born. But Mary’s body is the locus of the Incarnation and the source of his human nature. The Creed says Jesus was consubstantial with the Father; but he was also consubstantial with Mary. It is of her flesh that his human flesh was formed. Mary is not just the God-bearer, but the human mother of the fully human Jesus: by the Holy Spirit, out of the Virgin Mary, he was made human.

For the first time I wondered, if Mary was “assumed into heaven body and soul”, which is distinct from the resurrection of the dead, then does that mean that she among all creatures will not receive a resurrected body after the Eschaton? Wouldn’t that be just like patriarchy, apparently honoring her above all others but then leaving her in a plain ordinary mortal body while everybody else gets a better one. Then I decided that a glorified body must be the same as a resurrected body, somehow, and felt better. Still, it’s interesting that I don’t remember ever being taught anything about this.

During and after communion, I was particularly aware of how, when we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, we take Jesus into our bodies in a way that is not so different from how Mary held him in her body.

We sang “Hail Mary, Gentle woman.” Twice. At preparation and at communion. It is beyond me why, if you don’t have guitarists that have to be able to play a guitar song on a Marian feastday, you would voluntarily choose that banal piece of work instead of a traditional Marian hymn; but, ah well. We did chant the Doxology and Great Amen, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Agnus Dei (in Latin, even!), so that was nice.

But I sang “Hail Holy Queen” as I walked back to my car after Mass.

ps – Today is the first anniversary of the death of my dear friend Mark. I prayed for him during the general intercessions. If your tradition supports prayers for the dead, please pray for him; and for his widow, his mother, and all those who loved him. Thank you.

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But what can we do? For white people who feel helpless

It’s been a terrible week. Alton Sterling, selling CDs in front of a store with the store owner’s permission, killed by police. Philando Castile, stopped for a broken taillight, killed by police in his car with his girlfriend and her four year old daughter sitting right there. A peaceful protest in Dallas, followed by a sniper who shot and killed or wounded multiple police officers, and who was then killed by the remote detonation of a robot bomb sent in by police.

Massive peaceful protests across the country, too often met by an aggressively militarized police presence that provokes and escalates tensions. Police tactics becoming even more aggressive after dark, as we saw in Ferguson, including the use of teargas and smoke bombs. Protestors arrested and detained.

So what can we do?

First, recognize that your black friends, acquaintances, coworkers, and neighbors are more deeply affected by these events than we white people are. So give them space, cut them slack, be gentle around them, the way you would with someone who is going through a very hard time right now.

Second, if you haven’t already started to educate yourself about racism and white supremacy in this country, start now. The links at the end of this post should help.

Third, consider making a pledge to do one thing, every day, to work against racism and police brutality. One thing: make a phone call, write a letter, have a conversation, make a donation.

Call your legislators and urge them to support the Campaign Zero policies to end police brutality. Write to the mayor and police commissioner of the city you work in and say that you are willing to sit in traffic while protestors block streets because you support them. Have a conversation with another white person about how you came to be aware of racism and implicit bias, and what you are doing about it. Donate to a bail fund or legal support fund for arrested protestors. There are more ideas in the links below.

Do one thing, every day. That might seem like a lot. But wouldn’t you do something every day if it were your spouse, your child, your sister or brother who had been killed by police?

Christians, listen up: it is your sister, your brother. Do we mean what we say, or don’t we?

Things to Do:

Local Actions You Can Take Right Now: page 1 and page 2

What You Can Do Right Now about Police Brutality

What White Churches Can Do About Racism Aside from Just Praying

Things to Learn: for White People

Curriculum for White Americans to Educate Themselves on Race and Racism

What White America Fails to See

I, Racist

28 Common Racist Attitudes and Behaviors

Learning to Call Myself White

Things to Learn: from Black people

Memory, #BlackLivesMatter, and Theologians by Dr. M. Shawn Copeland, an African-American Catholic theologian

‘Soul Weary’ in America: Cell Phone Videos and Cycles of Violence featuring comments by Fr. Bryan Massingale, an African American Catholic priest

What To Preach when Blood is Running in the Streets, especially for preachers, by Rev. Wil Gafney, an African-American Episcopal priest

I’m a Black Ex-Cop, and This is the Real Truth about Race and Policing

Will Racism Ever End, Will I Ever Stop Being a N____?”

The Test Case, specifically about Philando Castile

Please share additional links and ideas in the comments.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all [people] will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963

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Feminist St. Agatha Wants You!

St. Agatha is one of those virgin saints from the early church that tends to be overlooked by many feminist-minded Catholics. Her story, like those of many other women saints, has been told through the male gaze by male hagriographers. So the emphasis is on her willingness to be gruesomely tortured rather than give up her virginity.

Agatha is the patron saint of Catania, Sicily, where her relics reside and are featured in an annual festival in her honor. And there’s a feminist filmmaker who wants to retell her story.

Bernadette Wegenstein first became interested in the story of St. Agatha while doing a project on women with breast cancer. (Because legend has it that Agatha’s breasts were cut off as part of her torture, she is the patron saint of those suffering from breast cancer.) She was very taken by the festival in Catania, and the broad devotion of the people to their patron saint. She’ll be using live footage from the festival, as well as animated scenes of Agatha, in the film.

You can read all about it at the crowdfunding site — there’s a wealth of information there, and a short film in the “Updates” section as well as the one I’m linking to below. The deadline to pledge is the end of June, and they’re already at 92% of their goal, so they only need a little more help to put them over.

But I thought my readers might be particularly interested in one of the giveaways. During the festival, the faithful traditionally kiss the reliquary (in which the relics are kept) as a sign of devotion. For hygienic reasons, the reliquary is then wiped down with cotton squares. But because these cotton squares have been in contact with the relics, they are traditionally understood to be blessed. (I wonder if they might even be considered 3rd class relics? but maybe not, because of the reliquary in the way.) It is not permissible to sell these squares, but the project has been given 20 that they may give as thankyou gifts for a donation of $30. Only 3 of the 20 have been claimed so far.

So whether it is saints, relics, or feminist theology that is your thing, I encourage you to pop over and pledge to help support this worthy project.

St. Agatha, pray for us!

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Art, Co-Redemption, and Kenosis: Reading the Vierge Ouvrante

An intricate piece of devotional art at the Walters Art Museum captured my imagination this last weekend. This particular piece is carved from ivory, and is an example of a type of medieval art known as a Vierge Ouvrante, or a Virgin that Opens. Here she is closed:

walters_vierge_ouvrante_closed

Opening Madonna Triptych, The Walters Art Museum

This is an image of Mary, seated and robed in glory, holding on her lap not the baby Jesus, but Christ Regnant, also seated and robed in glory, with his right hand lifted in blessing and his left hand holding the orb of the world in place on his knee. The four-lobed aureole that frames him also encloses a chalice on his right and the tablets of the Ten Commandments on his left, signifying the New Covenant in his blood and the Mosaic covenant of the Law. Mary’s chair rests on a base that shows an unusual Nativity scene: Mary reclining on her childbed, Joseph bending over her in concern, while behind/above them (and probably impossible to see in this picture – it was very hard to see in the museum) is the Child and the animals that attended his birth.

This vierge ouvrante opens down the center line that you can see in the picture above. The entire seated figure of Mary opens, from the top of her head to the hem of her robe. Inside is concealed an ensemble of images that suggests the ornate retable of a high altar: Continue reading

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The last two weeks reading Friends of God & Prophets rather got away from me: I did the reading, and we had our Friday night twitter chats, but I didn’t manage to get the blogging in. I still hope to finish this blog series, but perhaps not for a while.

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Theology of the Friends of God and Prophets: Companions in Memory – Part 3, Ch9 of #FOGAP

fogap_coverHaving taught us how to tell women’s stories in chapter 8, Johnson here offers a schema through which these stories, told within the context of the communion of saints, can support, sustain, and inspire women and the church. Drawing heavily on political theology and the work of Johann Baptist Metz, we learn here how the communion of saints can be a powerful symbol when memory, narrative, and solidarity are braided together through the stories of holy women.

Memory is fundamental to identity. Memory that grapples with the messy realities of human life, rather than succumbing to nostalgia or despair, can be eschatological: pointing towards a better future and inspiring us to work towards it. Subversive memory challenges the dominant cultural or political narratives to insist that the experiences and lives of the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed matter, despite the potential risk: dangerous memory indeed.

Narrative is the natural structure of memory, and humans are story-telling creatures. A powerful story changes the teller, catches up the listener into a larger narrative, sustains the community, and repudiates oppression. This is particularly true for stories of grief, suffering, and death: stories with which the Church’s story of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus particularly resonates.

Solidarity is where narrative memory goes in order to change the world. People whose hearts have been moved by the same stories are moved to stand and act in solidarity with each other: “their sufferings and joys become part of one’s own personal concern and a spur to transformative action.” (175) Solidarity unites the privileged with the oppressed in working towards justice, in a unity that embraces and celebrates differences. Solidarity unites the living with the dead, “by means of which the dead can be affirmed as significant in their lives, and the living who are struggling are succored and encouraged by their memory.” (176)

Although most stories of the saints as traditionally told hardly resemble the life-changing narratives described here, women’s practices of memory have just such a life-giving effect for many women in the church today. (174)

Discussion Questions

Q9a: Which of these sections on “subversive memory, “critical narrative,” and “solidarity in difference” spoke most strongly to you, and why?

Q9b: How do you see the material discussed here as relating to contemporary issues in our society?

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Theology of the Friends of God and Prophets: Women’s Practices of Memory – Part 3, Ch8 of #FOGAP

fogap_coverIn this chapter, Johnson is clearly writing for readers who are not familiar with the tools of feminist theology. She illustrates four different practices with a different story. Telling Hagar’s story by lifting up elements that are plainly in the biblical text yet, somehow, rarely preached exemplifies “recovering lost memory.” Mary Magdalen provides a terrific example of “rectifying distortions”: How … did the first apostolic witness become a whore? (149). The virgin martyrs of the early church offer a case study in “reassessing values” inscribed onto the stories of women by the male patriarchal gaze, which could even categorize Perpetua, a nursing mother, and Felicity, a newly post-partum mother, as virgins! Importantly, this section not only revisits the meaning and value of virginity, but questions “the theological legitimation of suffering” (155) associated with martyrdom. Perceiving, honoring, and telling the stories of the many women who are mentioned but not named, as well as those who are not even mentioned but whose existence is implied, is a means of “reclaiming the silence” about women’s lives in our texts.

In the final section, she identifies these practices as “outflying sparks” of the more comprehensive reading strategies used in feminist scholarship, which I summarize as: suspicion of the patriarchal and androcentric biases in the text; reconstruction of details and gaps informed by the social sciences; kerygma that insists the Good News must indeed bring justice for the oppressed; and liturgy that proclaims the joyful and sorrowful and glorious and ordinary stories of biblical and ecclesial women in prayerful community.

(Brief) Reflection & Further Resources

The title of this chapter sounded suspiciously squishy to me, but it turned out to be an interesting chapter for me to read, because I’ve studied or blogged about a number of the cases she mentions here, and am familiar with these practices and strategies. (Gee, I guess I am a feminist theologian after all!)

Johnson references Phyllis Trible’s work in Hagar, Sarah, and their Children: this is a terrific book, especially for interfaith women’s groups. You can hear Trible’s 2014 Kellogg Lecture Justice for Foremothers: Hagar and Sarah online – I just listened to this last weekend.

There’s a tremendous amount of information about Mary Magdalen online (gathered in this case by proponents of women’s ordination, but don’t let that put you off the material). I’ve blogged about the Construction of Virgin Saints and Perpetua and Felicity before. My favorite quote from the martyrs section was by Kathleen Norris:

The virgin martyrs make me wonder if the very idea of girls having honor is a scandal,
if this is a key to the power that their stories still have to shock us, and even more important to subvert authority, which now as in the ancient world rests largely in the hands of men.
(Norris, The Cloister Walk, 192; quoted on p153)

The National Festival of Biblical Storytelling that I attended a few years ago, one of the workshops was offered by a group called Women of the Well, who took an imaginative reconstructive approach to biblical women’s stories — rather like midrash. They performed a beautifully moving dialogue between Hagar and Sarah, imagining each woman’s joys and hardships from her own point of view, the conflict between them, and exploring the possibilities for reconciliation.

Discussion Questions

Q8a: What do you think of these practices and strategies for reading scripture and ecclesial texts? Do they strike you as legitimate, reliable, dubious, ..? Do you think you would find them helpful?

Q8b: Any comments on the stories of Hagar, Mary Magdalen, the virgin martyrs, the anonymous women as told in these ways? What appealed to you, disturbed you, made you think?

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Codification, Development, and Freedom: Completing Part 2, Dialogue with a Living Tradition: ch 5, 6, &7 of #FOGAP

fogap_coverIn these three chapters, Johnson meticulously engages with Christian tradition to trace the early origins, later development, and contemporary teaching on the saints, particularly but not exclusively with Catholic tradition. She sees evidence of both the companionship and patronage models, with the patronage model dominating from the early Middle Ages through the Council of Trent and the post-Tridentine Catholic church, while the companionship model was briefly recovered by the Protestant Reformers, and re-emerges during Vatican 2 as part of a re-orientation of the theology of the church in Lumen Gentium, which suggests a sacramental understanding of the communion of saints. Finally, she demonstrates that Catholics are not now and never have been required by the Church to practice private veneration of the saints according to traditional patronage forms, although it is now and long has been commended to the faithful as a good and useful practice of great spiritual benefit. The absence of any such requirement provides the freedom to re-imagine how the communion of saints can be fruitfully understood and practiced by Christians today.

Chapter 5 (“Institutional Settling”) briskly reviews the treatment of saints in the Apostle’s Creed, the liturgical calendar, and the institutional process of canonization. I was most surprised that the communion of saints had been added to the Apostle’s Creed relatively late, circa 400 CE, after the Nicene Creed has been finalized by the ecumenical councils of Nicaea (351, parts 1&2) and Constantinople (389, part 3): I had naively assumed that the Apostles Creed in its entirety had preceded the Nicene!

I was fascinated to learn that the Feast of All Saints (my very favorite feastday outside the major feasts of Easter Triduum & Christmas) had originally been placed on Easter Friday, for its closeness to Christ’s suffering and resurrection; or on the Sunday after Pentecost, as evidence of the fruits of the Spirit. Both placements are more clearly connected to the central mysteries of the faith than the Nov 1 placement in the West. The final section, on centralization of the canonization process and the resulting elitification of officially approved saints, mostly served to reinforce points she had made in the previous chapter.

In Chapter 6 (“Movements for Reform”), I was most interested in the writings of the Protestant Reformers that discuss the proper ways in which the saints may be honored, while repudiating invocation under the patronage model: thanking God for their lives, allowing their stories to strengthen our faith in God’s mercy, and imitating them (109). I particularly liked Wainwright’s suggestion that hymns in the Methodist tradition constitute “a kind of musical iconography” (112): this is quite consistent with my experience of hymnody in church. (Especially in the relatively young and bare Catholic churches in which I’ve worshiped most of my life!)

As a Catholic ecclesiologist, though, I was most engaged by her careful mining of Lumen Gentium for a vision of the church that incorporated the communion of sants, and vice versa. LG7, which is devoted to the communion of saints, teaches that our response to the saints is to love them, thank God for them, imitate them, and (“quoting Trent”) ask for their intercession: not so different from the understanding of the Protestant Reformers. Writing out of the deeply sacramental worldview that distinguishes Catholics from Protestants, LG goes further, describing the saints as “especially successful images of Christ,” or as Johnson puts it, “living parables” (119). LG entirely avoids “the term or idea of patronage, except in references to Trent” (120).

The church remembers [the saints’] bright patterns of holiness. They are a sign of our joy. (118)

In Chapter 7 (“Serenely Free”), Johnson goes to some effort to show that, even though private devotion to the saints (generally according to the patronage model) and particularly to Mary has been a Catholic badge of identity, there is actually no requirement that Catholics engage in these practices. This (mostly) didn’t surprise me, because I had always been taught that the majority of the Church’s great treasury of spiritual practices was allowed but not required: it was laid before us that we might have many choices, so everyone might find some things that appealed to them. (The one exception is the rosary: so much emphasis has been placed on praying the rosary in my lifetime that I was surprised by that one.)

The distinction between private & public devotion was interesting but not surprising to me, and the relatively minor elements of public devotion (which is required by Catholics who participate in the liturgies of the church) in the Eucharistic Prayers and the Litany of the Saints was interesting by comparison.

Reflection

There was a video not too long ago that was pretty popular in Catholic circles; it purported to be a “Catholic Throwdown” between Stephen Colbert and Patricia Heaton, a guest actress. (Fastforward to about 1:50 to get to the Catholic stuff.) I love this video, because it’s all about Catholic identity: two Catholics bonding in public over a variety of Catholic badges of identity and tradition. A lot of it is about the saints, and mostly in the patronage or even folk superstition model that both Trent and Vatican 2 attempted to rein in. But the content is almost beside the point: Stephen and Patricia are having a fabulous time just being Catholic together. In light of what we read in these chapters, it’s not surprising that they were being Catholic together by means of the communion of saints — communion is just another word for togetherness, after all!

 

 

 

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“Releasing Religious Energy” – #FOGAP

In the twitterchat on chapter 3, we had a bit of discussion of what exactly Johnson meant by saying that the remembrance of the saints can “release religious energy,” so I figured I’d pull out the paragraph or so in which she unpacks that phrase:

The local community, meanwhile, honors [the saints] by keeping festival in their memory; it is remembrance that affects the nature of the communion. Once we listen to their story, our response wells up in various ways. We sing in gratitude to God for them, or praise God for the beauty of their lives, or rejoice in their victory, or draw hope from their witness in our despair, or commend ourselves to their prayers, or simply love them. Most important of all, we are inspired to follow in the footsteps of their example.

I could go with “releasing religious energy” for that, sure.

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Dialogue with a Living Tradition: Patterns in the Age of Martyrs – Part 2, Ch 4 of #FOGAP

fogap_coverIn this straightforward chapter, Johnson first reviews how the cult of the saints emerged from the remembrance of the martyrs in living memory, and then contrasts two paradigms of the communion of saints: the companionship of friends evident in the early church, and the patronage model that emerged as the Christian church was assimilated to the Roman culture that was dominated by patron-client relationships.

She begins by presenting evidence that asceticism functioned as preparation for martyrdom in the early church, and that martyrs were seen as “icons of Christ” and their courage and bold speeches as evidence of anointing by the Holy Spirit. (73) She quotes excerpts from several primary sources on martyrdom (one of which I have previously blogged about, Perpetua & Felicity). Christian martyrs were remembered on the anniversaries of their deaths, which were celebrated at their tombs as their birthday into heaven. Spontaneously and informally, people began to leave written prayers at those tombs: “Vincent, you are in Christ; pray for Phoebe.” Fascinatingly, Mary the mother of Jesus received no public veneration during this period, “since she was not a martyr.” (78)

After the age of persecution, those venerated as saints came to include confessors (those who were not killed, but were tortured for the faith), ascetics, and others who were considered by their community to exemplify Christian values in daily life.

These early Christians were in no way confused about whether they were worshiping the martyrs rather than Christ. She quotes from a primary source rebutting just this accusation from the church of Smyrna, whose bishop Polycarp had been martyred:

For [Christ] we worship as the Son of God. But the martyrs we love as disciples and imitators of the Lord, and rightly so because of their matchless affection for their own king and teacher. May we too become their comrades and fellow disciples. (80)

This evidences the “companions and friends” model that was operative in the early church. But by the late fifth century, the dominant model had become one of patronage, for sociological, spiritual and theological reasons. Sociologically, Christianity was now the official religion of the Empire, which meant that Christian clergy were increasingly assimilated to the Roman patronage system. Spiritually, the emphasis on asceticism as a superior form of Christian life was eroding the radical equality of all the baptized: some were closer to God than others. Theologically — and I think this is the most interesting point — the fight against Aryanism (which denied the full divinity of Christ) had been fought with such intensity and for so long that Jesus’ full humanity had receded from consciousness. My favorite example of this is the Nicene Creed: it wasn’t until I was in graduate school studying Christology that I noticed the Creed affirms that he is consubstantial with the Father… but does not affirm that he is also consubstantial with humans, which is equally an article of faith.

All this led to a spiritual cosmology that resembled earthly aristocracy, shaped by a patronage system: God was king, surrounded by the highest-status patrons as his courtiers; and his mother, who outranked them all (and was the only woman in this elite circle). No one among the ordinary citizenry went straight to persons who had direct access to the local lord; chains of intermediary patrons were the norm. This also led to an emphasis on saints as those who could provide miraculous help, rather than those whose stories inspired and encouraged us; typically your patron was the person you turned to when you needed practical or financial help, and in return you gave them your loyalty and honored them. I was very interested to read that the turn to miracles as evidence of sainthood for non-martyrs emerged at the same time, on the grounds that there’s no use in having a patron who can’t do things for you! This suggests that a turn to the companions&friends model might allow us to move away from the criterion of miracles, which is intensely problematic for many people today & has already been waived or softened in recent years.

It’s very easy to see how the cult of the saints became shaped this way in such a social and spiritual environment. Yet, it is increasingly alien to the contemporary worldview, at least in the West; and it is certainly a source of scandal to our Protestant sisters and brothers. As Johnson notes, if we can see how something emerged in response to concrete historical circumstances, we can also imagine that it might change in response to different historical circumstances. The “companions and friends” model is both less problematic for believers today, and more deeply rooted in the history of the church.

Reflections

Continue reading

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