Today is the feast of St Josemaría Escrivá, founder of Opus Dei. Actually, his feast is tomorrow – the anniversary of his death in 1975 – but that clashes with Sunday, so his feast was moved forward a day.
To mark the feast, the very readable Opus Dei news site has reproduced an old article about Josemaría and his spirituality which I have never read before. It was written in 1978 by Cardinal Albino Luciani, one month before he became Pope John Paul. (That means he wrote it only two months before he died!)
John Paul I is a very good writer. Outstanding, in fact. I’m inspired now to read his famous Illustrissimi, which I’m sure is every bit as entertaining and insightful as his short article on Opus Dei and its founder. I am very familiar with St Josemaría and his spirituality, which as a member of the Work is my spirituality too. But still, this article has taught me new things about both.
Here’s a taste:
Msgr Escrivá, with Gospel in hand, constantly taught: ‘God does not want us simply to be good, he wants us to be saints, through and through. However, he wants us to attain that sanctity, not by doing extraordinary things, but rather through ordinary common activities.’
More than 300 years earlier St Francis de Sales taught something along the same lines. A preacher had publicly consigned to the flames from his pulpit a book in which St Francis had said that in certain circumstances dancing can be permissible; the book also contained a whole chapter on the “worthiness of the marriage bed.” However, Msgr Escrivá went further than St Francis de Sales in many respects. St Francis proclaimed sanctity for everyone but seems to have only a “spirituality for lay people” whereas Msgr Escrivá wants a “lay spirituality.” Francis, in other words, nearly always suggests for the laity the same practical means used by religious, but with suitable modifications. Escrivá is more radical; he goes as far as talking about “materializing”—in a good sense—the quest for holiness. For him, it is the material work itself which must be turned into prayer and sanctity.
The legendary Baron Munchausen tells a fable of a monstrous hare that had a double set of legs: four normal ones on his belly and four more on his back. Pursued by the hounds and feeling himself about to be overtaken, he flips himself over and continues running on four fresh legs. For the founder of Opus Dei, the life of a Christian would be just as monstrous if he were to go about with a double series of activities: one consisting of prayers, for God; the other made up of work, relaxation and family life, for himself. ‘No,’ says Escrivá, ‘there is only one life, and it has to be made holy en bloc.’ That is why he speaks of a “materialized” spirituality.
One evening earlier this week, a friend and I were walking up Drummond Street in Carlton. The neighbourhood is very familiar to me, not only from my seminary years, but also from my university years.
We passed a building which once housed Shannyn Bennet’s famous Vue de Monde restaurant — before he relocated to the CBD. “This is where I enjoyed the greatest meal of my life,” I declared. It was a ten-course degustation menu focused on truffles. Yum! (I’m not usually given to blogging about food, but I have blogged about truffles before — here and here.)
This is when my friend surprised me. And by that, I mean he floored me. He described a French dish which is so luxurious — so excessively extravagant — that I thought he was making it up. Turns out he wasn’t.
Ortolans are a small songbird, similar to finches. Let me explain how they are served according to the finest traditions of French cuisine. You’ll probably have to read this twice just to process it.
1. The birds are caught with ground nets, set during their migratory flight to Africa. Then they are transferred to dark cages.
2. The Ancient Romans would gouge the ortolans’ eyes out, so that the poor birds would think winter had arrived early, and gorge themselves on grain. Enlightened moderns do not blind the birds, but they do keep them in complete darkness for a month or more.
3. When the gorging birds have tripled their original size, they are drowned in Armagnac, and allowed to marinate there for some time. Seriously. I’m not making this up!
4. The marinated bird is roasted for seven minutes, or eight minutes at a pinch.
5. The bird is promptly plucked and served on a plate, still sizzling in its hot fats.
6. The diner handles the bird by its beak, and places the entire bird, feet first, into his or her mouth.
7. The bird is still very hot, and likely to burn the diner’s mouth. Its bones will often cut the diner’s gums and mouth, drawing blood. The pain and blood is supposed to enhance the flavours and culinary experience.
8. The ortolan is traditionally consumed with a napkin covering the diner’s head. There is a three-fold explanation for this strange practice:
- The napkin optimises the aromatic experience.
- The napkin spares onlookers the unpleasant sight of someone consuming a whole bird: feet, guts, beak and all.
- The napkin — again, I’m not making this up! — “shields from God’s eyes the shame of such a decadent and disgraceful act.”
An American chef, Anthony Bourdain, describes the experience in alluring terms:
“With every bite, as the thin bones and layers of fat, meat, skin and organs compact in on themselves, there are sublime dribbles of varied and wondrous ancient flavours: figs, Armagnac, dark flesh slightly infused with the salty taste of my own blood as my mouth is pricked by the sharp bones.”
I must confess I am simultaneously attracted to, and repulsed by, this extraordinary indulgence. I am resolved never to dine on ortolan, but I readily admit that my puritanical streak informs that decision. The whole exercise of preparation, cooking and dining constitutes an exquisite example of gross gluttony.
As a child, my understanding of gluttony involved an obese king, gorging himself on food, then deliberately bringing that food up so that he could gorge himself again. But gluttony is actually much more expansive. Truth is, I am not as innocent of this sin as I once thought, and maybe you’re not either.
Pope St Gregory the Great famously defined the deadly sin of gluttony as eating food too soon, too delicately, too expensively, too greedily, or too much. St Thomas Aquinas didn’t disagree. I’ve always struggled to conceive of gluttony in such expansive terms. Until I learned about ortolon.
The following video clip really takes the cake. It depicts a probably fictional meal hosted by French President François Mitterrand — a known fan of ortolon — and enjoyed by the Irish Taoiseach Charles Haughey, who probably never ate ortolon in his life. But forget about its historicity. The clip is fascnating in its own right. It depicts the sensuality of gluttony, but also, in this instance, frames it as something deeply and disturbingly idolatrous.
I will never think of gluttony the same way again.
Two weeks ago, I concelebrated the Saturday Vigil Mass in a very large suburban parish in Melbourne. I was introduced as a friend of the assistant priest (we were in the seminary together) and I mentioned I’m a country priest from Ballarat.
Some people weren’t satisfied with that. I struck a vague chord of recognition which was only resolved after Mass. The penny dropped for one, and others agreed. “Don’t you appear on Mass For You At Home?” By sheer coincidence, I appeared the following week (last Sunday), and I’m on again this Sunday too.
I committed something of a faux pas during last Sunday’s Mass. I left my homily notes at home, but fortunately they’re on iCloud, so I referred to my phone during my homily. The producer wasn’t keen. “It looks like you’re checking Facebook.” It’s hard to argue with that.
Fortunately, the notes for all my other homilies were on paper, so it’s smooth sailing this Sunday. I think. It’s hard to remember when it was filmed six months ago.
On the plus side, I was struck down with a bad case of the flu last week, and I really struggled to think hard enough to prepare a homily from scratch. I was able to use my TV homily as a foundation, and fill it in with references to current affairs. (Sad to say, when preaching about the cross and suffering, the day’s headlines will always abound with examples.)
This blog has not only languished for want of posts. It could do with better plugins also. It’s not 2010 anymore!
So, for example, I’ve canned the native WordPress comment system, and outsourced the task to Disqus. That means less spam, better moderation, and — hopefully — more interactive discussion.
There’ll be other changes too, but nothing disruptive.
Today is the feast of St John Fisher and St Thomas More, perhaps the two most famous martyrs of the English Reformation. Longterm readers will know already how much I admire St Thomas.
Today’s feast coincides with a tour of the martyrs’ relics around the United States. To celebrate the tour, Scepter Publishing has made freely available for download two booklets about St Thomas More.
One of the interesting things about both men is that they are unlikely heroes and reluctant martyrs. They differ from St Edmund Campion, for example, who was born into an age of persecution and always knew the potential cost of proclaiming the Faith. In contrast, Cardinal Fisher and Sir Thomas had persecution and martyrdom unexpectedly thrust upon them. They met their fate with poise and good humour.
Cardinal Fisher’s final request, prior to his execution on 22 June 1535, was time for a siesta. He slept soundly for two hours. I suppose he had been deprived of decent sleep for some time, so the request was very practical. But it also demonstrates the serenity which God granted him in his final hours.
Two weeks later, on 6 July 1535, when Sir Thomas endured his own final moments, he famously joked with the axeman. More had been clean shaven throughout the divorce controversy which led to his trumped up charges, but during his years of imprisonment he had grown a long beard. As he laid his head on the chopping block, he removed his beard away from the path of the blade, for “This hath not offended the king.”
Hopefully we will never personally encounter the persecution and martyrdom which was thrust upon Fisher and More. But still they are outstanding models for us when we endure smaller trials and occasional enmity. I think their serenity and good humour are as important as their integrity and charity.
During his imprisonment More composed and prayed a beautiful prayer for his enemies. A prayer we can make our own.
Almighty God, have mercy on N. and N., and on all that bear me evil will, and would me harm, and their faults and mine together by such easy, tender, merciful means as thine infinite wisdom best can devise; vouchsafe to amend and redress and make us saved souls in Heaven together, where we may ever live and love together with thee and thy blessed saints, O glorious Trinity, for the bitter passion of our sweet Saviour Christ. Amen.
Lord, give me patience in tribulation and grace in everything, to conform my will to thine, that I may truly say: “Fiat voluntas tua, sicut in cælo et in terra.”
The things, good Lord, that I pray for, give me thy grace to labour for. Amen.