Omar F. A. Gutiérrez

Faith, Culture, Politics – Catholic Social Teaching

The Story Behind The Exaltation of The Cross

by Omar F. A. Gutierrez

Today is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. One might wonder why it is that we’re celebrating the Cross in September when Good Friday tends to be on the other side of the calendar year.  The reason is that the feast commemorates a specific event as well as the Holy Cross itself.

As for the event, we’re celebrating that day in the year 629 AD when the relics of the true cross were again venerated in Jerusalem at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The relics, you see, had been purloined in 614 by the Persian Sassanid Empire lead by Khosrau II. Jerusalem was sacked by the Persians, the Christian shrines defaced, and treasures were hauled off to Ninevah in modern day Iraq. Heraclius was the Roman Emperor and was prone to warring. He had lost miserably to the Persians at the beginning of the 7th century, and these losses had resulted in the current situation. In 622, however, he mounted a counter attack against the Sassanids. This was with the Pope’s blessing, and it was considered something of a holy war against those who had defaced the holiest of Christian shrines.

Heraclius defeated Khosrau’s best generals in several battles, and even managed to thwart the attempts by Khosrau to start rebellions in other parts of the Empire so as to distract the invading armies. Heraclius’ efforts were not thwarted, however, and his victories mounted quickly enough that Khosrau was deposed, killed by his own son who then sued for peace.

On September 14, 629, Heraclius entered into Jerusalem  bringing back the relics of the true cross which were encased in silver. According to the Western tradition, the Emperor bore the silver case on his own shoulder and with pomp and circumstance, in order to demonstrate that he was the “King of Kings”, the almighty, the basileus. Upon reaching the threshold of the Holy Sepulcher shrine he was stopped in his tracks and simply could not move forward. Zachary, the patriarch of Jerusalem, pointed out to the Emperor that his demeanor did not match that of our Lord’s when He bore the cross. Heraclius then removed his purple cloak and his crown and proceeded barefoot into the shrine. The relics were displayed, and many were healed that day.

Heraclius defeating Khosrau II while blessed by Cherubim

The interesting twist on the story is that as a result of Heraclius’ victories, the weakened Sassanid Empire fell very easily to the rising Islamic forces coming out of Arabia, so that by 633 AD, four years after the event we commemorate today and just two years after the death of Muhammad, the Muslim tide had already swallowed what was left of the old Persian Empire. Three years later it would conquer all that Heraclius had won, for the Emperor had fallen ill shortly after defeating the Persians and did not even involve himself in the defense against the Muslims. Because of his victories against the Persians, Heraclius is the only Roman Emperor mentioned in ancient Islamic literature, and he is lauded as one of the great rulers and leaders of the age. In some Muslim stories, Heraclius actually became a Muslim.

But all this history does detract from the true point of the day, the exaltation of the Cross, the great symbol of Christianity from age to age. Since this week is all about (soon to be) Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, here is a bit from one of his beautiful sermons. The title is “The Cross of Christ, The Measure of The World.” That is truly the point here. As he will say below, the machinations of human activity cannot ever find their truest meaning unless they are measured against the Cross and what it proclaims. For the inquisitive mind, for the mind that seeks to know the meaning of things, the Cross is the key.

There is also a lovely and moving video at the end here and if you wanted a virtual tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, then here you go. Enjoy:

It is the death of the Eternal Word of God made flesh, which is our great lesson how to think and how to speak of this world. His Cross has put its due value upon every thing which we see, upon all fortunes, all advantages, all ranks, all dignities, all pleasures; upon the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. It has set a price upon the excitements, the rivalries, the hopes, the fears, the desires, the efforts, the triumphs of mortal man. It has given a meaning to the various, shifting course, the trials, the temptations, the sufferings, of his earthly state. It has brought together and made consistent all that seemed discordant and aimless. It has taught us how to live, how to use this world, what to expect, what to desire, what to hope. It is the tone into which all the strains of this world’s music are ultimately to be resolved.

Look around, and see what the world presents of high and low. Go to the court of princes. See the treasure and skill of all nations brought together to honour a child of man. Observe the prostration of the many before the few. Consider the form and ceremonial, the pomp, the state, the circumstance; and the vainglory. Do you wish to know the worth of it all? look at the Cross of Christ.

Go to the political world: see nation jealous of nation, trade rivalling trade, armies and fleets matched against each other. Survey the various ranks of the community, its parties and their contests, the strivings of the ambitious, the intrigues of the crafty. What is the end of all this turmoil? the grave. What is the measure? the Cross.

Go, again, to the world of intellect and science: consider the wonderful discoveries which the human mind is making, the variety of arts to which its discoveries give rise, the all but miracles by which it shows its power; and next, the pride and confidence of reason, and the absorbing devotion of thought to transitory objects, which is the consequence. Would you form a right judgment of all this? look at the Cross.

Again: look at misery, look at poverty and destitution, look at oppression and captivity; go where food is scanty, and lodging unhealthy. Consider pain and suffering, diseases long or violent, all that is frightful and revolting. Would you know how to rate all these? gaze upon the Cross.

Thus in the Cross, and Him who hung upon it, all things meet; all things subserve it, all things need it. It is their centre and their interpretation. For He was lifted up upon it, that He might draw all men and all things unto Him.

Happy Feast of St. Omer

by Omar F. A. Gutierrez

Today is the feast of St. Omer (aka St. Audomarus). Don’t pretend you know who he is. I know you don’t. The only reason I even know that there is a St. Omer is because that is about as close as I can get to a St. Omar. There is no St. Omar, so I have always had a soft spot for St. Omer.

Interior of Notre Dame de St. Omer

He is largely known to us by two routes: the first is by the French city bearing his name. Located in the north of modern France in the “state” of Pas-de-Calais, the city grew up around the monastery the saint founded in the 7th century and so took his name. Today the cathedral is dedicated to Our Lady. The other way we know of St. Omer is by the fact that in this town, in 1593, Fr. Robert Persons, S.J. founded an English college; one which, as Evelyn Waugh puts it, “preserved Catholic education for three centuries of Englishmen and is the direct ancestor of Stonyhurst College.” Fr. Persons, by the way, was St. Edmund Campion’s superior during their expedition to England which ended in Campion’s martyrdom. This college of St. Omer was a part of the legacy of Campion’s sacrifice.

Back to St. Omer the man, Pas-de-Calais in the 7th century was, it seems, a rather lewd place and was known by the name Thérouanne. King Dagobert wanted a strong and zealous pastor in order to quiet the passionate extremes of the people he needed to rule. Omer was called upon from the monastery of Luxeuil, and he worked wonders through preaching and personal example. For instance, he would invite friends and acquaintances to help him as he fed the poor and took care of the ill. This engendered him to the local populace; they began to reform their ways; and his fame grew. Eventually, with the help of other monks from Luxeuil, he founded the monastery at Sithiu which is now the town of Saint-Omer.

The wonder of the lives of the saints is that we can still know something about what was no doubt a rather dark and dingy time and about people who were no doubt much different than we because of the heroic virtue of one man and some companions. We’ve a whole town in the north of France that has borne the weight of history through revolution and tumult coming out on the other side with the name of a saintly man who would rather spend time with the lowliest of people than swilling a cocktail glass and discussing the rudimentary facts of socialist collectives. St. Omer, whatever his particular personality traits might have been, however he was measured by Myers-Briggs was and is a man of consequence 1340 years later. Why? Well because he loved the baby Jesus not as a punchline to a joke, but as the savior of the world…no actually, he loved the baby Jesus because he was himself saved by the delicate hands that tugged at Mary’s hair.

Stonyhurst College

The town of Saint-Omer was where St. Thomas Becket fled from Henry II. And, as I said, it was in Saint-Omer that the Jesuit English College was founded that did so much for the Catholic education of English men. That college was moved, after some adventures, to England in 1794 and became Stonyhurst College where Gerard Manley Hopkins taught classics for a time. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a pupil there and named Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis, Dr. Moriarty, after a fellow student of the college. It is where J.R.R. Tolkien wrote parts of the Lord of the Rings while his son taught classics. It is where Oscar Wilde and Evelyn Waugh sent their sons.That college was also the college over which Fr. Alban Butler presided, and it is there that he died. Fr. Butler is, of course, the author of Butler’s Lives of the Saints which every good Catholic home should have if for no other reason than to be able to commemorate, with the communion of saints, the lives of our glorious heroes.

St. Omer died shortly after 670 AD. Raise a glass for him, and remember that our deeds of today do indeed echo into eternity by grace of the Christ child who likewise enjoyed crisp September days and nights.

Divine Little Bird

by Omar F. A. Gutierrez

Astonishingly beautiful prose is rare and nothing to be to be trifled with. When it is applied to spiritual matters with the delicacy of a veteran artist, it can be earth-shattering.

Such is the work of Caryll Houselander. Wonderfully eccentric, beautifully English, always insightful Houselander provides some of the choicest passages on spiritual writing ever written in English. Here she is at the opening of her classic The Reed of God:

That virginal quality which, for want of a better word, I call emptiness is the beginning of this contemplation.

It is not a formless emptiness, a void without meaning; on the contrary it has a shape, a form given to it by the purpose for which it is intended.

It is emptiness like the hollow in the reed, the narrow riftless emptiness, which can have only one destiny: to receive the piper’s breath and to utter the song that is in his heart.

It is emptiness like the hollow in the cup, shaped to receive water or wine.

It is emptiness like that of the bird’s nest, built in a round warm ring to receive the little bird.

The pre-Advent emptiness of Our Lady’s purposeful virginity was indeed like those three things.

She was a reed through which the Eternal Love was to be piped as a shepherd’s song.

She was the flowerlike chalice into which the purest water of humanity was to be poured, mingled with wine, changed to the crimson blood of love, and lifted up in sacrifice.

She was the warm nest rounded to the shape of humanity to receive the Divine Little Bird.

Read Caryll Houselander if you dare. Just be warned: you may find yourself bereft of all reasons to stop reading her.

Campion: Model of Sacrifice

by Omar F. A. Gutierrez

Reading the life of St. Edmund Campion, pictured for a time on the right of this blog under “patrons,” I have come to find many things about the man with which I relate. For one, we both very much love the passage in Scripture wherein Christ states that He has “come to set the world on fire. Oh how I wish it were already ablaze.” This line has always meant a great deal to me if for no other reason than simply that it shows something of the vulnerability of Our Lord. There is regret in these words. Campion also had a penchant for arguing, which I must admit I have as well, to a fault at times. Campion had desired a quiet life of scholarly pursuit, something for which I can only dream.

The similarities between Campion and I do end, though, and they end quickly when I begin to read the mission which he undertook and the brutality of the work of Queen Elizabeth and her men. He was a Jesuit priest determined to return to England and minister to the faithful Catholics who remained under the persecution of the crown. Would I have ever been able to do what he did? It is an impossible question to answer, but it is related to the question of what I am willing to do for Our Lord here and now. Reading Campion and the tortures, the killings, the hangings, the beheadings, etc. it all makes lack of sleep seem a rather puny sacrifice to make.

The Ledger of Love

by Omar F. A. Gutierrez

There was many years ago a young lady I knew who was rather mad at God. She had fallen in love with a married man. He didn’t leave his wife for her, and so, she reasoned, any God that could let her hope for a love with this man and then take it away was not the kind of God she wanted to hang out with.

On top of it all, she told me, she was the “best little girl He had.” She went to daily Mass, she said her rosaries, she did all that needed to be done, but crap still happened to her, and God can now just stay in His own corner of the universe.

I was reminded of this conversation upon reading this interesting post about confession and the line “So when we mess up, it’s not as if we suddenly *stopped* being worthy of God’s love. We were never worthy in the first place, and he loves us the same anyway.” Many of us look at the spiritual life as we look at our relationships. They are negotiations over desire and obligation, careful balances of freedom and surrender. “I’ve worked all day for the family, I should be able to come home and be left alone,” says a husband. “I’ve made the dinner and cleaned up, do I really have to listen about your day?” says his spouse. We treat people as forensic partners in keeping a constant ledger of love, and we do the same with God.

“I’ve said my prayers; I’ve gone to confession; I’ve done the good deed, now leave me alone Lord. Let me have my way. Couldn’t you just turn your back for a moment, look the other way, and let me have this one little thing all to myself? How much longer do I have to do these little things of Yours before I’m finally free to do what I want?” Freedom is the commodity of the ledger, and we are passionately possessive of it against God and our neighbor.

But the fact is that what we get from God, those wonders of comfort and grace, were never earned. We will never satisfy Him. It was never a matter of us behaving well enough in order to be loved. He just does so, regardless of our failings. We don’t get a pass from interior transformation and surrender, for being His best little thing. The sooner we come to realize that, the sooner our bitterness about life’s pains can be a thing of the past.