The Justin Option?

There has been a lot of interest lately in the “Benedict Option.” That is, the idea of Rod Dreher (and others) that Christians in a hostile secular culture should give up the “culture wars” and outward attempts at evangelization and turn inward instead, tending to our own lives in intentional Christian communities, where in time, with purified lives, we can serve as an example to the secular world.

I haven’t yet read Dreher’s book, but from parts that have appeared online, I find myself disagreeing with it on a number of levels. I am all for purified Christian living and true intentional communities. But I think at the moment we are being called by the Church, in the person of the Holy Father, to the “Francis option,” meaning both Pope Francis and St. Francis, who both want us to “go to the peripheries,” to the least Christian and therefore most needy, to evangelize by our presence and example.

But while thinking about it, I realized I had already addressed this question eleven years ago, in January 2006, when I started my blog. I wrote an imaginary letter to my blog patron, St. Justin Martyr. It’s based on the style of another of my mentors, Pope John Paul I, and his letters to famous people. It struck me at the time and still does, that the age of Justin is perhaps the age of the Church most like our own, when Christians had grown in number, but had to face an almost overwhelming hostility from the culture around them.  I called my post “a kind of mission statement for me and what I want to do. I hope others will want to adopt it too.” I still stand by it. In fact, I re-posted it a month ago on Facebook.

I didn’t call it this at the time, but for the feast day of my blog patron, here is the “Justin Option.” And do check out what Steven Greydanus wrote on this same subject today.

To: St. Justin Martyr

Dear St. Justin,

You don’t know me, but I have long been a fan of yours. It might sound strange to describe yourself as a fan of a saint, but that’s the word people would use in my culture — almost 2,000 years after your world of second-century Rome. I think you would understand why I chose it, and that’s the reason I admire you: because you were one of the first Christians who tried to build bridges between our faith and secular culture.

justin_filosofThis is especially amazing since in your time, Christians were not only ridiculed for their faith, as they still are now, but put on trial, tortured and executed. This was the time in which you, a layman, defended the faith in public debate and in an open letter to the Roman emperor — and became a martyr. As someone who wants to reach out to our culture through media and film, I have a tremendous admiration for you.

Very little has been recorded about your life beyond what you yourself have told us in your writings. I do know that you were born around 100 A.D. in the town of Schechem in Samaria. Your grandparents were Roman colonists who had settled in the city when it had been renamed Flavia Neapolis after the Roman takeover of Palestine in 70 A.D. Your family worshiped the Roman gods. But your town also had other religious associations. Did you know as a child, as you played at the town well, that it was said to have been built by the Jewish patriarch Jacob? Perhaps you even heard that once a wandering Jewish teacher from Galilee had crossed the border and sat down to rest at that well, where he spoke to a Samaritan women about the living water that would satisfy her so that she need never thirst again (Jn. 4:14).

As a young man, you felt that thirst without knowing its cause. You tried to satisfy it through philosophical learning. Your parents could afford to send you to the best schools. But the teachers did not live up to your idealistic expectations. One dismissed questions about God as unimportant to philosophy; another was concerned only with his fees; another was only interested in whether you had taken the proper prerequisites for the course. You felt that none of your professors cared about true learning. (You probably won’t be surprised to learn that young people often feel the same about today’s educational system). You were coming to realize that true philosophy meant the study of God.

Finally in Ephesus you encountered the philosophy of Plato, who wrote about the wisdom of another wandering teacher named Socrates. You immediately decided that Plato had the true approach to God. Looking back with a smile on your youthful enthusiasm, you wrote: “In a short time I imagined myself a wise man. So great was my folly that I expected immediately to gaze upon God.”

You often meditated on Plato’s teachings alone by the seashore. One day, you encountered a venerable-looking old man there and began to discuss philosophy with him. The old man told you that Plato did not have the whole secret, and showed you how the Hebrew prophets had foretold the coming of Christ. This inspired you to study the Old Testament, and you soon learned all you needed to know to accept the faith you were unknowingly searching for. You never said anything more about that mysterious old man, but I have often wondered whether he was really human or instead perhaps an angel, or even Christ himself. I suppose you won’t tell even now!

You moved to Rome and rented a room above the public baths run by a man named Martinus. You wore the pallium, or philosopher’s cloak of coarsely woven wool, and began to gather pupils around you. Perhaps you went around the Roman forum, or marketplace, talking to people in all walks of life about truth and God, just as Socrates — and your Galilean master — had done. At that time, Christians were experiencing a period of peace under the Emperor Antoninus Pius. Christians had been savagely persecuted under Nero, and Trajan, in whose reign you were born, had outlawed the Christian religion. Trajan’s successors had made it a practice not to try people for being Christians unless they were actually denounced by someone, but Christians were still largely afraid to practice their faith openly.

Rome then was much like America today — a multiracial, multilingual culture, mad about faddish Eastern religions, but underneath rotting from moral decay. Christians in turn were suspicious of the immoral culture around them, and — as they often still do today — kept their faith secret so it wouldn’t be tainted. Not understanding this aloofness of Christians, the Roman historian Tacitus had condemned them for their “hatred of the human race.”

You felt that the only way this could be remedied was for Christians to stand up for their beliefs. In 150 A. D., you made the daring decision to write an open letter to the emperor, known as the First Defense of the Christian Faith (or the Apologia). You described the Christian concept of God, pointing out it was compatible with those of Plato and other philosophers, and in fact, the true fulfillment of those beliefs.

You even debated publicly with a well-known pagan philosopher, a Cynic named Crescens. Cynics were famous for rejecting all government, philosophical and religious systems and practicing extreme individualism — another thing familiar to us today. Crescens ridiculed Christian beliefs, but you were able to demonstrate that he knew nothing of the teaching he was mocking. Crescens grew angry and threatened your life.

In about 155 A.D., you wrote your second Defense to the Emperor and Senate, in which you continued to insist that Christians should not and could not be alienated from the culture around them, in words that have been remembered ever since: “The truths which men in all lands have rightly spoken belong to us Christians.”

By the time Marcus Aurelius began his rule in 161, Christians were increasing in numbers, and popular feeling against them was growing. Rome had now had enough. No one knows exactly who denounced you — though my money would be on Crescens. In 165, you and some of you pupils were arrested at your school and brought before the Roman prefect, Rusticus. You were in your sixties then, but when threatened with death if you did not sacrifice to the gods and the genius of the Emperor, you boldly proclaimed Christ not only as the greatest teacher of truth, but the Savior. Do you remember how it ended?

“You are supposed to be a learned man,” the prosecutor sneered. “Do you really think you will rise up to heaven and receive a reward?”

“I don’t think it,” you replied, “I know it!”

Rusticus quickly pronounced you and your companions guilty, and you were taken outside Rome and beheaded.


Not every Christian today, of course, can be an intellectual or a philosopher as you were. But those of us Christians today who want to reach out to modern secular culture could learn a great deal from you.

Learn about the culture around you. Some Christians feel that secular culture is either evil or has nothing to offer them. This really hurts our efforts to evangelize. We rightly complain that our opponents are ignorant of the Christianity that they attack, but how much do we know about postmodernism or other beliefs people hold today? It is up to us who live in this culture to know what it values, as you knew the values and interests of yours. You cited not only Plato, but Homer, Epicurus, and other philosophers, poets, and playwrights of your time. Beginning the conversation with the things — some of them true things — people already cared about enabled you to approach them with more of the truth.

Approach the culture in a positive way. Too often we Christians are quick to condemn and slow to praise. It doesn’t hurt to recognize that people other than Christians want to feed the poor or work for justice. And we are too smug about our hold on spiritual truth. You realized that not everyone in your time was a Crescens, who was unable “to recognize any good but indifference.” In the same way, more and more people today have lost faith in materialism and are searching for something more. Many without any religious background still thirst for the waters of eternal life.

There is a delightful illustration of this in the recent film Russian Ark, directed by Alexander Sokurov. In it, the ghost of a nineteenth century French marquis wanders the modern galleries of Leningrad’s Hermitage Museum. When he comes to El Greco’s enormous portrait of the apostles Peter and Paul, he drops to his knees, crosses himself reverently, and then notices a young man in modern Russian dress gazing enraptured at the elongated figures of the apostles with their narrow ascetic hands. The marquis asks: “Are you a Catholic?”

“No, why do you ask?” (This young man, like most of Russia’s youth, had spent his early youth under Communism, probably without religious training). The marquis continues:

“It seemed to me that you were deep in thought while admiring the images of the founders of our Church.”

The young man says, “I looked at them because I like them. Someday everyone will be like them.”

“Really?” says the marquis. He bears down on the young man, who backs into the corner. “How can you know what will become of people if you don’t know the Scriptures?”

All the young man can do is reply: “Look at their hands!” as the camera goes to a closeup of the apostles’ hands. “They are good and wise. . .”

“So?” The marquis retorts? “You don’t know the Scriptures!”

There are more than a few Christians today who have the same superior attitude towards unbelievers. We have to encounter a great deal of foolishness, but we may well meet unbelievers who can tell us things we don’t know. Especially in regard to understanding the arts, where pagans often put us to shame, while we cling to a narrow intellectual approach. But we should have nothing to fear in this regard. After all, “The truths which men in all lands have rightly spoken belong to us Christians.”

Respect others when you dialogue with them. Today’s Christians could learn from the way you acted in conversation with a Jew named Trypho at a time when bitterness and suspicion between Christians and Jews were at a high point. It was a no-holds barred debate, but carried out in a spirit of fundamental respect. Both you and Trypho learned from each other. You learned that Jews did not believe the outrageous charges that many pagans made against the Christians; in fact Trypho himself had read the New Testament writings. At the same time, Trypho learned about your belief that those Jews who believed in Christ but held to the Jewish law could still be saved.

Don’t compromise on the truth – even when the truth hurts. Understanding the beliefs of others need not mean compromising our own. You pointed out the foolishness of many pagan religious beliefs, no matter how unpopular this might be. You spoke candidly about the immorality in Roman culture. But you were also willing to admit that many Christians did not live up to the teachings of Jesus.

Take risks. You took the ultimate risk when you spoke the truth to the people of Rome. When we do the same today, we are not risking martyrdom; we only risk being laughed at and called “fanatics.” But that is a small price to pay if it means giving people the water of eternal life.

I think that we would do well to imitate your method, because it is the method of great men like Socrates, and most of all, Jesus himself.


Lori Pieper

Franciscan Saints, March-April 2017

I can see that preparing a more detailed post on Bl. Ludovica is going to take some time, as I work my way through her seventeenth-century biography, so I want to take a little time out to share a fascinating manuscript discovery I recently made about St. Elizabeth of Hungary, which will also give me a chance to talk about how medieval people read saints’ lives, as witnessed by biographies of her in the vernacular.

How Medieval People Read Saints’ Lives

elisabethpriant(avecange)BNfr185When I was studying for my Ph.D. in History at Fordham, I took a course in Manuscript Culture. The word “culture” is important. A few years previously, our course work in this area would have been limited to classes called Textual Criticism or Manuscript Editing, and would have been limited to teaching us how to recover the original text of a work from the various manuscripts. The new name is representative of an important change in the scholarly approach to the subject that took place before I began my studies. Now, as I discovered in class, looking at a manuscript can yield more than just a text: it can offer historians a rewarding glimpse into the people and culture that produced and used the manuscript. Manuscripts can often tell very interesting stories about their users. So I thought it would be fun to use my recent accidental discovery of a manuscript about St. Elizabeth of Hungary to illustrate for my readers what historians can find out from this kind of study.

My discovery took place at the end of March, while I was searching on Gallica, the online digital collection of books and manuscripts of the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, hoping to find a digital back issue of the journal Esprit et Vie for a project I was working on. My search query didn’t return what I was looking for, but it did bring up a medieval manuscript called in French “Vies des saints” (lives of the saints). Immediately curious, I clicked on the file, and found that it contained a life of St. Elizabeth. This was a delightful surprise, since back in 2008-2011, when I was working on my documentary on her, many of the manuscripts of the library had not yet been digitized, or at least only their illuminated miniatures had, so this opened up a new world to me.

The manuscript is BN francais 13496, which, judging by the style of the script, was written sometime between 1270 and 1320.[1] It has a number of miniatures, including one of St. Elizabeth, but unfortunately was digitized only in black and white.

First, the text: The life of St. Elizabeth is a rather close French translation of the Libellus, which contains the longer version of the testimonies of Elizabeth’s handmaids at her canonization process. But it has an introduction of its own, not found in other versions. It not only traces her ancestry from the Hungarian Arpad dynasty, but describes her family’s relation to the Capetian royal house of France. The author notes that Agnes of Meran, sister of Elizabeth’s mother, Gertrude, was married to King Philip Augustus of France, and had a son, Philip, the count of Boulogne (St. Elizabeth’s first cousin). It also notes “Ses freres ot nom li rois Bela, qui encore regnoit l’an de l’incarnation Notre Seingnour mil et cc et lxiii” [Her brother was named King Bela (of Hungary), who was still reigning in the year of the Incarnation of our Lord 1263].[2] This gives us a very good idea of when this life was written: in 1263, or very shortly thereafter, and that it was written by someone with an interest in royal genealogy. This makes it the earliest vernacular translation of the Libellus I know of, and this alone makes it of interest, though it is far from the only interesting thing about it.

illumination-1The subject of the small, rather clumsy miniature of St. Elizabeth inside the initial at the beginning of the life is hard to identify, since it doesn’t really fit the known iconography. Elizabeth is alone, kneeling in prayer, on or alongside what looks like a draped colored cloth falling near her, and on the other side, an object draped in white cloth. My guess is that it portrays a scene from the Libellus where Elizabeth, as a young married woman, prays at night by her and her noble husband Ludwig’s bed, which is surrounded by bed curtains.

The manuscript contains the lives of several saints closely associated with hospital work, or who were patrons of the sick or of those with certain diseases. St. Julian the Hospitaller, St. Julianna (patron of the sick), St. Lazarus (after whom many leper hospitals were named), St. Lucy (patron of those suffering from diseases of the eyes), and of course, St. Elizabeth, famous for her founding of hospitals. The lives in the manuscript are in different hands and were evidently put together after being copied, so they were most likely chosen with this theme in mind. The manuscript has a close connection with the Burgundian house as well, for it also contains a life of the ninth-century nobleman, Girart de Roussillon, an ancestor of the Dukes of Burgundy.

Though we don’t know who wrote the life of Elizabeth, we can feel sure that it was someone who wanted to portray her as a noblewoman, a lay saint, and, as the introduction shows her, a royal relative of French kings. The miniature in this manuscript is in line with this, since rather than showing her visions or miracles, it shows her devotion as a married laywoman. From this much alone, we can guess that her life became part of the manuscript it did because she was a noblewoman who cared for the poor and sick, and that the manuscript may have been written for a hospital or group of people who cared for the sick, and had some connection to the dukes of Burgundy.

There are still more clues that confirm this. We know that by the fifteenth century the manuscript belonged to the Hôpital Saint-Esprit in Dijon because it contains a fifteenth-century copy of its charter, issued by Eudes II, duke of Burgundy, who founded it in 1204. The hospital belonged to the Order of the Hospitallers of the Holy Spirit, founded by a French nobleman, Bl. Guy de Montpellier around 1180. Modeled on the military orders, its members were largely laymen, often knights, and sometimes married; they were dedicated to serving “the destitute in life,” including abandoned children. The houses began in France and spread to Italy, and soon there were a large number throughout Europe. Pope Innocent III confirmed the order by a bull in 1198.

The hospital in Dijon was also under the protection of the subsequent dukes of Burgundy, as witnessed by the fact that the coat of the arms of Philip the Good, who was duke from 1419 to 1457, and who built a chapel for the hospital, was also added to the manuscript in the fifteenth century. Most likely it was copied for a hospital foundation elsewhere and in the fifteenth century was donated to the hospital in Dijon by Philip the Good, who had the coats of arms added. It is also clear that both the noble dukes of Burgundy and the noble brothers of the hospital were highly interested in Elizabeth’s story.

The fact that the life is in the vernacular is telling. Those of the nobility who could read may or may not have been able to read Latin, as the priest chaplains at the hospital could, but some of them could read their native language, and the number of manuscripts in the vernacular was growing at this time. Elizabeth’s canonization process contains a vivid description of her charity and hospital work. Having it put into the vernacular gave many of the hospital brothers a chance to learn of it. It is touching to learn of the devotion of hospital workers to St. Elizabeth; many groups of hospital sisters in France named their congregations after her from the thirteenth century on.[3]

Even more intriguing: after a short search I found another manuscript of this same life in the Bibliotheque Nationale! It is Ms. francais 185, written around 1350, and contains a legend dorée by Jehan de Belet.[4] This life begins: Ci commence la vie sainte Elysabel de hongrie qui fut cordelière [Here begins the life of St. Elizabeth of Hungary who was a cord-bearer]. The word cordelier was beginning to be used for Friars Minor at that time. This title is right above a miniature of St. Elizabeth’s vision of Christ in which she is dressed in what looks like a brown Franciscan habit (top of page). This portrayal and description of her fit in with the growing recognition of Elizabeth as a Tertiary in the early fourteenth century. I don’t know if a Franciscan convent commissioned this manuscript, or if the illuminator just made use of general knowledge about the order. I used this miniature in the documentary, but was unable to read the rest of the manuscript, which had evidently been digitized at the time. [5]

BNLatNouvAcq688folpauvresAnother interesting use of the vernacular can be found in a manuscript from the same library, BN nouv. acq. latine 868, from Seville Spain, which is a small manuscript of the office for St. Elizabeth in Latin, with some large miniatures illustrating her life (some of which I used in the documentary). The short life of St. Elizabeth used for the readings at the office, however, is written in both Latin and in an abbreviated fashion in medieval Spanish. I think this would have most likely belonged to a convent of Poor Clares or Franciscan tertiary women; it would have allowed them, while singing the Latin office, to listen to the readings in their native language.

One last illustration, from a manuscript I have examined personally: MS. 42 of the Union Theological Seminary in New York (now part of Columbia University’s Burke Library). It is a small volume, dated 1518, containing a translation into German of the Vita of St. Elizabeth by the Dominican friar Dietrich of Apolda, which was written around 1297. On the last page is apparently a note of ownership: anno domini xvvxviii Domina Anna Frankensteyn monasterii Fontiis Sanctae Marie in Weydas. “In the year of Our Lord 1518, Lady Anna Frankensteyn, of the Monastery of Mariabrunn in Weyda.”

DietrichI wasn’t able to identify this monastery. There are several monasteries and convents for women in the area of Weida, including a Cistercian and a Premonstratensian foundation, but none seems to have been called Mariabrunn, “Mary’s spring,” or anything similar. Many of them would have had among their ranks noblewomen like Anna, who clearly enjoyed reading about St. Elizabeth.

This inscription may or may not be in Lady Anna’s hand, but it is interesting that she had it done in Latin, while the rest of the manuscript is in German. Perhaps she wanted to show her learning? Or was it written by someone else? This was just at the time printing was becoming popular, and soon Elizabeth’s life in German and other languages would be available to everyone.

One last note:

Today is the feast day of Bl. Jutta (Judith) of Sangerhausen, who died ca. 1260. She is often listed among the saints as a Franciscan tertiary; the early sources for her life say that she greatly desired to imitate St. Elizabeth. The tale of her life and her possible affiliation with the Franciscan tertiaries is filled with considerable mystery, and I hope to do a post on her in the future. Her feast day is generally celebrated on May 5, but is listed in some places as being today, May 12. Her is what one of her contemporaries, Mechtild von Magdeburg, said about her in her revelations, called The Flowing Light of the Godhead, probably written shortly after 1270:

At that time when the Tartar people were raging through the world and were killing many people, the Lord said to me: “I have sent Sister Jutta von Sangerhausen, a pious and devout widow, into exile to the pagans, so that by her prayers she might help them and convert them and that by her good example she might appeal to them and proclaim my name.”[6]

Jutta is one of the five saints that Mechtild said were especially sent as messengers for her time, the others being St. Francis, St. Dominic, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, and St. Peter Martyr. Sangerhausen is in Thuringia, where St. Elizabeth lived, and Jutta went to live as a kind of recluse in Kulm, which at that time was in Prussia, but is now in Poland. The place had just recently suffered a devastating invasion by the fierce tribe of Tartars and Jutta went to live among them. She was a true saint of the peripheries, at Pope Francis would say!

[1] This, as well as a few other details, was noted in the description of the manuscript on Gallica.

[2] Bela IV, who succeeded his (and Elizabeth’s) father, Andrew II, reigned from1235-1270.

[3] See Lori Pieper, OFS, “Elizabeth’s Influence on the Women’s Franciscan Movement,” The Voice of a Medieval Woman: St. Elizabeth of Hungary as a Franciscan Penitent in the Early Sources for Her Life (New York: Tau Cross Books and Media 2016), pp. 215-242.

[4] Many historians have assumed from this title that Jehan was a translator of Jacobus de Varagine’s Golden Legend, the famous collection of saints’ lives from the 1260s. But while some of the lives in this manuscript are clearly taken from Jacobus, many of the lives are completely different from his, including this life of Elizabeth. See Paul Meyer, “Notice sur trois legendiers français attribués a Jean Belet,” Notices et extraits des manuscrits de la bibliotheque nationale et autres bibliotheques, tome 36, 2me partie (Paris, 1901), pp. 409-486, and Pierce Butler, Legenda Aurea – Legende Dor ée – Golden Legend: A study of Caxton’s Golden Legend (Baltimore, 1899), pp. 20-49. There is another French translation of Jacobus, attributed to Jehan de Vignay, which does contain a close translation of his life of Elizabeth. The Bibliotheque nationale contains two manuscripts of this compilation.

[5] Even more intriguing is another manuscript of what appears to be the same life in the British Library, Add MS 17275; it begins Ci après conmence la vie sainte Elizabel de Hongrie, laquele fu cordelière, et de pluseurs autres veuves et matrosnes qui reçurent l’abit pour lamour de li. [Here begins the life of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, who was a cordeliere, and of several other widows and matrons who received the habit for love of her]. I am very curious to learn whether the “other widows and matrons” is a reference to Elizabeth’s companions Guda, Isentrude, Ermengard and Elisabeth, as I suspect it is, or whether any other woman in Elizabeth’s habit are mentioned, as the Anonymous Franciscan says (this type of addition is very frequent in medieval manuscripts). Unfortunately, I was unable to get access to this manuscript; it can only be read at the library. This manuscript was most likely circulated among the Franciscans, including the tertiaries.

[6] Lux divinitatis II, 18:2-5), according to the typescript of the project Texteditionen lateinischer Mystik aus dem Kloster Helfta, ed. Ernst Hellegardt, Elke Senne and Balasz J. Nemes; de Gruyter, 2010.

I’ve Received an Academy Award (Really!)

academy award-smIt was a secret, but now I can now at last reveal where I was this weekend. I was in Los Angeles, receiving an Academy Award – no, not that Academy, the other one: The Academy of Magical Arts. I was awarded a Literary Fellowship for my contribution to magic history through my translations and research for the Conjuring Arts Research Center, during the awards show for professional magicians. I was asked to tell no one until the awards were over. The winners were supposed to be a secret, but the “special awards” like mine were actually announced in the program.

The award was just one part of a whole wonderful weekend, in which my sister Mary and I explored the Magic Castle (the exclusive private magicians club in LA), and enjoyed dining privileges there. We also stayed at the Castle’s own hotel, where we were treated like VIP’s.

I began Friday night before Mary arrived having dinner with magicians Gene Anderson (the awards show host) and Paul Green. I took in a wonderful magic show at one of the Castle’s several theaters. Mary and I took a bus tour of LA on Saturday, saw the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and had lunch at a restaurant near the Santa Monica pier, which a spectacular view. Then in the evening we attended a pre-awards show reception at the Castle. On Sunday, we also enjoyed their famous brunch, with the most delicious food, everything from prime rib to chicken piccata, amazing desserts I can’t even name, and mimosas (champagne and orange juice cocktails).

The awards show took place at 7 p.m. Sunday at the historic Orpheum Theater in LA. The men were in tuxedos, many of the women in evening gowns. It was like the Oscars in a great many respects, including a screen lit up with all the nominees and winners. Also like the Oscars, the awards were interspersed with entertainment, but unlike most Oscar performances, they were actually entertaining. We were treated to some enchanting and sometimes hilarious magic acts by magicians from all over the world.

My award was presented by Richard Kaufman, editor of the very prestigious magic magazine Genie. He said that “Dr. Pieper. . . is unique in our field, a linguistic detective, tracking down the secrets of who really created this principle, sleight or trick, and when – and it’s usually hundreds of years earlier than we previously thought. I can’t think of anyone who’s more deserving of the Academy of Magical Arts’ Literary Fellowship.”

Here is what I planned to say during my speech. I’m not entirely certain of exactly what I did say, but apparently everyone liked it. Here is the gist:

“Thank you, ladies and gentlemen of the Academy for this very great honor. I never could have imagined anything like this when I first came to Conjuring Arts back in 2004. Back then I knew nothing about magic or its fascinating history – I couldn’t even do a single magic trick. I did know several languages and was desperate for a job.

I have learned much since then, but all the expertise I have in magic is due to Bill Kalush, and Stephen Minch, the editor of our journal Gibiciere, both of them previous recipients of this same fellowship. And then there are the many rewarding contacts with magicians from all over the world.

I have been very happy to be in such company, and to have made a contribution to this much-neglected but very important area of the history of popular culture. This award shows that you think it important too. I have learned that I am also receiving a lifetime membership in the Academy. I am very happy that you have welcomed me into your fold, especially since — I have to confess — I still can’t do a single magic trick, but I still hope to learn. Thank you all very much!”

Then on to another Oscars-like tradition — the after-party at the Castle, which continued into the wee hours, though we left early to get some sleep. We returned home on Monday after the experience of a lifetime!

(The picture was taken by Mary after the show in the very crowded theater lobby. There were some backstage photos as well, which they will eventually get to me).

Happy Anniversary, Pope Francis!

Do you remember this moment?  I certainly do. It was March 13, 2013:

Here’s what I wrote about this at the moment it happened. It hardly seems like four whole years since Pope Francis’ election. But sometimes the amount of reading involved to discuss what he is doing in the Church is very long. Just in time for his anniversary, we have another controversy — this time over the issue of married priests.

Once again, there is question about what he actually said. This time, it is harder to piece together a complete transcription, especially since the interview he gave was with the German newspaper Die Zeit, in German, and you have to subscribe to get it. I also don’t know whether there is a complete translation anywhere. But I’ll go with the best of got in getting the Pope’s exact words, from the Jesuit magazine America, with an assist from the Catholic News Agency for the first paragraph:

Pope Francis suggested he sympathizes with Catholics who come to Mass only to discover that there is no priest available to celebrate the Eucharist. Without priestly vocations “the Church is weakened, because a Church without the Eucharist doesn’t have strength: the Church makes the Eucharist, but the Eucharist also makes the Church. The problem of vocations is a serious problem.”

His interviewer suggested that it was hard to attract young men to the priesthood and asked if the church would consider telling them “that they don’t have to renounce a love life in order to become a priest? Maybe as a bishop or a cardinal—but not as a priest?”

The pope responded: “The issue of voluntary celibacy is frequently discussed, especially if there is a shortage of clerics. But voluntary celibacy is not a solution.”

Die Zeit asked: “What about viri probati, those men of proven virtue, who are married but can be ordained deacons because of their exemplary Catholic moral conduct?”

The pope answered: “We need to consider if viri probati could be a possibility. If so, we would need to determine what duties they could undertake, for example, in remote communities.”

Regarding an expanded role for the viri probati, Pope Francis said the church has to be ready to recognize “the right moment when the Holy Spirit calls for something.”

The way the press is interpreting this is that the Pope is considering married priests. But when the actual question the Pope was asked is included, it could seem as if he is considering married deacons. But the meaning is uncertain. One the one hand, since the Church already has married deacons, the pope seeing this as a “possibility” doesn’t seem to make much sense. On the other hand, there are scarcely any married deacons outside of the U.S, the only place that this seems to have caught on, so Francis really could be considering this a novelty in the remote areas of the world, largely in Latin America, he is talking about.

Also, the Pope’s words about “needing to determine what duties they could undertake,” doesn’t really make sense when talking about priests, who are rarely limited in what they can do as long as they have faculties, while deacons are limited in their abilities. They can preach at Mass, perform baptisms and witness marriages, but not celebrate the Eucharist or hear confessions. I think changing the actual sacramental abilities of deacons would be too great a break in the Church’s understanding of these things.

If the Pope actually is talking about married priests, the path he would be suggesting would be in line with the Church’s present understanding of allowed already married men who are ordained in the Anglican or Episcopalian churches to become married Catholic priests when they convert, and with the practice in the Eastern Catholic churches of allowing already married men to be ordained, but not ordination after marriage. He also seems to be looking at this as an exception, not the norm. And whether this would be addressed by a Synod, or other consultation with the bishops, or a move on the Pope’s part alone, has yet to be seen.

The Pope also spoke very briefly about the question of women deacons (who would also be very happy to help out in remote places):

He looked forward to the results of a papal commission on the history of women deacons. He noted that a Syrian theologian had once explained that “the question is not whether there were consecrated women or not but what they were doing.” He suggested that he was awaiting more information on the issue after the commission meets again this month.

That reminds me that I need to finish the post on women deacons I was planning. Maybe next week…

More news from Pope Francis will always give me something to write about. May God preserve him for a long time!

Yes, the Holy Family Really Were
Refugees (Part III)

In my last installment, I wrote about the Holy Family suddenly breaking off their flight at Ashkelon, and traveling to Hebron, where they “remained hidden” for six months. Why might they have gone there?


Hebron – Tomb of the Patriarchs

Hebron, in the southern part of Judea, about 15 miles south of Jerusalem, was the place where Abraham, while living as a resident alien in the area, bought from the Hittites a field and the cave of Machpelah, which became his family tomb – the first land owned by the future Israelites in Canaan (Gen. 23). Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Rebecca and Leah, were all buried there, and the tomb was – and still is – a great pilgrimage site for Jews. It was also an important site for the Davidic dynasty, as David was anointed King of Judah, and later King of all Israel, in Hebron, and originally reigned from there.

This would have made the Holy Family’s decision to go there understandable because it was so closely connected with Joseph’s ancestry – he might also have had relatives there. At the same time it is rather puzzling. It would seem to be one of the places where Herod might have looked for them. However, the words “remained hidden” may be the key. Hebron is hilly country, and the hills could have provided them a place in which to hide.

The Armenian Infancy Gospel goes on:

But then the people of the city went to warn Herod, in these terms: “The child Jesus is alive; he is at present in the city of Hebron.” Herod dispatched a courier to the chief men of the town enjoining them to seize Jesus by a ruse and to kill him. When Joseph and Mary learned of this, they got ready to leave and go to Egypt. Secretly leaving the town as fugitives, they continued their journey. They traveled it in numerous stages . . . Finally, they arrived in the land of Egypt in the plain of Tanis, and went down to a town where they stayed . . . for six months.[1]

The author of this ancient text clearly continued to see the Holy Family as fugitives and sought by Herod. Unfortunately there is not much detail about their route from Hebron to Egypt. They most likely would have followed the caravan route to Gaza. The situation of this seaport city was unusual. It was originally part of Nabatea, but was given to Herod by the emperor Augustus. The people of Nabatea did not relish losing their seaport, and there was tension over this. It seems to have been partly because of this that Gaza was separately administered by its own governor. Mary and Joseph may have gotten through undetected, if the governor was not particularly affected by Herod’s concerns. Or they may have passed through by attaching themselves to a large trade caravan.

Egypt-map-2Their route on foot from there would have taken them to Jenysos and Raphia. They then would have crossed the El-Arish, a brook that served as a boundary between Judaea and Egypt. They then reached the seaport of Pelusium (today Tel el-Farama or Farmea). Though now a desert, the city at the time was located between two branches of the Nile, so would have been more lush and fertile. Here the Romans had a border fortress. The Holy Family might have been detected here if the word was out for them, but the Roman governor may not have shared Herod’s interest in Jewish fugitives, or Herod may not have thought to have them traced this far.

Although I have proceeded mainly on conjecture, there is some historical evidence that this route was preserved in local tradition. Bernard, a Frankish monk, who visited the area in 870, wrote of his eastward journey:

. . . From Tanis we came to the city of Farmea, where there is a church in honor of blessed Mary, in the place to which, at the warning of the angel, Joseph fled with the boy and his mother.[2]

Recent excavations in Tel el-Farama have in fact unearthed a Byzantine church of the fifth or sixth century.


Coptic icon of the Holy Family on the Flight to Egypt

Continuing to travel across the Nile delta would have brought them to Tanis, which was also once a great city, and by tradition was the place where the baby Moses was rescued from the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter. So the route they traveled in the scenario imagined by the Armenian Infancy Gospel actually imagines the itinerary that Joseph and his brothers took to Egypt, and follows the life of Moses, even though the author never overtly alludes to this.

Various traditions say that the Holy Family traveled to a number of places going down the Nile by boat before setting at a place now known as Dayr al-Muharraq, where there is now a monastery. Some of these traditions originated in the early Coptic church, and portray the Holy Family always traveling one step ahead of Herod’s soldiers (for some of these traditions, see here and here).

James Cowan gives a convincing description of what Mary and Joseph must have experienced in their exile:

What must it have been like for Joseph and Mary to encounter this world? First, they would not have spoken Egyptian or Greek. Aramaic was their language, so the prospect of talking to people other than fellow Jews recently migrated from Israel was remote. The cosmopolitan culture of cities such as Heliopolis, Sais, and Tanis would have been alien to them. Rather than experiencing a sense of freedom in their country of exile, one must assume they had become imprisoned there in their own language. It may have been one reason why they were badly treated in certain places; they found it difficult to communicate.[3]

The Return Trip

How long did the Holy Family stay in Egypt, and when did they return? The traditional time is three years and six months,[4] based partly on the passage in Revelation 12:5-6, about the “woman clothed with the sun,” which tells us:

She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and his throne. The woman herself fled into the desert where she had a place prepared by God, that there she might be taken care of for twelve hundred and sixty days.

The “twelve hundred and sixty days” (three-and-a-half years) was thought by some to be the time the woman, identified with Mary, spends in the desert in Egypt after Christ’s birth. I think this is not likely to be the meaning of this passage, since it clearly takes place after the Ascension (her son is “caught up to God and his throne”). Rather it represents the Jerusalem church, of which Mary is the type, fleeing through the desert north to Pella, during the siege of Jerusalem in 68-70 A.D. The same time, three-and-a-half years, was mentioned in Rev. 11:2-3 as the length of time the Gentiles would “trample the holy city.”

Also, if the date of late 3-2 B.C. for Jesus’ birth is correct, this interpretation would not have left three-and-a-half years before Herod’s death in 1 B.C. There were roughly twelve to fifteen months between Jesus’ birth and Herod’s death. Given that the Magi did not come to Bethlehem right away, it might have been only a year that the family stayed in Egypt.

Their departure from Egypt might have been immediately after Herod’s death, but since the impetus for leaving was Joseph’s dream it might have been later. Matthew writes:

When Herod had died, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” He rose, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go back there. And because he had been warned in a dream, he departed for the region of Galilee. He went and dwelt in a town called Nazareth. (Mt. 2:19-23).

The sources generally don’t tell us anything about their route back to Nazareth. But the question of timing is interesting. Depending on when they arrived, the Holy Family may have been caught in the middle of a war.

Some two or three months after Herod’s death, his son, Archelaus began his reign by putting down some rebellious Jews, and slaughtering around 3,000 of them in the Temple at Passover time. Some of the rebels there had been Galileans. They fled north, and the rebellion grew. A man named Judah ben Hezekiah, with some followers, sacked the royal palace in the city of Sepphoris, about three-and-a-half miles from Nazareth, and distributed the riches there, and took weapons for themselves from the royal armory. Varus, the Roman governor of Syria, acted immediately to put down the rebellion. He sent troops to Galilee, killed or enslaved the population of Sepphoris, and burned the city so thoroughly that archaeologists have discovered no remains at all from it from this period. In all, the Romans crucified some 2,000 Jews during this war. [5] Josephus didn’t record anything about what happened in Nazareth, but it would most certainly would have been affected by the violence.

We know that Joseph avoided going to Bethlehem, most probably because he had heard about Archelaus’ slaughter of the Jews in Jerusalem; he was probably unaware of what was going to happen in Galilee, and as a result, may have become caught up in a violent situation he did not expect.

Only one biblical film that I know of has portrayed this historical possibility: The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). Someone connected with the film[6] had evidently studied Roman history and knew about the war of Varus. The film depicts the Romans putting down the rebellion in Judea and Galilee and has the Holy Family, as they return to Nazareth, pass by a row of crosses. Jesus, now about nine months or a year old, watches them. This is an impressive and evocative means of foreshadowing the future. It was also a sign that the life of the Holy Family was like that of so many of their fellow-countrymen at the time – deeply affected by political strife, war and the displacement of people.

[1] Armenian Gospel of the Infancy, XV, 2-3. I have translated the French text from Peeters, Les Evangiles de l’enfance II, pp. 160-61.

[2] “Itinerarium Bernardi Monachi,” ix, Titus Tobler and Augustus Molinier, eds. Itinera Hierosolymitana et descriptions Terrae Sanctae bellis sacris anteriora (Geneva: J.G. Fick, 1879), vol. I, pp. 313-314.

[3] James Cowan, Fleeing Herod: A Journey through Coptic Egypt with the Holy Family, p. 137.

[4] Hippolytus of Rome, in the early third century, writes in his Commentary on Matthew: “Concerning ‘the days which will be cut short’ (Matt. 24:22) because of the anger of the Antichrist – so the length of time of the Antichrist is three years and [six] months, for as long a time as Christ remained in his flight in Egypt.” The time he is referring to is evidently the seventieth “week of years” mentioned by Daniel.

[5] Josephus, Antiquities, XVIII, X, 9.

[6] The movie was directed by George Stevens, with a screenplay by Stevens and Paul Lee Barrett. It was based on the book of the same name by Fulton Oursler and scripts for a radio show of the same name, written by novelist Henry Denker, who also wrote novels set at the time of Jesus. This historical reference to the war of Varus doesn’t occur in Oursler’s work, I think it may have come from Denker, though I haven’t really been able to research it.