Thursday, 26 December 2013

Nativity Hymn of Christ: Stichera of the Ninth Hour

The internet may have its nasty traps, but it also contains many hidden gems. I found this beautiful Byzantine chant of the Nativity in English. It's haunting and mystical, typical of Eastern Church hymns. In the spirit of fraternity and the likely union between the Eastern and Western Churches, I present you this Nativity Hymn of Christ: Stichera of the Ninth Hour.




He Who holds all creation in the hollow of His hand
today is born of a Virgin.
He Whose essence none can touch
is wrapped in swaddling clothes as a mortal man.
God, Who in the beginning fashioned the heavens,
lies in a manger.
He Who rained manna on His people in the wilderness
is fed on milk from His mother's breasts.
The Bridegroom of the Church summons the Magi,
and the Son of the Virgin accepts their gifts.
We worship Your Birth, O Christ.
We worship Your Birth, O Christ.
We worship Your Birth, O Christ.
Show us also Thy divine Theophany!

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Glory to God in the Lowest: 5 Christmas Poems by G.K. Chesterton

Chesterton is arguably my favourite Catholic writer of the modern times. His wit and wisdom have contributed a significant amount of thoughtful laughters around the literary world in general and the Christian niche in particular. It's no-secret that he was a devout man — and a jolly good one too! — and the following five Christmas poems stand as a witness to his wonderful conviction.

Enjoy, and have a blessed Christmas!

*

Gloria in Profundis

There has fallen on earth for a token
A god too great for the sky.
He has burst out of all things and broken
The bounds of eternity:
Into time and the terminal land
He has strayed like a thief or a lover,
For the wine of the world brims over,
Its splendour is spilt on the sand.

Who is proud when the heavens are humble,
Who mounts if the mountains fall,
If the fixed stars topple and tumble
And a deluge of love drowns all—
Who rears up his head for a crown,
Who holds up his will for a warrant,
Who strives with the starry torrent,
When all that is good goes down?

For in dread of such falling and failing
The fallen angels fell
Inverted in insolence, scaling
The hanging mountain of hell:
But unmeasured of plummet and rod
Too deep for their sight to scan,
Outrushing the fall of man
Is the height of the fall of God.

Glory to God in the Lowest
The spout of the stars in spate—
Where thunderbolt thinks to be slowest
And the lightning fears to be late:
As men dive for sunken gem
Pursuing, we hunt and hound it,
The fallen star has found it
In the cavern of Bethlehem.

"O Menino Jesus Salvador do Mundo", by Josefa de Obidos

*

Joseph

If the stars fell; night's nameless dreams
Of bliss and blasphemy came true,
If skies were green and snow were gold,
And you loved me as I love you;

O long light hands and curled brown hair,
And eyes where sits a naked soul;
Dare I even then draw near and burn
My fingers in the aureole?

Yes, in the one wise foolish hour
God gives this strange strength to a man.
He can demand, though not deserve,
Where ask he cannot, seize he can.

But once the blood's wild wedding o'er,
Were not dread his, half dark desire,
To see the Christ-child in the cot,
The Virgin Mary by the fire?

"Joseph's Dream in the Stable in Bethlehem", by Rembrandt, 1645

*

The Wise Men

Step softly, under snow or rain,
To find the place where men can pray;
The way is all so very plain
That we may lose the way.

Oh, we have learnt to peer and pore
On tortured puzzles from our youth,
We know all labyrinthine lore,
We are the three wise mert of yore,
And we know all things but the truth.

We have gone round and round the hill,
And lost the wood among the trees,
And learnt long names for every ill,
And served the mad gods, naming still
The Furies the Eumenides.

The gods of violence took the veil
Of vision and philosophy,
The Serpent that brought all men bale,
He bites his own accursed tail,
And calls himself Eternity.

Go humbly... it has hailed and snowed...
With voices low and lanterns lit;
So very simple is the road,
That we may stray from it.

The world grows terrible and white,
And blinding white the breaking day;
We walk bewildered in the light,
For something is too large for sight,
And something much too plain to say.

The Child that was ere worlds begun
(...We need but walk a little way,
We need but see a latch undone,...)
The Child that played with moon and sun
Is playing with a little hay.

The house from which the heavens are fed,
The old strange house that is our own,
Where tricks of words are never said.
And Mercy is as plain as bread,
And Honour is as hard as stone.

Go humbly; humble are the skies,
And low and large and fierce the Star;
So very near the Manger lies
That we may travel far.

Hark! Laughter like a lion wakes
To roar to the resounding plain,
And the whole heaven shouts and shakes,
For God Himself is born again,
And we are little children walking
Through the snow and rain.

"Adoration of the Magi", by Albrecht Dürer, 1504

*

The House of Christmas

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay on their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost - how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky's dome.

This world is wild as an old wives' tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.

"Adoration by the Shepherds", Joachim Wtewael, 1625

*

A Christmas Carol

The Christ-child lay on Mary's lap,
His hair was like a light,
(O weary, weary were the world,
But here is all alright.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary's breast
His hair was like a star.
(O stern and cunning are the kings,
But here the true hearts are.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary's heart,
His hair was like a fire.
(O weary, weary is the world,
But here the world's desire.)

The Christ-child stood on Mary's knee,
His hair was like a crown,
And all the flowers looked up at Him,
And all the stars looked down

An icon of the Theotokos, by an unknown iconographer

Remember Your Dignity — Reading for the Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord


Second Reading from the Office of Readings, 25 December 2013
From a sermon by Saint Leo the Great, pope
(Sermo 1 in Nativitate Domini, 1-3: PI, 54, 190-193)

Christian, remember your dignity

Dearly beloved, today our Savior is born; let us rejoice. Sadness should have no place on the birthday of life. The fear of death has been swallowed up; life brings us joy with the promise of eternal happiness.

No one is shut out from this joy; all share the same reason for rejoicing. Our Lord, victor over sin and death, finding no man free from sin, came to free us all. Let the saint rejoice as he sees the palm of victory at hand. Let the sinner be glad as he receives the offer of forgiveness. Let the pagan take courage as he is summoned to life.

In the fullness of time, chosen in the unfathomable depths of God's wisdom, the Son of God took for himself our common humanity in order to reconcile it with its creator. He came to overthrow the devil, the origin of death, in that very nature by which he had overthrown mankind.

And so at the birth of our Lord the angels sing in joy: Glory to God in the highest, and they proclaim peace to his people on earth as they see the heavenly Jerusalem being built from all the nations of the world. When the angels on high are so exultant at this marvellous work of God's goodness, what joy should it not bring to the lowly hearts of men?

Beloved, let us give thanks to God the Father, through his Son, in the Holy Spirit, because in his great love for us he took pity on us, and when we were dead in our sins he brought us to life with Christ, so that in him we might be a new creation. Let us throw off our old nature and all its ways and, as we have come to birth in Christ, let us renounce the works of the flesh.

Christian, remember your dignity, and now that you share in God's own nature, do not return by sin to your former base condition. Bear in mind who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Do not forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of God's kingdom.

Through the sacrament of baptism you have become a temple of the Holy Spirit. Do not drive away so great a guest by evil conduct and become again a slave to the devil, for your liberty was bought by the blood of Christ.

*

Today true peace came down from heaven.
—Today the whole earth was filled with heaven's sweetness.

Today a new day dawns, the day of our redemption, prepared by God from ages past, the beginning of our never-ending gladness.
—Today the whole earth was filled with heaven's sweetness.


*

Image: "Return from the Harvest", by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1878

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Are You Afraid of the Dark?


Men have deep superstitions about darkness.

Throughout the ages, it's been nearly a universal human belief that evil forces gained potency after the sun went down. In many myths, folklores, and local beliefs, darkness is associated with strange occurrences and otherworldly beings, such as vampires, werewolves, and ghosts. Some nights, like full moon and Hallowe'en, are thought to contain increased level of grimness. There's even an entire study on how staying too long in the dark can make you lose your mind.

The Christian faith also makes use of this imagery, associating darkness with sin, death, and evil, as evil is the absence of good just like darkness is the absence of light. Vespers and Compline prayers reflect that awareness of evil lurking in the dark:

"Protect us, Lord, as we stay awake; watch over us as we sleep, that awake, we may keep watch with Christ, and asleep, rest in his peace."
... 
"May the all-powerful Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death." 
... 
"May the Lord bless us, protect us from all evil, and bring us into everlasting life."

There is of course a natural explanation for this phenomenon: darkness makes it easier for accidents to happen, for enemies to attack, etc., so deep down, people have learned to have a certain discomfort with it.

But it’s for this same reason that the desert is also a place of powerful encounters with God. Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his book Journey to Easter:

Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the desert…What does this surprising guide intend? Let us reflect a little on what is meant by “the desert.”

The desert is a place of silence, of solitude. It is the absence of the exchanges of daily life, its noise and its superficiality. The desert is the place of the absolute, the place of freedom, which sets man before the ultimate demands. Not by chance is the desert the place where monotheism began. In that sense it is a place of grace. In putting aside all preoccupations we encounter our Creator.

Great things have their beginnings in the desert, in silence, in poverty. It is not possible to share in the mission of Jesus, in the mission of the Gospel, without sharing in the desert experience, its poverty, its hunger. That beautiful hunger for justice of which the Lord speaks in the Sermon on the Mount cannot be born in the fullness of satiety.

The Prophet Zechariah spent nine months in physical silence, in muteness. This is a form of darkness that must be excruciatingly painful for a prophet whose job is to proclaim divine messages. But because of this, Zechariah had plenty of time to think and reflect — to contemplate — about what he was going to say if he ever gained his voice back.

So when he was miraculously cured and filled with the Holy Spirit, this is what he sang:

"In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace."
(Luke 1:78-79)

Without first surrendering his voice to the Holy Spirit, perhaps Zechariah would never arrive at his canticle, the prophecy of prophecies. In that particular silence and particular darkness, Zechariah entered into the Mystery of Incarnation even before it took place; and the resulting proclamation was exactly when the Messiah, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is called "the Dawn" — or "Daytime"— for the first time ever.

In a moment, that same Dawn will rise for us who have faithfully waited. Let us persevere in hope, for this terrifying darkness will soon be banished and it will no longer have power over us.

*

Daily Reading for Tuesday, 24 December 2013

First Reading — 2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8-11, 16
Responsorial Psalm — Psalm 89:2-3, 4-5, 27, 29
Gospel — Luke 1:67-69

*

Image: "Winter (The Flood)", by Nicolas Poussin, 1660-1664

Monday, 9 December 2013

Blessed once again — Reading for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception


Second Reading from the Office of Readings, 9 December 2013
From a sermon by Saint Anselm, bishop
(Oratio 52: PL 158, 955-956)

Virgin Mary, all nature is blessed by you

Blessed Lady, sky and stars, earth and rivers, day and night — everything that is subject to the power or use of man — rejoice that through you they are in some sense restored to their lost beauty and are endowed with inexpressible new grace. All creatures were dead, as it were, useless for men or for the praise of God, who made them. The world, contrary to its true destiny, was corrupted and tainted by the acts of men who served idols. Now all creation has been restored to life and rejoices that it is controlled and given splendor by men who believe in God. The universe rejoices with new and indefinable loveliness. Not only does it feel the unseen presence of God himself, its Creator, it sees him openly, working and making it holy. These great blessings spring from the blessed fruit of Mary's womb.

Through the fullness of the grace that was given you, dead things rejoice in their freedom, and those in heaven are glad to be made new. Through the Son who was the glorious fruit of your virgin womb, just souls who died before his life-giving death rejoice as they are freed from captivity, and the angels are glad at the restoration of their shattered domain.

Lady, full and overflowing with grace, all creation receives new life from your abundance. Virgin, blessed above all creatures, through your blessing all creation is blessed, not only creation from its Creator, but the Creator himself has been blessed by creation.

To Mary God gave his only-begotten Son, whom he loved as himself. Through Mary God made himself a Son, not different but the same, by nature Son of God and Son of Mary. The whole universe was created by God, and God was born of Mary. God created all things, and Mary gave birth to God. The God who made all things gave himself form through Mary, and thus he made his own creation. He who could create all things from nothing wold not remake his ruined creation without Mary.

God, then, is the Father of the created world and Mary the mother of the re-created world. God is the Father by whom all things were given life, and Mary the mother through whom all things were given new life. For God begot the Son, through whom all things were made, and Mary gave birth to him as the Savior of the world. Without God's Son, nothing could exist; without Mary's Son, nothing could be redeemed.

Truly the Lord is with you, to whom the Lord granted that all nature should owe as much to you as to himself.

*

Through one man sin came into the world;
in him all men have sinned.
—Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God.

The Lord has rescued you from death
and sheltered you from all harm.
—Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God.

*

Image: "Fresco of Pope Blessed Pius IX Proclaiming the Dogma of Immaculate Conception", photography by Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Catatonia, and the Loss of Human Integrity


Yesterday a woman was brought to the ER by her family, because suddenly she "became all rigid". "Rigid", in patients' language, may mean anything from post-mortem rigidity to spastic paralysis to loss of muscle tone (i.e. weakness, but don't ask me why some would describe it as "rigid"). In my typical skepticism — a default position you'll automatically adopt when you work in a scientific environment — I approached the patient to check whether she was truly "rigid" as her family said.

This time the family was right: the patient's whole body was rigid, and although she was completely conscious, she was in a coma-like daze. She lied flatly on her back, eyes staring blankly onto the ceiling, mouth half-open as if in the middle of saying something. She didn't respond adequately to voice or pain stimuli, though she did produce some incomprehensible groans and mild twitching of some facial muscles. She looked like she was in a mental torture deep inside. I tried moving her arms into different positions, and her arms would stay in those positions, even in awkward poses against gravity (such as when I lifted up her left arm above her head to see whether it would drop down on its own). Her head and her legs, on the other hand, resisted any attempts to move them.

After I interviewed her husband to look for recent life stressors (there were plenty and rather significant stressors, according to the hubby) and ordered some blood tests (they all came back normal), so I concluded: this is a classic case of catatonia.

A bit about this condition:
Catatonia is a neuropsychiatric syndrome characterised by psychomotor symptoms, which may include mutism, gegenhalten rigidity, catalepsy ("waxy flexibility"), echolalia, and echopraxia.1 Catatonia may be caused by an organic etiology (diseases, brain injuries, drug side effects) or may be purely psychiatric. The syndrome exists on a spectrum in which it ranges from milder manifestations to life-threatening neuroleptic malignant syndrome.

Historically, catatonia was thought to be a unique manifestation of schizophrenia; however, it is now appreciated to be most commonly associated with affective (mood) disorders2, such as major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, acute stress disorder, and PTSD.3-4
A catatonic patient often appears emotionless and unresponsive, but he's experiencing real emotional anxiety inside. Now imagine if this happens to the soul instead of the body. You become so depressed that you lose the ability to think, to move, to laugh, to cry, to pray. You experience extreme anxiety, you know or feel that there is something wrong, that you need to do something, but you are unable to express this need. Or, maybe your body does express it, yet in an unexpected and unorganised manner.

Or maybe catatonia IS the current state of man? After the Fall, we lost some of our preternatural gifts, one of them is Integrity. Integrity is when our human appetites and desires being completely submitted to reason; the loss of it leads to Concupiscence, that's when passions are no longer integrated under intellect.

Sin makes us cataleptic: now it is much more difficult for us to react accordingly and to discern properly; we are now less sensitive to God's warnings and callings, and to the sufferings of others; the power of the will has weakened because we tend to follow just about any external stimuli and be stubborn about it. Clearly, it is harder now to recognise good, and to repent and change. Without grace, even these become impossible.

What is sin but the absence or distortion of good? What is sin but catatonia, the soul and the flesh being misaligned in their will and purpose? "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak." (cf. Mat 26:41)  Good is a supernatural quality, and yet we must strive for it because it is actually our "normal" state; we are made for good, we are made for health and integrity, we are made for perfection.

*

Definitions of terms:
  • Mutism = inability to speak.
  • Gegenhalten rigidity = also called "paratonia", a form of hypertonia (excessive muscle tone) with an involuntary variable resistance during passive movement.
  • Catalepsy = muscular rigidity and fixity of posture regardless of external stimuli, as well as decreased sensitivity to pain. Symptoms include: rigid body, rigid limbs, limbs staying in same position when moved ("waxy flexibility", as if the body is made of wax), unresponsiveness, loss of muscle control, and slowing down of bodily functions, such as breathing.
  • Echolalia = immediate and involuntary repetition of words or phrases just spoken by others.
  • Echopraxia = involuntary repetition or imitation of another person's actions.

References:
  1. Daniels J. Catatonia: clinical aspects and neurobiological correlates. J Neuropsychiatry Clin Neurosci 2009; 21:371–380.
  2. Philbrick KL, Rummans TA: Malignant catatonia. J Neuropsychiatry Clin Neurosci 1994; 6:1–13.
  3. Smith JH et al. Catatonic disorder due to a general medical or psychiatric condition. J Neuropsychiatry Clin Neurosci 2012; 24:198-207.
  4. Brasic JR. Catatonia. Medscape Reference 2013. [Online]. Accessed on 2013 Dec 5.

Image: "Soft Construction with Boiled Beans", by Salvador Dali, 1936

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Compline hymn, for Wednesday of the First Week of Advent


O love of God, how strong and true,
Eternal, and yet ever new,
Uncomprehended and unbought,
Beyond all knowledge and all thought!

O heav'nly love, how precious still
In days of weariness and ill,
In nights of pain and helplessness,
To heal, to comfort, and to bless!

O wide embracing wondrous love,
We read thee in the sky above;
We read thee in the earth below,
In seas that swell and streams that flow.

We read thee best in him who came
And bore for us the cross of shame,
Sent by the Father from on high,
Our life to live, our death to die.

O love of God, our shield and stay
Through all the perils of our way—
Eternal love, in thee we rest.
For ever safe, for ever blest.

*

Melody: Bevor des Tages Licht begeht L.M.
Music: Mode VIII, Deutsches Psalterium für die Sonntage und Wochentage des Kirchenjahres
Text: Horatius T. Bonar, 1808-1889

Image: "Study for the Pilgrim of the Cross at the End of His Journey", by Thomas Cole