the shroud of Turin

I’m posting the audio of a talk given in 2005 about the Shroud of Turin by Jack Sacco. Sacco, an engineer and writer by trade, interviewed the multi-disciplinary group of scientists who were given access to study the Shroud in 1978. The venue for the two-hour presentation was Saint Monica’s Catholic Church in Santa Monica, California, and the speaker was introduced by Father Willy Raymond, CSC.

“Many of us [scientists] were, at first, quite confident of our technical adequacy. Some may have even been cocky. But none of us survived this extraordinary voyage into the unknown without becoming more humble and more aware of the dimensions of our ignorance. Scientific hubris may have been our mutual sin at the outset, but now we have learned better.”

John Heller, biochemist who studied the Shroud

the upset of Easter, and the last things

For your Easter meditation, here are a couple of excerpts from an RCIA Hollywood podcast on The Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell/Purgatory

the Christian life: comfort by way of upset

It would be interesting to take a survey, asking people two questions:

“What is the most comforting religion in the world?”

“What is the most upsetting religion in the world?”

It would be interesting to know what people would say to these two questions.

I think that the most comforting religion in the world would be Christianity, without question. And as far as what would be the most upsetting religion in the world, I think it also would be Christianity. I think it’s both. It is the most upsetting, and the most comforting, because of original sin. There’s just no way back to the Garden except through the experience of death.

Our life, right now, as we live it, in all of its comfort — in its native form for us… I don’t think we always want to leave this comfort nest, even if there’s something better, because we don’t know that something better.

Our life has really been turned upside-down by the Fall, and to turn it upside-right, we had better be ready for an upset. Imagine a boat sitting in Paradise on the waters of creation. Then imagine the boat being capsized. That’s what original sin has done to our existence. We’ve gotten very used to being in that tipped-over boat. That’s become our native home, that’s what we understand, that’s what we know: the experience of sin and of fear. And so now Christ comes, and He wants to right the boat again, but how do we receive that? We’re afraid, we’re threatened, we’re challenged by that. How dare he turn this boat over? How dare he upset our life? In fact, he’s righting the boat, but we experience it as an upset.

So the idea of Christianity is really that comfort comes by way of upset. We just don’t know it yet. When it’s all upset in our life, I think we discover the truth that finally the boat is being righted, and what we had become so familiar with was in fact just the pilgrim state of this valley of tears, and now we are discovering our true home in the Father’s house….

Evaluating one’s life in the light of the Last Things

I think it’s good to make an annual self-evaluation during Holy Week.

Here’s a reflection on the last things, which I’ve based on Dr. Peter Kreeft’s discussion in his book Fundamentals of the Faith. He has a chapter on each of the Last Things. From those essays, I’ve constructed a self-interview of sorts. It’s an opportunity to make an evaluation of our lives in light of things ultimate.

The first question is about death:

What death am I facing — whether little or large — and how can I meet it with Christ? It might be worthwhile to re-visit that question in a year and see if there has been any resurrection in this area or not.

The second question has to do with judgment:

The experience of judgment is the experience of being laid bare… everything is revealed. So the question is: What most needs to be laid bare in me or seen through the eyes of justice… (That’s what justice does… it sees everything)… for the sake of living more justly now, and so that Christ can touch and heal it? Christ is the divine Physician, but unless we show Him our wounds…. It’s not that He doesn’t know the wounds are there, but He needs us to relax enough so that He can actually tend to them.

The third question has to do with heaven:

The question is: What are my false heavens? Or what is my counterfeit paradise? Maybe I have several: maybe it’s the weekend; maybe it’s my job; maybe it’s a relationship. What are those things in my life which are not Paradise but for which I am happy to stop along the way because I’ve found this counterfeit? What keeps me from remembering that this is not a place of rest? I mean, the sabbath is, but other than that? We’re on pilgrimage. What will I do to keep a sense of pilgrimage alive? What will I do to keep my heart alive to the true goal of my existence? So we’re moving from a kind of examination to a resolution: What are we going to do about this?

Then lastly, hell:

What are the areas of drift or complacency in my life? Because I think for those of us who have decided to become Christians… to be baptized and to follow Christ and so forth… we have sort of set out on pilgrimage. It isn’t a question of whether or not I have heaven as a goal for me, but what will keep me from that is if I drift, if I get lax, if I get complacent. Where am I kind of drifting? And what am I going to do about that?

So give yourself some time this week to ask yourself these questions. It has been interesting for me to complete this exercise each year since a Triduum retreat in 2007; it’s been a grace to go back over it each year and to notice that I need to revisit some of them, but with others there really has been grace active in my life.

Blessed Easter! May the Resurrection of Christ transfigure every corner of your existence. May your every tear be joy-stained; behind every upset, may you experience the joy of being discovered by the One who has upset it all, for love of you.

abandonment

I wrote this short story as part of a creative writing course at Franciscan University. It also appeared in the University’s literary arts magazine in 1991.

Ben stared emptily at the fresh mound of brown earth that sat beside the deep rectangular pit. The strong rays of the April sun that morning were eating away at the snow as though trying to reconcile this patch of brown with the surrounding landscape. Lance is down there, Ben thought to himself. Lance. Ben’s face, yet untouched by the blemishes of puberty, betrayed his attempts to hide sadness. Taking his cue from the dry eyes around him, he squinted just enough to keep the torrent inside and tightened his jaw so that his chin would not quiver in the chill of grief.

I’m going home in a few minutes, he thought to himself, and my brother is going to stay here. He mused over that thought for several moments but the more he thought about it the less he believed it. His father’s voice coming from the parking lot soon tore him away from this mystery. “C’mon, son” his father called.

Ben maneuvered his way between puddles toward the purr of the running stationwagon where his parents and three sisters sat waiting. Approaching the right door in the rear, he caught a cold and sour glance from Rebecca and immediately rushed around to the other side.

Reb had been a real brat since Saturday, he thought to himself. He hadn’t seen her cry once yet, although he suspected that in a moment alone she had probably bawled her eyes out. She was proud of her self-control and had shoved it in his face on that first afternoon when she found him crying in his bedroom. “Benjamin’s a crybaby,” she had teased. “Poor baby. Maybe I should tell Daniel to come over and see what a wimp you are.”

“Cut it out, Reb,” Ben had protested. “Lance is dead, Reb! Lance is dead!”

“I know that. Doesn’t mean you have to go crying all over the place like a pussy. Look at me. Do you see me crying? Stop acting like a baby. Crying’s not gonna change anything.” She left him with these words, went to her bedroom and turned up the volume on her stereo.

The purr of the motor was silenced suddenly and Ben realized that he was home. The family filtered into the house and immediately lost itself in the flurry of arriving mourners. Ben stood alone in the midst of the shuffle and listened to the sonorous beat of the grandfather clock at the end of the hall. Everyone was busy, his mother reminded him. Why didn’t he go play on the porch until everything was ready?

As he shuffled out the front door and settled himself halfheartedly in front of his Legos, he watched the approaching parade of flagged cars. Friends and relatives crowded into the house one after another. Their cheerful conversation seemed to deny what had happened, to deny that there was an emptiness inside the house now. Ben still felt the emptiness, though, pulling at his stomach like a vacuum.

For the most part, he was oblivious to the blur of people who, smiling weakly, passed him and occasionally ran their hands briefly through his blond hair. Amidst the grey glances, however, he caught a flash of blue in the eyes of a young woman of seventeen who was approaching the porch. It was Gina, Lance’s girlfriend. “Hey , Ben,” she said softly as she knelt down beside him. “Can I have a hug?” He conceded. “How ya doin’, buddy?”

Her tone of voice was consoling, but Ben couldn’t muster up the strength to look into those pools of blue that were focused on him. If he had gathered the courage he would have seen networks of red vessels surrounding those pools. He didn’t see them, however, for he was focusing on the Lego pieces before him with mind-numbing concentration. He hadn’t talked to her since the accident on Friday night and now felt caught without a word to say. “Okay,”he replied and then waited for an uncomfortable silence to usher in a lighter topic.

She began to play with the Legos too, hoping to earn a quick glance at his face. “I miss him a lot too,” she whispered to him after a long pause. Change the subject, thought Ben. Please talk about something else.

“We can still do stuff together. My sister and I are going to the matinee in town this weekend. Do you want to come along? Reb could come too.”

This suggestion sent Ben’s heart soaring for several seconds. He used to love it when Gina and Lance would include him in their activities. They had taken him to the zoo, the theater, the park and numerous other places in town. He always felt so welcome, so appreciated; losing himself in the presence of Gina’s bubbly personality and Lance’s playful spirit, Ben would forget that he was a tag-along.

His spirit faltered, however, upon those last words of hers. Yeah, Reb could come. Reb could come, and the world could end tomorrow. He preferred the latter idea. Besides, he thought, how much fun would he have when Lance wasn’t there? No Lance. There was the emptiness again, and he felt his stomach caving in like a drenched sandcastle. Lance was gone and there could be no replacement.

Suddenly he realized that he hadn’t responded to her. “I’d like that,” he said with hollow enthusiasm. He didn’t want to seem ungrateful.

“Okay, it’s a date,” she said as she stood up and patted him on the shoulder. Finally he stole a quick glance at her eyes. The redness confused him and he looked down immediately. Just then his mom caught sight of Gina and called her inside. Ben was alone again on the porch.

Alone. He rarely enjoyed being alone. Solitude was a punishment: You’re in the way, so we’ll throw you out of our lives until we have time to trip again, the voices in his head seemed to say. He felt as though he were alone in a desert, miles from any sign of life. When silence laughed at him in his aloneness, Ben remembered how much he counted on having people around, people that he feared would leave him behind. It was a stupid fear – like his fear of the little area under the basement stairs that Reb would always kid him about – but it was a fear that never went on recess. It was always there, waiting for a quiet moment when it could bully him.

Just then Lance’s friend Bob walked up the driveway. “Hi, Ben,” he said in a near whisper. “What’s goin’ on, big guy?”

“Not much,” Ben replied quickly. He was relieved to see Bob pass quickly into the house. This was one of the only times in recent memory when Bob hadn’t called him “Savage Slinger,” an unpleasant name that reminded him of a tantrum he had had over Lance’s SuperShot Plus slingshot.

When he was six, he had wanted that slingshot like nothing else. His mother noticed and bought him a cheap imitation. Ben could still hear Bob’s bruising laughter as he and Lance compared the two slingshots: He remembered feeling rage, furiously attacking them with his slingshot, whipping their denim-covered legs with his weapon and hoping to see red stains of blood penetrating the blue denim. He had always resented being second-best. His tantrum had been incredibly funny to Lance and Bob; the sight of a six-year-old flailing his fake SuperShot at them was hilarious – so he became known as the “Savage Slinger.”

Ben didn’t want to be on the porch anymore. He walked inside quietly and had no problem avoiding attention: Everyone was gathered in the kitchen, hovering over the potato salad and green Jell-o. As he headed for the stairs leading up to his bedroom, however, he met Reb as she came up from the cellar with a gallon of cider. She looked down when she caught his glance and supervised her feet carefully as they led her to the kitchen.

Once upstairs, he climbed onto his bed and tried to fall asleep. He was too restless to sleep, however. Not knowing what to do next, he sat on the edge of his bed and surveyed the room pensively. After resting briefly on the SuperShot which Lance had given him, his eyes finally fixed themselves upon the fluorescent blue crucifix hanging above the light switch by his door. It was different from the crucifix at church which showed Jesus’ head bent down upon his chest. This glowing blue Jesus stared out toward him with a pained expression: What was he looking at? Ben wondered. It almost seemed that Jesus was crying for someone else. He wasn’t screaming out in agony; instead, he was weeping gently – there was a small tear on his right cheek. Ben remembered how, several years ago, his mother had found him standing on a chair by the light switch, trying to wipe that tear from Jesus’ face. “It won’t come off, honey,” she told him gently. He didn’t like that tear. It made him uneasy. He preferred the crucifix at church with the hidden face.

Just then, a soft laugh wafted up the stairs and interrupted the rhythm of the grandfather clock: It was Bob’s laugh. It wasn’t his usual mocking laugh, but it was Bob nonetheless. Ben cringed.

Ben had always been jealous of Bob. When Bob was around, Ben felt about as important to Lance as the winter hat Lance would throw into his backpack every morning when he was out of his mother’s sight. Ben remembered an afternoon at the amusement park when Bob and Lance had ditched him as he stood in line for the haunted house. Ben had dreaded the thought of going through that dark green Victorian mansion that was issuing smoke and occasional shrieks, but the boys had promised to go through with him. He remembered turning around and discovering that they had left him alone in the line. As the large door of the house grew larger Ben fully expected them to return. They never did. What did I do? he asked himself. I’m sorry, Lance. I heard you sigh when Mom asked you to take me with; I should’ve just stayed at home in my room. He remembered being afraid of the ghosts, the stiff-legged Frankenstein and the spider webs, but most of all he remembered the wrenching cramp that knotted his stomach as he stepped out of the house and still could find no trace of Bob or Lance. He had trusted them completely and they had ditched him. Ben didn’t feel that they had just left him behind: He felt as if they were making fun of his weakness.

A reluctant tear gained enough courage to force itself out of hiding. It was all right to cry, he told himself as he looked at the tear on the glowing blue face. He crawled back onto his bed and fell asleep.

When he awoke, a wave of loneliness came crashing over him and he found himself beached at the door of eleven-year-old Alicia’s bedroom. He knocked and, since there was no answer, put his ear to the door. When he heard a faint whimpering within, he tried the knob, but it was locked.

He approached Jennifer’s room next. As she invited him in, she pushed aside the magazines she had been browsing through to make room for him on the edge of the bed. “Hey, Ben. What’s up?” It was a greeting and not a question, so he kept quiet, knowing that if he tried to talk his throat would probably start to tighten. He crawled onto the bed beside her and she put her arm around him. “You didn’t want to be downstairs either, huh? Listen, I know it’s sad without Lance but I bet he’s pretty happy up in heaven. Remember what Father Ted was saying today? Just think about seeing God and the angels all the time. I bet Lance is having – ”

Just then the phone rang. Jennifer rushed across the room to answer it like any pious fifteen-year-old. It was her best friend Susan. Ben knew it would be a long conversation, so he excused himself and wandered back in the direction of his room.

Once there, he grabbed the slingshot and headed to the top of the stairs. He listened vigilantly. Happily, there was no sound but the methodical pendulum echoing in the hall: The guests were gone. He crept down to the main floor as silently as he could, trying to avoid the creaks in the stairs. After slipping out the back door, he followed the wooded footpath toward the cemetery with his fingers wrapped tightly around the slingshot. Jennifer was right, he knew. Lance was not alone. Still, he needed to visit his brother.

The mound was gone and the pit had been filled in. Flowers were arranged neatly atop the patch of damp brown earth. The bouquet was now complete with the addition of the SuperShot Plus. Ben stood there for a moment in silence, the spring breeze massaging his cheeks with its cool hands in the approaching dusk. Then he turned and walked back in the direction of home.

That night, he went to bed at eight-thirty as usual. After all, tomorrow was a school day. He never fell asleep at eight-thirty, though. He always waited until he heard Lance pounce up the stairs at nine o’clock for the Top Ten at Nine, his favorite radio program. Then he felt he could fall asleep.

Tonight the ninth toll of the grandfather clock was followed by a piercing silence. Ben’s stomach began to knot itself once again. A little later, however, he heard the stairs creaking heavily as someone slowly ascended to the upper level. Glancing past the glowing blue cross to the hall beyond, he saw his father turn on the light in Lance’s bedroom and walk inside. Ben jumped out of bed and softly padded down the hall to investigate. As he peered around the edge of the door, he saw his father sitting at the chair near Lance’s desk, his grey sock rubbing the carpet back and forth, back and forth. He was bent over the glass desktop, looking through at the photographs below. Ben quickly returned to his bed and pulled up the covers.

The light went out, the stairs creaked again, and the distant beat of the clock moved him further from his brother with every measured sound. All he could see was the small blue figure. He welcomed the arriving tears and let them dampen his pillow as he fell asleep. He remembered his father. He remembered Reb and her downcast glance. He remembered Alicia’s locked door, Gina’s eyes… and the permanent tear on the glowing blue face.

Mary, the Bread of Life, and the mystery of Holy Saturday

Today, on Holy Saturday, Lent is over. We spend three days enveloped in the liturgy of the Triduum, and we’re right in the middle of it. It is, as T.S. Eliot once said, “the still point in the turning world” (“Burnt Norton,” II, Four Quartets). At the eye of the hurricane, there is a great silence.

There is a beautiful ancient homily on Holy Saturday — we don’t even know who wrote it but it’s beautiful — in the Office of Readings today. Here is a short excerpt:

Something strange is happening — there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives of Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve… The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory….

I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.

(Office of Readings, Holy Saturday)

The mystery of Holy Saturday is a mystery of communion, of restored union: what was separated has now been reunited.

How does this happen? What is this mystery of communion which we are anticipating and which we celebrate tonight?

It is, primarily, the mystery of the Eucharist, the sacrament of communion. It is the most exalted mystery of God’s own heart, and of His love.

We’re on pilgrimage today into the very heart of God. Who does the Church give us to accompany us in this time? Who can really show us the way?

It’s Mary. She alone did not flee… did not panic… and did not despair. She is our guide through Holy Saturday, because she is the steward of the great mystery of the Eucharist.

I want to make a brief examination of her life, as it relates to her Son, who is the Bread of Life (John 6:35).

First we go back to the Annunciation. In this moment when the angel Gabriel appears to her, Mary becomes, in a very real way, Bethlehem. The word Bethlehem literally means “the house of bread”.

She is Bethlehem more truly than the town she visits nine months later: she received the Bread that the “house of bread” would not (Luke 2:7). She becomes the dwelling place of the Bread of Life, and she tends to this Bread for thirty years in a mystery of silence we know  little about.

Like the centurion, she calls out to God at the Annunciation: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof, but only say the word…” (Luke 7:6-7). She gives her assent: “Be it done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

Now did she know what she was saying yes to? In the details? No.

But she was docile. She was receptive to the One who has come to her. You see, she said yes to a Someone, not a something. It wasn’t a yes to a plan, or a schedule, or a series of foreseen events.

The somethings of her yes were constantly being challenged and purified. Think of the Presentation in the Temple, when she was told that her heart too would be pierced by a sword (Luke 2:35). Think also of her discovery of Jesus in the Temple after a long search. Her Son asked her: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49)

The beauty of Mary is that, when confronted with the unknown and the unexpected, she does not flinch, cower or rant, but she receives it all, and ponders the word in her heart (Luke 2:51). Whatever word is spoken to her — whatever word — she receives confidently as a word of love coming from the very heart of God.

This strong, serene faith is seen at the wedding feast at Cana, when, in response to the news that they have no more wine, she responds by calling her Son into action. She tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). Notice that she doesn’t spell out the plan of action herself, but simply refers them to her Son, trusting in His loving wisdom and power.

Fast forward now three years… to the very end of the life of her Son. As she receives the body of her Son when it is taken, lifeless, from the cross, she receives it lovingly. She kisses Him and gazes out at us as she holds Him. Her eyes are filled with grief, but no bitterness. “This is for you,” her eyes say to us. She is the gracious hostess of the divine meal, expressing a hospitality that has cost her everything.

The Son in her arms is no longer the thriving infant He once was, but a lifeless corpse. This is the annihilation of everything a mother’s heart could want for her child. And yet she is not raging. She’s not bitter. She’s not angry. She’s not clinging desperately to the body of her Son. Instead, she is holding Him with great tenderness and affection.

Why? Because she understands what it takes to make bread… in this case, the Bread of Life.

You see, all along the way of the Cross, her Son, the Bread of Life, was kneaded, pushed, contorted and bruised by the crowds. And now the bread will be covered with a shroud, and placed in the darkness, so that, three days later, it can rise.

So Saturday is a day of waiting. It’s a day of waiting for the Bread to rise, to be baked and to be ready for us. Saturday is Mary’s day, a day to wait with her, in stillness and in hope. And it’s a time to consider her service to the Eucharist, the Bread of Life.

What can this mean for us?

This evening, as you attend the Easter Vigil, as you go to receive the Eucharist after this long fast, think of giving delight to the hostess of this divine meal.

Give joy to her heart by letting her know that her stewardship of this Bread has been accomplished. Give her joy by letting her overhear you say to the Father, as you approach the Bread of Life, “Let it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

Let her hear you expressing the words of the True Bethlehem: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word and I shall be healed” (Luke 7:6-7).

Let the voice of the True Bethlehem rise up across the face of the whole Church today, as all of us, Mary’s spiritual children, raise our voices in a single cry of hope and of love: “Give us this bread always” (John 6:34).

fidelity of our mother

mater-dolorosaA garden dark and darker hearts
bring agony this day;
From Sunday palms to Friday whips
the passions wave astray;
He bears the tree with broken heart
upon the stony way.

With body raised, He hangs in pain
And very few will stay
To watch the life escape Him now
Instead they run away.

But someone stands beneath the Cross
to keep despair at bay
And Christ can smile before He dies:
He hears His mother pray.