St. Cyril of Alexandria

Today’s saint lived a generation after the Roman persecution of the Church had ceased.  (Stay tuned in the next few days to hear more about that persecution.)  He lived at a time when the Church was growing at a rapid pace- by the year 300, Christians in the empire numbered over 6 million.  While the threat of persecution was over, peace was not reigning.  Disputes over doctrine were heated and false teaching was spreading, and heroes like St. Cyril of Alexandria were busy teaching and preaching the truth.

St. Cyril of Alexandria (c. 376 – 444) is perhaps best known for fighting the Nestorian heresy, a teaching which held that Mary was not the Mother of God.  The heresy taught that she only gave birth to the human nature of Christ.  St. Cyril and other orthodox bishops recognized that this belief ultimately separated Christ into two persons, human and divine, violating the unity of Christ, Who was one Person.  Every mother knows that she doesn’t look at her newborn and think, “What a lovely human nature I gave birth to!”  Women give birth to people, not simply natures.  The Church in the Council of Ephesus in 431 declared Mary Theotokos, or “God-bearer” and clarified that while Mary is not the source of God, nor did she pre-exist God, she did bear the Word Incarnate in her womb.

God chose a woman to bear His Son, to bear His flesh, to cooperate in salvation in an intimate way.  What dignity this gives women!

Christianity elevated women at a time when their situation was rather bleak. In the Greco-Roman world, women were usually married before they reached their teens to much older men, and then were often forced to put up with marriages where unnatural sexual acts, adultery, and contraception and abortion were expected.

If their child wasn’t killed by abortion (and the abortions often killed the mother as well), it may not live much after birth, either.

Dr. Rodney Stark, a noted sociologist, observed: “Men greatly outnumber women in the Greco-Roman world. Dio Cassius, writing in about 200 AD, attributed the declining population of the empire to the extreme shortage of females. In his classic work on ancient and medieval populations, J C Russell estimated that there were 131 males for 100 females in the city of Rome and 140 males per 100 females in Italy, Asia Minor, and North Africa. Russell noted in passing that sex ratios this extreme can only occur when there is ‘some tampering with human life.’”

And tampering there was. Exposure of unwanted female infants and deformed male infants was legal, morally accepted, and widely practiced by all social classes in the Greco-Roman world.  Another historian noted that even in large families “more than one daughter was practically never reared.”  Historians were able to construct 600 families in the city of Delphi, using inscriptions from the time.  Of these 600 families, only six had raised more than one daughter.

On the subject of female infanticide, Stark asks us to consider “a letter written by one Hilarion to his pregnant wife Ails, which has been reported by many authors because of this quite extraordinary contrast between his deep concern for his wife and his hoped-for son, and his utter callousness toward a possible daughter: Know that I am still in Alexandria and do not worry if they all come back and I remain in Alexandria. I ask and beg you to take good care of our baby son. And as soon as I receive payment I shall send it up to you. If you are delivered of a child before I come home, if it is a boy, keep it, if it is a girl, discard it. You have sent me word ‘Don’t forget me.’ How can I forget you? I beg you not to worry.”

As you might imagine, this imbalance of men and women inevitably led to rape and sexual aggression.  All of which was considered quite normal.

Church historian Mike Aquilina comments, “That is the world in which the first Christians were born, in which they grew up and married, and in which they raised their families. You might call it a culture of death.”

In the midst of this culture of death, the son of God had come into the world… as the son of Mary.  And before leaving this world, He left us a Church- a Church that believes in the inherent dignity of the human person, one which sets a woman — the Blessed Mother — as the role model for Christian life — one that elevates marriage to a sacrament, that commands husbands to love their wives, that values the woman’s fertility.

During this current “culture of death,” may we turn to the Mother of Christ, asking her to intercede for us to Her Son.  May her prayers for all of us, especially the women of our country, bear great fruit for the Church and for our beloved homeland.

“Give me an army saying the Rosary, and I will conquer the world.” -Blessed Pope Pius IX

Call your mother

In this month of May, I need to make a confession.

I don’t find the Rosary easy to pray.  For many years, I knew I should be saying a daily rosary, but I thought if I started the Creed as my head hit the pillow at night…. well, I could at least say I tried, even though I rarely made it to the first mystery.

There’s nothing wrong with saying the Rosary as you go to bed.  In an interview prior to becoming Pope, Benedict XVI said that’s what he does at night when he’s trying to clear his mind to fall asleep. “I would recommend the Rosary. That is a form of prayer that, besides its spiritual meaning, has the power to calm the inner self. If we hold fast here to the actual words, then we are gradually freed from the thoughts that so torment us.”

But maybe by only praying the Rosary then, I was missing out on some of the fruits.

The Rosary generally takes about 15 minutes, depending on what God wants to do in your time of meditation.  15 minutes is about 1 percent of your day.

1 percent.

That’s nothing.

Americans spend an average of 162 minutes on their mobile devices every day.  And that doesn’t include actually talking on them!  And the Rosary only takes about 15 minutes.

I couldn’t take 15 minutes?  No, I couldn’t.  I knew it was nothing, and I still found it difficult to make the time.  I wasn’t in the habit. I was lazy. I didn’t try.

So here’s some advice to help make those 15 minutes easier.

  1. Scripture.  We Catholics get a bad rap for neglecting the Word of God, but our liturgical life and private devotions are all saturated in Scripture.  The Rosary is one of the best ways to meditate on the life of Christ.  There are good Scriptural rosary booklets out there, but you can also just open the Bible and read the passage before you start the mystery.  As you pray the Hail Mary’s, close your eyes and put yourself in the scene.  Maybe you’re a shepherd at the Nativity.  What does the night feel like?  What is Joseph doing?  Is Baby Jesus sleeping?  Pick Him up and worship Him.
  2. Art. For those of us who get distracted easily, it can help to have something right in front of our faces to keep our minds where they should be.  I have a little book called the Rosary Album that has pen and ink drawings for each bead. You don’t need a special book, though – simply find classical art pieces online for each mystery.  Allow the image to help your meditation and mental prayer.
  3. Intercession.  Offering each decade for a different intention can help keep your mind on what you’re praying and why.
  4. Break it up!  Who says the Rosary has to be prayed in one sitting?  (or one kneeling?)  Maybe your schedule allows you to enter into prayer in smaller chunks of time. Or maybe you just can pray better for five minutes than you can for fifteen.  If you’re tempted to feel guilty about that, I give you another insight from an interview with Cardinal Ratzinger:

Do you have a particular way of praying the Rosary?

I do it quite simply, just as my parents used to pray.  Both of them loved the Rosary.  And the older they got, the more they loved it.  The older you get, the less you are able to make great spiritual efforts, the more you need, rather, an inner refuge, to be enfolded in the rhythm of prayer of the whole Church. And so I pray in the way I always have.

But how? Do you pray one Rosary, one set of mysteries, or all three?

No, three are too much for me; I am too much of a restless spirit; I would wander too much.  I take just one, and then often only two or three mysteries out of the five, because I can then fit in a certain interval when I want to get away from work and free myself a bit, when I want to be quiet and to clear my head.  A whole one would actually be too much for me then.

I had to read that twice when I first came across it in God and the World. If he wanders too much … whew.  I feel slightly better about myself.

My last piece of advice? Just do it.  Set aside time and pray it. It’s only 1 percent of your day. You can start small and pray a decade every day … or the 54-day Rosary novena can be a great way to jump in full force. (There are several versions – here is one.) Not only is it a very powerful novena (I have some amazing stories), doing something for 54 days is a good way to get into a habit!

Our Lady has been asking us to pray it for peace for a long time. Now Our Lord is appearing to bishops asking the same thing. I think it’s time to listen.

Day of Waiting

Holy Saturday.

This is perhaps the strangest of days in the liturgical year.   The Catholic Churches are empty.  Jesus is absent from the tabernacles.  There’s no Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  The only liturgy that is celebrated – the liturgy of the hours – even speaks of this strangeness.

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. (From the Office of Readings; An Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday)

As I prayed the rosary this morning, I hesitated to do the usual Saturday mysteries – the Joyful.  What was fitting for this strange day?

Then I realized that the Joyful Mysteries were the perfect mysteries for this day of waiting, this day of silence.  As the Blessed Mother sat in silence, her heart still bleeding from the events of yesterday, surely she meditated on those joyful mysteries as well.

Her heart had been pierced again and again. But now she waited in the silence for her Son to come back to her.  Surely she knew; surely they had spoken.  Her grief and anguish on Friday were like none other-

All you who pass by… Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow…

-but there was also the knowledge of the Resurrection, the confidence that her Son would only be in the grave but a short while, and would cheat death before the end of the third day.

And so she sat and waited.  Surely her thoughts and prayers went back to the events that brought her to this moment… the Annunciation… the Visitation… the night she gave birth to this little boy…  that prophecy of Simeon, foretelling the anguish that she could not even imagine as she held that little boy in her arms… the grief in the Temple of those three days of loss, a mere taste of the sorrow felt today.  Surely those mysteries, those memories which she kept in her heart, were the fruit of her meditation today.

We join her in this day of waiting.  We know the end of the story, we know the glory of the Resurrection. But we enter into the silence, into this day in between the grief of Friday and the joy of Sunday.  We wait until night, when the darkness will be shattered by the glory of the Lord, when death will be trampled by Love.

This is the night,
when once you led our forebears, Israel’s children,
from slavery in Egypt
and made them pass dry-shod through the Red Sea.

This is the night
that with a pillar of fire
banished the darkness of sin.

This is the night
that even now throughout the world,
sets Christian believers apart from worldly vices
and from the gloom of sin,
leading them to grace
and joining them to his holy ones.

This is the night
when Christ broke the prison-bars of death
and rose victorious from the underworld.