St Joseph's Womb  

Posted by Joe Rawls

For today's feast of the Nativity I turn to a recent striking sermon by Fr Michael Marsh of Interrupting the Silence. It deals with Joseph, one of the more overlooked figures in the New Testament (and my patron saint).


Joseph's daytime resolution to quietly dismiss Mary has given way to a night of dreaming, pondering, and wrestling. Joseph's view of Mary, her pregnancy, even himself has been enlarged and opened. He ha begun to see this situation, this scandalous pregnancy, through the eyes of faith rather than the stares of the villagers. Mary's story and the angel's words now speak louder than the villagers' voices...

So Joseph awoke in the morning and did what he had to do. He began emptying himself. He let go of fear. He let go of the villagers' voices and stares. He let go of his doubts and questions. He let go of his own reputation and standing in the community. He let go of his ideas and hopes for what his marriage to Mary could have been. He let go of the law and punishment. With each letting go Joseph emptied himself so that, by God's graces and mercy, he might become the womb that would protect, nourish, and provide security to Mary and her child.

He would be the womb that sheltered Mary and Jesus from Herod's rage and the slaughter of the innocents. He would be the womb that safely took Mary and Jesus to Egypt. He would be the womb that sustained their lives in that land. He would be the womb that brought them back to Nazareth when the time was right.

Great O Antiphons  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

Starting today and continuing through December 23, many Western churches use special seasonal antiphons for the Magnificat at celebrations of Vespers/Evening Prayer/Evensong. Known as the Great O Antiphons, they are drawn from passages in the Hebrew Scriptures traditionally interpreted by the Church as referring to the coming of the Messiah. They occur in liturgical texts as early as the ninth century and became solidly entrenched in monastic and parish worship during the middle ages.

A good reference to the Antiphons may be found here on the excellent Chantblog site, which includes links to recordings. (To avoid confusion, in England and some other places the Great O's begin on December 16, with the extra O Virgo Virginum used on December 23. I follow the practice of the American Episcopal Church).

The English text below comes from the sadly out-of-print The Prayer Book Office (Seabury Press 1988), an augmented version of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer which I have long used for my personal recitation of the Office. The antiphons are found on pp 131-132.


December 17. O Sapientia

O Wisdom, you came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and reach from one end of the earth to another, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.

December 18. O Adonai

O Adonai, and Leader of the house of Israel, you appeared in the bush to Moses in a flame of fire, and gave him the law on Sinai: Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

December 19. O Radix Jesse

O Root of Jesse, you stand as an ensign to the peoples; before you kings will shut their mouths, and nations bow in worship: Come and deliver us, and tarry not.

December 20. O Clavis David

O Key of David, and Scepter of the house of Israel, you open and no one can shut, you shut and no one can open: Come and bring the captives out of the prison house, those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.

December 21. O Oriens

O Dayspring, Brightness of the Light Eternal, and Sun of Righteousness: Come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.

December 22. O Rex Gentium

O King of the nations, and their Desire, you are the cornerstone who makes us both one: Come and save the creature whom you fashioned from clay.

December 23. O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Desire of all nations and their Salvation: Come and save us, O Lord our God.

John of the Cross  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

This great mystic, whose feast falls today, overcame not only family poverty, but also the indifference and even brutality of his own beloved church. Born as Juan de Yepes y Alvarez in 1542, his ancestors included both Moors and Jews. The relationship between his parents was a love match, but his father was disinherited for having married beneath his station. John's father died when he was only nine, and the family's economic situation became dire. Somehow he managed to get a good classical education at a Jesuit school and was accepted into the Carmelite order at age twenty. He earned a theology degree from the famed University of Salamanca and was ordained to the priesthood. But the Carmelites of that time had grown lax, and John, strongly drawn to a life of austerity and contemplative prayer, considered transferring to the Carthusians. At this juncture he met Teresa of Avila, who had recently begun the reform movement known as the Discalced Carmelites. He immediately came under her sway and became leader of the male reformed Carmelites. However, the reform met stiff resistance from both the "business as usual" Carmelites and the larger Roman Catholic church in Spain. It took many years of conflict for the Discalced order to gain official ecclesiastical recognition. At one point, John was imprisoned for ten months in an unreformed Carmelite monastery. He was kept in a windowless closet measuring six by ten feet, and ritually flogged in the refectory in the presence of the other monks three times a week. He did have access to pen and paper and wrote down the lyrical poems for which he is famous; he had originally composed them in his head as a way of enduring his torture. The drawing of Jesus crucified (shown above), which would eventually inspire Dali's famous painting, is somewhat later but was clearly inspired by this very literal "dark night" in John's life.

I wish to share one of his poems, "Dark Night". It is found on pp 711-712 of what is possibly still the definitive English edition of his writings, The Collected Works of St John of the Cross, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD, and Otilio Rodriguez, OCD (Washington DC, Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1979).


The Dark Night

One dark night,
Fired with love's urgent longings
--Ah, the sheer grace!--
I went out unseen,
My house being now all stilled;

In darkness, and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised,
--Ah, the sheer grace!--
In darkness and concealment,
My house being now all stilled;

On that glad night,
In secret, for no one saw me,
Nor did I look at anything,
With no other light or guide,
Than the one that burned in my heart;

This guided me
More surely than the light of noon
To where he waited for me
--Him I knew so well--
In a place where no one else appeared.

O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
The Lover with His beloved,
Transforming the beloved in her Lover.

Upon my flowering breast
Which I kept wholly for Him alone,
There He lay sleeping,
And I caressing Him
There in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

When the breeze blew from the turret
Parting His hair,
He wounded my neck
With his gentle hand,
Suspending all my senses.

I abandoned and forgot myself,
Laying my face on my Beloved;
All things ceased; I went out from myself,
Leaving my cares
Forgotten among the lilies.

Merton and Sophia  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

On today's commemoration of Thomas Merton we look at a passage from Hagia Sophia, a long prose poem he completed in the spring of 1961. References to "Sophia" occur in the Wisdom books of the Hebrew Scriptures and also crop up frequently in the patristic literature and other writings of the Christian East. Intellectually, it is a very slippery concept but has often been used to label God's "feminine aspect".

At this stage in Merton's life he was trying to acknowledge more fully his own feminine side. Several years earlier he had a vivid dream in which he encountered a young Jewish girl whose name was Proverb. It is clear from journal entries that he regarded this young woman as a personification of Wisdom or Sophia. About a year later he was visiting his friend, the artist Victor Hammer, when he noticed an unfinished drawing (reproduced above). Hammer had begun the project as a Madonna and Child, but became stuck when he no longer knew who the female figure placing the crown on the young male was. Without hesitation, Merton said, "She is Hagia Sophia, Holy Wisdom, who crowns Christ."

The excerpt from the poem is found on pp 258-259 of Merton and Hesychasm (Bernadette Dieker and Jonathan Montaldo, eds, Fons Vitae 2003). Pp 234-254 contain a very informative explanatory essay by Susan McCaslin.


Sophia, the feminine child, is playing in the world, obvious and unseen, playing at all times before the Creator. Her delights are to be with the children of men. She is their sister. The core of life that exists in all things is tenderness, mercy, virginity, the Light, the Life considered as passive, as received, as given, as taken, as inexhaustibly renewed by the Gift of God. Sophia is Gift, is Spirit, Donum Dei. She is God-given and God Himself as Gift. God as all, and God reduced to Nothing: inexhaustible nothingness. Exinanivit semetipsum. Humility as the source of unfailing light.

Hagia Sophia in all things is the Divine Life reflected in them, considered as a spontaneous participation, as their invitation to the Wedding Feast.

Sophia is God's sharing of Himself with creatures. His outpouring, and the Love by which He is given, and known, held and loved.

She is in all things like the air receiving the sunlight. In her they prosper. In her they glorify God. In her they rejoice to reflect Him. In her they are united with Him. She is the union between them. She is the Love that unites them. She is life as communion, life as thanksgiving, life as praise, life as festival, life as glory.

Because she receives perfectly there is in her no stain. She is love without blemish, and gratitude without self-complacency. All things praise her by being themselves and by sharing in the Wedding Feast. She is the Bride and the Feast and the Wedding. The feminine principle in the world is the inexhaustible source of creative realization of the Father's glory. She is His manifestation in radiant splendor! But she remains unseen, glimpsed only by a few. Sometimes there are none who know her at all.