In Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey, the hero Ulysses on his way home from the Trojan War has to pass by a lovely island where the Sirens dwell. These beautiful sea-nymphs were known to lure sailors to their death by their sweet music. To avoid hearing their bewitching song, Ulysses orders his sailors to fill their ears with beeswax. With this ruse, his men successfully escape the fatal danger of the Sirens’ seductive song.
The Innocents Abroad, published in 1869, Mark Twain humorously narrates his travels thorough Europe and the Holy Land. He goes out of his way to praise the great hospitality that Catholic priests offered to any pilgrim traveling through 19th century Palestine. They readily welcomed all, whether they came “in rags or clad in purple.” Twain was pleasantly surprised by this, because, as he readily confesses, he had been “educated to enmity toward everything that is Catholic.” Enmity toward everything Catholic! Not a thing of the past.
In May 2008, Russia established
The Order of Parental Glory. This special recognition is awarded to parents who have seven or more children and provided for their physical, spiritual and moral development. When the seventh child is three years old, the entire family is invited to the Kremlin and honored for contributing to Russian society. Father Ioann Osyak Dean of Orthodox churches in Rostov-on-Don, and his wife, Nadezhda, were among the first to receive this award. They have 18 children. And four of their sons are priests. A fifth in the seminary!
The Berlin Museum houses two stone tablets found in the marketplace in the ancient Greek city of Priene (present day Western Turkey). The inscription on these tablets reads: “The birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him. From his birth, a new reckoning of time must begin.” The 19th century discovery of this inscription unlocks the political implications of Jesus’ humble birth in Bethlehem.
In 1995, to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, President Jimmy Carter, President Nelson Mandela, President Vaclav Havel, President Oscar Arias Sánchez, President Shimon Peres, and other world leaders met in Hiroshima, Japan along with scientists, physicians, Nobel Laureates, and business leaders. They came together in order to discuss a way forward in creating hope for society. They knew that the more wars are waged, the fiercer the battles, the greater the destruction and loss of human life. They did not want to see hope for the future snuffed out.
In 1223, St. Francis of Assisi created the very first Nativity crèche in the town of Greccio, Italy. He staged the birth of Jesus, using people to play the role of the biblical characters. His novel idea not only excited the imagination of believers, but it also inspired them and increased their devotion in celebrating Christmas. Within a few years, Pope Nicholas IV (the first Franciscan Pope) commissioned a permanent Nativity crèche to be set up in Rome in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Within a hundred years, every church in Italy had its own crèche.
Beneath the soil of every continent lie buried the ruins of fallen civilizations. The Sumerians, Akkadians, Mayans, Assyrians, Babylonians, Minoans, Romans: all of them, faded memories of past grandeur and glory. History records the collapse of at least 32 major civilizations that once thrived and prospered before our time.
The famous 4th century Greek philosopher Diogenes lived an extremely simple life even to the point of living inside a barrel. He was the archetype of the Cynics, a philosophical school that rejected wealth and promoted self-sufficiency as a means to contentment. One day, the philosopher Aristippus, who had won a place at the court of Dionysius of Syracuse, confronted Diogenes. He said to Diogenes, “If you would learn to compliment Dionysius, you would not have to live on lentils.” Diogenes replied, “But if you would only learn to live on lentils, you wouldn’t have to flatter Dionysius.”
Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher who lived four centuries before Christ, proposed the scientific theory of
horror vacui. Based on his observations, he concluded that nature fills every empty space with something, even if it is only air. In his works
Pantagruel, the Renaissance priest, doctor and scientist Rabelais popularized this idea with the phrase
Natura abhorret vacuum (“nature abhors a vacuum”).
Some days before All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2), Italians, like many other Europeans, begin visiting the graves of their deceased relatives. The cemeteries are crowded with people adorning the graves with fresh flowers and praying for the dead. In some places in Italy, there still survive other traditions that commemorate the departed.
One of the most famous figures of all English literature is the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Three times he appears in Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. He demands that his son settle accounts with his uncle who murdered the dead king. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Julius Caesar and Richard III, ghosts also appear.
On Oct. 7, 1571, Don Juan of Austria led a coalition of Christians against the Ottoman forces seeking to gain control of the Mediterranean. The Christian fleet was assembled together by the Republic of Venice and the Spanish Empire, along with the Papacy. In the Gulf of Patras near Corinth, Greece, the Christian and the Muslim forces engaged in the battle of Lepanto, one of the most important battles of history. On its outcome hung the fate of Europe. Would it remain Christian or would it become Muslim?
The “everyone-gets-an-award” syndrome has swept across America. Fifty years ago, a student had to work hard and achieve consistently good grades before receiving recognition for academic excellence. Today, for fear of damaging someone’s self-esteem, some schools will not grade below a “C.” One school even handed out honors awards alphabetically so that no student would feel slighted (cf. Michael Sigman, “When Everyone Gets a Trophy,” Huffington Post, June 18, 2012).
For centuries, the Church has faced the challenge of living up to the teachings of Jesus. As a result, she constantly looks to better the lives of the faithful and her own life as an institution. During the Second Vatican Council, the axiom Ecclesia semper reformanda (The Church must always be reformed) became the byword for Church renewal in the 20th century.
Throughout the world, the cross is the universal symbol of the Christian faith. But, for the first four centuries of Christianity, it was not. Christians were being persecuted and put to death for their faith. Crucifixion was only too real for them. Not until Constantine made Christianity legal did Christians begin to make use of the symbol of the cross as a sign and affirmation of their belief in Jesus who died and rose for our salvation.
On the Mediterranean coast, half way between modern Tel Aviv to the north and Haifa to the south, stand the ruins of Caesarea Maritima, the magnificent city that Herod the Great built between 22 and 10 B.C. Herod’s palace, built on a promontory jutting out into the sea, was an engineering marvel. The city’s 40-acre harbor could accommodate 300 ships. The city boasted a hippodrome as well as a theater with a seating capacity of 3,500.
In 1300 A.D., the wealthy merchant Enrico Scrovegni built a chapel adjacent to his palace in Padua. He then commissioned the Italian artist Giotto to decorate it with frescoes. In a series of frescoes, Giotto painted the vices and the virtues. In one of these, Giotto depicted
Charity as a woman.
Researchers claim that an average person needs less than 30 seconds to appraise someone at a first encounter. Even before the individual speaks, there is non-verbal communication. Body language such as crossed arms, dilated pupils, and forced smiles send a message. So does one’s clothing. In a day that places a high premium on communication and where even one’s appearance is crafted to evoke a certain response, clothes have become extremely meaningful.
At the very beginning of America’s fight for independence, Thomas Paine published his historic pamphlet Common Sense. In this highly incendiary work, he marshalled arguments to convince the members of the Thirteen Colonies to sever their union with England. He astutely noted that “Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America.” England, therefore, had no claim over the lives of all those in the colonies. Just common sense.