November 28, 2015

The Sainte Baume

The Sainte Baume (click to enlarge)
Photo courtesy of  BACKYARDPROVENCE

Last night while attending a conference on medieval studies, I heard the speaker touching on a subject I happen to be quite fond of, the Sainte Baume, which is a sanctuary in Southern France, in Provence. I first stumbled upon that place almost by chance—and suddenly fell in love with it—several years ago. Since then I went back a couple of times, and always enjoyed the magic of the location.

Most of the charm of the Sainte Baume comes from an old legend or tradition, according to which Mary Magdalene, her brother Lazarus, her sister Martha, Martha’s maid Martilla, Maximinus, one of the Lord’s seventy-two disciples, and Cedonius, expelled by persecutions from the Holy Land, traversed the Mediterranean Sea in a frail boat and landed at the place called Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, near Arles. Then they traveled by land to Massilia (Marseille). Here is how Jacobus de Voragine tells the story:

Then fourteen years after the passion and ascension of the Lord, long after the Jews had killed Stephen and expelled the rest of the disciples from Judean territory, the disciples went off to spread the word of the Lord in the various regions inhabited by the Gentiles. At that time blessed Maximinus, one of the Lord’s seventy-two disciples, was with the apostles, and it was to his care that Peter had entrusted Mary Magdalene. When the disciples went their separate ways, the blessed Maximinus, Mary Magdalene, her brother Lazarus, her sister Martha, Martha’s maid Martilla, and the blessed Cedonius, who had been blind from his birth but was cured by the Lord together with many other Christians, were put on board ship by unbelievers and set adrift on the sea without pilot so that they should be all drowned. But by God’s will they reached Marseilles. There they found nobody prepared to take them in, so they sheltered under the portico of a shrine where the people of the region worshipped. When the blessed Mary Magdalene saw the people streaming to the shrine to sacrifice to their idols, she got up, quite calmly, and with a serene expression on her face and with measured words, began to turn them from their idol worship and with great single-mindedness to preach the Gospel of Christ. Everyone there admired her for her beauty, for her eloquence and for her sweet manner of speaking. And it is no wonder that the lips which had pressed kisses so loving and so tender on our Lord’s feet should breathe the perfume of the word of God more copiously than others.
[The Golden Legend, Jacobus de Voragine]

The Sainte Baume
(Click to enlarge)
After this, Mary Magdalene is said to have retired to a cave on a hill by Marseille, La Sainte-Baume (“Holy Cave”, baumo in Provençal), where she spent the last thirty years of her life.

The route to the Sainte Baume is very beautiful and scenic. Leaving the nice village of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, the road winds its way up the hill. Pilgrims and visitors must park their car in the Hostellerie de La Sainte Baume, which is run by the Dominican sisters. From the old Hostellerie, which stands alone in a wooded valley, a path leads to the austere cliff and the sanctuary carved in the mountain.

As I already touched on, every detail of the sanctuary, starting from the physical characteristics of the site itself, has its own magic, but there are no words, or pictures, or videos that can capture the essence and beauty of the place. You just have to go there!

Ah, I almost forgot—when I first went there it was the feast day of St. Mary Magdalene, July 22, as I realized once I was there and unexpectedly got involved in the celebrations...

November 25, 2015

Holden Caulfield's Favorite Books

What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.

~ J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, 1951.

I couldn't agree more with this quote, which is deeply true in its naivete. Of course, like any great quote, it should be adapted to the current situation—the 50s were the age of telephone, the current age is that of the Internet and the social media...

November 16, 2015

A Christian Story in the Spirit of C.S. Lewis

The story is set in a dystopian future in which humans have built walls and barricades to protect themselves from a world that has become a very dangerous place… A centuries-old wall stands over 30 meters high and 5 meters thick. It encircles the entire village, called the Wee, and keeps the demons out. Of course, at the same time, it locks people in. But one day the demons—not mere metaphors, but flesh and blood living entities—break through the village walls. A restless and somewhat impetuous sixteen-year-old girl named Fox Fire joins Cross Academy to be trained for the fight against the evil monsters. Things get more and more complicated when Fox Fire’s best friend KI—who had his parents killed by the demons several years before—becomes he himself demon possessed.

Pleasantly and colorfully written, Cross Academy is recommended if you like dark epic fantasy. But this book is more complex (structurally and thematically) than you’d think. In fact it is written by an American committed and devout Christian, Valicity Garris, in the spirit of C.S. Lewis. It’s a Christian story, though an unconventional one, which reminds us that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).

November 10, 2015

A Powerful and Mesmerizing Story

This book was definitely worth my time and I am glad to have read it! Not that I’m a big reader of the fantasy fiction genre—even though perhaps Blood and Soul, by Allen G. Bagby, transcends its genre and seeks to understand the basis of human existence, and that’s also why I enjoyed the read so much, and once started reading I couldn’t put it down. Fascinating and complex characters, sparkling dialog, and intriguing plots combine to create a powerful and mesmerizing story that I highly recommend to all lovers of fantasy and high adventure.

Set in a world similar to our Middle Ages, in a land called Agontica (a full-color map is available for download from the Author’s web-site), the story is a Hero’s Journey—a physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual one—with all the archetypal, symbolic elements: the Hero (the bastard Prince Ledarrin), the Antagonist (Mathagel), the Mentor, etc.

Simply put, the story has all the ingredients of a blockbuster epic: loyalty, intrigue, betrayal, war, survival, magic… At the same time, though, it is more than that: in this book you will also find history, theology, ethics, and politics. Which is something that adds a lot of value to the book and encourages the reader to think differently about life and the issues we deal with.

November 8, 2015

A Perfect Dystopia

In an Author’s note at the end of the book, Peter Meredith tells us that A Perfect America was inspired by two things. The first is the 2012 election—“a bit of a shock to many conservatives,” he recalls: “It seemed that a perfect storm had aligned against the president—terrible economic news, bad job reports four years running, skyrocketing debt, and poor performance in foreign policy—made it seem like the republican nominee would be a shoe-in.” But no, Romney lost to Obama. “It made me wonder,” Meredith continues, “if Romney couldn’t win in this situation when could another Republican ever win and what would happen if they never won again? I took the thought and ran with it. Though with history as a primer it didn't take much imagination. We don’t have to look past the Bolshevik revolution to see that a culture could be utterly destroyed and replaced with something almost exactly like what is described in A Perfect America. Scary indeed.“ Yep, scary! A perfect dystopia. Take a look at the Timeline of A Perfect State:

“2016— Defense of Marriage Act declared unconstitutional
2018—President offers blanket pardon to all illegal aliens. “No human is illegal!”
2019— Full Implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care act
2020— Cost of Patient Protection and Affordable Care act greater than expected. Top Marginal Tax rate increased to 49%.Healthy Americans Law—among other things the law prohibits use of Transfats and restricts the amount of sugar in canned beverages and cereal.”

And so on, in a crescendo of liberal madness and Orwellian lunacy…, until

“2074— Private ownership of business declared illegal
2077— Freedom of Speech(Including freedom of the Press) is curtailed, determined to be of ―less importance‖ than the protection of the State and the Party.
2078—Fourth and fifth Amendments declared unconstitutional.
2080—Census shows steady population decline and continued negative population growth. New Population Laws are passed—cash rewards are given per child.
2081— Religion is declared illegal. Worship of God is considered subversive.
2082— The Greater Constitution of America ratified—this mainly dictates the rights of the State and the obligations of the citizenry.”

After all, as the good old Abe Lincoln once said “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

The second source of inspiration , says Meredith, is the Bible. But let’s postpone it for a while… The story is the following: in the year 2122, in the perfect state of America—in which the government owns everything and is everything, and religion, capitalism, homosexuality, and freedom of speech are illegal—Phil Tarsus is an Inquisitor, a man who is used to inflicting pain and causing terror, who makes a living rooting out and executing those people who have been charged with treason against the sanctity of the State. Yet, Stephen, a self-confessed gay sentenced to death by stoning, challenges him with strange, archaic concepts such as redemption and God…

Did you get it now? Phil Tarsus is nothing else but Saul of Tarsus, the Apostle who tortured and persecuted Christians—and was witness to the stoning of Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr—until, on the road to Damascus, he experienced a vision of Jesus that forever changed his life. The 2012 election and the Bible. “Merge the two halves of the story and A Perfect America is born,” says Meredith.

All in all, therefore, the book provides the reader with both a warning and a sense of hope—there is always a way of escape. Even from the worst of all possible dystopias.

Thought-provoking, fast paced and well-plotted, this book is something I highly recommend for any lover of thriller novels and political fiction. Needless to say, a must-read for Conservatives and Libertarians.

November 7, 2015

Quote of the Day

At what point, then, is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, If it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

~ Abraham Lincoln, Address before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, January 27, 1838

November 5, 2015

Nehemiah: Becoming a Godly Leader -- A Review

Yet another great addition to The Bible Teacher’s Guide series by Gregory Brown. This time it’s the book of the Book of Nehemiah’s turn to be analyzed and studied in depth.

The Book of Nehemiah is somehow the second part of the Book of Ezra. Not by chance, as Brown himself reminds us, both the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) and the Latin Vulgate made them one book, calling Nehemiah “Second Ezra.” The two books tell us about the time when the Jews returned from Babylonia to their own country called Judah. The Book of Ezra—a priest and scribe—is about the first two groups of Jews who returned to Judah, and how they built their temple again. The Book of Nehemiah tells the story of a man whose name was Nehemiah—a high official at the Persian court, sent by God in order to carry out a special task, namely to help the Jews to build the walls round Jerusalem again, despite the opposition of Israel’s enemies. In turn, Artaxerxes, the king of Persia, appointed him as governor of Judah. The most important part of both Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s work, however, was showing the entire city that it should follow all of God’s laws.

Nehemiah was “a man of great integrity who feared the Lord,” and “a devout person of prayer.” He also had “a strong awareness of God’s sovereignty over all events,” as Brown points out in the Introduction. But mostly, Nehemiah and Ezra were “great leaders who God called to work together.” The first handled the practical aspects, the latter handled the spiritual. “As we consider them,” writes Brown, “we cannot but remember other great leaders who God called to work together throughout the narrative of Scripture. God called Moses and Aaron, David and Nathan, Hezekiah and Isaiah, Paul and Barnabas…”

This leads us to focus on the “background” and the “purpose” of the book of Nehemiah: God’s faithfulness to his promises—despite the fact that the people of Israel had disobeyed him and were exiled from the land, God remained faithful to his covenant with Abraham.

Among the major themes in the Book of Nehemiah are opposition (as soon as Nehemiah came to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls, those who were profiting from Israel’s misfortune began to antagonize and to mock both Nehemiah and the Israelites), prayer (as Nehemiah prays eleven times throughout the book), and leadership (Nehemiah motivated the Israelites to rebuild the wall that had been down for over 140 years, he “encouraged them to be faithful in the midst of persecution from without and turmoil from within”).

Along with the previous volumes of the series, Nehemiah: Becoming a Godly Leader is concise but thorough, scholarly enough for pastors but also simply as an expositional devotional, accessible to everyday Christians with thought-provoking and discussion-provoking questions. This book will be a very useful resource for all those committed to knowing, communicating, teaching, and living out the Word of God in every aspect of life—as men and women, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, workers and community leaders. Highly recommended.