January 8, 2015, Thursday — Leaving

“The glory of God is man alive; but the life of man is the vision of God.” —Irenaeus of Lyons, in the territory of France, c. 180 A.D.

“Shekinah (Hebrew: שכינה‎), is the English transliteration of a Hebrew noun meaning dwelling or settling, and denotes the dwelling or settling of the Divine Presence of God… The Shekinah in the New Testament is commonly equated to the presence or indwelling of the Spirit of the Lord (generally referred to as the Holy Spirit, or Spirit of Christ) in the believer, drawing parallels to the presence of God in Solomon’s Temple… Where references are made to the Shekinah as manifestations of the glory of the Lord associated with his presence, Christians find numerous occurrences in the New Testament in both literal (as in Luke 2:9 which refers to the “glory of the Lord” shining on the shepherds at Jesus’ birth)[12] as well as spiritual forms (as in John 17:22, where Jesus speaks to God of giving the “glory” that God gave to him to the people). —Wikipedia, Shekinah

As I stayed in Manoppello, with the Capuchin friars, in their residence, at the shrine of the Holy Face of Manoppello, in central Italy, during the first few days of 2015, I reflected at some length on certain questions of concern to me since my childhood.

As I stood in the presence of what is called by the friars the “Holy Face,” and watched other pilgrims climb up the steps and pause to look at the face, and sometimes kneel, and remain for some minutes in an attitude of veneration, I asked myself what it would mean if it were truly so: if this face were the face of Jesus, lord of history, Son of Man, risen carpenter…

These reflections continued during lunch on Epiphany, the day we commemorate the coming of the Three Wise Men to see the Child — the magi, representing all the wisdom of the ancient world, and all the hope of natural man.

They continued as my friend from the Vatican arrived in Manoppello.

We met, providentially, it seemed to me, just in front of the sanctuary, just in front of the Holy Face.

And as we listened together to Brother Paolo explain to a group of pilgrims how this small piece of fabric perfectly coincides with the image on the Shroud of Turin, and with the image on the cloth of Oviedo in Spain, I marveled at the eloquence and passion of Brother Paolo, as he spoke of the Holy Face. He spoke of the Holy Face as being more than any possible object of mere art (some still see it solely as that). He spoke of it as being as a “true icon” — “vera icona” or “Veronica” — and some actually maintain that the image in Manoppello is the true “Veil of Veronica” (more on that at another time). He spoke of looking at the face of Christ on the veil as if it were a way to open a window onto eternity, or some other world than this, similar to the wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’s tales of Narnia, which allowed them to travel from Earth to Narnia, and back… “You should videotape Father Paolo as he is speaking,” I told Father Carmine. “You could play the video for pilgrims. He captures the essence of the matter in what he says.”

As we all ate our Epiphany dinner (my Vatican friend joined us in the refectory), we spoke about many things, including the possibility of a wider war in Ukraine and in the East, and the prophecy of Fatima, and the Consecration of Russia to the Blessed Virgin, and about ways to seek a just peace, and about what writers, and Vatican officials, and friars, and Popes, might possibly do to “build bridges” in a time of broken channels of communication, and we did agree that cultural initiatives, initiatives involving music, often can provide a kind of privileged “space” within which new possibilities for communication, and understanding, and even agreement, can emerge and flourish. And that was all good, as the little colored Christmas lights twinkled over the manger scene at the end of the room, with the panel of videocameras showing six different views of the interior and exterior of the santuary, which was closed now, changing every few seconds.

“We’ll be in touch by email,” my guest said to me. “Give me a week or two, and if you don’t hear from me, write to me.” Then he departed.

Soon after, I too left Manoppello. I drove down out of the mountains, and the setting sun set the white, snow-capped peaks alight with an orange-gold fire, and the shadows lengthened past Aquila, and then, as night fell, the lights of the city of Rome twinkled in front of me in the vast distance.

At the moment I left Manoppello, on Epiphany, Januray 6, 2015, I looked back at the Holy Face, and wondered if there might be a final word for my journey.

The words of Irenaeus came to me, as if in a whisper. Standing at the door of the shrine, looking back over my shoulder, I heard them again: “The glory of God is man alive, but the life of man is the vision of God.”

“What do these words really mean?” I thought…

Well, that the face of a living man shows forth the glory of God, I said to myself.

That, in the eyes of another, eyes which are a window to the soul, we see to that mystery within the other, which is in the image and likeness of God… whether an infant looking at his mother, or a father into the eyes of his newborn son, or a son into the eyes of his newborn borther… In this sense, my reflection continued, in every face, we may see the face that we long always to find, the very face of God.

And so, I seemed to hear within me, it isn’t necessary that you stay here, in this one place, to contemplate this face, as mysterious and moving as it is, but you may go anywhere and everywhere, travel to the ends of the earth, or travel home to your own house, even to the places of your childhood, and find there faces which also contain this “glory,” which is the end of all our seeking.

And as I heard the massive door close behind me, and turned the key on to start the car, and listened to the wheels roll over the pavement, and as the late afternoon sun poured itself out over the hills of Manoppello and across the mountains of central Italy, I felt a certain sense of peace, on this day of Epiphany. I was not leaving anything behind, but carrying everything with…

My last memory was one of my first: the first night I arrived, Father Carmine had put his hands out on top of the radiator, touching the heated iron, before going into Vespers. I had looked at him quizzically, as I had just arrived. “In winter, my hands get a little cold,” he had said to me. He was warming his fingers so that he would be able to moves the little colored strings in the pages of the Breviary, in order to recite the Psalms of that evening.

And thus I left the good friars. They have their work to do, I mine.

The glory of God is the presence of God. Wherever God is, there is the glory of His presence. What is “glory”? Old films express it with swells of music which rise to a crescendo. We use music, rather than words, to articulate the meaning of this glory. But the essential quality of this “glory,” or the Shekinah, is holiness.

Not light, not energy, not power, not even knowledge or wisdom, but… holiness. It is for this reason that we refer to the Spirit of the Lord as the “Holy Spirit” — the identity, the name of this spirit, is “holy.”

And the characteristic consequence of holiness, of being holy, is to not be subject to alteration or change, to not be subject to time. To simply be. To be, not to become. To be eternally. And so, not to be subject to death. To be alive.

Holiness is the fundamental ontological category.

For Irenaeus, in a passage cited so often by Pope Benedict XVI, this “glory” is present in “man alive,” in living men. Living men “contain” or, more accurately, “are” the “glory” of God.

But for men to live, for men to “be” this glory, as the second half of the quotation from Irenaeus says, they must possess or have or be animated by “the vision of God.” They therefore have their life — which, in so far as they possess and live this life, constitutes them as “the glory” (one might dare to say the Shekinah, the dwelling place, or temple) of God in this world — only in so far as they can glimpse God, see God, contemplate God. Without this glimpse, this sight, this vision, they cannot live.

And then, all the lights go out…

(to be continued)

The Anthropological Question

“You live in a deranged age, more deranged than usual, because, in spite of great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.” —Walker Percy (1916-1990), American Catholic convert and writer, author of The Message in the Bottle and Lost in the Cosmos

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