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Beginning Advent With Gabriel, Zechariah, and Mary

23 November 2023

Beginning Advent With Gabriel, Zechariah, & Mary

By Joey Belleza

The Gospel of Luke is notable for, among other things, its rather attentive narratives concerning the Blessed Virgin Mary during the infancy and youth of our Lord. The stories of the Annunciation, the Visitation to Elizabeth, the finding of Christ in the Temple, and the Nativity itself all manifest such detail that, as many scholars (including Pope Benedict XVI) have theorized, these accounts were likely given directly from the Blessed Mother to Saint Luke. The phrase “Mary pondered all these things and kept them in her heart,” repeated twice in Chapter 2 of Luke’s Gospel, suggests not only Luke’s voice interpolated into Mary’s recounting of her memories; it more importantly points to the same silent, faithful humility of the Lord’s handmaiden who believed the words of the archangel Gabriel.

Luke presents two parallel stories– two annunciations, in fact– in Chapter 1: the first is the annunciation of the coming of John the Baptist to Zechariah in the Temple, and the second is the Annunciation properly speaking, that is, the message of the angel to Mary. In both stories, Gabriel surprises the two respective interlocutors with surprising news: to Zechariah he announces the pregnancy of his elderly wife Elizabeth; to Mary he announces her role in the coming of the Messiah. In each case, the truth of the message is so strange that both must ask, “how can this be?” Elizabeth is elderly and Mary is a virgin; how can either be pregnant? This leads to another problem. Zechariah is struck dumb for his unbelief, but Mary’s question is met with a further explanation from the angel. Why is Gabriel more patient with Mary than with Zechariah?

One reason, we might suggest, turns on the fact that Zechariah is a priest, but Mary is a young girl. The former has given his life to the service of God in the Temple, a service which required profound study of the Law and Prophets. Certainly the appearance of the angel within the temple would be a terrifying sight, enough to fluster any man, but in comparison to a young girl from Nazareth, we can still say that Zechariah simply should have known better. Already faced with the extraordinary apparition of a divine messenger, he nevertheless protests the content of the message by appealing to its improbability. Note that Zechariah says, “my wife is advanced in years,” not “my wife has passed her childbearing years.” His own words are not an indication of impossibility, and the story of Abraham and Sarah, who conceived in old age, should have been proof enough for this educated priest that the angel’s message could and would be fulfilled. Mary, on the other hand, is faced with a situation of true natural impossibility. A virgin cannot conceive except by some divine power exceeding the power of natural generation, a power now explained to her by the angel. Her question is therefore one of mere natural reason, not true doubt. And when the divine reason is pronounced to her, she conforms her will to God’s and consents to participate in the Incarnation of Christ.

Notice also that the angel says that John would be filled with the Holy Spirit even before Zechariah’s objection, while the power of the Holy Spirit is explained to Mary only after her naturally reasonable question. It is perhaps this momentary doubt of the power of the Spirit–who is, in fact, truly God–that condemns Zechariah to temporary muteness. In this light, we might be able to understand Christ’s own words in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, where he mentions that “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” is the only unforgiveable sin. Zechariah certainly does not blaspheme, but his questioning of the Spirit who, as the Creed says, is “Lord and giver of life”, certainly did the priest no credit. Mary, on the other hand, is really given little information–far less than the poetic prophecy initially given to Zechariah in the Temple. But her trust in God and conformity to his will supplies for the limits of her human understanding.

As the season of Advent begins, the parallels and contrasts between the “two annunciations” might teach us something about trusting in God. With the benefit of 2000 years since the Incarnation, we are in many ways like Zechariah. We should know better. We already know that Christ came to us as a child, died as a man, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and now continues his work on earth through the Church and her Sacraments. But despite this enduring presence, we still have moments when we let our doubt and our merely natural ways of thinking overcome our confidence in the power of the Holy Spirit. And when we allow ourselves to fall into this doubt, we too fall “dumb” like Zechariah, closed off from the divine wisdom, struggling in vain to bring God down to our ways of thinking. Christ rebuked Peter for this very sin– “thinking as men think, not as God thinks”– when he prophesised his Passion and death. But the Blessed Virgin Mary excels all human creatures, for when she is pushed to the limits of her own understanding, she utters not a word of protest but a word of faith in the God who had already brought forth life in the wombs of Sarah and Elizabeth. And with her word of faith, the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. Let us look forward to the coming of Christ the Lord, Son of God and Son of Mary, with her same expectant faith.

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Advent & O Antiphons

23 November 2023

Advent & the O Antiphons

By Joey Belleza

As the Church begins a new liturgical year with the First Sunday of Advent, many parishes all over the English-speaking world will mark this change in through the singing of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” at Mass. But the origins of this beloved hymn arise from the ancient Church; the sixth century martyr Saint Boethius references these texts in his famous and final work Consolation of Philosophy (written as he awaited execution in 523 AD), meaning that these texts were already widely circulated in the fifth century or earlier. They did not yet take the form of a unified hymn, but in the form of seven separate antiphons which invoke Christ under seven different titles, asking Him to return again. These are the “O Antiphons,” so called because each one begins with the vocative ‘O’.

The sequence of O Antiphons is as follows: O Sapientia (O Wisdom), O Adonai (O Lord), O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse), O Clavis David (O Key of David), O Oriens (O Rising Sun), O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations), O Emmanuel. Traditionally, each of these was assigned respectively to the last seven days before Christmas, beginning on 17 December (O Sapientia) end ending on the 23 December (O Emmanuel). While the composer of the O Antiphons remains unknown, the author must have been highly literate with a poetic spirit; a feature of the O Antiphons considered together is that, when the first letter of each title is read in reverse order, an acrostic phrase is revealed: “ERO CRAS,” meaning “I will be there tomorrow.” Since the sequence ends on the evening of the 23rd, the anticipation of Christ’s arrival on Christmas Eve is subtly referenced in the antiphons. Furthermore, each antiphon makes use of several scriptural references. To give just a few examples, let us consider the first two antiphons, O Sapientia and O Adonai.

O Sapientia,
quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,
attingens a fine usque ad finem fortiter
suaviterque disponens omnia:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

“O Wisdom, who came forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end with strength and sweetly ordering all things: come to teach us the way of prudence.”

This antiphon references the following scriptural passages: “I came forth from the mouth of the Most High” (Sirach 24:3); “[Wisdom] reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well” (Wisdom 8:1); “Forsake childishness, and live, and walk by the ways of prudence” (Proverbs 9:6). 

O Adonai,
et dux domus Israel,
qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti
et ei in Sina legem dedisti:
veni ad redendum nos in brachio extento.

O Lord and chief of the House of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the flame of the burning bush and gave him the Law on Mount Sinai: come to redeem us with your outstretched arm.”

This antiphon references the following scriptural passages: “I came forth from the mouth of the Most High” (Sirach 24:3); “[Wisdom] reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well” (Wisdom 8:1); “Forsake childishness, and live, and walk by the ways of prudence” (Proverbs 9:6). 

This references the following passages: “I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty (El Shaddai), but by my name ‘The Lord’ (Adonai) I did not make myself known to them” (Exodus 6:2-3); “the chief over my people Israel” (2 Chronicles 6:5); “The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush” (Exodus 3:2); “These are the commandments that the Lord gave to Moses for the people of Israel on Mount Sinai” (Leviticus 27:34); “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm” (Exodus 6:6).

As we can see in these two examples, the anonymous author has done a wondrous job of recalling images from the Old Testament, and invoking them to link the coming of Christ with the saving acts of God under the covenant made with Abraham. This style of composition continues with the rest of the antiphons, showing how the events of salvation history given to Israel all find their fulfilment in the Incarnation of Christ.

But why are they not all sung at once, as when we sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” in English? Why are they assigned to different days?

The O Antiphons are special because of their original place in the liturgy; that is, they were the antiphons for the Magnificat, which is sung at Vespers each day. For the days 17-23 December, in recognition of the Marian character of the season, these antiphons which express hope for the coming of Christ were matched with Mary’s own prayer of expectation for her Son. Thus, the O Antiphons themselves assume a kind of Marian character at the moment in the liturgical year when the Church most eagerly anticipates the celebration of Christmas as well as the Second Coming of Christ. When we sing the O Antiphons as the Church intends, we too enter into the mode of hopeful expectation, as did the Blessed Virgin, that Christ will come once again into the world, “to teach us the way of prudence” and “to redeem us with an outstretched arm.”

To hear the O Antiphons as sung in the Church for centuries, including the Magnificat, see the video below by the Dominican Friars of Fribourg, Switzerland. All the antiphons are available on their Youtube channel.

For more about each O Antiphon, see our previous posts here: (1) O Sapientia, (2) O Adonai, (3) O Radix Jesse, (4) O Clavis David, (5) O Oriens, (6) O Rex Gentium, (7) O Emmanuel.

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The Catholic Origins of Halloween

20th October 2023

The Catholic Origins of Halloween

By Fr Augustine Thompson OP (originally written 1995)

We’ve all heard the allegations: “Halloween is a pagan rite dating back to some pre-Christian festival among the Celtic Druids that escaped Church suppression.” Even today modern pagans and witches continue to celebrate this ancient festival. If you let your kids go trick-or-treating, they will be worshiping the devil and pagan gods.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The origins of Halloween are, in fact, very Christian and rather American. Halloween falls on October 31 because of a pope, and its observances are the result of medieval Catholic piety. 

Halloween: Medieval Christians or Pagan Druids? 

It’s true that the ancient Celts of Ireland and Britain celebrated a minor festival on Oct. 31 — as they did on the last day of most other months of the year. However, Halloween falls on the last day of October because the Feast of All Saints or “All Hallows” falls on Nov. 1. The feast in honor of all the saints in heaven used to be celebrated on May 13, but Pope Gregory III (d. 741) moved it to Nov. 1, the dedication day of All Saints Chapel in St. Peter’s at Rome. Later, in the 840s, Pope Gregory IV commanded that All Saints be observed everywhere. And so the holy day spread to Ireland. The day before was the feast’s evening vigil, “All Hallows Even” or “Hallowe’en.” In those days, Halloween didn’t have any special significance for Christians or for long-dead Celtic pagans.

All Saints & All Souls 

In 998, St. Odilo, the abbot of the powerful monastery of Cluny in Southern France, added a celebration on 2 November prayer for the souls of all the faithful departed. This feast, called All Souls Day, spread from France to the rest of Europe. So now the Church had feasts for all those in heaven and all those in purgatory? What about those in the other place? It seems Irish Catholic peasants wondered about the unfortunate souls in hell. After all, if the souls in hell are left out when we celebrate those in heaven and purgatory, they might be unhappy enough to cause trouble. So it became customary to bang pots and pans on All Hallows Even to let the damned know they were not forgotten. Thus, in Ireland, at least, all the dead came to be remembered — even if the clergy were not terribly sympathetic to Halloween and never allowed All Damned Day into the Church calendar. 

Costumes and the Dance of Death 

But that still isn’t our celebration of Halloween. Our traditions on this holiday centers around dressing up in fanciful costumes, which isn’t Irish at all. Rather, this custom arose in France during the 14th and 15th centuries. Late medieval Europe was hit by repeated outbreaks of the bubonic plague — the Black Death — and she lost about half her population. It is not 

surprising that Catholics became more concerned about the afterlife. More Masses were said on All Souls’ Day, and artistic representations were devised to remind everyone of their own mortality. We know these representations as the “Dance Macabre” or “Dance of Death,” which was commonly painted on the walls of cemeteries and shows the devil leading a daisy chain of people — popes, kings, ladies, knights, monks, peasants, lepers, etc. — into the tomb. Sometimes the dance was presented on All Souls’ Day itself as a living tableau with people dressed up in the garb of various states of life. But the French dressed up on All Souls, not Halloween; and the Irish, who had Halloween, did not dress up. How the two became mingled probably happened first in the British colonies of North America during the 1700s when Irish and French Catholics began to intermarry. The Irish focus on hell gave the French masquerades an even more macabre twist.

Trick or Treat 

But, as every young ghoul knows, dressing up isn’t the point; the point is getting as many goodies as possible. Where on earth did “trick or treat” come in? “Trick or treat” is perhaps the oddest and most American addition to Halloween, and is the unwilling contribution of English Catholics. During the penal period of the 1500s to the 1700s in England, Catholics had no legal rights. They could not hold office and were subject to fines, jail and heavy taxes. It was a capital offense to say Mass, and hundreds of priests were martyred. Occasionally, English Catholics resisted, sometimes foolishly. One of the most foolish acts of resistance was a plot to blow up the Protestant King James I and his Parliament with gunpowder. This was supposed to trigger a Catholic uprising against their oppressors. 

The ill-conceived Gunpowder Plot was foiled on 5 November 1605, when the man guarding the gunpowder, a reckless convert named Guy Fawkes, was captured and arrested. He was hanged; the plot fizzled. 5 November, Guy Fawkes’ Day, became a great celebration in England, and so it remains. During the penal periods, bands of revelers would put on masks and visit local Catholics in the dead of night, demanding beer and cakes for their celebration: trick or treat! Guy Fawkes’ Day arrived in the American colonies with the first English settlers. But, by the time of the American Revolution, old King James and Guy Fawkes had pretty much been forgotten. Trick or treat, though, was too much fun to give up, so eventually it moved to 31 October, the day of the Irish-French masquerade. And in America, trick or treat wasn’t limited to Catholics. The mixture of various immigrant traditions we know as Halloween had become a fixture in the United States by the early 1800’s. To this day, it remains unknown in Europe, even in the countries from which some of the customs originated.

Why Black and Orange?

All Souls Day’s association with these colors are derived from aspects of the Requiem Mass, or Mass for the Dead, which is celebrated on All Souls’ Day as well as at funerals. In the traditional practice, the liturgical vestments of the clerics were black (and black still remains an option for Requiems in the post-Conciliar liturgy). Orange is derived from the candles of unbleached wax prescribed for the Requiem Mass; whereas the liturgy on other days normally made use of white, bleached candles, the unbleached wax of Requiem candles produced a sunset-like orange glow which quickly became associated with All Souls’ Day.

Witches and Jack-O-Lanterns 

But what about witches? Well, they are one of the last additions. The greeting card industry added them in the late 1800s. Halloween was already “ghoulish,” so why not give witches a place on greeting cards? The Halloween card failed (although it has seen a recent resurgence in popularity), but the witches stayed. So, too, in the late 1800s, ill-informed folklorists introduced the jack-o’-lantern. They thought that Halloween was druidic and pagan in origin. Lamps made from turnips (not pumpkins) had been part of ancient Celtic harvest festivals, so they were translated to the American Halloween celebration. The next time someone claims that Halloween is a cruel trick to lure your children into devil worship, I suggest you tell them the real origin of All Hallows Even and invite them to discover its Christian significance, along with the two greater and more important Catholic festivals that follow it. 

When Fr. Thompson first published this essay in 1995, the spiritual conditions of Western society were quite different than today. He asks that we include this addendum with his essay: Given the rise of occultism, and even Satanism, over the past twenty-five years, as well as the appropriation of Halloween by Neo-Paganism, I strongly urge parents to be vigilant and circumspect before allowing their children to become involved with Halloween activities not under their direct personal supervision. Indeed, I think parents might consider having their children dress up as heroes and heroines of our Faith instead of the usual witches and ghosts. There are plenty of martyr saints, such as St. Peter Martyr OP, whose iconography will delight those seeking a scary costume! 

The Very Rev. Augustine Thompson OP is a Dominican priest of the Province of the Most Holy Name (Western United States) currently serving as Praeses (President) of the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in Toronto, Canada. He is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, where he obtained his doctorate under the supervision of the groundbreaking scholar of late antiquity and biographer of Saint Augustine, Peter Brown. Father Augustine has enjoyed a distinguished academic career holding senior teaching positions at the University of Oregon and the University of Virginia (Charlottesville), as well as the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, California. A well-published medieval historian, his many books and articles include most notably: Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (Cornell University Press, 2012) and Cities of God: The Religion of the Italian Communes, 1125–1325 (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005). His latest book is Dominican Brothers: Conversi, Lay, and Cooperator Friars (New Priory Press, 2017).

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Saint Francis of Assisi

4th October 2023

Saint Francis of Assisi (Feast Day: 4 October)

Getting to know the real Poverello 

Francis of Assisi remains one of the most beloved saints of all time. His love for the natural world, for his fellow human beings, and for the poor and suffering Christ have gained for him a wide appeal among Christians and non-Christians alike. The current Pope’s selection of the regnal name “Francis” is one of the most obvious signs of the saint’s exalted place in the popular imagination. This enduring broad fascination with the Poverello (“little poor one”), however, has led to some misunderstandings of the man and consequent misappropriations of his legacy. From his death on 4 October 1226 to the present, many different groups—across society, inside the Church, and even among Franciscans—have sought to claim Francis as a mouthpiece for diverse, and even competing, viewpoints. 

Fortunately, recent scholarship on the earliest documents of Francis’s life have helped point the way toward a fresh portrait of the saint. A proper examination of these early sources depicts a man who is decidedly not, as Franco Zeffirelli’s famous 1972 film “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” would have it, a carefree nature mystic opposed to the Church and churchmen of his time. Neither was he a man suddenly bestowed, as if from on high, with a clear and detailed vision of Church reform, a project which he resolutely pursued until his death. Nor is he the man of popular hagiographical traditions exercising power over animals (unfortunately the story of the “Wolf of Gubbio” does not describe an historical event). Neither is he a total pacifist in the mold of contemporary anti-war movements, nor the author of the beloved “Peace Prayer “which often bears his name (“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…”). Nor is he a man who upheld total poverty as an abstract institutional ideal above all other concerns.

If these things popularly associated with Francis are taken away, what do we have left of this figure so deeply admired? The answer to this question is far more complex, far more fascinating, and arguably far more compelling than the man of the legendary accounts.

Ironically, one contemporary author who has contributed greatly to our understanding of early Franciscan sources is not a Franciscan friar but a priest of the Order of Preachers (i.e., the Dominicans). Fr Augustine Thompson OP’s book Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (Cornell University Press, 2012) sifts through the earliest sources and eyewitness accounts from those who knew Francis, not to mention Francis’s own oft-neglected letters, to show a portrait of the man who, in his simple desire to follow God as the least of his disciples, struggled with the burden of authority thrust upon him. Unlike Saint Dominic, who had begun his religious life as an educated canon regular, Francis (only ordained a deacon toward the end of his life) was not a skilled administrator. His numerous attempts to produce an acceptable Rule for his friars prove this fact, and the effects of Francis’s managerial shortcomings were manifested in the bitter struggles among Franciscan factions which arose after his death. 

Despite all these things—or perhaps because of them—Francis remains a saintly example for all who, despite their faults and failings, strive to follow the will of God. As his own writings show, he was a man of the Church, deeply devoted to her ministers, confident in the power of the sacraments—especially the Eucharist. In his Letter to the Faithful and the Letter to Clerics, he admonishes each group, exhorting them to hold the Body and Blood of Christ with the highest reverence. He reminds the faithful in no uncertain terms the grave threat to their souls if they unworthily receive Holy Communion, while also telling priests who fail to use precious vessels and clean altar linens for the distribution and reservation of the Blessed Sacrament that they must render an account before Christ himself on Judgment Day. 

This Francis, burning with love for Christ present in the Eucharist, is the same Francis who received the stigmata—the wounds of Christ—upon his own body. He is not a man with power over animals nor an indignant opponent of bishops and popes but a servant profoundly devoted to the ministers and sacraments of the Church. Beyond the tranquil, romantic portraits and clean plaster statues on so many bird baths, Fr Augustine Thompson brings to light a very pious yet conflicted—and thus very human—saint worthy of our imitation.

For more on the historical figure of Francis of Assisi, see the following video and article by Fr Augustine. 

VIDEOPoverty in the Church & Saint Francis of Assisi

ARTICLEA Quest for the Historical Francis

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Catholicism & Contemporary Culture: Recordings

Friday 4th August 2023

Catholicism & Contemporary Culture

What is Truth?

Dr Andrew Beards

Opening the Catholicism & Contemporary Culture course, Dr Andrew Beards examines how the Catholic and secular worldviews define truth, and the wider consequences of this for our society 

Click here to view a copy of the presentation.

Approximate running time: 50 minutes 

Truth in the Public Square

Dr Andrew Beards

In this second lecture, Dr Andrew Beards examines the difference between objective and subjective truth and asks where these worldviews have their origins.

Click here to view a copy of the presentation.

Approximate running time: 60 minutes

Faith & the Arts: Reflecting the True, the Good & the Beautiful

Dr Caroline Farey

Dr Caroline Farey discuses the foundations of objective truth, goodness, and beauty, and how we can learn to discover this in the arts. 

Click here to view a copy of the presentation

Approximate running time: 55 minutes


The New Atheists: Faith Without Reason

Dr Andrew Beards

In this fourth lecture, Dr Andrew Beards examines the routes of ‘New Atheism’, its decline, and how Catholics can deal with it through apologetics.

Click here to view a copy of the presentation.

Approximate running time: 60 minutes

Philosophical Foundations for Sacramentality

Dr Caroline Farey

In this lecture, Dr Caroline Farey discusses the theological and philosophical backdrop to sacramentality and how this relates to the wider world. 

Approximate running time: 55 minutes


The Church and the Eucharist: One Faith, One Body

Stefan Kaminski

Stefan Kaminski explains how the Catholic teaching on the Eucharist relates to the Church and her four marks.

Click here to view a copy of the presentation.

Approximate running time: 60 minutes

Societal Truth: Discerning the Common Good

Dr Andrew Beards

Dr Andrew Beards asks what are the principles of natural law and how can they guide society away from the pitfalls of postmodernity and subjectivity. 

Click here to view a copy of the presentation.

Approximate running time: 40 minutes

About the Faith & Reason series

The Faith & Reason series is made up of three courses that provide a systematic overview of the fundamental themes of the Catholic faith. At the same time, these are approached in the context of contemporary culture and thinking, in order to engage in a dialogue that is relevant today.

Head to our Faith & Reason page for more information

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Icon Writing: My journey from Syria to Byzantium

Friday 7th July 2023

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

Icon Writing: My journey from Syria to Byzantium

Schaher Rhomaei

Schaher Rhomaei shares how he began to explore the extraordinary art of ‘icon writing’ -and how icons can be a ‘visual Gospel’ to inspire a deeper and more profound faith.

My first memory of icons takes me back to my tender years at St John the Baptist Church; a small Byzantine Greek Melkite church in Ma’arouneh, which means ‘small cave’ in Aramaic. This mountainous suburb of Damascus is a place of natural biblical and spiritual beauty. It was Elijah’s last abode before ascending into Heaven.

From this place and time, I began a journey of reflected prayer through the beauty of icons: an encounter with the Divine. One icon that stands out for me in particular was a wooden panel depicting Our Lady tenderly holding her Son on her lap. Somehow, the aura of mystery surrounding this icon created a sacred space for contemplating the striking image of the humble Mother and the Saviour child, which remained with me throughout my childhood.

The word ‘Icon’ comes from the Ancient Greek (εἰκών/eikṓn) meaning ‘image or resemblance.’ The term was, in fact, coined by Plato, in relation to his theory of knowledge. According to the philosopher, real knowledge is to be found in the intelligible world of Ideas, which is reflected to some degree, as per a shadow, in the physical world. Likewise, in Christian art, the word “icon” has become synonymous with the depiction of divine subjects and the sacred figures of those in the heavenly world. Icons thus not only communicate a profound and sacred significance, but also create a powerful sense of prayerfulness.

Possible depiction of Jesus Tile from Dura-Europos excavations (Yale University Art Gallery)

Icons Hold Deep Spiritual Meaning

In the Eastern Church generally and the Syrian Church particularly, icons are an essential pillar of the Christian faith, holding deep spiritual meaning. They serve as windows through which one can approach the Creator, not only by praying and prostrating before Him. but also by seeking help or forgiveness. Indeed, the Eastern Church understands icons as a visual gospel, proclaiming in colours and images all that is uttered in words and written in syllables (cf. Council of Constantinople)

According to historians, Christian art originated and developed in Syria before this ancient, original, and spiritual artform was exported to Egypt and Mesopotamia, and then to the wider world. The journey from Syria to Egypt to
Byzantium gave birth to different styles of icons: ‘Syrian’ in Syria, ‘Coptic’ in Egypt and in Byzantium ‘the Byzantine art.’ The latter describes the process of creating icons as one of ‘writing’ rather than ‘painting’ – an iconographer is a ‘writer’ not a ‘painter’ – and we ‘read’ an icon rather than view or ‘see’ it. 

At Dura-Europos near the Euphrates River in the Syrian Desert lie two living ‘witnesses’ to early iconography. First, there is the baptismal room of a private house that became the first home church, with murals painted in 232-56 AD, decades before Emperor Constantine recognised Christianity. Then there is a synagogue dating from the third century, with brightly painted walls depicting famous scenes from the Old Testament. Although the artistry of Dura-Europos might seem simple in nature and battered due to age, fighting, destruction and the like, yet it is astounding in its beauty and depth. 

The location of Dura-Europos in modern-day Syria

Those depictions emerged from the early Christian imagination, from a faith alive with wonder. They give us a precious insight into the emotions and desires of those isolated faithful on their early journey. It was their way of reaching out to express their faith
with confidence. Their belief and trust in Christ were represented quite differently compared to that of, for example, the Christian art of the Renaissance, where great emphasis was placed on an aesthetic and grandiose depiction

Another possible depcition of Jesus from Dura-Europos

A Contemplative Experience

My journey into icon writing began during what seemed to be an eternal lockdown. This period of transition and discernment drew me deeper into exploring this extraordinary art. Initially, as part of a reflection on art and spirituality to celebrate Eastertide, I wrote my first icon, ‘Christ is the Light.’ Following that and whilst celebrating Pentecost, another icon followed: ‘Mary in the Cenacle.’ Both were written in a style that resembled that of the early Christians: simple and expressive. The aim was to understand the mystery of Christ and His Mother’s being as they reach out in love, keeping the light aflame in our hearts. I envisaged them as radiant, humble, and modestly dressed with an expression of intensity and invitation. Out of this contemplative experience, two images conceived and set in darkness emerged, of such humanity and yet of such majesty.

In the following year, I completed more icons using oil, but it was not until this year that I embarked on a new journey: that of exploring the Byzantine style using pigments and egg tempera. Drawn by the spirituality of Master Vladislav Andrejev at the Prosopon School of Iconology in the US, I took part in an icon writing course at the Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst, facilitated by his Andrejev’s son, Nikita, who is a master in his own right. The theme of the workshop was ‘Our Lady of Tenderness.’ I found the whole experience a complex piece of utmost beauty and delicacy.

To save time, the wooden panels were already prepared. The first stage was applying the gold leaf onto the halos, then the initial underpaint tone, which covers the faces and other parts of the body, and the application of a dark yellow/green pigment called Sankir, thus creating the shadow areas. Here, shadows are not of a physical source as such, but rather ethereal. Similarly, the light areas in an icon indicate the divine nature and not a reflection of the sun. Stage by stage, the image builds as other layers are applied, always lighter than the one before. Patience and thoroughness are required throughout the whole process; from laying the gold leaf, getting the right measurements of pigment and egg tempera, to the right brush strokes. Each step is crucial and has its own logic, as well as consequences if not done in a methodical way. I must admit that, unlike my previous work, this experience was not merely painting, but building.

Taking A Leap Of Faith

We were fifteen people attending this course, some writing their first, second, or even seventh icon. It was my first workshop and although quite apprehensive about the process and outcome, I took a leap of faith and dived into exploring this wonderful art form, allowing the Holy Spirit to guide and inspire me as I went along. It was touching to see how some of the other experienced writers, aside from the tutor, mentored the beginners in their struggles. They gently offered advice and even helped to salvage areas that at times seemed almost like a battlefield.

My piece was no exception. I faced a mess right at the start because I applied too much clay, which is used as an adhesive for gold leaf. It was too wet and this meant that the leaf would not stick to the halos and kept peeling. My thanks go to David, a fellow participant who kindly rectified the catastrophe at once. His meticulous application of gold leaf and the right pressure did wonders and was like a sign of light and hope that helped me to go on.

In contemplating this recent experience, three profound insights surfaced for me. The first relates to how the harmony and symmetry of composition must be visible everywhere in the icon, from the poise of the figures to the flow of drapery. These carefully-drawn and harmonious straight lines come to life as flowing lines of Divine energy. Secondly, the role of luminosity in an icon is suggestive of the Holy Spirit within the subject, constantly renewing and creating life. And lastly, the words of my little cousin still echo in my head today, as she sat next to me in that very same church of St John the Baptist, and whispered with a slight giggle and pure innocence: “This is you and your mother….” Indeed, Mary’s presence in icons conveys a unique sense of motherhood. She is a source of inspiration, hope, comfort, and support to those in need of her help.

Mary in the Cenacle


For the Christian Heritage Centre’s iconography course, visit

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Igor Sikorsky’s Search for Faith

2nd June 2023

Where is God? Igor Sikorsky's Search for Faith

A spiritually unconscious or dead man would be in the position of a rushing air­liner with an unconscious or dead crew in the control cabin – Igor Sikorsky

“БОГА НЕТ!” (There is no God!) proudly proclaims a Soviet poster from 1975. Above, a cosmonaut looks out on the heavens, across which are countless galaxies, towering over the backward churches. It is a sentiment that now forms a dominant part of public discourse across the West, where religious belief is ridiculed and presented as incompatible with reason. But for the Russian scientist Igor Sikorsky, science had far from disapproved existence of God. 

Born in 1889, Sikorsky took inspiration from the Wright brothers’ first flight to enter the infant aviation industry. He established a successful manufacturing business in Russia, before fleeing to the US in the aftermath of the 1917 Revolution. He spent the rest of his life in America developing what is now a multi-billion dollar company.

Throughout his life, Sikorsky was awestruck by the scientific accomplishments made during the 20th century . “Aeronautics”, he argued, “was neither a science nor an industry. It was a miracle”. The aviation industry was still in its infancy when he began manufacturing planes: it required a true leap of faith to make his dreams possible. When asked by a journalist if he had seen God whilst ascending to the sky, Sikorsky replied that he had not seen Him, but he had felt God’s presence. Today, such comments might seem backwards. But as a pioneering aeronautical engineer, he could hardly be described as such.

Sikorsky is credited with developing the first commercially successful helicopter

Science can illustrate the great wonders of the universe. However, Sikorsky was acutely aware that some of the accomplishments done in the name of science were deeply troubling. This did not come from science, but it was a symptom of a culture that was jettisoning Christianity. The consequences, Sikorsky warned, would prove fatal, arguing that a man without faith was like the unconscious pilot of a plane. Although technically flying, he would be hurtling towards destruction.

"There is no God!" - a Soviet poster from 1971

This comment was made against the backdrop of the Second World War and under the cloud of the Atomic Age, a time where mass destruction loomed large. However, these comments ring true today in our postmodern age. Despite all the scientific accomplishments of the West, a moral crisis of being and purpose runs through the nerves of our society. Human reason is capable of great triumphs, but it becomes distorted when society has no place for faith.

Remedying this is not easy. However, the scientist warned against entirely ditching scientific enquiry and reason. Instead, he proposed that humanity must rediscover the power of “spiritual wisdom”, putting reason not as the end of human existence, but as a means to even greater truth. “The very first men to find and accept Christ were wealthy alien scientist astronomers,” wrote Sikorsky. The point is clear: science can point us towards God.

This brings us back to the beginning. Both the Atheist and the Christian look into space and see stars, planets, and galaxies; but arrive at opposite conclusions. The Atheist sees the stars and the earth, but that is all. They are the end of all existence. Sikorsky looked upon the same sky but saw something different. Reason led him to see that the universe was created by God, full of wonder and beauty. Just like the three astronomers visiting the infant Christ, he found that reason is no barrier to faith.

If you are interested in learning more about the place of faith in contemporary society, please visit our Faith & Reason course page. 

Note, this post draws on the following article: A Scientist’s Orthodox Faith’, The British Association of Iconographers Review, Issue 71, 2023

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The Cross of Good Hope

7th April, 2023

The Cross of Good Hope

At the start of the Easter Triduum, the folly of the Cross stands as testament to the power of God

Christ’s Crucifixion brings us to the brink of the central tenet of our faith. It is the final test of the claims made by the person of Jesus. At the cross, there are only two options left: either death swallows up Jesus or death is finally defeated. Of the mocking crowds with their high priests and Jesus’ few, faithful followers, only one or the other group can be vindicated. All the expectations, controversies, passion and hopes that surfaced as a result of the teachings and miracles of Jesus are concentrated in this moment of truth. Vengeance, sorrow, hope, disillusion, belief, unbelief, all meet at the Cross, each waiting to be justified or dispersed.

However, what takes place on the Cross and beyond is not immediately accessible to those who stood at its foot some two thousand years ago, as indeed it remains a profound mystery for every Christian since. It is an event that moves beyond human word and comprehension. “Every word is silenced before this… the Father’s hour, when the eternal triune plan is executed,” says von Balthasar.

It is precisely the Word, the only necessary Word, that speaks in the action that begins on the Cross.  The Cross will verify, through the glory of the Resurrection, the fullest revelation of God in His incarnate Word; and in doing so, it will stand as the final word of God’s love for humanity, in the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world.

The Crucifixion, by Andrea Mantegna

Yet in this action, the Word nailed to the Cross utters seven, spoken words, as recorded across the four Gospels. Spoken by the Son, these words draw in all time and embrace it within the history of faith. On the one hand, they recall and fulfil the Father’s Word as revealed in the Old Testament, words spoken in earlier centuries, but overlooked and forgotten. On the other, they promise the new life in the Spirit that the Church will offer mankind for the duration of this world, and the future glory of eternal life.

Thus, to use Benedict XVI’s language, the word of God and event become deeply interwoven at the Cross. In the eternal nature of the Word, human events are joined to a greater and timeless mystery. As Christ hangs on the Cross, the Christian sees the culmination of the history of faith, the master plan enacted by the Holy Trinity in and through the vagaries of human history. The Christian sees on the Cross the Logos that gave creation itself its very logic, that overlooked the fall of our first parents, that was promised in ever-increasing relief over millennia of covenants and prophecies.

More than this, in the Son of Man lifted up on the Cross, the Christian sees the gateway to the end of all history, as intended by God: the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. The Cross unlocks the Divine promise that will close all earthly history and bring the history of faith to fulfilment in the new Jerusalem. Through whatever events Providence allows this world to come to its end, our personal stories will continue through the veil of that apocalypse and into the Light that will reveal their true significance. Through the Cross, shines that Light.

By Stefan Kaminski, Director

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Advent with St Anthony: Perseverance

22nd December, 2022

Advent With St Anthony: Perseverance

In this final Advent reflection, Gabriel Stirling looks at what St Anthony the Great can teach us about preserving in the faith.

‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see?’ – Gospel of St Matthew, 11.7

Advent will soon be over and Christmas will begin. As the Gloria returns to Mass, Christians across the globe will gather to celebrate the birth of our Saviour. 

At the same time, the change of the season brings to an end this series of blogs. 

We conclude with the death of St Anthony of Egypt. Aged 105 and having spent most of his life in the seclusion of the mountains, he left his monastery for one last time, heading to spend eternity with God.

Before his death, St Anthony spoke to his fellow monks, calling them to prepare “zealously” in hope of the return of Our Lord. Warning of “the treachery of the demons”, he nonetheless reassures them to “Fear them not, but rather ever breathe Christ, and trust Him.” 

St Anthony spoke from harsh experience. During the past few weeks, these blogs have delved into the spiritual torment which the monk endured at the hands of the Devil. In this 15th century Italian painting, St Anthony is shown being tempted by the promise of Gold. But trusting in God, St Anthony was delivered from the pit of sin.

As Christmas begins and passes, it might be easy to forget the lessons learned from Advent. But through the changing seasons, the message shown in the Holy Scriptures and by the lives of the Saints remains the same. The looming sense of preparation that defines Advent has value throughout our life.

Owing to this is the fact that we are in dire need of preparation. The threat of sin is one which we all face, a point graphically illustrated by St Anthony during the last few weeks. As St John puts it candidly in his First Epistle, “if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.”

Yet we are not without hope. At Christmas, we celebrate the Nativity of the Incarnate Word and the hope which he brought into the world. This hope remains with us in the Church, which as the bride of Christ, prepares sinners to spend eternity with God. Her sacraments – and the Eucharist in particular – provide us with real hope that we might be reconciled to God.

Saint Anthony the Abbot Tempted by a Heap of Gold, Master of Osservanza

Therefore, the message of Advent is not a seasonal fixture that comes and goes like the latest TikTok trend. Our life forms its own extended Advent, a sense of constant preparation. This might seem a tall order. The world – and indeed our own lives – can feel irretrievably broken. But as one popular hymn reminds us, Christ offers us real hope of everlasting peace:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.

Wishing you all a warm and Holy Christmas.


A Theology of the Family

22nd December 2022

A Theology of the Family: The Strange Case of the Bare Feet

Stefan Kaminski
Perugino - Adoration of he Magi
Perugino's Adoration of the Magi, in Citta' delle Pieve, Italy

Perugino’s Adoration of the Magi in Citta’ delle Pieve, Italy (as opposed to the one in Perugia) contains a curious detail which is easily overlooked at first glance. In the dim light of the small Oratory that houses this painting, the vibrant colours of the principal figures in the foreground pop out and create an almost 3D effect. The observer’s gaze is drawn across the breadth of the painting by the various garments of the ten or so persons that flank the child Jesus in the centre. One is conscious of the depth and activity that stretches away behind this first row of figures, but the colours readily draw the eye back to the primary scene. It is not easy for the eye to then drop down to the protagonists’ feet, which are very much where you expect them to be. By virtue of their sensibly-coloured footwear, they do not demand any particular attention: that is, until one notices that the feet of some of these important people are bare.

The feet that have most obviously exposed themselves to the elements are those of Mary and Joseph. Perhaps a nod to their humble state, in view of the bare-footed shepherds that hover in the background, and in contrast to the calced extremities of their noble visitors? The homogeneity of the garments across this front row of figures would suggest not. Closer examination reveals that one more of these principal figures is also bare-footed: the bearded gentlemen at the far right. Why should he not have worn some sandals on this visit?

If, by some astute observation (or perhaps at the prompt of a helpful guide), one compares this man with the discalced Holy Family, and then particularly with the figure of Joseph, one starts to notice some strange similarities: a perfect parallel in bodily posture, from the angle of the head down to the distribution of weight and position of the feet; an identical facial profile and features; a reflection of each other’s expression. The only distinguishing feature, other than the colour of the garments, is that the man’s beard is much fuller and longer, and is distinctly double-stranded.

The only clue that can be claimed with certainty is that this particular beard is clearly used by Perugino in other of his paintings on the figure of God the Father. If we are to suppose, then, that Perugino did indeed intend this figure as the Heavenly Father, one can also note the gold girdle around his waist – typically depicting sovereignty or royalty – and the celestial blue of his undergarment – a classical indicator of a spiritual being.

This striking relation between the figures of Joseph and God the Father immediately calls to mind St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (3:14-15). The painting appears to express precisely this: Jesus’ foster-faster, Joseph, is shadowed by the real Father, who manifests His presence discreetly in the background and at the same time somehow lends authority to the figure of Joseph. Joseph’s persona thus takes on a fuller sense when one realises that his fatherhood, though temporal, is exercised in the name of the Father.

Joseph, who plays such a strong, yet silent role before and through the infancy of Jesus, quietly disappears from the Gospels as the Christ emerges into the maturity of His humanity and the fullness of His divine mission. Yet his presence is a reminder that God the Son was not born into some extraordinary situation, even if His Incarnation was an extraordinary event. The Divine Saviour was inserted into the ordinary and regular pattern of the nuclear family – father and mother – surrounded by their extended family and relations.

Given the non-biological nature of Joseph’s fatherhood, one might ask whether there is any deeper meaning to his role than simply that of fostering the child and providing stability and support to the mother. Perugino, if we have interpreted his painting correctly, seems to very much think there is. And indeed, more authoritative support comes from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Their long genealogies trace Jesus’ ancestry through each generation from Adam through to Joseph, passing through the lineage of Abraham and his Israelite descendants, encompassing kings and prostitutes alike.

Fans of Tolkien will be all-too-familiar with those long pages in The Lord of the Rings that are preoccupied with tracing the lineage of Frodo Baggins, Aragorn or one of the Dwarves. Indeed, ancestry is an absolutely critical part of all Tolkien’s writings that tell the story of his fantasy world, beginning with its creation, as told in the Silmarillion, through several epochs until the ‘redemption’ of Middle-Earth with the defeat of Sauron and the destruction of the Ring of Power.

In his mythical vision of reality, Tolkien merely reflects what is divinely and humanly true; namely, that the human person is not an isolated ego, a self-defined construct, or a morally-autonomous being. The human person has an origin and a destiny, is given their existence and context, and is called to act for the concrete good of his neighbours.

Thus, at a legal and social level, Joseph’s importance is in providing Jesus with a crucial part of His human ‘identity’, through which He is inserted into a chain of parents and progeny. This is deliberately traced right back to its very origins, pointing us back to the Father, after whom every family is named. It similarly evokes future progeny, the generation of which is the primary purpose of the family. In the case of Christ, that progeny is potentially every person throughout human history, who through faith in Him, are all called as adopted children of the same Father.

The Church’s vision of the human family is thus grounded in the nuclear family for a good reason: the family is the context and means intended by God for the flourishing of humanity. God Himself assumed humanity in this context, and whilst He ‘only’ adopted an earthly father, the figure of Joseph speaks powerfully of the more important and fundamental reality that is true of every family. This is the same truth that St Paul is at pains to point out in his letter to the Ephesians, and has been recognised since the early Church Fathers: Fatherhood, properly speaking, is a reality that only belongs to God. God is Father of all because He is creator of all. In the same way that the very existence of every being depends on the supreme Existence, the fatherhood (as expressed in the complementary, generative power of both sexes) of the human person only and ever has any meaning as a reflection of and cooperation with the Divine Fatherhood.

Inserted into the specific strand of Joseph’s ancestry, the Holy Family raises the stakes for all human families. No longer is the family simply the font of earthly life, but it is now joined to the Divine project of Redemption. The human family not only remains a co-operator in the mystery of creation (to paraphrase St John Paul II), participating with God in the creation of human persons: it is now an embodiment of the mystical marriage between Christ and His Church, and its primary task is now to generate children for the Kingdom of God. As Perugino depicts so beautifully, human fatherhood is a task that is given by God, and answerable for to Him alone.