The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Last weekend we finished Chris Matthews’s book, Tip and the Gipper and we began reading Rebecca Skloot’s fascinating book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

I’m already familiar with this text as we teach it in the new Humanities program, Conversatio.  It is the first time that I recall a text other than Scripture or the Rule of Saint Benedict being read both in Humanities and for monastery table reading.

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Best Selling Authors

My apologies for not keeping the table reading information up-to-date.  After the pope’s letter Evangelii Gaudium, we read Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s Killing Jesus.  We are currently reading Chris Matthews’s Tip and the Gipper:  When Politics Worked.

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Series of Solemnities

This year in Lent we will have occasion to celebrate three liturgical solemnities in the space of eight days.  Solemnities trump other feast days in the liturgical calendar and are typically anticipated the evening before with a celebration of First Vespers.  On March 19 (tomorrow) we celebrate the Solemnity of St. Joseph, on March 21 we in the Benedictine monastic world will celebrate the Solemnity of St. Benedict, and next week on March 25 with the whole church we will celebrate the Solemnity of the Annunciation.

All but liturgy geeks should stop reading now.

As I said earlier each solemnity is anticipated with a First Vespers.  For example, we already celebrated the First Vespers for St. Joseph earlier this evening.  And each solemnity of course has vespers celebrated the day of, known as Second Vespers.  At the abbey these solemn vespers are sung with more celebration than usual, with the celebrant vested in a cope and the altar being incensed during the singing of the Magnificat.  So with three solemnities, that makes for six celebrations of solemn vespers.  Unusually, as the 18th of March falls on a Tuesday, the weekend perfectly falls on the only two days without a solemn vespers, that is March 22 and 23.  Here, however, we always celebrate the second Vespers of Sunday with the appropriate vestments and incense at the Benediction which follows.  So that takes care of the 23rd.  We will not have a celebrated vespers on Saturday evening (we will rather simply sing it), but on Saturday evenings we do have a celebrated vigils at 7:30pm, this year for the Third Sunday of Lent (violet vestments but no incense).

So if you are keeping track, this year unusually we will be having a celebrated Office (either Vespers or Vigils) on eight consecutive evenings, smack in the middle of Lent, beginning this evening.  This has not happened in years.

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Breaking the Back of Winter

We are all familiar with the Groundhog Day tradition, but the monks have another tradition about the end of winter, associated with the feast day of St. Benedict’s twin sister, St. Scholastica.  That feast day is today, February 10.

February 10 is seen as the day that the hard part of the winter has ended, and that while there may be snowstorms to come, the accumulated snow will not last long.  In Manchester, some evidence of the truth of this is that the average daily high reaches several degrees above freezing around this date (36 degrees Fahrenheit on 2/10).  And the link is made stronger, with the church singing the beautiful antiphon from the second chapter of the Song of Songs at both morning prayer and mass:

Arise, my friend, my beautiful one and come!

For see the winter is past, the rains are over and gone (2:10-11).


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Raphael Pfisterer, OSB

Today is the anniversary of the death of Father Raphael Pfisterer, OSB, monk and priest of Saint Anselm Abbey.  Born in Bavaria in 1877, he professed vows as a Benedictine in 1896, and was later a voting member of the election chapter that elected Abbot Bertrand Dolan as the first abbot of Saint Anselm Abbey in 1927.  He was well known for his skills and artistry as a painter.  He died on February 5, 1942.

Father Raphael Pfisterer (seated) directs the painting of the ceiling of the Chapel

Father Raphael Pfisterer (seated) directs the painting of the ceiling of the Chapel

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Evangelii Gaudium

Earlier today we finished The Presidents Club by Gibbs and Duffy and began Pope Francis’s recent apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, “The Joy of the Gospel.”

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The Catholic Writer Today

Dana Gioia has an interesting piece in First Things entitled “The Catholic Writer Today” where he ventures to describe a Catholic worldview that a writer might manifest:

“Catholic writers tend to see humanity struggling in a fallen world.  They combine a longing for grace and redemption with a deep sense of human imperfection and sin.  Evil exists, but the physical world is not evil.  Nature is sacramental, shimmering with signs of sacred things.  Indeed, all reality is mysteriously charged with the invisible presence of God.  Catholics perceive suffering as redemptive, at least when borne in emulation of Christ’s passion and death.  Catholics also generally take the long view of things – looking back to the time of Christ and the Caesars while also gazing forward toward eternity…  Catholicism is also intrinsically communal, a notion that goes far beyond sitting at mass with the local congregation, extending to a mystical sense of continuity between the living and the dead.  Finally, there is a habit of spiritual self-scrutiny and moral examination of conscience – one source of soi-disant Catholic guilt.”

Gioia is an Anselmian as he received an honorary doctorate from Saint Anselm’s in 2006.  On that occasion he gave one of the finest commencement addresses I have heard at the college.  Those of you there that day may remember that he not only urged us on to adopt a self-assigned task in life, but he also read not one but two poems of Robert Frost’s.

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