I was rather charmed by the news from Vatican City on January 17th, the feast of Saint Anthony Abbot. While the talking heads sat around waiting for announcements about papal appointments and doctrinal dicta, people had gathered in Saint Peter’s Square to celebrate something not even remotely connected to the interests of the reporters. This Saint Anthony is the patron and protector of animals, and an ecumenical menagerie had gathered in the Bernini Colonnade, creating for six hours what one announcer termed a “farm in the city.”
No description can ever be complete, but I assume that there was more there than the customary cavalcade of horses. The Vatican announcement included on the guest list an array of cows, goats, rabbits, sheep and chickens. I’m guessing that they also welcomed ducks and llamas; but I can only wonder whether the pigs were invited. My sense is that under the benevolent gaze of Pope Francis no domestic animal was deliberately excluded. But given Vatican politics, who’s to say for sure?
You can imagine what fun it was for the children of Rome to wander through this farm in the middle of town. By contrast, I’m not so sure that pious pilgrims who had saved for years for this were entirely edified. After all, some of us already see stuff like this at state fairs across America. Imagine shelling out money for a pilgrimage to Rome, and then have to step gingerly between cow pies as you enter Saint Peter’s. On the other hand, that’s what it must have been like during the Middle Ages.
That said, it was not the animals alone that stirred my imagination. It was also the patron of the animals who piqued my curiosity. How in the world does a 4th-century Egyptian monk become the occasion for an annual assembly of farm animals at the Vatican? Good question, and I’m not sure I’ve got an adequate answer.
Given that it was the feast of Saint Anthony Abbot, you could probably make a better case for a congress of monks and nuns in the square, rather than animals. After all, that might be more appropriate, considering Anthony’s personal history. In the course of his 100+ years he witnessed the remaking of the Mediterranean world. In a time of religious persecution Anthony had turned his back on the world to become a hermit in the Egyptian desert. Later he returned to society, planning to be a martyr for his faith. But alas, he was too late. In his absence Egypt had become largely Christian, and even the emperor in Rome had converted. Lacking someone to put him to death for his faith, Anthony instead turned to serving prisoners and the poor.
Saint Athanasius, the patriarch of Alexandria, recounts this in his biography of Anthony. His text took off in popularity, and it circulated widely in the east and the west. For centuries it inspired men and women to leave all and to embrace the monastic way of life. Not surprisingly, Anthony ever since has been revered as one of the founders of the monastic movement. From there it’s an easy jump across 1,700 years to a herd of farm animals who have gathered in Rome in his memory. And if you can figure out the thread of logic that connects those two points, be sure and write.
What really intrigues me, however, is a cultural and spiritual influence that has almost entirely evaporated in the west. In my years of museum and church visits, I’ve noticed pieces of western art that have centered on a great many eastern holy men and women. But if you took a poll of average American Christians today, most would not have a clue about the identity of saints like Anthony of Egypt, Dorothea of Gaza, Mary of Egypt and Catherine of Alexandria. Yet, not five hundred years ago these figures were staples of the religious and spiritual landscape of western Europeans. As an abundance of western art testifies, these easterners at one time captivated the imaginations of Europeans, even if these saints had never set foot on the soil of Europe. Clearly that is no longer the case.
I, along with many, regret the demise of the ties that once bound east and west together in spiritual vitality. Of course this awareness of the east had its roots in the Bible. It was reinforced by the adventures of people like Egeria, who travelled from Spain to Egypt and the Holy Land in the late 4th century. Her diary sparked a veritable industry based on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Though the number of pilgrims has waxed and waned through the centuries, it still goes on. But for medieval pilgrims who retraced her steps to Egypt, to the Holy Land and to places like Syria, it was like a visit to Oz. These sites were the heartland of Christianity, and the saints there were larger than life. No wonder that Europeans latched onto them for physical protection and spiritual inspiration.
Not so today. We scarcely know who these people were, and it’s our loss. It’s also our loss that we’ve let slip the links with the places where they lived and died. It’s led to a spiritual disorientation on our part, and it no longer surprises me when people think that the Bible was written in English, and that it foretells events that would be fulfilled in places like Kansas centuries later. With a tip of the hat to the wonderful people of Kansas, the Bible was not written specifically with them in mind, nor even about our entire country. It was about all of God’s people.
Given all that, it’s important that we never lose sight of our debt to the eastern churches and their fascinating saints. It’s important that we appreciate the efforts of Popes Benedict and Francis, as well as so many others, to work to solve the various crises in Syria and in the Middle East. And it’s important that we cherish the spiritual gifts that we can receive from our brothers and sisters in the East. If it takes a gathering of cows and goats and chickens in Saint Peter’s Square to start the ball rolling, then all the better.
On January 17th it was not the first time that God has used animals to communicate something important. This time the message may be more important than ever. Given our bent toward a materialistic worldview, Saints Anthony and Dorothea and Catherine may very well have some spiritual insights that can save us from ourselves.
+On January 14th I was in New York and met with Ambassador Robert Shafer, the ambassador of the Order of Malta at the United Nations.
+On January 15th fire pretty much destroyed the paint shop at Saint John’s . It was a spectacular event, which began in the attic of the shop while the monks were at evening prayer. The blaze ruined a lot of furniture that had been produced in the abbey woodworking shop, as well as the lids of two pianos from the music department. The latter had suffered water damage last summer. But the fire damage was not the finishing work they had had in mind. The building itself was constructed of brick in 1912 and stood in what we term the “industrial zone” of campus. Fortunately no one was injured. The fire departments from nearby Saint Joseph and Avon helped our own fire crew, but it was too late to save the building. For the photographs I owe a debt to Brother Nick Moe.
+Over the holidays I completed A. Scott Berg’s recent biography of Woodrow Wilson, entitled Wilson. I found it engaging, though the first chapters that narrate his years at Princeton and the later chapters on World War I were particularly interesting. The text dealing with his illness while in the White House describes something that could not possibly happen today: his wife Edith pretty much shielded the president from prying eyes and ran the government herself. I also found one of Wilson’s statements from his years as president of Princeton particularly apt: “If you want to make enemies, try to change something.”
+During my brief time in New York I was able to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it was easy to discover instances of western art that touched on eastern saints and sites. At the top of this post is a 16th-century panel of Saint Anthony Abbot, flanked by Saints Roch and Lucy. The 15th-century English stained glass includes windows that depict Saints Margaret of Antioch and Catherine of Alexandria; while the bust/reliquary presents Saint Catherine once again. Finally, the Spanish carving from ca. 1500 shows the flight into Egypt.