Letters to Peregrinus #44 - On What He Learned and from Whom

Annunciation (1655-1660) Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1618-1682)[1],
in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
Dear Peregrinus (31st Sunday in Ordinary Time),

Happy November to you. I wish you peace and insight on this Sunday, when at Mass the Readings we hear are ones that I love. My pondering and study of them occupied me all morning.

As I studied the verses surrounding those few verses selected for today’s First Reading, I was particularly affected, rendered thoughtful, by these lines:

Wisdom[2] 11:
 24 For you love all things that are
 and loathe nothing that you have made;
 for you would not fashion what you hate.q
25 How could a thing remain, unless you willed it;
or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you?r
26 But you spare all things, because they are yours,
O Ruler and Lover of souls,s
12:1 for your imperishable spirit is in all things!a [3]

Verse 24 reminds me how God first “learned” (see Genesis 8:21[4]) that human beings are “fallen” [5], each one a complex mash-up of glory, mess, vulnerability, and longing. Yet God loathes nothing that He has made. “He made us / we belong to Him[6] as the Psalmist exclaims, and not without surprise, he exclaims it. Our faith grasps this profound truth: that we belong to Him – the “Ruler and Lover of souls”, Who would not fashion what He hated. We are His. That is our “glory,” and as St. Paul would say, our “boast.”

Yet as fallen as we are, humans can and do surprise God. We are the “Unexpected Ones.” [7]
Consider the particularly luminous example of Mary of Nazareth, whose unexpected moment of greatness is lovingly painted by Murillo (see above) – his tender contemplation of Luke 1:26-38. Isn’t it the case that we “see” Mary better here if we perceive her as a young girl who genuinely surprised God?

Mary, the Unexpected One, welcomed into herself, and for all of us, the Long-Expected One –
Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.
 Israel's strength and consolation,
hope of all the earth thou art;
dear desire of every nation,
joy of every longing heart.
But, Peregrinus, look with me at Murillo’s painting. Three things caught my attention.
(1) The Holy Spirit flies into the very center of the painting. We might have thought that this scene was about Mary, about her unexpected “Yes” more than it was about the Spirit, or about the Archangel Gabriel for that matter. Murillo “argues” (paints) that the Annunciation is about what the Spirit (i.e., what the whole Trinity) is doing, inviting and enabling … but without ever minimizing the significance and beauty of Mary’s cooperation.[9] God’s way with us is to have us feel that when we are co-operating with Him, we are far better than actually we are. Without being condescending God causes us to feel that each one of us who co-operates with Him is really more significant than He is (!) in the accomplishment of the good. As St. Augustine wrote (I wish I could find where), “God is so good that He credits His gifts in us as our merits.
(2) The Holy Spirit appears to my eye to be coming forward from deep Time, as if She[10] began Her progression from way back there in that white Light of the divine Trinity.
Genesis 1: In the abeginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was bwithout form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, cLet there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided †the light from the darkness. 5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.[11]

From that first burst of Light, from that first sonic big bang of energy, the Holy Spirit had been advancing through Time, propelled towards an appointment with a young girl in Nazareth of Galilee.

And, (3) the particular moment that Murillo has chosen to paint is that narrated at verse 35 - 35 And the angel said to her in reply, “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.[12] Do you see how Gabriel gestures towards the Holy Spirit with his left hand? Mary, then, has not yet said “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.[13] In other words, Murillo paints the moment – a minute or the seconds before - the Old Covenant became[14] the New One!
These are my three observations. Will you be sure to write to me your observations about the painting?
Peregrinus, I am thinking that Mary must have told this story to her son many times when he was a boy, because many times I imagine Jesus asking it of her:

“Yes, Jesus. What can I do for you?”
“Mom, could you tell me again the story about that day when the Archangel came to visit you?”

When Jesus was a boy, He would have loved to hear about that Archangel (kids want to hear about Angels, especially if they are really strong and beautiful). He would have loved to watch His mom’s face and to hear her voice as she narrated again their favorite story.

But later on, into his teen years,[15] and then on into his responsible adulthood, I think that what struck Jesus most about his mom’s story was her courage, her extraordinary willingness to let God have her, unreservedly – “May it be done to me according to Your word.

A couple of weeks ago, I understood something about this favorite story of theirs, of Jesus and His mom, and about its significance much later in His life. I was reminded of the help that a story from early on in our lives turns out to be for a moment of crisis through which we are compelled to pass much later on. We are given the grace to remember it, when our other religious stories (Tradition) and our personal stories have proven insufficient in depth to help us.

And so it was with Jesus. The connection I noticed was here.

Matthew 26 36 Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane,* and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee,* and began to feel sorrow and distress. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch with me.” 39 He advanced a little and fell prostrate in prayer, saying, “My Father,* if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.40 When he returned to his disciples he found them asleep. He said to Peter, “So you could not keep watch with me for one hour? 41 Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test.* The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 42 *v Withdrawing a second time, he prayed again, “My Father, if it is not possible that this cup pass without my drinking it, your will be done!43 Then he returned once more and found them asleep, for they could not keep their eyes open. 44 He left them and withdrew again and prayed a third time, saying the same thing again. 45 Then he returned to his disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Behold, the hour is at hand when the Son of Man is to be handed over to sinners. 46 Get up, let us go. Look, my betrayer is at hand.” [16]

We are left with little doubt in Matthew’s account[17] that Jesus felt that night stripped of power and of wake-full friends. Perhaps dread[18] is the right word to describe what Jesus was feeling that night. At an earlier time of dread, help was sent Him - 11 Then the devil left him and, behold, angels came and ministered to him[19]. Not this time. Help was not sent Him. Instead there came through the dark those who were hunting Him, carrying lights, lest they lose the Light of the world in the Darkness that was thickly gathering around them.

Jesus spoke, and intimately spoke, with His Father in that Garden. We listen; we are grateful to hear Him say at verse 39, “My Father….” We would have expected His Father to speak to His Son there. Surely there, that night! But the Father was silent.

And here is the “unexpected” thing.

Jesus heard that night not His Father, but someone else. He heard again, as if she were right there, the voice of His mom telling Him their favorite story. Jesus remembered what His mom had done as a little girl when she herself felt dread in the presence of an Archangel, perceiving as she did, on the other side of her possible decision, an unknown and dangerous future:

Luke 138 Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word. [20]

And now, after all of the years since that beginning place in Nazareth, Jesus remembered that. Suddenly He knew what to do.

Matthew 26 39 He advanced a little and fell prostrate in prayer, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.”[21]

Jesus learned, and we all know from whom He learned it.[22]

Remember me, old friend, as we all find our way through November. Unusually, this year we will get all the way through November before Advent begins – Advent commences this year on December 1st. I am looking forward to the visit of my two “big” sisters coming at the mid-point of this month – an important day for me on November 14th, and then for all of us Ganzes on the 10th anniversary of the death of our mom on November 15th, for whose sake we will gather to honor her memory still burning brightly in each of us.
A Card for my Mommy, created by Ricky Ganz, 9-years old in 1964[23]
God bless and keep us, old friend, and thank you for believing in me,



[1] Benezit Dictionary of Artists, at https://doi.org/10.1093/benz/9780199773787.article.B00127910 - Bartolomé Esteban Murillo was the son of Gaspar Esteban Murillo, a mechanic, and María Pérez. He was orphaned at the age of ten and brought up by his maternal uncle, who placed him as an apprentice with his relative Juan del Castillo, a painter in the Italian manner. He provided Murillo with a sound artistic training. Murillo began by painting genre pieces, often taking beggar children as his subject and painting them with intense realism and a powerful expressiveness that showed great promise; many of these works were exported to the Spanish colonies. He is believed to have spent his whole life in Seville…. In 1648 he married Doña Beatriz de Cabrera y Sotomayor who, tradition has it, became the model for his paintings of the Virgin. In these works Murillo depicts the Virgin in a particular manner, conveying an ideal of purity, calm and serenity; her face is balanced, her hair abundant and harmonious, falling over the shoulders, her gaze profound and thoughtful.”

[2] Michael Kolarcik, “The Book of Wisdom,” in New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander E. Keck, vol. 5 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994–2004) – “The relationship of the book of Wisdom to Philo suggests the Roman period of Alexandria to be the likely time frame for the book’s composition (30 bce–40 ce)…. This combination of a thorough familiarity with and respect for the best in Hellenism that the Jewish community manifested, as well as the tension between the Greeks and the Jewish community, makes Alexandria the likely site for the composition of the book of Wisdom…. The work can best be understood as a poetic apologetic for the Jewish faith in trying times when tensions within and without the Jewish community were straining the boundaries of Jewish identity. The end result is an aesthetic work in the sapiential tradition that displays unusual breadth of argumentation to probe the very origins of faith and to unmask the flight to unbelief.”

Ps 145:9.

Is 41:4.

Wis 12:16; Is 63:9.

Wis 1:7.

[3] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Wis 11:24–12:1.

[4] Genesis 8 - 21 When the Lord smelled the sweet odor, the Lord said to himself: Never again will I curse the ground because of human beings, since the desires of the human heart are evil from youth; nor will I ever again strike down every living being, as I have done.”

[5] One of the most fascinating themes in ancient Greek, and then early Christian, philosophies, especially those of the Platonic mode of thinking, is that of the “descended” and “undescended” (human) soul. (The geometry of such systems find that the Good is “up” and that what is Evil is “down.”) These philosophies, and then the Christian theologies affected by them, recognized that human beings had “fallen”, were not what our Source had intended. It is fascinating to see how widely attested was this conviction about human beings, that we were not now what we first were. How compellingly interesting it is that so many great thinkers knew that we human beings were not as we were made to be, and so were not as we ought to be.
But then the question arose, and for centuries was argued about, as to the degree of fallenness we human beings sustained, and whether each person or group was “as fallen” as other persons or groups. What a mess of ill-thinking this spawned and even now continues into our own day. The great sin in all of this happened when we decided that assessing the degree of fallenness of each person was ours to settle. As St. Paul so famously and dramatically struggled to understand in Romans 7 and 8, we have all “infinitely” fallen when judged in relation to our divinely infinite Exemplar, in relation to Jesus Christ, before Whom Thomas cried out, “My Lord and my God!”. Settling the “degree” of fallenness of ourselves and of others is exposed as a subterfuge perpetrated by people who feel satisfied that they are less fallen than others. Whole nations have been destroyed by those who are of this conviction. See Luke 18:9-14, where we read: 11 The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector.”

[6] Psalm 100:3 – “Know that the Lord is God, he made us, we belong to him, we are his people, the flock he shepherds.”

[7] But then this “unexpected” nature of human beings means, and more importantly means, that human beings can often be unexpectedly good, worthy, compassionate, creative, and loving! I have gotten the impression that Jesus was surprised often by the unexpected goodness of human beings. Today’s Gospel is about a tax collector named Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), and about how genuinely surprised Jesus was by who Zacchaeus revealed himself to be. Our “unexpected” nature is not only about us being unexpectedly bad!

[8] From the famous hymn of that extraordinary talent, Charles Wesley (1707-1788), “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” (1744). He wrote it as an Advent hymn, on the porch of which season we are in November. About Charles Wesley the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed writes: “He was the most gifted and indefatigable of English hymnwriters (over 5,000 hymns in all); like his brother [John] he understood the importance of hymns for missionary, devotional, and instructional purposes.”

[9] This is something so significant about God, the way God is towards/with us. When we co-operate with God, God never expects us to imagine ourselves as His employees, as His minions or drones. This surely asks of us much more thought than we give it. For example, at John 15 - 15 “I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.” And this is why St. Ignatius of Loyola, when speaking of Jesuit obedience, always speaks of him who obeys as a subject who co-operates … not as an object upon which a Superior acts. This captures perhaps the most distinctive element in the Jesuit way of Obedience.

[10] The use of pronouns for the divine Persons is fraught with difficulty, especially inasmuch as they compel us to imagine God as gendered (something of created beings, not of Uncreated Being). I just cannot bring myself to refer to the Holy Spirit as an “It.” Stephen King’s novel, It, rightly and compellingly uses “It” as his name for Evil personified. Evil is an “It”, because lacking its own form, It appears as many form, in many disguises.

a Ps. 33:6. & 136:5. John 1:1–3. Acts 14:15. & 17:24. Col. 1:16, 17. Heb. 1:8–10. & 11:3.

Isai. 34:11 (Heb.). Jer. 4:23.

2 Cor. 4:6.

† Heb. between the light and between the darkness. So ver. 18.

† Heb. And the evening was, and the morning was, &c. So ver. 8, 13, 19, 23, 31.

[11] The Holy Bible: King James Version, Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009), Ge 1.

[12] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Lk 1:35.

[13] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Lk 1:38.

[14] Figuring out the right verb to use here – I have chosen “became” – is challenging. It involves the question of the relation – how to characterize it – between the Old Testament and the New Testament.

[15] In those days when people had a life-expectancy half of what we tend to expect for ourselves. There was little time to be between (the word “teen” is a shortened form of “between”), between being a youth and the time when people expected a youth, girl or boy, to act as an adult. What we today excuse as the “teen years” of our children needed to be in Jesus’ day already their fully adult years. We guess that Mary became pregnant with Jesus when she was in her earliest teens.

* Gethsemane: the Hebrew name means “oil press” and designates an olive orchard on the western slope of the Mount of Olives; see note on Mt 21:1. The name appears only in Matthew and Mark. The place is called a “garden” in Jn 18:1.

* Peter and the two sons of Zebedee: cf. Mt 17:1.

* My Father: see note on Mk 14:36. Matthew omits the Aramaic ’abbā’ and adds the qualifier my. This cup: see note on Mk 10:38–40.

* Undergo the test: see note on Mt 6:13. In that verse “the final test” translates the same Greek word as is here translated the test, and these are the only instances of the use of that word in Matthew. It is possible that the passion of Jesus is seen here as an anticipation of the great tribulation that will precede the Parousia (see notes on Mt 24:8; 24:21) to which Mt 6:13 refers, and that just as Jesus prays to be delivered from death (Mt 26:39), so he exhorts the disciples to pray that they will not have to undergo the great test that his passion would be for them. Some scholars, however, understand not undergo (literally, “not enter”) the test as meaning not that the disciples may be spared the test but that they may not yield to the temptation of falling away from Jesus because of his passion even though they will have to endure it.

* Your will be done: cf. Mt 6:10.

6:10; Heb 10:9.

[16] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Mt 26:36–46.

[17] Luke’s account of Jesus in Gethsemane is significantly different in tone and teaching than that of Matthew’s account. It was Jerome Neyrey, SJ who taught me this.

[18] The Oxford English Dictionary at the noun “dread” (c. 1200) – “Extreme fear; deep awe or reverence; apprehension or anxiety as to future events.” Such a significant word and perhaps exactly the right word to describe Jesus in Gethsemane more than it describes any other moment in His life among us human beings. “Extreme fear … and religious awe”: both experiences coinciding, intensely.

[19] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Mt 4:11.

[20] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Lk 1:38.

[21] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Mt 26:39.

[22] I know that it was not the only time in human history when the Father chose to be silent, so that a Mother could speak what needed to be said.

[23] Showing a remarkable likeness in style and contemplative depth to the work of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. Just a thought.

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