“We Live Under A Vast Canopy Woven By The Ages”

Yesterday was Fat Tuesday and today is Ash Wednesday. So ends the part of the liturgical year called “Epiphany” (observed by some as “Ordinary Time”, as is the long summer called “Pentecost”. As a kid, none of it was ordinary time to me), and begins the rigorous season of Lent.

Here’s a calendar — several of them — laying out the
Liturgical Year as a complete cycle, each part corresponding to some aspect of Christ’s life, each section stylized and showing up in all the seasons and their colors. It must have been a great aid in the days before widespread literacy.

The late Scott Mutter created this image. I don’t know if he was also the author of the caption underneath:

We Live Under a Vast Canopy Woven By The Ages, but it fits the scene well, even expanding on it. At least it does for me.

I have a large poster-sized version which needs a new frame. I ponder this image nearly every day. One reason is that it recalls an essential part of my childhood.

Between the ages of five and ten I lived in a Catholic orphanage in the city. The church to which the orphanage belonged was/is that kind-of-American Catholic Gothic dating from the early teens. It has since been dedicated as a Basilica, but back then it was simply “the Catholic Church downtown”. There was an early morning mass attended by working people and a second mass at noon for people on their lunch hour. And clots of old people at both.

Yeah, a different world back then…

That was when the Tridentine Mass — the Latin one — was considered eternal. After Vatican II the Church went native and Masses were said “in the vernacular” (so there went the universal part). Given how many hundreds of years the Tridentine Mass was the only one on offer, there was significant pushback. Despite the bureaucratic hope in Rome that the attraction would age out as the old folks died off, that never happened. There are widespread pockets of resistance, still.

But back then, it was simply the Mass. And if you were six years old and using a Missal (the Catholic prayer book) to follow that Mass each morning at 6:30 it felt quite eternal. The main thing you thought about — or tried to avoid thinking about — was breakfast. As the priest droned on in Latin, his back to the people, it could be hard to stay awake.

No hymns in the hurry-up early version done in the half-light of January mornings — just the noise of my stomach growling. I can visualize us now, “the orphans” clumped together to stay warm, and looking devout; it was hunger. If you were the restless kid I was, you found work-arounds. For me, it was word games to play with the Prayer Book. The easiest, the one I could do while looking pious, was to see how many smaller words could be made from a long Latin word like, say, Confiteor. Heck, you could even move your mouth to count and the vigilant nuns thought you were praying.

Yes, I grew up to be a mean Scrabble player. The wages of sin.

This poster appeals to me not only because of the caption, but also because it encapsulates my early childhood memories of the daily routine of church in the city: honking horns, noisy trucks, the mixed smell of candles, old incense, cold stone, truck and lumbering bus diesel fumes and an empty stomach all in one gestalt.

It is customary to ‘do’ something for Lent in order to prepare for Good Friday and Easter Sunday. I used to attempt to give up talking when we were supposed to be silent, but a silence maintained from six a.m. to our morning recess at 10:30 was more than my Irish DNA could ever have hoped to cope with for so long.

I told Bishop Guy Leven-Torres recently that he and I could stand to be a bit less prolix. so I’ll try for brevity this coming week and if it proves too rigorous, I’ll rummage around in my soul for something else… hmmm… I’ll have to think about that one.

Suggestions are welcome.

19 thoughts on ““We Live Under A Vast Canopy Woven By The Ages”

  1. How about sharing the glory of Jesus Christ’s love for you with a different person each of the 40 days of lent so that by Good Friday you will have share the Gospel of Christ’s love with 40 different people. Yes, the people can be different, even very different! 🙂
    I was raised and confirmed Catholic and even served as an Altar Boy. Then the Lord found me and in showing me His love and grace freed me from the dead works of my youth.

    • cut.it.out.

      One person’s “dead works” are another’s living joy with no work required. Don’t you dare come over here preaching to me about what I ought to do while you micturate on MY reminiscences. This dogmatic response was just what I didn’t want.

      Any more of this bashing of other denominations and they go into the trash.

      BTW, the more cut off a person is from his childhood beliefs, the more rigid does his adult faith become. Hardening of the arteries…Faith is faith, sans content. What you decide to throw away and what you decide to keep is *your* decision. But I’ll stick to Chesterton and C.S. Lewis and Newman, thankyouverymuch.

      • sorry about that, I didn’t know you felt that way. I am grateful that your childhood experiences were much better than mine. I came in whole-hearted faith only to be lied to and told to believe what I had been told when I asked honest questions about the apparent conflict between Church dogma and what is stated in the Bible. The next 15 years of wandering in the wilderness could have been avoided by a few honest answers on the part of the Monsignor of whom I asked the questions. I have since adopted a policy of ‘doing my homework’ and learning all that can be learned with an open mind that assesses what is presented in the light and context of what God has already said.
        One thing that I have recently discovered is how the Western mind makes everything a process. However, Christianity is not a process of advancement by the doing of certain works or keeping certain regulations. Thankfully, it is a state of being which has already been created and ordered and requires only our acceptance of what God through Christ has done for us. I am free of the guilt and obligations that were imposed upon me. That is what I meant by ‘dead works.’ What I do now, and am busier than ever, is out of joyous gratitude of what I have been blessed with. C. S. Lewis touched on this in “Mere Christianity” as did Watchman Nee in his study of the first half of Romans in “The Normal Christian Life.”
        Again, I apologize for having offended you, it was not my intent.

        • I didn’t surmise that you’d set out to offend me, but do you have any idea how offensive people would find your approach if you set out to proselytize one person a day? They’d run from you.

          Jesus didn’t chase people; they *followed* him because they felt drawn to him. I would no more start talking about my beliefs to others than I’d tell them my political philosophy.

          Maybe for Lent you might try waiting to preach until someone actually asked .;-)

          Accepting or rejecting our childhood precepts is part of the process of maturation. It’s the job of every young adult.

          • You are correct, if we were to allow Jesus to shine through us by what we say and do, people would follow us as well as we would be something different from the old selfish gimme person. Cool deal, I will set my heart to that end and see how it turns out.

  2. One of the things I miss most in RC churches is the smell of incense. Catholicism used to appeal to the senses, reminding us that God is incarnate as well as transcendent. It has now gone minimalist & abstract, requiring a more intellectual response than a sensual & emotional. I think this mirrors a general modernist trend away from the incarnate – the real, embodied things like genuine nations (rather than mere multicultural & multiethnic agglomerates of individuals), in favour of abstract humanity.

    • You might enjoy reading Gabriel Marcel’s ideas on what it means to be ’embodied’ – he’s fascinating…

      Also his ideas on “being’ vs. ‘having’…a contemporary of Sartre’s but far more interesting and less stuck in an adolescent rejection of others. For Sartre, hell was other people. For Marcel, other people humanized us:

      Marcel’s thought is attractive because he emphasizes a number of significant ideas that have been influential in twentieth century thinking in both philosophy and theology: the attempt to preserve the dignity and integrity of the human person by emphasizing the inadequacy of the materialistic life and the unavoidable human need for transcendence; the inability of philosophy to capture the profundity and depth of key human experiences, and so the need to find a deeper kind of reflection; the emphasis on the human experience of intersubjectivity, which Marcel believes is at the root of human fulfillment; and a seeking after the transcendent dimension of human experience, a dimension that cannot be denied without loss, and that often gives meaning to many of our most profound experiences.



      or just do a search on his name.

  3. Dymphna,

    Nice message and nice response. Ashes last night and communion. People have been doing this a very long time. Didn’t know you were an orphan.

  4. Hi!

    1. “Liturgical Year” a nice link. Have saved it for further study.

    2. The Mass was said “in the vernacular” (even in Europe) before Vatican II, although it might likely take special permission. The notion of “universality” based on Latin was erroneous, and Latin required translations to make it “mostly” understandable.

    3. One seldom mentioned reason for having the kids at Mass on weekday mornings was so that the priest was not saying Mass to an empty church, although technically the two altar boys were all that was essential … which doesn’t say much for the faith of the people. They had no business requiring six-year-olds or even ten-year-olds to be at a 6:30 a.m. Mass.

    4. …But, did you not feel somewhat “safe” in that (unreasonable) daily routine?

    5. The “do something for Lent” (and Advent) can be something positive as well as sacrificial, although I would imagine many people never have known that.

    6. It can be easier to be brief if one remembers that the shorter it is, the more likely it is that someone may read it. 🙂

    • I was, from 11 years old until I was 13. I got to peek behind the curtain as it were.
      A study of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness will show that He was tempted by Satan to do for Himself, with food, acclamation, and power. Jesus countered Satan with the Word of God (OT) and gave us the example so that we can successfully resist the temptations of the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life. Satan threw everything he had at Jesus and none of it stuck, thankfully.
      Following Christ’s example during this time of year may be the lesson we need as we look to consider others before ourselves.

    • 2. The notion of “universality” was captured more by the word “catholic”, which has the advantage of being understood as ‘wide-spread’ – though the teaching of that would be closer to the word ‘ubiquitous’.

      Ecclesiastical Latin was the first foreign language I learned. I loved its unvarying rules and the very different sentence structure. Nothing beats Gregorian chant for pulling one into timelessness, though Bach’s fugues come close – however JSB requires more of the listener. I still love any kind of a capella singing – e.g., the hilarious ” Nouveau Poor” by the KingsSingers.


      lyric here:

      Every single word of the creeds – both the Nicene and Apostolic versions – was hammered out in councils, e.g., the one in Nicea.


      3. No, it was an urban environment, so attendance was fair-to-middling, even at 6:30. The noon Mass was more crowded, though. As for the unreasonable hour, my body certainly thought so. However, as Viktor Frankl said, you can impose almost anything on a child as long as he understands its meaning. The worst part of modern life for children is the specter of meaninglessness. That is one of the drivers of the suicide rate for adolescents. For those whose parents didn’t connive to make sure their kid achieved a real competence in some area (music, language, athletics, outdoor skills) ‘meaning’ depends on peer acceptance…or its lack. One great advantage of home-schooling is the freedom from peer cruelty and bullying until one is old enough to have grown a carapace.

      4. Yes! I utterly thrived on the unvarying routine. Children love structure; it is the framework on which to prop a life; “healthy routines” do that. I can still remember the times for everything.

      5. The positive aspect of sacrifice is harder for a child to maintain. The nuns always pushed “positive” but kids like the idea of sacrifice since it’s much easier to remember that one is to “refrain” from a behavior than it is to find something positive. I remember one year I wrote a letter to a relative during Study Hall every afternoon after my homework was done. That meant giving up reading, my great escape.

      6. Indeed. Brevity being the soul of wit and all that. I used to love those exercises, ‘tell us about such-and-such in 25 words or less’…but then there is “Ulysses” – in a category of its own.

      • I think my point in #2 was, perhaps, mis-understood.

        Coptic and Greek (Uniate) _are_and _were_ two official liturgical church languages used when Latin was in full use. There are some others, but I couldn’t find a concise list. the “universality” of the Catholic church was never limited to the Roman rite, yet people think that once the Latin was junked the church wasn’t so “universal” (not to mention much about unchangeable) any more. In addition to that, the vernacular had been used in areas, like generally Roman rite, as noted, probably with special permission.

        I hope that says it better.

        As for the beauty of Latin…. I’ve, shall we say, dabbled in several languages including English and Latin, the latter because it was required to get out of high school, and I’m glad I was given English because it’s nearly universal.

  5. Dumpna, me too! In ref to Chesterton, Lewis and Newman.

    What is that picture? I mean what is that in the main aisle?

    P.S. as a child, I loved the Latin Mass. . . I went to a boarding school that had the most beautiful chapel I have ever seen. Those were mostly good memories, not all, but mostly. . .

  6. BTW, this time of year is very slow for property appraisers as banks don’t have much money because it’s Lent. 🙂

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