I grew up in Bombingham at a time in history when the unholy trinity was “Catholics, niggers, and Jews.” Somehow, I rejected that fairly early as I rode my ice blue bike with the white banana seat in the shadow of Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church. I had earned that bike by going to summer school with my “school teach” mama at an impoverished elementary school. I tutored children a few years younger in reading. I got to go to art class too and hand out peanut butter crackers and ice cold milk to the children. Then, we colored and colored and colored.
Not surprisingly, I wanted nothing to do with Southern or American history. Three European languages, a multitude of art history courses, and a couple of history degrees later, I had set my course to be “Miss Western Civilization” not Miss America, something my mother and I always watched as she ironed and I made her bulletin boards. For pay of course. Later, when I taught introductory Western Civilization classes, I thought it was my job to communicate this love to my students in as multi-disciplinary and visual a way as possible and to help them learn to think critically by examining contradictory historical documents on questions like “Can the West and America really trace it’s experiment in democracy to ancient Greece?”
At that time, World History courses began to replace out-of-fashion Western Civilization courses in universities across America. I became a practicing Catholic and another worldview and ethical and spiritual perspective opened up. I could not, among other things, forget the immigrant, the hungry and homeless, the sick, the unborn, or fail to extend a hand to others of other faiths, not in a colonial fashion, but simple friendship and acknowledgement of their personhood, so beautifully held up by Saint John Paull II’s philosophy of personalism.
I first learned about the pendentives that support Hagia Sophia’s dome when I was 19 years old. That massive dome magically floats in light, a 6th century AD feat of engineering and faith. I taped my black and white University Print image of it in my bedroom and took it with me to my subsequent homes, vowing I would see it someday. I have since learned what it means to Orthodox Christians after I married an Orthodox Christian.
For some reason, as we prepare to enter into Great Lent, a vision shimmers in my mind: of Christians prostrating themselves 70 times in the Hagia Sophia during a celebration of the Canon of St. James, the ultimate penance service.
Amazingly, I made it to Turkey in 2005. After I went to see the Hagia Sophia three times, I had an amazing conversation with a Muslim rug salesman. Once I stepped into his showroom, he offered me hospitality. It was not strictly hospitality of a commercial nature. He showed me many rugs until I found the one that spoke to me. It is ruby red and has the graphic appeal of many tiny, intricate lines that made a pattern I tried to place in my mental iconographic catalog. There was an overarching intelligence and beauty to the pattern. For some reason, St. Thomas Aquinas came to mind.
Appreciative of my efforts to understand the genius behind this product of a humble Turkish family somewhere deep in Anatolia, he finally told me, “It is the Garden of Paradise.”
Then it made sense, “It is a narrow way is it not?”
“Yes, madam, it is.”
“And this narrow way is beautiful and holy too?”
“Yes, madam, it is.”
I thought for a moment. “Like the beauty of your modest women?”
Tears filled his eyes, “Yes, madam. God bless you.”
When Joseph Razinger was elected pope in 2005 he took the name of Benedict, signaling an appreciation of St. Benedict of Nursia’s role in preserving Western Civilization as the Roman Empire fell. He said he was reaching out to post-Christian Europe in this manner. When he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he wrote, with Pope John Paul II’s blessing, Dominus Iesus, which quietly took out the Filioque clause, removing that cause for division between the Orthodox and Catholics. And following along the ecumenical trajectory set by John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVIII continues to reach out to Orthodox Christians, to the Church of England, to Jews, and to Muslims. The list does not stop there.
St. Benedict of Nursia’s life was nearing its end as St. Justinian built his Hagia Sophia in the 6th century. By the 11th century, the Hagia Sophia would be the seat of Orthodox authority, just as St. Peter’s was for Roman Catholics. But the separation would never be hard and fast, with a spiritual cross-fertilization of East and West still going on.
I am told that Western Civilization is dead. Recent history very well might point to a conclusion of that sort. But I don’t think so. People may be turning inward and looking for any kind of shelter they can, in the shadow of a monastery or not. But Christianity is the best of what Western Civilization has to offer the world, Benedict XVI tells us.
It is Great Lent. A time for personal spiritual housecleaning and humbling. Humility and repentance are good. My one friend in Istanbul knows humility and repentance is good. It is a narrow way. It is not easy. Best to arm yourself with a medal of St. Benedict and prepare for spiritual battle as your conscience dictates.
Who wants to be Miss America or Miss Western Civilization when you can be Christian? The crown is real.