Angels defend us! Saturday, Nov 21 2009 

People don’t really believe in angels these days. The popular media is flooded with images of fat, laughing babies with useless little wings and sparkly harps sitting idly on clouds. As far as anyone is concerned, angels turn into fairies when they grow up, trading in their flab for sex appeal.

What they certainly don’t believe is that angels exist, they serve God (or satan) and are unimaginably powerful. In my English class this week we somehow came to talk about the phenomenon of “Shinigami” arising in Japanese popular culture, and how it is drawn not from Japanese spiritual traditions but a misunderstanding of the artistic representation of Death in European culture. From here I explained that angels are usually imagined as described above, but then drew a simple representation of the angels as described in Revelation: tall, robed figures with a halo, six of wings and (from Genesis) a flaming sword. Then I explained that even this was just a representation, since angels (like God) are spirits without bodies.

Now we come to the question of guardian angels. (more…)


Look out below! Wednesday, Jun 3 2009 

Look out below!

I submitted this slightly modified rendition of SNPD (Our Holy Father Dominic) for use by the LOLsaints site, and it’s just gone up today. Head over there and check them out. I assure you that the people behind the venture are deeply in love with the Catholic Faith, and use this, er, contemporary art form to widen exposure to high quality sacred art. As someone who grew up at the heart of the “internet subculture”, a three year video game addict (conquered by grace) and lover of cats, let me tell you it’s working. I can send these images to my “half-baked Catholic friends” and give them a chuckle with a spoonful of catechesis to boot.

LOLsaints, ho!

Japanese Arms Wednesday, Jun 3 2009 

I started this entry last week while procrastinating. I have for several weeks now found the arms of the ordinary of Yokohama to be quite interesting, and set out to translate the explanation of the imagery given in Japanese. Unfortunately, I’m not yet skilled enough to follow through. Instead, I started digging around the CBCJ site and looking at the other arms. Here are the arms of Bishop Umemura of Yokohama (my local diocese, suffragan of Tokyo).

Anyone who has seen a few “coats of arms” (which shouldn’t be uncommon even for Japanese) would immediately recognise the, er, contemporary style at play here. I thought this was just a one-off, until Fr Selvester over at Shouts in the Piazza (a magnificent blog focussing on ecclesiastical heraldry) posted the Arms of now-retired Joseph Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun SDB, Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong. (more…)

Last Sunday… Sunday, Apr 26 2009 

I commit a mortal sin. Through shameful negligence I stayed up far too late on Saturday night and slept through Holy Mass the next day. That is, I woke up at about lunchtime and there were no more masses in Kofu at which I could fulfill my obligation. It was a failure of my own discipline which put me in this situation, and this isn’t the first time. The big difference is, in Australia we have what I learned to call the “last chance Mass”. These are the famous Sunday night masses which are always packed and often don’t fill up until halfway through the proclamation of the Gospel. Here in mission territory, there is no such thing. Last Sunday I truly learned just how exhausting the work must be out here for the priest, who typically provides the sacraments at three or so parishes, as well as the countless other responsibilities of a Catholic cleric. Back home we talk of priests being stretched to the limit, but if they’re offering “last chance masses” for the sake of people like me who can’t discipline themselves to wake up early on Sunday then we laity are stretching them by our laziness and selfishness. I think also of those poor souls who can’t go to the Saturday night vigil or one of the usually three Sunday morning masses, because the only reason I have ever heard given for this is employment. Catholics must hold Sunday with utmost reverence, forgoing all worldly labours for the sake of the Lord’s Day, so if someone is working at a time when they should be in Mass then they are either ignorant of their grave obligation (and in need of instruction) or far worse, unable to support themselves and their dependents by any other honest means. Lord have mercy.

I think I’ve puffed myself up far too much with that paragraph. Let me briefly explain what happened next. At about 13:30, my German friend Stefan came to the door and invited me to join him at a small, free performance being given by a few of his students nearby. Stefan (to my surprise) teaches German to some of the local residents here, and at 1400 they were going to perform a variety of Japanese and German songs. I had ten minutes to shower, shave, and charge to my bike where we rode downhill to my next surprise.

"Saint Augustine Church" St Augustine [Anglican] Church, Kofu

Apparently Kofu has an Anglican church. Before I go any further, let me be clear – I am a committed Catholic, a lay Dominican, a scientist, and an aspiring philosopher. I am extremely conscious of the words I choose and (when I am not being a thoughtless twit) take pains to use the word which means precisely what I intend. Therefore, I have deep issues with calling even the building an Anglican “church”. Nonetheless, in English there is no reasonable substitute which distinguishes the building devoted to (even defective) Christian worship from the institution itself, so from here I’ll just have to keep doing that.

In any case, we were late by a few minutes. Quickly chaining up the bikes (not that it’d matter, people only steal bikes after midnight to get home from train stations) we smoothed our clothes, bowed at the usher and hurried inside. The soprano was giving her introductory remarks. Since they were in native-speed Japanese, I learned more about her by observing her very tasteful green outfit and pearl necklace than the occasionally understood word plucked out of its context. Beside her was a stunning young mezzo-soprano in a red dress, her jewellery was lighter but suited her well. My guess is that while the soprano was perhaps in her 50s, the mezzo was in her mid to later twenties.

Beautiful performers

After introducing themselves and the lovely pianist in a muted pink, they began the first piece. Traditional Japanese folk songs, sung to piano. If I knew what they were called or what they meant I’d try to comment, but all I can say is that the beauty of the women singing was sweetened by the quality of their voices, particularly when directed at the performance of songs so dear to their own heritage. I was in the front row (late, remember?) but looking behind me it was easy to see that everyone’s attention was fixed. Next some German, the juxtaposition of languages and forms emphasised the distinctions which made them both so enjoyable. After some of this, the soprano delivered a solo performance (a folk ballad, “sayounara”), followed by the mezzo (a more modern style, quite ambitious) and the pianist, playing Dvorak. Coming together at the end they presented two more pieces, and repeated the two most popular for an encore.

Having been depressed at missing out on Holy Mass, I was really cheered up. I couldn’t do anything now about Mass, but at least I had learned that I would not be starved of beautiful cultural performances simply because I was living in what the Japanese call 「田舎」(“the countryside”). Hard to imagine that this was just a free, one-hour concert held at the back of a local “church” for the pleasure of the performers.

This is when something very interesting happened. Most of the Japanese chatted with the performers while thanking them and bowing, and after most had left the few remaining began to reorder the pews. Up to this point I assumed that this was some peculiar kind of independent protestant community where a preacher-fellow stands up the front with a piano behind him and delivers an extended sermon for an hour on Sunday. We were so rushed that I didn’t notice the big curtain up the back, though the marks on the carpet clearly showed that the piano had been moved.

We were actually facing the back wall of the building. Here you see Stefan and the lovely ladies, as well as one of the fellows helping to swing the pews around to face what I now realised was the veiled sanctuary. It was about this time that I really looked around and noticed some astounding things.

Sanctuary rail

Altar Rails!

Veiled sanctuary in St Augustine's Anglican

Sanctuary Veil!

Stations of the Cross

Stations of the Cross!

All these in an Anglican church. An Anglican church in a rural Japanese prefecture. This wasn’t even High Anglicanism – the sanctuary, despite being veiled and railed, consisted of basically a table altar and large, Christ-less cross. A disappointing surprise really, how could they maintain reverence for such a desolate sanctuary? Nevertheless, this was an absolutely fascinating development – especially since it meant that this church didn’t have a queer devotion to the big woman in the sky surrounded by scary babies.

Image of... Our Lady?

I’m going to have to crop out a close-up from the raw, because my zoomed-in shot was blurry. =( Believe me though, those are some creepy babies.

Saint Augustine's Anglican