Category: History

September 14 marks an interesting and ancient feast in the Church, “The Exaltation of the Holy Cross” or “Holy Cross Day.” The day is observed in some fashion by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, and Lutherans. Red vestments are traditionally worn on Holy Cross Day.

The history behind this is fascinating, as it marks a time when Christianity was becoming ascendant within the Roman Empire. The story displays also something of the shift toward what we might identify as a medieval mindset within the faith. After all, this is a tale of magic, of a questing empress, and the veneration of relics that are thought to provide divine protection.

The empress in question is Helena (also known as Saint Helena in some circles), a woman of obscure birth who became the wife of Constantius, one of the co-emperors of the Roman Empire; Though he divorced her, their only son was Constantine I, destined to become the supreme ruler in 306. She never remarried, but remained close with her son. She was a devout Christian, and did much to promote Christianity within a Roman Empire that had previously tried to squash it.

The emperor Constantine appointed his mother Helena as “Augusta Imperatrix” and authorized her to go on a quest to the Holy Land to investigate Christian sites. She tore down pagan shrines which had been deliberately placed at Christian sites by an earlier emperor, and she began the building of magnificent churches at the sites of Jesus’ birth and at the Mount of Olives.

While in Jerusalem, she is said to have found the “true cross” upon which Jesus was executed. According to legend the cross of Jesus had been buried in a cistern, along with crosses of the other two prisoners executed with him. She supposedly also recovered the nails and a part of the sign that had hung above his head (a wooden plaque inscribed with Jesus Nazaranus Rex Iudaeorum). The “true Cross” was identified among the three based on observation of its healing powers.

The subsequent tale of the cross could fill a large book. Much of it was carried to Constantinople, and part of it went to Rome, where it is kept to this day at the Basilica Santa Croce. The portion left in Jerusalem was stolen in 614 by the Persian emperor Khosrau II, and returned after his defeat by Byzantine emperor Heraclitus. In the 12th century, when the Crusaders reconquered Jerusalem, it came into the possession of Arnulf Malecorne, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, who carried it aloft during battles. It was later captured by Saladin and lost to history.

Tiny fragments of the “true cross” were prized among the faithful; they became popular as amulets for kings and nobles to wear as a sign of faith and for personal protection, and for churches to keep as relics. The proliferation of relics accelerated at sacking of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1124. Bits of the “true cross” can be found across the globe, from Greece’s Mount Athos to Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, to Shaftesbury, England to Galveston, Texas. By the 16th century, Protestant reformer John Calvin remarked, “…if all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they would make a big ship-load. Yet the Gospel testifies that a single man was able to carry it.”

Saint Ambrose, in his funeral oration for Theodosius, recounted the legend surrounding the discovery of the true cross, and said this of Helena: “she worshiped not the wood, but the King, him who hung upon the cross.”

May we do the same.

For more information:
As of the time of this writing, Wikipedia has a long and interesting article about the True Cross. More details about these stories are also available online at Catholic Education Resource Center, and at New Advent.

The Ascension of Jesus, celebrated today as a major feast day in many churches, remains a deep mystery that both amazes and confounds us to this day.

According to the last verses of book of Luke: And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.

I remember a movie portrayal of Jesus beaming down at his disciples as he rises into a clear blue sky. Though I otherwise liked the movie, I thought this bit of celluloid really looked kind of cheesy.

We are left to wonder, what really happened? Was this just a final flourish as Jesus left our plane of existence? Did Jesus really fly up like Superman? Did he perhaps disapparate in a puff of smoke like those “death eater” wizards in Harry Potter movies? Did he shimmer and fade out like a Star Trek character in a transporter beam? Did he go into orbit around earth and then zip on out into space?

The world’s first human in space, Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union, is reported to have announced in 1961 that when he went into space, he looked around, and didn’t see God up there. (More on this in a minute).

I happened to run across a blog post on Patheos, by Butler University’s Chair of New Testament Language and Literature, James McGrath, which showed some hilarious (if irreverent) pictures of Jesus in a space suit. I take his photos and his accompanying article–somewhat derisive in tone– to be a warning against too simplistic and literal a reading of this (or any) passage. The author states:

Ascension day is a perfect day to draw attention to the fact that literalism is not only problematic, but impossible. Even if someone insists on maintaining the literal truth of the claim in Acts that Jesus literally went up into heaven, they cannot maintain the worldview of the first century Christians which provided the context for the affirmation. They knew nothing of light-years, distant galaxies or interstellar space without oxygen. And it is not possible, through some act of either will or faith, to forget absolutely everything that has been learned since then and believe as they did. Even those who willingly choose to disbelieve modern science are making a choice that the first Christians did not have, and thus accept dogmatically what early Christians naively assumed because they knew no better.”

Now, I would presume that most Christians, including those early ones who witnessed this event, understood this occasion to be something different than space travel, or moving from one spot inside the universe to another. It was not translation through space but the exaltation of Christ that was the main point emphasized in the earliest Christian writings. As St. Paul gushed:

Therefore also God highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11).

Famed author C. S. Lewis wittily rebutted the comment attributed to Gagarin:

Looking for God — or Heaven — by exploring space is like reading or seeing all Shakespeare’s plays in the hope you will find Shakespeare as one of the characters or Stratford as one of the places. Shakespeare is in one sense present at every moment in every play. But he is never present in the same way as Falstaff or Lady Macbeth, nor is he diffused through the play like a gas.
If there were an idiot who thought plays exist on their own, without an author, our belief in Shakespeare would not be much affected by his saying, quite truly, that he had studied all the plays and never found Shakespeare in them.
(“The Seeing Eye”, in C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967).

Tim Keller, the famed pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, has further commented on this:

“C. S. Lewis wrote that if there is a God, we certainly don’t relate to him as people on the first floor of a building relate to people on the second floor. We relate to him the way Hamlet relates to Shakespeare. We (characters) might be able to know quite a lot about the playwright, but only to the degree that the author chooses to put information about himself in the play.
“In the Christian view, however, we believe that God did even more than simply give us information. … God, as it were, looked into the world he had made and saw our lostness and had pity on his people. And so he wrote himself into human history as its main character (John 3: 16). The second person in the Trinity, the Son of God, came into the world as a man, Jesus Christ.”
(Tim Keller, online at

Jesus isn’t any longer on the set (this world), nor is he in the rafters of the theater, nor is he next door quaffing a pint in the pub with the other actors. Nor is he anywhere floating around in outer space. He is outside the script, outside the story–outside the universe. He conquered death, took a bow, and exited. He is not a cosmonaut but the very author of the cosmos.

Back to Yuri Gagarin. His friend Valentin Petrov has been interviewed as saying that Gagarin was in fact a devoted Christian at a time when it was dangerous to be such. The quote referenced above is from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev:

It was most certainly not Gagarin who said this, but Khrushchev! This was connected with a plenary session of the Central Committee addressing the question of anti-religious propaganda. Khrushchev then set the task for all Party and Komsomol [Young Communists] organizations to boost such propaganda. He said: “Why are you clinging to God? Here Gagarin flew into space and didn’t see God.” However, some time later these words began to be portrayed in a different light. They were cited in reference not to Khrushchev, but to Gagarin, who was beloved by the people. Such a phrase spoken by him would be of great significance. Khrushchev wasn’t especially trusted, they said, but Gagarin would certainly be. But nothing was ever said by Gagarin about this, nor could he have uttered such things.

(photo credit: Fabrice de Nola, 1996. Yuri Gagarin, oil on canvas, cm 40 x 40).

I know that spring has arrived, when a patch of dirt by our front lamp post erupts in dark green shoots. Days later a feast of color bursts upon the eye as the tulips fully bloom.

Spring brings also the yearly commemoration of the passion, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. One interesting controversy centers on the scope of Christ’s atonement, and tulips also remind me of this.

By 1610 a controversy had erupted in Holland, over a rift that had emerged between followers of Jacobus Arminius, and the rest of the reformed community who hewed to what we would today call Calvinism, after the theologian John Calvin. Eventually the Synod of Dort (which seated only the Calvinists) settled the matter in 1619 in favor of Calvinism.

The dissidents were known as the “remonstrants” who took issue with five theological points. These points are sometimes called the “Five points of Calvinism”, and they form an acrostic that reminds us of the tulips of Holland:

T-Total depravity
U-Unconditional Election
L-Limited Atonement
I-Irresistible Grace
P-Perseverance of the Saints

A lot could be said about each of these things, but this would get out of hand fairly quickly. I’ll focus on one: The “L” in TULIP is the idea that Christ didn’t actually suffer and die for all humanity. He died only for the Elect, for those particular people who have been chosen by God from the beginning of time to receive his Grace. Jesus seems to have come out and said just this in his upper room discourse on the night before his death (the same occasion that gave us the institution of Communion or the “Lord’s Supper”). As St. John recorded, Jesus prayed aloud for his disciples and all who would believe through them, in what is often referred to as his “high priestly prayer”:

 “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. … I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.” (John 16:6, 9; Holy Bible, English Standard Version)

This idea of limited atonement is at one end of a spectrum, the opposite of which would be the idea of Universalism, which teaches that Christ’s atonement is universal in scope and that his death saves everyone, whether they believe or not. No one is lost. Universalism is a very comforting philosophy, but unfortunately only a tortured reading of Jesus’ words would permit one to reach this conclusion. Jesus’ teachings are clear that in the end some are saved, but many will perish. This is a deep and troubling mystery that confounds us. For those who take Jesus’ teachings seriously, Universalism is not a viable option except as a vague hope–in the end only God knows what He will do with Buddhists and agnostics. Universalists are on the fringe of Christianity.

Between these extremes would be the idea that Christ’s death is universal in scope (he died for all) but that not all people will avail themselves of his grace and therefore are not saved–each person must choose whether or not to accept Jesus. He died to take away all sin, and thereby to make salvation available to everyone who chooses in faith to turn to him.

Calvinists and non-Calvinists would tend to agree with the formulation that Christ’s death is “sufficient for all but efficient only for some.” The point of the controversy really comes down to the mysterious interplay between human free will and God’s will. It comes down to whether God intended that only a few be saved, or perhaps rather that He had a blanket desire that everyone be saved, but sadly God’s will is thwarted, as he leaves it up to us and our own free will to decide, each one for himself or herself.

We currently take the position here at this site that both viewpoints are Christian, and within the bounds of orthodox Christian belief. Therefore we don’t take a strong stance. There are faithful people on both sides of this question of free will versus determinism.

What all traditions would agree, is that for you as an individual, if you are a believer, then there is no limitation on God’s grace. Christ’s atonement is as unlimited as it is unmerited. It is shocking in its scope. However heavy a bag of sin you carry, you can lay it all at the cross.

The God of Christianity is the same who was praised by the psalmist for treating us not as we deserve but as children:

For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
    so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
    so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
(Psalm 103:12-13)

Saint Paul probably recalled this when he wrote his letter to the believers in Rome:
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39, New International Version).

Reflect on this as you witness the unfolding of the tulips, and the unfolding of the drama of the death and resurrection of our Lord.

Recently, Canadian leader Justin Trudeau, and to a lesser extent U.S. President Obama, were soundly criticized for statements that seemed to lionize the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.   Trudeau stated:

“It is with deep sorrow that I learned today of the death of Cuba’s longest serving President. Fidel Castro was a larger than life leader who served his people for almost half a century. A legendary revolutionary and orator, Mr. Castro made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation. While a controversial figure, both Mr. Castro’s supporters and detractors recognized his tremendous dedication and love for the Cuban people who had a deep and lasting affection for “el Comandante”.  (You can read the entire statement here).

His warm words have sparked parodies on Social Media, mockingly praising Hitler and Osama Bin Ladin. For example, “Osama Bin Laden was certainly a controversial figure, but his contribution to airport security is unparalleled”, and “Today we mourn the death of Jeffrey Dahmer, who opened his home to the LGBTQ community and pushed culinary boundaries.” One of my favorites is “We mourn the passing of Henry VIII: A man who always kept his head, while all around were losing theirs”.

In slight contrast, President Obama’s words were more measured, but still a far cry from a realistic appraisal of the monstrosity of Castro’s communist dictatorship:

“We know that this moment fills Cubans – in Cuba and in the United States – with powerful emotions, recalling the countless ways in which Fidel Castro altered the course of individual lives, families, and of the Cuban nation. History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him.”

In Miami, home to much of the Cuban population in exile, those “powerful emotions” were joy and celebration:

It did not matter that it was the middle of the night, or that it began to drizzle. When this city’s Cuban-American residents heard the news, they sprinted to Little Havana. They banged pots and pans. They sang the Cuban national anthem and waved the Cuban flag. They danced and hugged, laughed and cried, shouted and rejoiced. (Read more at New York Times).

These Cubans recall “el Commandante” with a bit less than fondness, after all.  It is estimated by historian Thomas Skidmore that 550 people were summarily executed in the first 6 months of Castro’s reign. Over the years spanning 1959 – 2012, at least 3615 people are documented to have died in firing squads, and 1253 in “extrajudicial killings”, according to Cuba Archive. The Black Book of Communism (available in its entirety at estimates the number of political killings at 15,000-17,000. Between 1950 and 1980 over a million Cubans fled the island, mostly to the United States.  In 1964, Castro admitted holding over 15,000 political prisoners.

A Washington Post opinion piece summarizes some of the disaster brought upon Cuba by this “legendary revolutionary”:

It began with mass summary executions of Batista officials and soon progressed to internment of thousands of gay men and lesbians; systematic, block-by-block surveillance of the entire citizenry; repeated purges, complete with show trials and executions, of the ruling party; and punishment for dissident artists, writers and journalists. Mr. Castro’s regime learned from the totalitarian patron he chose to offset the U.S. adversary — the Soviet Union, whose offensive nuclear missiles he welcomed, bringing the world to the brink of armageddon. Mr. Castro sponsored violent subversive movements in half a dozen Latin American countries and even in his dotage helped steer Venezuela to economic and political catastrophe through his patronage of Hugo Chávez.

Castro should also be remembered as a relentless persecutor of Christianity.  Cuba is officially an atheist state. When he seized power, almost immediately he shut down 400 Roman Catholic schools for teaching “dangerous beliefs.”  Christians were initially denied membership in the Communist Party.  Due to restrictions in building churches, many people met in homes.  Christians were, of course, among the purged. The dissident Armando Valladares, who was locked in a pitch-dark Cuban prison cell for eight years while stripped naked, has recently given his recollections in a Washington Post editorial:

Antagonizing believers is a particular specialty of the Castro regime. To them, faith is especially dangerous, because it kindles the conscience and keeps it burning when enemies advance. “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” were the last words of so many of my friends who were dragged to the shooting wall. Eventually, the government realized this was a battle cry for freedom, one that came from the deepest part of the men they were killing, and one that was only inspiring more men to die faithful to their consciences and to something greater than Fidel Castro. Their executioners realized that an expression of faith was more powerful than the explosion of a gun. So eventually, they gagged them.

Although the Castro regime eventually moderated its stance toward Christianity, and sought the favor of the Pope, still, as recently as 2015 more than 2300 incidents of persecution–arrests, beatings, demolition of churches, and the like–were reported. (Newsweek)

The Cuban-American singer Gloria Estefan had a “eulogy” for Castro that should have been a model for Trudeau and Obama:

“Although the death of a human being is rarely cause for celebration, it is the symbolic death of the destructive ideologies that he espoused that, I believe, is filling the Cuban exile community with renewed hope and a relief that has been long in coming. And although the grip of Castro’s regime will not loosen overnight, the demise of a leader that oversaw the annihilation of those with an opposing view, the indiscriminate jailing of innocents, the separation of families, the censure of his people’s freedom to speak, state sanctioned terrorism and the economic destruction of a once thriving & successful country, can only lead to positive change for the Cuban people and our world. May freedom continue to ring in the United States, my beautiful adopted country, and may the hope for freedom be inspired and renewed in the heart of every Cuban in my homeland and throughout the world.”


Boats laze on beautiful cold waters, overlooked by the turrets of an ancient walled city. Today Konstanz is primarily known as a tourist destination. It is something of a byway, a diversion from the bustle of other parts of Europe. This was not always so. Behind the calming ripples of the lake and the charming medieval facades lurks a riveting tale.

By the early 15th century, power struggles in Europe had led to an unprecedented crisis in the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. At this time there were not two but three claimants to the title of Pope. Each one commanded the loyalty of some of the states of Europe. The pope from Avignon, Benedikt XIII, had been abandoned by France but was still recognized by Aragon, Castile, Sicily, and Scotland. John XXIII was acknowledged as pope by France, England, Bohemia, Portugal, parts of the Holy Roman Empire, and numerous Northern Italian city states, including Florence and Venice. Gregory XII was still favored by Poland, Bavaria and parts of Germany.

(The Konzilgebäude in Konstanz, Site of the Council)

A council was convened in 1414 at the imperial city of Konstanz in order to settle this mess once and for all. The subsequent proceedings saw the resignation or deposition of all three popes, and the election of the future Martin V as pope over the reunified western church. Gregory XII seems to have made out the best, being granted a bishopric and status as legate of Acosta, where he lived out his final years in peace. His cardinals were allowed to retain their status, thus satisfying the concerns of his powerful backers.

Benedikt refused to step down and was deposed and excommunicated by the council; He was forced to flee to Pensicola Castle, under the protection of the King of Aragon. There he died in 1423.

In a dramatic move, Pope John XXIII fled Konstanz disguised as a postman. Ultimately he was captured in Freiburg and returned to Konstanz, where he was tried and found guilty for a sordid list of crimes, including piracy, rape, incest, and heresy. His release from imprisonment was only secured after a huge ransom was paid by the Medici family of Florence. He died just a few months later, and was enshrined in one of the most magnificent tombs in Christendom.

In a high water mark for “conciliarism”, the council granted itself primacy over the affairs of the church. The famous decree Haec Sancta Synodus, made the bold claim that the council obtained its authority directly from Jesus Christ. The text can be read here. For a brief moment, an alternative power structure could have emerged in the West, in which popes submitted to a higher authority of councils. This was not to be, as the overreach and increasingly radical direction advocated by the next council in Siena essentially frightened the pope and heads of state. Papal supremacy was reasserted.

Intersecting with this moment in history is an important commemoration for Protestant Christians. It was at this council that John Wycliffe was condemned (posthumously) as a heretic in 1415. His writings were banned and it was ordered that his body should be removed from consecrated ground. Later, in 1428 this order was carried out and his corpse was exhumed, burned, and the ashes cast into the River Swift.

(Engraving of Jan Hus)

More memorably, the reformer John Hus was summoned in person to defend his teachings before the council. Hus had been influenced by Wycliffe, and had arisen as a popular voice for reform in Bohemia. He had enjoyed the support of common people as well as the nobility. The Council condemned him as a heretic and turned him over to be executed. Although he had been promised safe conduct to and from the meeting, he was told afterward that promises made to heretics were non-binding. The stone on which he was burned to death can be seen today.

Poggius Floretini, a Roman Catholic priest, described Hus’s death in a letter to a friend, Leonhard Nikolai:

Then Hus sang in verse, with an elated voice, like the psalmist in the thirty-first psalm, reading from a paper in his hands: “In thee, O Lord, I put my trust, bow down thine ear to me.” With such Christian prayers, Hus arrived at the stake, looking at it without fear. He climbed upon it, after two assistants of the hangman had torn his clothes from him and had clad him into a shirt drenched with pitch. At that moment, one of the electors, Prince Ludwig of the Palatinate, rode up and pleaded with Hus to recant, so that he might be spared a death in the flames. But Hus replied: “Today you will roast a lean goose, but hundred years from now you will hear a swan sing, whom you will leave unroasted and no trap or net will catch him for you.” Full of pity and filled with much admiration, the Prince turned away.
(From “the original Bohemian”, blog by Andrew Wilson at ThinkTheology).

It is interesting that “Hus” sounds like the Czech word for “goose”. He launched a movement that succeeded in breaking Bohemia away from Roman Catholic control. He was a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation, and his works influenced Martin Luther almost exactly one century later.

(Note: Images used are in the public domain)

We mark the passing of one of the great moral voices of our age. Elie Wiesel survived Auscwitz and felt compelled to write about the Holocaust: “I wrote feverishly, breathlessly, without rereading. I wrote to testify, to stop the dead from dying, to justify my own survival.” (1995, from memoir)

He is best known for his subsequent great work Un di Velt Hot Geshvign, (“And the World Remained Silent”), which was translated into English and republished in the US as Night in 1960. He subsequently published additional books, served on college faculties, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.

His “New York Times” obituary observes:
But by the sheer force of his personality and his gift for the haunting phrase, Mr. Wiesel, who had been liberated from Buchenwald as a 16-year-old with the indelible tattoo A-7713 on his arm, gradually exhumed the Holocaust from the burial ground of the history books.

It was this speaking out against forgetfulness and violence that the Nobel committee recognized when it awarded him the peace prize in 1986.

“Wiesel is a messenger to mankind,” the Nobel citation said. “His message is one of peace, atonement and human dignity. His belief that the forces fighting evil in the world can be victorious is a hard-won belief.”

You can read more about him at New York Times

I was reading about the Hittites, when I ran across something interesting, to which I’ll return in a moment.

The Hittites are a people mentioned numerous times in Genesis and other books of the Old Testament.  In 1906 the ruins of the Hittite empire were discovered by German cuneiform expert Hugo Winckler. He uncovered temples, a fortified citadel, and numerous sculptures. He also found a library:

“In ruined storage chambers, very likely royal archives, that appeared to have been destroyed by a great fire, he found thousands of hardened clay tablets. Most were in an unknown language, which was later shown to be Hittite. A few, in Akkadian, included a cuneiform version of a peace treaty concluded between the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II and the Hittite king Hattusilis, which Winckler translated.” (See Encyclopedia Britannica).

Prior to this discovery, as Christians are fond of pointing out, numerous higher critics viewed the Canaanite Hittites as mythical at best, and the Bible as untrustworthy on this point.  The spade silenced these critics.  As an early example, we have an article written by the Egyptologist Melvin Kyle in 1920.

The Hittites:
Then grave doubts in the past have been raised concerning the Hittites. Occasionally it has been boldly said that “no such people ever existed” (compare Newman, Hebrew Monarchy, 184-85; Budge, Hist of Egypt, IV , 136). But in addition to the treaty of Rameses II with the “Kheta,” long generally believed to have been the Hittites (RP, 2nd series, IV, 25-32), and the references to the “Hatti” in the Tell el-Amarna Letters, also thought to be the same people, we now have Winckler’s great discovery of the Hittite capital at Boghaz-Koi, and the Hittite copy of the treaty with Rameses II in the cuneiform script. The Hittites are seen to be a great nation, a third with Egypt and Babylonia (OLZ, December 15, 1906).

However, in recent years apparently there was some some blowback in the blogosphere, against the idea that skeptical scholars ever denied the existence of the biblical Hittites.  An essay on the website called “Christian origins” states, Thus, there is a legend here. It is the legend about “the liberal critics,”  A blogger with the title “DagoodS” stated rather provocatively in 2009 that Christian apologists are liars.  Why? Well, apparently because, among other complaints, “I heard the statement how skeptics once claimed Hittites didn’t exist, but it turns out they did. Not true—no skeptic said this.” (The inflammatory blogpost is here.)

A Roman Catholic apologist named Dave Armstrong decided to call the bluff on that particular point, with several examples.  For an interesting read:

In many Christian calendars, the feast day of Saint Monica nearly coincides with Mother’s Day. May 4th is commemorated as her feast day by some Lutheran bodies, the Eastern Orthodox, and The Episcopal Church USA.


Monica shines as a powerful example of maternal love and devotion. She prayed unceasingly for her wayward son as well as for the conversion of her husband. Famously, she was told by a bishop “the child of those tears shall never perish.”

Her tears paid off well, for her, for her son, and for the church. Her son repented of his previous lifestyle, converted to Christianity, and eventually became a bishop. His writings are some of the most brilliant and penetrating of his era. He is known and remembered to us as Saint Augustine of Hippo.

In Roman Catholicism Monica is regarded as a patron saint for mothers, among others.

Happy Mothers Days.

(Dr. Walter Freeman, left, and Dr. James W. Watts study an X ray before a psychosurgical operation, in public domain image by photographer Harry Ewing).

On a memorably pleasant spring day day some years ago I was privileged to be given a tour of an old mental health institution in the Midwest. The hulking and late Victorian era stone building (complete with mansard roof and turrets) looked like something straight out of a horror movie. Once housing thousands of patients, this facility is now home to little over a hundred severely mentally ill individuals, along with some offices and outpatient clinics. Most of the remaining space sits vacant, full of dust and memories. Of these memory-filled spaces perhaps the creepiest on the tour were the surgical suites, once used for a variety of “psychosurgeries”. The most popular and notorious of these was the prefrontal lobotomy.1

The lobotomy is a prime example of the hubris of mid 20th century medicine. It is estimated that this technique was performed on over 40,000 Americans, mostly in the 1940s and 50s, although it persisted even into the late 1970s. A crude and imprecise surgery, the lobotomy had a high mortality rate, and caused such complications as seizures and behavior changes–it left many people drooling and docile. The procedure was sometimes performed by non-surgeons, and even by non-physicians. In that era of paternalism in medicine, informed consent was not always obtained. Often the procedure was done for what we would now say is no very good reason. A man named Howard Dully has the distinction of being among the youngest of patients to receive this procedure, when he was only twelve, essentially for being unruly and hostile toward his abusive stepmother. His story has been recounted in a book called My Lobotomy, and also in this article from The Guardian.

One aspect of the lobotomy story that has piqued my interest is the personal and professional rise and fall of the lobotomy’s most enthusiastic proponent, Dr. Walter Freeman. A Yale grad and University of Pennsylvania trained Neurologist, hailing from a prominent family, he was present at the 1930s international meeting where Portuguese Neurologist (and future Nobel Prize winner) Egas Moniz described the earliest cases of lobotomy performed on humans. Freeman soon modified the procedure so that the brain could be entered by hammering an ice pick into the medial aspect of the orbits. A natural showman, he toured the country in a van he called “the lobotomobile”; It is said that he performed 3500 lobotomies in his lifetime.

An Ohio physician, Dr. Wolfgang Baumgartel, later recounted to NPR his recollection of a 1956 visit by Walter Freeman to his facility:

As far as I remember, he probably did between 15 or 20 on that particular day. Dr. Freeman did not leave the operating room after each procedure — the patient went out, the next patient was ready to come in, had his procedure done, went out again, and then the next patient came in…

I remember that he was relaxed. He was very calm while he was operating. He made it look easy to do it. I think he had an extremely self-confident personality. He didn’t have any qualms. He wanted to prove that he was right, he was convinced that he was right. I thought, “How can a man be relaxed just going blindly into a brain ?!” But of course, I didn’t have the authority to say, “Stop that!”

Even in its heyday, the procedure was not without its detractors. His own partner, Dr. James Watts, disapproved of the new “icepick” procedure, and parted ways with him in 1950. Other physicians were appalled as well. As the Wall Street Journal reported: In 1948, one senior VA psychiatrist wrote a memo mocking Dr. Freeman for using lobotomies to treat “practically everything from delinquency to a pain in the neck.”

Dr. Freeman could be reckless. Elizabeth Day wrote, He had a buccaneering disregard for the usual medical formalities – he chewed gum while he operated and displayed impatience with what he called ‘all that germ crap’, routinely failing to sterilise his hands or wear rubber gloves.

From the earlier cited WSJ article: One patient in Iowa in 1951 died when the doctor chose an inopportune moment to stop for a photo and the surgical instrument penetrated too far into the patient’s brain, Freeman biographer Jack El-Hai wrote.

Freeman famously lobotomized Rosemary Kennedy, leaving her in a permanently infantile state. According to Lisa Waller Rogers, lobotomized patients often had to be retaught how to eat and use a toilet.

Although the discovery of Thorazine and a growing public horror of the effects of the procedure pushed the lobotomy out of vogue, Walter Freeman continued to perform them. Jack El-Hai states:

He refused to stop his support of lobotomy when common sense and medical expediency demanded that he do so. His stubborn advocacy of lobotomy during the 1950s and 1960s, and the many patients who were drawn in by his championing of the procedure, is a large part of the tragedy of the first era of psychosurgery.
(Jack El-Hai (2008), p. 138)

His personal life unravelled in tandem with his professional life, or perhaps drove his strange zeal. It is reported that he had a terrible relationship with his mother, and his marriage was troubled as well. Youngson and Schott related the following in an article for The Independent:

All emotion, all anger, and the blind, black rage that many suspected was within Freeman were turned inwards, and when they emerged, it was in strange and grotesque fashion. … Twelve years earlier, Freeman had experienced a nervous breakdown, brought on by overwork. He had been particularly scared by this experience, and ever since had taken at least three capsules of Nembutal every night to guarantee sleep. Nembutal also gave him a dreamless sleep. Freeman did not like his dreams.

Dr. Freeman was forced to retire in 1967, when his last patient died of a brain hemorrhage, and he was banned from operating. He had already become a bit of a pariah in the medical community, operating out of a private clinic because he had been pushed out of the hospitals. He remained defensive, writing bitter limericks about his professional enemies. His last years were spent touring the country on a quest to interview his former patients and revive his legacy. He died of cancer in 1972.

I used the word hubris” earlier, which well fits the good doctor Freeman’s refusal to turn aside from the procedure he loved. As the Good Book says: “Pride goeth before a fall.”

For further reading:

  • Mashour, Walker, and Martuza. “Psychosurgery: Past, Present, and Future”, Brain Research Reviews, 45 (2005): pp 409-419; Accessed online at Stanford University site.
  • Elizabeth Day (2008), “He was bad, so they put an ice pick in his brain…” accessed online at
  • “Top Ten Fascinating and Notable Lobotomies”, at listverse.
  • NPR, “Walter Freeman’s Lobotomies: An Oral History”; accessed online at
  • Wall Street Journal, “The Lobotomy Files”, accessed at
  • Jack El-Hai, “Lessons of the First Era of Psychosurgery.” Clinical Neurosurgery, 55 (2008): 138-139, online here.
  • Youngson and Schott, (1996) “Adventures With an Ice Pick”, in The Independent, available online here.


1. In my remembrance, although the lights were off and the doors locked, these suites appeared sterile, clean, and stocked; They seemed almost as if they had just been closed up for the day, rather than abandoned decades ago. They gave an eerie impression of being ready to go back into service if needed by a new crop of doctors.

(Two athletes, Greece, 4th century BC; From decorative vase in the Kunsthistorisches museum, Vienna)

The Olympic Torch relay is the event that traditionally marks the start of the Olympic Games. Over the years, the flame has been transported in some interesting ways. For example, in 1976, the flame was sent by radio signal between Greece and Canada. The flame was detected by heat sensors in Athens, and a signal was sent to Ottawa, where it triggered a laser beam to relight the torch. You can read about some of the other interesting methods of transporting the flame here.

In ancient times, the “lampadedromia” or “torch race” was a relay race, in which several teams of athletes ran through the city, bearing aloft torches. This kind of race took place at various times in Athens, Corinth, Ceos, Byzantium, and elsewhere. Initially there were religious overtones; the first person to reach the designated altar with flame still alight was granted the honor of relighting the sacred flame. All members of the winning team were considered equally honorable, and shared the glory of the victory. More about this event can be read at Harry Thurston Peck, Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1898); accessed online at this Tufts University site.

In some of the earliest of Christian writings, the Saint Paul the apostle borrowed from Greek culture for a metaphor of the Christian life. For example, in his first letter to the Corinthians, he urged them:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.

Here and in a famous passage from 2nd Timothy, Paul emphasizes running hard, being focused on the prize, and finishing the race. In the Timothy passage he looks back upon his efforts:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.

I don’t know if Paul was invoking “lampadedromia” specifically, or some other kind of race. The torch race was run in Corinth, to whose resident Christians his earlier passage was addressed. Some interesting things about that early torch race do come to mind.

1. Bearing a torch is both a joyous honor and a solemn responsibility. The sacred light that we bear aloft is no votive offering to pagan gods; in Christianity light is the symbol of God’s presence. Jesus declared himself to be the “Light of the World”. At Pentecost, as recorded in the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit manifested to the early disciples in the form of “tongues as of fire”. Even today we see that Christian literature, buildings, and denominational logos sometimes use the image of a flame to represent the Holy Spirit.

2. Being a relay race, the contest is a team effort. This isn’t a case where one guy runs and everyone else gets to sip beer and eat brats on the sidelines. We are all runners. All of us must do our part for team Christianity. We must strain and get sweaty, but we don’t do it alone. We help each other out, and we all share in the glory of the final victory.

3. As in the torch races of old, if we run well but don’t tend to the flame, allowing it to burn out, then we lose the race. May we run in such a way that we reach the end with torch alight, with God’s spirit still blazing forth in our lives. May we, with Paul, be able to say “I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.”