Sunday, September 30, 2012

Thaïs by Anatole France

Anatole France’s novel, “Thaïs” is a story of spiritual redemption and the many pitfalls encountered along the way. It was published in Paris in 1890, and many view it as only a satirical piece. That, in my opinion, is only the surface of the story, and the reader is missing out if that is all they get from the novel. There are also plenty of philosophical discussions contained within the narrative.

The protagonist, Paphnutius, the young abbot of Antinoe, is not treated very favorably. In his holy fervor, he inevitably ends up following the whims of his ego instead of the good advice he receives from the people he encounters throughout the tale. The story begins when Paphnutius decides he should leave his anchorite community in the Thebaid desert and go to Alexandria and convert Thaïs, a famous actress and courtesan.

Paphnutius goes to the holy hermit Palemon for advice twice in the book. Palemon lives nearby Paphnutius’s dwelling and spends all his time tending to a small garden. Animals do not fear him and the demons of the desert do not bother him. At the beginning of the story, Paphnutius asks Palemon’s advice concerning his plan to travel to Alexandria and “save” Thaïs. Palemon quotes St. Anthony warns that it is very dangerous for monks to return to the world and nothing good would come of it.

In the encounter between Paphnutius and Timocles, Paphuntius’s true motives come to light. We first meet Timocles sitting cross-legged in deep meditation, much like a Hindu yogi. Paphnutius at first mistakes him for a fellow anchorite, but quickly finds that he has never heard of Jesus Christ. Timocles belongs to a sect of Skeptics and believes that we cannot know anything for certain, since all things are relative. Paphnutius cannot understand why Timocles lives such a hard life if not for the promise of heavenly rewards. He screams that Timocles is a fool because “you loose without hope of any gain; you give without hope of any return…” and goes on to compare him to monkey imitating an artist. He misses entirely that Timocles is content, unlike himself. Paphnutius still desires the world and only denies them to himself for the hope of even greater rewards in heaven, whereas Timocles does not crave anything in this world or the next.

His childhood friend, Nicias, is one of the most interesting characters. Although Paphnutius despises him, it is to Nicias that he goes to borrow money and clothes to gain entry to Thaïs. Nicias saves his life when an angry crowd gathers to kill Paphnutius, but Paphnutius is still hateful towards him afterwards. I believe that Paphnutius is deeply jealous Nicias; despite his sanctimonious attitude Paphnutius is still deeply attached to the things of this world. Nicias, although living a very different life, is at least honest with himself, unlike Paphnutius who continually deludes himself. He does not realize that Nicias loves him as a brother and does not hesitate to help him in any way. Would Paphnutius do the same for Nicias?

The second visit to Palemon comes after Paphnutius returns from depositing Thaïs in the nunnery and is tormented by dreams of demons. Palemon gives him the sound advice that instead of further isolation, he needs to ease back into his old way of living and his troubles have arisen from transitioning too quickly from the decadent Alexandria to the desert. Palemon advises him to visit nearby Christian communities and monasteries before settling back into his own ascetic lifestyle. Paphnutius ignores his advice once again and fallows his own urge to seek out even more extreme penance to drive away the lustful thoughts.

Paphnutius continually attributes his misery to God having abandoned him instead of to his own actions. The real tragedy of the story is that Paphnutius encounters so many saints, including Thaïs herself, but fails to recognize them as such. At the end of the day, Paphnutius is trying to be someone he just is not.

Thaïs is roughly based on the life of St. Thaïs of Egypt:

“The saint is represented burning her treasures and ornaments, or praying in a cell and displaying a scroll with the words: ‘Thou who didst create me have mercy on me.’ According to the legend Thaïs was a public sinner in Egypt who was converted by St. Paphnutius, brought to a convent and enclosed in a cell. After three years of penance she was released and placed among the nuns, but lived only fourteen days more. The name of the hermit is given also as Bessarion and Serapion the Sidonite. Delahaye says (Anal. boll., XXIV, 400), ‘If the legend is historical the hermit must have been Paphnutius.’”
-Catholic Encyclopedia1

Overall, France stayed pretty true to the story, at least where Thaïs herself is concerned. Her story is fairly similar to other female desert saints, such as St. Mary of Egypt whom I initially suspected as being the inspiration for the novel before researching it.

St. Thaïs is also a saint of the Eastern Orthodox Church; although they usually know her as St. Thaïs the Harlot. For the most part, the story is pretty much the same. However, one rendition2 I encountered has St. John the Dwarf as her savior and has it that she died the first night after leaving the city. An angel explains to St John, “Abba John, her one hour of repentance was equal to many years, because she repented with all her soul, and a compunctionate heart.” One day or fourteen days, either way, the lesson is the same.

St Paphnutius is also based on a real personage. He is said to have had his right eye gouged out and was sent to the mines by the Romans under Emperor Maximinus II. His feast day is September eleventh. The emperor Constantine even met with Paphnutius privately and was said to revere him. Constantine would kiss the place of the lost eye every time they departed.3

Surprisingly, he was one of the most outspoken attendees of the First Council of Nicea to oppose total clerical celibacy. Although a lifelong celibate himself, he believed in the old way of allowing priests to be married so long as they were already married prior to their ordination. A stark contrast to the Paphnutius of the novel.

Illustration by Raphael Freida


1. Mershman, F. (1912). St. Thaïs. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved September 29, 2012 from New Advent:

2. Retrieved September 30, 2012 from Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America:

3. Butler, Alban (1894). Lives of the Saints. Benziger Bros. ed.
Retrieved Septempber 30, 2012 from Sacred-Texts:

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Baltimore Basilica

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or as it is commonly known, the Baltimore Basilica, is one of the top eight Catholic pilgrimage sites in the U.S. for good reason. It was the first Roman Catholic cathedral built in the fledgling United States. Construction began in 1806 and finished in 1821. In 1995, Pope John Paul II visited the basilica, and Mother Theresa followed in 1996.

The Baltimore Basilica is also one of the only churches in the country that is a cathedral, basilica, and a shrine. A cathedral is a church that seats a bishop and usually serves as the central church of the diocese. A basilica is a church that has been awarded the designation by the Pope. A shrine is a place that is particularly sacred due to an event that occurred there or because it houses a sacred artifact, etc. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops designated the Baltimore Basilica a national shrine in 1993, and Pope Pius XI declared it a basilica in 1937.

One feature that immediately jumps out about it is the architecture. Foregoing the traditional gothic style usually seen in cathedrals, Benjamin Henry Latrobe (known as the Father of American Architecture) decided to use the neoclassical “Greek Revival” style that he resurrected in Washington D.C. By doing this, the church broke with its European counterparts, making it a truly American cathedral. However, Thomas Jefferson played a role in the design of the dome, suggesting the use of the twenty-four half visible skylights to utilize natural light inside the basilica. Latrobe would not live to see the basilica’s completion; he died in 1820, one year prior. Interestingly, Latrobe also designed the central tower of the St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans.

Unfortunately, the cathedral is currently being renovated due to some damage incurred during a recent earthquake, and I was not allowed inside the main hall. Not that I would have seen much if I had gone inside, as most of the statues were either temporarily removed or, like the altar, underneath a protective wooden case. But I was not disappointed; the undercroft was what I wanted to see anyway.

Being down in the undercroft chapel gave me the feeling of the early Christians meeting in secret in the Roman catacombs. Cool air came from the stones, the outside world drowned out, and calmness pervaded the atmosphere. It felt primal and captured the essence of raw spirituality.

The sparse decorations and simplicity of the setting only added to this feeling. Sometimes less really is more, as the saying goes. Don’t get me wrong; I’m usually a fan of religious art and firmly believe that a church is lacking without it. In this case, however, it would only have distracted from the natural piousness of this chapel.

Another unique architectural feature of the basilica is their reverse arches. In order to support the weight of the dome, they implemented four reverse arches to help bear the load.

This red hat usually hangs in the cathedral but had to be moved during the renovations. It is called a galero, and they have been worn by cardinals of the Catholic Church since 1245 C.E. In the Second Vatican Council in 1969, a papal decree ended this practice. It is a tradition of the Church to hang the galero of a deceased cardinal above his tomb until it disintegrates into dust. It is said that the cardinal’s soul ascends to heaven when the hat first falls to the ground. For that reason, many modern cardinals choose to privately purchase galeri to be hung above their crypts. This particular galero has long since fallen, but the congregation had become so accustomed to seeing it hang inside the church, that the church decided to replace it with a new hat. The original was placed in a bag inside the cap to disintegrate fully. The original is over one hundred years old.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The George Washington National Masonic Monument and Museum

Just across the Potomac River in Alexandria, Virginia, the George Washington National Masonic Monument and Museum stands atop a high hill. No one stepping off the train at King St. could miss it, although all may not know what this strange, almost out of place, building contains. The gigantic Masonic symbol in front of it may give non-masons a feeling that it is only for Freemasons, but any who make the climb up the stairs to the top of the hill will find that all are welcome here.

 The building was inspired by the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The original was built in 280 BCE and was the tallest structure in the world at the time (393-450 ft tall).

 While the fire of the original lighthouse was a guide to the ancient sailors of the Mediterranean, the Masonic Memorial stands as a reminder of the life of our nation’s founder. His life was nothing less of a burning flame lit by the high ideals that drove him. Modern day politicians make for a sad comparison.

                        The Washington Monument in D.C. can be seen in the distance.
                                    Taken from the top of the observation deck.

 The memorial stands at 331 feet (101 m), and offers an unbeatable view of Alexandria, and even Washington D.C. can be seen in the distance. Construction began in 1922 but was not completed until 1932. The interior was under construction until 1970, and the exhibits are still growing. The reason for this is that the entire memorial was built without taking out any type of loans; everything was done by donations from Masons across the country.

 Within this impressive building, there are many intriguing artifacts from George Washington’s life.

 The history of this plain wooden cup is more bizarre than one would suspect from looking at it. In 1837, Washington was in need of a new coffin due to flooding. The undertaker, Benjamin W. Wheatley, used some of the wood from the original coffin to make this cup. It is unknown why he made a cup out of used coffin wood or if anyone has ever actually drank from it.

 This chair was specially made for Washington. It was the chair he used when he presided over Masonic meetings. Surprisingly, it is still used, but only once per year. Above it is one of the very few portraits of Washington that he actually sat for (apparently, he loathed having his portrait taken).

 On one floor, they had an assortment of mannequins costumed in different Masonic outfits. Here are a few:

Hiram, King of Tyre Costume


                                           Worthy Matron Gown and Jewel

My wife asked me how I knew about this place when we left, and it struck me that I really don’t remember how I found out about it. At any rate, it was the unexpected highlight of our trip to D.C. The entire monument has such a peaceful and calm feeling about it that simply cannot be conveyed over the internet. I feel that you get a very good feeling of who George Washington was and stood for at this museum.

                                 The giant bronze statue of George Washington
                                          in the main room of the museum


 Address: 101 Callahan Drive, Alexandria, VA 22301

 Official Website:

 Note: For those planning a trip here, I would strongly recommend that you arrive in time for one of the guided tours. Unguided guests cannot go to the upper floors or the observation deck.