Friday, April 24, 2015


European goldfinch
As the goldfinches return to the area in their full glory, this is a good topic for Spring in the Northwest. There is a tradition of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance Periods of featuring a GOLDFINCH  in paintings of the Madonna and the Christ Child.

American goldfinch
Before I continue I must mention that there is quite a difference between our American goldfinch and the European species, as seen in these photos.

So what was it about the goldfinch that warranted its inclusion in these paintings?  The answer lies in the bird’s plumage and lifestyle, which had produced in the medieval mind powerful symbolic associations. What mattered for the artists was not ornithological accuracy but the bird’s symbolic or allegorical meaning. When depicted with Our Lord as a Child, the goldfinch associated the Incarnation with the Passion.

Paolo Veronese (+1588)
Joos van Cleve  (+1540)
All members of the finch family are seed eaters, and goldfinches eat mainly thistle seed. Thistles, having thorns, had a symbolic association with the crucifixion, being symbolic of the thorns in Jesus' crown at the time of His death. Because it symbolized the Passion, the goldfinch was considered a "savior" bird and was sometimes pictured with the common fly (which represented sin and disease).

Through its association with thistles, the goldfinch came to be seen as a good-luck charm, ‘warding off contagion and bestowing symbolic health both upon those who viewed it and upon the person who owned it’. Thus the goldfinch came to be a symbol of endurance, and in the case of paintings of the Madonna and Child, this symbolism was an allegory of the salvation Christ would bring through his sacrifice.

Giovanni Tiepolo (+1770) Detail
What did the colors of the goldfinch represent? First, there was the bar of gold across the bird’s wings, a color which, since the ancient Greeks, had been associated with the ability to cure sickness.  Then there was the splash of red on the cheeks, which like the robin’s red breast, was a sign to medieval Christians that the bird had acquired blood-colored feathers while attempting to remove the crown of thorns from while Christ was being crucified.

Lorenzo Veneziano (+1372)

Since the early medieval period, the finch was thought to have the gift of healing sight. It was said that a finch could cure a person’s disease just by looking at him or her. The artists gave us Christ  with a symbol not only of his eventual suffering and sacrifice, but also the healing power, presented  in both physical and spiritual terms, of that sacrifice.

 Guercino- early 1600s

 It is estimated that nearly 500 paintings in this period included the goldfinch, which often occupied a central place in the composition, perched on the Virgin Mary’s fingers or nestled in Christ’s hands.

 The goldfinch paintings were attributed to 254 artists, 214 of them Italian.
Some of the most famous artists to make use of the theme were Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Zurbarán, and Tiepolo. One of my favorites is Guercino's "Madonna and Child with Escaped Goldfinch". I can find no explanation of the artist's deviation from the tradition of Madonna or Child holding the bird. Is the escape to represent the finch's relieving Christ of the sufferings to come, a sign of His Resurrection or relief of our own sufferings? In a16th C. German painting we see the goldfinches sitting on the fence behind the Madonna and Child. Another interesting, but rare setting for the bird.

Vittore Crivelli (+1502)

16th C. German
So we have not only the bird as a symbol of Jesus death, suffering and Resurrection but also a symbol that the goldfinch stood for  recovery from illness, and the raising up of a person out of their sick-bed- another kind of symbolic Resurrection.

As seen by the paintings below, all 21 C., the theme has not died out, though is much less common today. However, this bird is a good reminder to us of endurance, fruitfulness, and persistence, and in the end, hope of life eternal.

Brian Whalen- 21 C. English
Fr. John Guiliani- USA

Friday, April 17, 2015


Woman with Crow- Picasso
 During this time of spring, when the birds are in full chorus, along with the frogs, I would like to share a very interesting story, which we first saw on the BBC news (story by Katy Sewall). Strangely enough though, it happens right in our own backyard!

Gabi's relationship with the neighborhood (Seattle) CROWS began accidentally in 2011. She was four years old, and prone to dropping food. She'd get out of the car, and a chicken nugget would tumble off her lap. A crow would rush in to recover it. Soon, the crows were watching for her, hoping for another bite.


As she got older, she rewarded their attention, by sharing her packed lunch on the way to the bus stop. Her brother joined in. Soon, crows were lining up in the afternoon to greet Gabi's bus, hoping for another feeding session. Gabi's mother Lisa didn't mind that crows consumed most of the school lunches she packed. "I like that they love the animals and are willing to share," she says, while admitting she never noticed crows until her daughter took an interest in them. "It was a kind of transformation. I never thought about birds."

In 2013, Gabi and Lisa started offering food as a daily ritual, rather than dropping scraps from time to time. Each morning, they fill the backyard birdbath with fresh water and cover bird-feeder platforms with peanuts. Gabi throws handfuls of dog food into the grass. As they work, crows assemble on the telephone lines, calling loudly to them.

It was after they adopted this routine that the gifts started appearing. The crows would clear the feeder of peanuts, and leave shiny trinkets on the empty tray; an earring, a hinge, a polished rock. There wasn't a pattern. Gifts showed up sporadically - anything shiny and small enough to fit in a crow's mouth.

One time it was a tiny piece of metal with the word "best" printed on it. "I don't know if they still have the part that says 'friend'," Gabi laughs, amused by the thought of a crow wearing a matching necklace.

Gabi's Collection
When you see Gabi's collection, it's hard not to wish for gift-giving crows of your own.
Inside a box are rows of small objects in clear plastic bags. One label reads: "Black table by feeder. 2:30 p.m. 09 Nov 2014." Inside is a broken light bulb. Another bag contains small pieces of brown glass worn smooth by the sea. "Beer colored glass," as Gabi describes it.
Each item is individually wrapped and categorized. Gabi pulls a black zip out of a labeled bag and holds it up. "We keep it in as good condition as we can," she says, before explaining this object is one of her favorites.

There's a miniature silver ball, a black button, a blue paper clip, a yellow bead, a faded black piece of foam, a blue Lego piece, and the list goes on. Many of them are scuffed and dirty. It is an odd assortment of objects for a little girl to treasure, but to Gabi these things are more valuable than gold. She holds up a pearl colored heart. It is her most-prized present. "It's showing me how much they love me."

"If you want to form a bond with a crow, be consistent in rewarding them," advises John Marzluff, professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington. He specializes in birds, particularly crows and ravens. Dr. M. was the one who responded to our Shaw 4-H birding group when they did their study on crows in 2012 (see Blogs May 29 & Aug. 27), which won them Best of Show at the county fair.

Marzluff, and his colleague Mark Miller, did a study of crows and the people who feed them. They found that crows and people form a very personal relationship. "There's definitely a two-way communication going on there," Marzluff says. "They understand each others signals."

The birds communicate by how they fly, how close they walk, and where they sit. The human learns their language and the crows learn their feeder's patterns and posture. They start to know and trust each other. Sometimes a crow leaves a gift.

But crow gifts are not guaranteed. "I can't say they always will (give presents)," Marzluff admits, having never received any gifts personally, "but I have seen an awful lot of things crows have brought people."

Saturday, April 11, 2015


Our Next poetess was one of my favorite nuns at Regina Laudis. Everything I know about herbs I learned from her. She was a cultured, brilliant woman and most generous with her knowledge. Mother Jerome von Nagel Mussayassul, died at the Abbey in 2006, at the venerable age of 98, still active with her work. She entered Monastic Life in 1958, at the age of 50, having lived an international life as a citizen of the world that took her from her birthplace, Berlin - Charlottenburg, to Cairo, Alexandria, Florence, and New York before entering RL.

Melanie "Muska" von Nagel was born in 1908, one of three daughters to General Major Karl Freiheer von Nagel, Commander of the Bavarian First Heavy Cavalry Regiment and Chamberlain at the Bavarian Court, and Mabel Dillon Nesmith, from a prominent New York family. She spent her early childhood in Munich and the surrounding Bavarian countryside until the assassination of her father in 1918.

For Melanie, the years between the wars marked the beginning of her introduction to international society as well as the beginning of her life as a serious, published writer. She lived for a time in Florence and in 1944, having returned to Germany and with the Second World War in full progress, she met and married Halil-beg Mussayassul, a prince from the Caucasus Mountains, who was a highly regarded portrait painter with a studio in Munich. During and after the war, they gave shelter to refugees, mostly Russian, including many concentration camp survivors. Speaking eight languages fluently, she was also a great service to the Displaced Persons camps.

At the close of World War II, she and her husband Halil began a life in New York. After his death shortly after, Melanie continued to live in New York, pursuing her writing, and supporting, fostering and contributing to its cultural life. In spite of this stimulating existence, she felt an emptiness that led her to pursue her long standing attraction to Monastic Life. Visiting the Abbey she instinctively realized that she was suddenly and finally "at home".

Painting of Muska by Halil

In 1957, she entered Regina Laudis, writing, "I'm being led. Who else can plan the ways that rise from roots to tips of meadow grass?"  Her life at the Abbey was simple and humble, in stark comparison to her previous life in Europe and America. Always faithful to the Divine Office, she received through it the energy necessary for the many duties of daily life.

Perhaps her most outstanding public accomplishment was her work as the well known author Muska Nagel. Progressing from book reviews early in her life to her own poetry and translations of other authors, most significantly her old friend Paul Celan, was a lifelong work. She continued writing and publishing until her death.

Understanding the strength of an Abbey as a stabilizing center, Mother Jerome worked with the land records of Bethlehem and neighboring towns. She gave those interested, including the young in her own community, a stronger sense of their roots and the spiritual richness of the land which nurtures them.

Mother Jerome was a magnet for young and old, who sought out this woman of inspiration, hope, wisdom, humor, faith and unquenchable thirst for life. Groups of young persons traveled regularly from Germany to learn from her, as did the people of Daghestan, the country of her deceased husband, who affectionately considered her the mother of their country.

When Melanie von Nagel was clothed in the Benedictine habit as a Novice, she received the religious name of Jerome, after the Saint who devoted his life to scholarship, teaching, writing and translating. She fulfilled her name throughout her religious life, by prayer, teaching and study.  Three books of her poetry were published, these two poems from "Things That Surround Us" (1987).

                       OWL in the COLD

      The thoughts that come forbidden to my house
are like a flock of parakeets
amazing in this green of rain
and loneliness.
They preen their feathers as they take flight,
not for me to hold,
just to reflect their nimbleness,
peering, as in a darker season, does
the owl out of her winter nesting
into the light
of snowflakes
in the cloaking cold.


    It was good that you hated my sight and threw me away
in the garden.
I lie where I fell.  Now each of my splinters
reflects, open and free,
a different angle: surprises,
exchanges. Each fragment filled to the brim
with the nudging of pebbles, of grasses - a dewdrop
curving in love pours sky into one flash of me;
another facet embraces
the amaranth belly, the wing
of a beetle, a grasshopper’s thigh pulsing red,
gold tatters of cloud.

    Like the grass
I am eaten by sun and by rain, learning,
in fragments, how wisdom
comes at the end.
I thank you.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015


 April is national poetry month and I would like to start
with some poems by members of our Order. The first is by our Mother Dilecta (here at OLR).

9/11  A Commemoration   
Lewis Williams
waking very early                                                      
            solidly dark here in the West
            day dawning on the East coast
            I find myself praying among the stars
              darkness not a void but
              a setting for the stars,        
              interplay of dark and light.

an owl murmurs,
            murmuring a question
            ...we know now the answer
            a stark 2,817 soul mates,
            at least 2,817, the number unsure
            as survivors of ground zero surface
            having forgotten their own names

so brief the passing
            of the shooting star  
            then across the sky
              a pace  regular and magnetic
              the passage of a plane silently
              (for some the last sensing was     
               sound and firey, fuel-fury).

                        From the distance of today
                        a stark beauty and patterned
                        meaning emerges in the sky:
                        somehow imbedded in the vastness
                        "Yahweh, God our God is One
                                    Allah is great
                        Bless be Jesus Christ,
                                    Firstborn of all creation"
                        someday to be uttered as
                                    effulgence not controversy.

later in the light of day
            the vastness remains
            with no points of brightness
            or connected patterns

but the stars unseen
            are always with us.   

Saturday, April 4, 2015