Tombs of the apostles

From U.S. writer follows varied path around globe to tombs of apostles.

As a Peace Corps volunteer, Tom Bissell was hiking through a village in Kyrgyzstan one day, and an old Russian woman offered to take him to see the tomb of St. Matthew.

"I remember thinking: ‘The tomb of Matthew? I thought he was buried in Jerusalem or Italy or somewhere like that,’" Bissell recalled in an interview with Catholic News Service. But Kyrgyzstan, he soon learned, also had a claim on the apostle’s final resting place.

The woman led Bissell to the ruins of a monastery next to Lake Issyk Kul, where according to local legend the saint’s relics were transported by Armenian monks in the fifth century. It was a small marker in the remote reaches of Central Asia.

"That planted the seed," Bissell said. He began to wonder about the rest of the apostles, and discovered that many of them ended up in pretty strange places. [continue]

Meatloaf for mourners

Jewish customs fascinate me, so I was pleased to stumble across this article about sitting shiva. From Meatloaf for Mourners.

We had been going to Kesser Israel for about six months when Leslie’s father died. Not knowing what to do for her, I called and asked. "Do you guys need anything? Dinner or…"

Her husband saved me, "No, thanks, we’re fine."

I was off the hook, that is, until I heard that people were visiting Leslie while she sat shiva, the seven days of Jewish mourning. Cold as it may sound, I was not in the habit of doing things for people I wasn’t close to. I was a good friend to my friends, and I did volunteer work for strangers, but this in-between status threw me. I forced myself to visit her, unsure of what I should do or say.

As I approached Leslie’s door, I saw [continue]

The Codex Gigas, also known as the Devil’s Bible

From Radio Praha: Devil’s Bible returns home but only for few months.

The Codex Gigas, also known as the Devil’s Bible, is the biggest book in the world. Made at the start of the 13th century in a Bohemian monastery, it was one of the country’s most prized works of art. In medieval times, its uniqueness was even put on a par with the wonders of the world. But at the end of the Thirty Years’ War, it was taken by the Swedes and has been Swedish property since then. The National Library in Prague has now been allowed to borrow it for an exhibition that opens later this year.

Historians believe that the gigantic book, which has to be carried by two people, was most probably made in 1229 in a small Benedictine monastery in the town of Podlazice. Although the first mention of the book dates to 1295, the writing is thought to be about 65 years older. Its format – font and script – are uniform and it is believed to be the life work of one person, for whom it must have taken some 20 years to write. Zdenek Uhlir is from the National Library in Prague:

"It’s a parchment book and very huge. It is about 92cm high and about 51cm wide. That means that it’s the biggest book in the world. It weighs about 75 kilograms. It’s a very typical late-Roman book illumination and the typical colours are red, blue, green and yellow. It’s very difficult to read from the pages of this book because the script is very small — in some cases just seven millimetres big."

Why, how and by whom the Devil’s Bible was made has remained a mystery until this day. But legend has it that the book was written by a monk, who faced being walled up alive for breaching a monastic code, and promised to create the biggest manuscript in the world in just one night in return for being spared from punishment. But when he realised that he would not be able to deliver on his promise, he asked the devil for help and his prayer was answered. The devil, to which the monk sold his soul, is depicted in the Penitential – a chapter that takes the form of a handbook for priests, listing various sins and the corresponding forms of repentance. [continue]

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Proof of the brain’s link with religion?

From Proof of the Brain’s Link with Religion?.

One woman explains her nonsensical ability to "speak in tongues" as the voice of the Holy Spirit, which she says takes over her body. She tells us, "It’s like I’m here with you, but I’m somewhere else. And you don’t want to leave that place because you can kind of forget your surroundings and go to that place."

But her emotional, out-of-body feeling may be helped by her most rational organ – her brain.

In his newest studies, Dr. Andrew Newberg at the University of Pennsylvania found our brains change, seeming to enhance the religious experience we want. For people speaking in tongues, blood flows out of the frontal lobe of the brain, the part that controls our sense of self.

Dr. Newberg said, "So I find it fascinating that the part of the brain that normally makes us think we’re in control, in fact the part of the brain that usually helps us with language and the production of language, all of these areas decreased in people speaking in tongues. " [continue]

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Oh, look! The New York Times has an article about Solemnes:

One of the tasks of Roger Server as mayor of this quaint village in western France is to console misguided tourists who want to hear the monks in its 11th-century monastery singing in Gregorian chant. "People come and ask, ‘Can you visit the concerts?’ "

Tourists are restricted to the back of the church, he said, shaking his white hair in mock exasperation. "I tell them: ‘You can visit at the offices. You can admire the sculptures in the church.’ But the monks say, ‘We’re not here to receive tourists; we’re contemplatives.’ "

The monks, 55 of them, inhabit the monastery that hovers over the village like some great granite mother hen over her chicks. But in recent times the monks have gained a measure of fame for their dedication to Gregorian chant, the simple vocal music whose cadences, in Latin, for centuries adorned the Roman Catholic liturgy.

Now, a constant stream of visitors comes to Solesmes to sit in the monastery church and listen while the monks sing the psalms and prayers, seven times a day, of the sacred liturgy.

"They want their calm," Mr. Server, 65, a retired schoolteacher, said of the monks. "And after all, the monastery was there before us."

The monks’ dedication to Gregorian chant dates to the 19th century, when the monastery was refounded as the Benedictine abbey of St. Pierre de Solesmes, after having been closed after the French Revolution. [continue]

Chants of the Russian Orthodox Church

Now this is lovely. Here are the Monks and Choirs of Kiev Pechersk Lavra, with:

…26 hymns from the ancient church, sung by the monks of the historic Kiev-Pechersk cave monastery. Included are rare sacred music pieces by both Rachmaninov and the Italian composer J.Sarti, who was so enraptured by Orthodox singing that he left Italy for Russia in 1724 and lived there the rest of his life. Gorgeously layered, these venerable hymns bring together Byzantine traditions with those of old Russia.

(This post used to link to, where you were able to listen to, or purchase, the album. But that page on is gone, so I’ve removed the links.)

Irish Easter traditions

From the National Museum of Ireland’s Easter Traditions page:

Museum Curator, Clodagh Doyle, explains how people traditionally marked Easter. "People followed the rituals and ceremonies for all the days of Holy Week. They wore a piece of palm that had been blessed in church on Palm Sunday. They cleaned and whitewashed the house, yard, and byre in preparation for this important feastday and they abstained from work on Good Friday. New clothes were made or purchased to wear to Church on Easter Sunday. It was the most favoured time of the year for new clothes and often the only occasion.

In addition to its religious importance, Easter was also a time to protect the family’s health and well-being by eating eggs. The surplus of eggs that accumulated during Lent formed the main food for the Easter Sunday breakfast. Children decorated eggs and played different games with them. (…)

Pieces of meat cut from a joint that had been hung to dry or smoke for the duration of Lent was given to each member of the family on Easter Sunday to protect them from hunger for the coming year. Often a spoonful of Easter holy water was given to each member of the family to protect and bless them. Easter Blessings cards and Prayer cards were popularly given at this time and there are some on display at Turlough Park.

Easter Sunday was celebrated within the family with a welcome meal of meat and dairy produce as they had abstained from eating these during Lent. On Easter Monday there were often sports and races held in the community. Weddings were also popularly celebrated at this time as there were no celebrations permitted during Lent".

St. Joan’s bones were a forgery, says scientist

From physorg: Oh mummy… St. Joan’s bones were a forgery, says scientist.

Bones and a piece of linen cloth proclaimed as the holy relics of Saint Joan of Arc are fakes that come from an Egyptian mummy, a French forensic scientist announced on Wednesday.

"They are mummified remains of Egyptian origin dated to (Egypt’s) Late Period," said Philippe Charlier, after his team subjected the ancient remnants to a battery of 21st-century tests.

(I removed the link to this article, as it is no longer available on the physorg website.)

Czech Easter traditions

In the Czech tradition, today is Ugly Wednesday and tomorrow will be Green Thursday. Friday will be Good Friday, of course:

Good Friday was always regarded by the Roman Catholic Church as the day of greatest grief in the Church. It’s the only day in the year when Mass is not held anywhere in the world. Also, organs are silent, all ornaments are cleared from the altar, and no lights are burned. The cross is shrouded in a black veil.

Great Friday (Velký pátek) is the popular name for the day in the Czech Republic. Velký pátek is a day of fasting for Roman Catholics who will not eat meat until Saturday evening after the church bells start ringing on their legendary return from Rome.

On Velký pátek, Czech and Moravian cooks prepare their holiday bread (coffee cake) which must not be cut or eaten until the priest says, “Christ is risen!” (Kristus vstal z mrtvých!) on Easter Sunday. It is a universal custom to mark a new loaf of bread with the sign of the cross before cutting it, in order to bless it and thank God for it. On special occasions, the cross is imprinted on the loaf before baking it. Bread baked on Velký pátek – if hardened in the oven – can be kept all year, and its presence protects the house from fire. [continue]

Continuing with the Czech Easter stuff, you might also like to read about White Saturday, The Chasing and Burning of Judas, and The Red Eggs of Easter.

The priest who gave his flock £1,600

From the Guardian: The priest who gave his flock £1,600.

When your church roof needs to be repaired, doling out envelopes full of cash is not the most obvious way to get it fixed. But Father Stuart Lee stunned his congregation at St Matthew’s church in Raynes Park, south-west London, on Sunday when he handed them sealed envelopes with £20 inside.

After giving away £1,600, Fr Stuart revealed that he was emboldened by the fictional example of The Archers, where the vicar recently distributed £5 notes to encourage parishioners to raise money for a stained glass window.

In a similarly counterintuitive vein, Fr Stuart hopes that his flock of 80 – which, on Sunday, included several lucky first-timers in the congregation – will go forth and multiply the money by Pentecost, the 50th day after Easter Sunday. The Roman Catholic priest trusts that they will invest the money in fundraising events and coffee mornings that will turn every £20 into £100 towards repairing the church roof.

"I’m a great Archers fan," he says, before hurriedly adding that there is a biblical basis for his stunt. The Gospel according to Matthew records Jesus telling the parable of the talents, where a rich man left a hefty sum of talents (the currency of the time) with three servants. Two put the money to work and, when the boss returned, proudly showed that they had doubled its value. But one hapless servant stashed his in the ground and was told that he would be thrown "into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth". [continue]

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Amulet linked to early Christianity

From Amulet linked to early Christianity.

King Harold Bluetooth brought Christianity to Denmark roughly 1100 years ago. At least that’s what he declared on the Jelling Stone located in Jutland:

‘King Haraldr ordered this monument made in memory of Gormr, his father, and in memory of Thyrvé, his mother; that Haraldr who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian.’

A tiny crystal amulet in the National Museum’s archives suggests something quite different though, that maybe Christianity arrived in Denmark six centuries earlier than previously believed.

(I’ve removed the link to, as the article is no longer available on their site.)

Earliest gospels acquired by Vatican

From Earliest Gospels Acquired by Vatican.

The world’s oldest known copy of the Gospel of Saint Luke, containing the earliest known Lord’s Prayer, and one of the oldest copies of the Gospel of Saint John have been acquired by the Vatican, according to reports from Rome.

A nonsectarian New York nonprofit, Pave the Way, helped facilitate the acquisition.

Now stored in the Vatican’s Library, the documents are for the first time available for scholarly review. In the future, excerpts may be put on display for the general public.

Collectively known as the Bodmer Papyrus XIV-XV, the documents date to 175-225 A.D. and consist of 51 leaves from a manuscript that originally consisted of 72 leaves folded in the middle to form a single quire, according to Father Richard Donahoe, rector of the Cathedral of St. Paul in Birmingham, Alabama, who also helped with the acquisition.

"The papyrus authenticates that which has been passed down over the millennia," Fr. Donahoe told Discovery News.

He believes it is even possible the texts may have been copied from the original gospels.

Many of the earliest Biblical texts are [continue]

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The profane crowding out sacred in Mecca

From the International Herald Tribune: The profane crowding out sacred in Mecca.

Five times a day across the globe, devout Muslims face this city in prayer, focused on a site where they believe the prophet Abraham built a temple to God. The spot is also the place Muslims are expected to visit at least once in their lives.

Now as they gaze here in their mind’s eye, and make the pilgrimage clothed in simple white cotton wraps, they will see something other than the austere black cube known as the Kaaba that occupies the spot. They will also see Starbucks. And Cartier and Tiffany. And H&M and Top Shop.

The Abraj al Bait Shopping Center, one of the largest malls to open in Saudi Arabia, outfitted with flat panel monitors, neon lights, an amusement park ride, fast food restaurants and a lingerie shop, is being built directly across from Islam’s holiest site.

Not everyone considers this progress. [continue]

Lenten message via hot medium – YouTube

From the Philadelphia Inquirer: Lenten message via hot medium — YouTube.

And you thought YouTube — the on-line video mall starring anybody — was just about teenagers lip-synching to Justin Timberlake.

Oh, ye of little faith.

One of the newest (and unlikeliest) faces to emerge on this new communications technology is a middle-aged churchman, talking about Lent.

His name: Cardinal Justin Rigali, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Philadelphia. And his appearance on YouTube appears to be a first for any Catholic prelate.

"Dear friends in Christ," he says softly, dressed in a black cassock and gazing into the camera. "As we entered Lent on Ash Wednesday, the church encourages us as Catholics to practice fasting… ." (…)

And it has found an audience. By Friday afternoon – about 40 hours after the archdiocese posted his clip – he had 3,079 "hits," or views.

According to YouTube’s own tabulation, this made his the 16th most-watched English-language clip of the day and the eighth most-linked in the category of videos and blogs.

(I’ve removed the link to, as the article is no longer available on their website.)

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What makes wine kosher?

From the Jerusalem Post: What makes wine kosher? Lots of laws, lots of love.

A two-day kosher wine fair opened in Jerusalem on Wednesday, and the question on many visitors’ lips was: What exactly makes wine kosher?

The wine fair at the Jerusalem International Convention Center (Binyenei Ha’uma) held in a cooperation with Wine and Gourmet magazine provides the perfect opportunity to answer that question.

"Kosher wine starts in the vineyard with the orlah, which means that it is forbidden to use the grapevines from the first three years of the planting, but only from the fourth year," said Aryeh Ganz, the main kashrut supervisor for Carmel, Israel’s largest winery. [continue].

Present-day Sanhedrin court seeks to revive ancient Temple rituals

From Present-day Sanhedrin court seeks to revive ancient Temple rituals.

The present-day Sanhedrin Court decided Tuesday to purchase a herd of sheep for ritual sacrifice at the site of the Temple on the eve of Passover, conditions on the Temple Mount permitting.

The modern Sanhedrin was established several years ago and is headed by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. It claims to be renewing the ancient Jewish high court, which existed until roughly 1600 years ago, and meets once a week.

Professor Hillel Weiss, a member of the Sanhedrin, told Haaretz on Tuesday that the action, even if merely symbolic, is designed to demonstrate in a way that is obvious to all that the expectation of Temple rituals will resume is real, and not just talk. [continue]

Lack of 2nd Temple period rabbinic control may have caused assimilation

From the Jerusalem Post: Lack of 2nd Temple period rabbinic control may have caused assimilation.

A deep linguistic and cultural chasm between the Jewish communities of the West and their brethren in the East led to the almost total assimilation of Western Greek and Latin-speaking Jews during the last centuries of the Roman Empire, according to a study by Prof. Doron Mendels of the Hebrew University and Dr. Arye Edrei of Tel Aviv University published in the January issue of The Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha.

"We have quite decisively shown that the view that the rabbis [of the Talmud] had authority over the whole Jewish Diaspora in the Hellenistic period and later is not true," Mendels, an expert on the Hellenistic world and its Jews, told The Jerusalem Post on Monday.

"As of 70 [CE, the year of the destruction of the Second Temple,] onwards, when the rabbis become prominent as the leaders of the Jewish people, we claim that though they were leaders in the East, from Palestine to Babylonia, in the West, they never had any authority," Mendels said. [continue]

World’s smallest Bible found in a boot

From World’s Smallest Bible Found in a Boot.

Around 106 years ago, someone slipped a copy of the world’s smallest complete Bible in a child’s boot and stuffed it into a cottage chimney cavity to ward off evil. Now British archaeologists have identified the book, which a renovator discovered while working on the cottage in central England’s Ewerby.

In addition to the rarity of the book, the find represents one of the most recent instances of anti-witchcraft using a shoe amulet, according to British Archaeology editor Mike Pitts, who reports on the discovery in his latest issue.

The cottage also was part of the [continue]

Thanks to Lane for pointing out this story.