Sunday, December 14, 2014

Gaudete in Domino semper.

Gaudete in Domino semper - "Rejoice in the Lord always." This imperative from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Philippians gives the Third Sunday of Advent its common name of Gaudete Sunday. Coming roughly halfway through Advent, Gaudete Sunday provides a special opportunity to take stock of one's readiness to welcome Christ when he comes into our midst. Having urged us in the strongest possible terms to rejoice in the Lord ("again, I say, rejoice"), today's reading from the Philippians also reminds us that we haven't much time to spare, for "the Lord is nigh." Our merciful God is ready to receive us. What, then, prevents us from hastening to meet him?

Father Alfred Delp begins the section of his Prison Meditations dealing with the Third Sunday of Advent by reflecting upon the meaning of happiness. According to Father Delp, the common understanding of "the happy state" as "contentment with one's lot" doesn't get to the heart of the matter. Writing from a German prison cell less than two months before his execution at the hands of the Nazis, Father Delp recognizes that few would regard his life as happy He also wonders whether anyone could truly be considered happy in a world torn apart by war:
As a matter of fact we may ask ourselves whether it is worthwhile wasting time on an analysis of happiness. Is happiness not one of the luxuries of life for which no room can be found in the narrow strip of privacy which is all we have left when war occupies almost the whole of our attention? Certainly it would seem to be so in a prison cell, a space covered by three paces in each direction, one's hands fettered, one's heart filled with longings, one's head full of problems and worries.
In spite of all this, Father Delp finds that his imprisonment has helped him to understand the true meaning of human happiness:
Yet it does happen, even under these circumstances, that every now and then my whole being is flooded with pulsating life and my heart can scarcely contain the delirious joy there is in it. Suddenly, without any cause that I can perceive, without knowing why or by what right, my spirits soar again and there is not a doubt in my mind that all the promises hold good. This may sometimes be merely a reaction my defence mechanism sets up to counter depression. But not always. Sometimes it is due to a premonition of good tidings. It happened now and then in our [Jesuit] community during a period of hardship and nearly always it was followed by an unexpected gift due to the resourcefulness of some kind soul at a time when such gifts were not customary.

But this happiness I am speaking of is something quite different. There are times when one is curiously uplifted by a sense of inner exaltation and comfort. Outwardly nothing is changed. The hopelessness of the situation remains only too obvious; yet one can face it undismayed. One is content to leave everything in God's hands. And that is the whole point. Happiness in this life is inextricably mixed with God. Fellow creatures can be the means of giving us much pleasure and of creating conditions which are comfortable and delightful, but the success of this depends upon the extent to which the recipient is capable of recognising the good and accepting it. And even this capacity is dependent on man's relationship with God.
Happiness in this life is inextricably mixed with God. Reading and thinking about these words, I recalled the "Atheist Bus Campaign" launched last year in Britain, which involved the placement on the sides of public buses of advertisements bearing the following words: "There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." The fact that some atheists equate faith in God with anxiety reveals an almost laughable ignorance of what religion is really about.

The sense of true happiness and joy that is a part of the Christian vocation comes from an understanding of who we truly are and how we stand before God. Father Delp points out that this understanding is fundamentally a private one, which perhaps partly explains why the inner joy that Christians feel is too seldom apparent to the world. As Father Delp writes, "The conditions of happiness have nothing whatever to do with outward existence. They are exclusively dependent on man's inner attitude and steadfastness, which enable him, even in the most trying circumstances, to form at least a notion of what life is about."

The challenge facing Christians in a secular society is essentially twofold. First and foremost, we must seek to nurture a deep sense of inner joy that can withstand the apathy, misunderstanding and outright hostility that often seems to surround us. Secondly, we must seek to live in a way that makes our joy evident to the world. As we continue to prepare ourselves to welcome Christ into our lives and into our hearts, we would do well to reflect on how we might better meet this twofold challenge. In thought, word and deed, may we more faithfully live out the call that comes to us today and every day to "rejoice in the Lord always." AMDG.


N.B.: This is a repost of an Advent post which originally appeared on this blog in 2009.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

The value or worthlessness of human life.

Picking up where I left off last week, here are some thoughts on the Second Sunday of Advent from Jesuit Father Alfred Delp (1907-1945):
The value or worthlessness of human life, its profundity or shallowness, depends very much on the conditions of our existence. Life ought to preserve its real stature and not dissipate itself in superficial interests or empty sterility. Western civilisation is responsible for much misconception, foreshortening of views, distortion and so on both in public and personal life. We are the products of that faulty outlook. Distortion is a danger inherent in man's nature to which we as a generation seem to have been more than ordinarily prone.

Moments of grace, both historical and personal, are invariably linked with an awakening and restoration of genuine order and truth. That, too, is part of the meaning of Advent. Not merely a promise, but conversion, change. Plato would have said preparation for the reception of truth. St. John more simply called it a change of heart. The prayers and the message of Advent shake a man out of his complacency and make him more vividly aware of all that is transmutable and dramatic in his life.

. . . The encounter with God is not of man's choosing either in regard to the place or the manner of it. Therefore the central portion of the message [of the Second Sunday of Advent] runs: 'Blessed is he that shall not be scandalised in me.' That is to say God is approaching but in his own way. The man who insists that his salvation shall depend on his own idea of what is right and proper is lost. It means further that the starting point of the movement towards salvation is the point at which contact is made with Christ. The way to salvation in the world is the way of the Saviour. There is no other way. We have to see this clearly and constantly affirm it.

. . .

So this Sunday we must again fold our hands and kneel humbly before God in order that his salvation may be active in us and that we may be worthy to call upon him and be touched by his presence. The arrogance so typical of modern man is deflated here; at the same time the icy loneliness and helplessness in which we are frozen melts under the divine warmth that fills and blesses us.
Though Father Delp composed his Advent meditations nearly seventy years ago, the distorted outlook that he noticed among his contemporaries is still very much with us. Convinced of our own self-sufficiency, we often fail to realize our own need for God's help; as Father Delp notes, the terms of our salvation are set by God alone. Even so, in our blindness we can often fail to perceive the ways in which God comes into our lives and offers the gift of His loving presence to us.

As we continue on our journey through Advent, perhaps we would do well to reflect on God's unexpected and unsought interventions into our seemingly independent and self-directed existence. As we do this, I pray that we may have the courage to become more open to Christ's presence in our midst. AMDG.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

A time for rousing.

With the Advent Season rolling around once again, conversations in the real world and online have led me to conclude that this might be a good time to once again share a series of Advent reflections first posted on this blog five years ago, partly in hopes that they might thereby gain some new readers. Though I may revise some of the others before posting them again, the text of the first such reflection is posted below exactly as it was first presented in 2009. Readers wanting to get a copy of the book referred to below may find it in various versions, including an older English translation (the one I used in preparing the original reflections) as well as a newer and apparently more complete translation, and naturally also the German original. I note that Father John Zuhlsdorf is also recommending this book for Advent for at least the second year running, and I would be happy if the attention gains some new readers for a modern spiritual classic.


Christmas is not a good time to be caught unawares. As the annual hype surrounding "Black Friday" reminds us, it's usually a good idea to start one's Christmas shopping as early as possible. Putting off Christmas shopping until the last minute can be risky: you may get lucky and find some bargains, but you're more likely to find half-empty shelves that may not include the items you were looking for. Whether it's a matter of finding the right gifts for loved ones, obtaining and decorating the right tree, or planning the family dinner, Christmas is a time when it generally pays to be prepared - not just materially and physically, but spiritually as well.

Preparing to celebrate the Nativity of Christ is no easy task. In the Christian East, the "Winter Pascha" of Christmas is preceded by a forty-day Nativity Fast that partly mirrors the penitential season of Lent. For Roman Catholics, the task of preparing spiritually for Christmas begins today with the First Sunday of Advent. Many churchgoers look forward to the sights and sounds of Advent - the four candles of the Advent wreath, the strains of hymns like Veni, Veni Emmanuel - but I suspect that relatively few take the time to reflect on the grave task that confronts us during this season.

In the modern age, few have articulated the meaning of Advent with as much clarity or force as the twentieth-century German Jesuit Alfred Delp, who was murdered in February 1945 for his opposition to the Nazi regime. From December 1944 to January 1945, as he sat in Berlin's Tegel Prison awaiting execution, Father Delp produced a series of reflections on Advent and Christmas that would later be published in a book called Im Angesicht des Todes (In the Face of Death), translated into English in the early 1960s as The Prison Meditations of Father Delp. Early on in his reflections, Father Delp explains that Advent is a time for our awakening to the truth about ourselves and our relationship with God:
Advent is the time for rousing. Man is shaken to the very depths, so that he may wake up to the truth of himself. The primary condition for a fruitful and rewarding Advent is renunciation, surrender. Man must let go of all his mistaken dreams, his conceited poses and arrogant gestures, all the pretences with which he hopes to deceive himself and others. If he fails to do this, stark reality may take hold of him and rouse him forcibly in a way that will entail both anxiety and suffering.

The kind of awakening that literally shocks man's whole being is part and parcel of the Advent idea. A deep emotional experience like this is necessary to kindle the inner light which confirms the blessing and the promise of the Lord. A shattering awakening; that is the necessary preliminary. Life only begins when the whole framework is shaken. There can be no proper preparation without this. It is precisely in the shock of rousing while he is still deep in the helpless, semi-conscious state, in the pitiable weakness of that borderland between sleep and waking, that man finds the golden threat which binds earth to heaven and gives the benighted soul some inkling of the fulness it is capable of realising and is called upon to realise.
A few pages later, in a meditation on the First Sunday of Advent, Father Delp explains what the process of awakening that we undertake during this season is really for. In Advent, we discover anew the necessity of the Incarnation and the purpose of human striving for God:
Unless a man has been shocked to his depths at himself and the things he is capable of, as well as at the failings of humanity as a whole, he cannot possibly understand the full import of Advent.

If the whole message of the coming of God, of the day of salvation, of approaching redemption, is to seem more than a divinely-inspired legend or a bit of poetic fiction, two things must be accepted unreservedly:

First, that life is both powerless and futile insofar as by itself it has neither purpose nor fulfillment. It is powerless and futile within its own range of existence and also as a consequence of sin. To this must be added the rider that life clearly demands both purpose and fulfillment.

Secondly it must be recognised that it is God's alliance with man, his being on our side, ranging himself with us, that corrects this state of meaningless futility. It is necessary to be conscious of God's decision to enlarge the boundaries of his own supreme existence by condescending to share ours for the overcoming of sin.

It follows that life, fundamentally, is a continuous Advent; hunger and thirst and awareness of lack involve movement towards fulfillment. But this also means that in his progress towards fulfillment man is vulnerable; he is perpetually moving towards, and is capable of receiving, the ultimate revelation with all the pain inseparable from that achievement.
As we prepare to celebrate God's coming among us, I pray that we may take Father Delp's words to heart. As we reflect on own unique personal failings and weaknesses, may we become more conscious of our need for redemption. As we awaken again to the truth about ourselves, may we come to appreciate more fully the gift of the Incarnation. As we seek to understand the true meaning of Advent, let us prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord. AMDG.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Canadian Churches and the First World War.

Here is some good news for Remembrance Day: Yesterday I received a copy of Canadian Churches and the First World War, a newly-published collection of scholarly essays on the impact of the Great War on various religious groups in Canada. I mention this here because the British edition of the book has one of my photos on the cover, duly credited in a blurb on the back. The photo in question first appeared in a Remembrance Day post published here two years ago, and I was both surprised and moved when a representative of the publisher contacted me a few months ago and asked for my permission to use the image; as you can see from the results, I readily agreed.

For me, one of the strange things about keeping a blog is the unpredictable results generated (and not generated) by one's work. Oftentimes, posts that took considerable time and effort to produce and reflect a great deal of personal commitment seem to receive little or no response, while other posts that were quickly and less carefully assembled generate positive comments. In some cases, the most gratifying response comes long after the post was published - such was the case with the Remembrance Day post mentioned above, and such was also the case with a 2011 Holy Thursday post discussing Rudolf Mauersberger's motet Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst, on which account I later received appreciative mention in the liner notes of a CD featuring a new recording of the same motet. It's all a bit of a mystery to me, and rather than seek to provide an explanation I'll rest content to note the phenomenon and to give thanks. As I do each year on Remembrance Day, I also give thanks for all those who have sacrificed their lives so that others might live. AMDG.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Dies irae, dies illa.

As is now my annual custom, I am marking All Souls' Day by reposting a translation of the Latin sequence for All Souls that I made a few years ago. The translation below as well as my commentary are identical with what I have provided in years past; I now chuckle a bit at my line about the hastiness of the translation and its need for improvement, as I have yet to find the time to actually sit down and do the serious work of revising the text. In any event, I hope that my annual reposting of this text is helpful and edifying to some readers.

Attributed to the thirteenth-century Franciscan Thomas of Celano and long prescribed as part of the Latin Requiem Mass, the Dies Irae enjoys a special place in Western musical culture thanks to the memorable settings of the Requiem text by composers ranging from Mozart to Verdi to Britten, among many others. For All Souls, I typically avoid any 'classical' setting of the Dies Irae in favor of the traditional Gregorian setting, because some days when only chant will do - and for me this is one of those days.

Below you can find the Latin text of the Dies Irae followed by my own English translation. I decided to translate the text myself out of a sense of dissatisfaction with the various translations that I found online, as a spiritual exercise for All Souls' Day - and, finally, to practice my Latin. The translation was made in haste and could certainly be improved - indeed, I have sometimes thought of starting from scratch and doing a new one - and I welcome comments and criticism; my goal was to convey the sense of the original faithfully and in a style that flows well in English without trying to reproduce the poetic meter of the original. So here goes:

Dies irae! Dies illa
Solvet saeclum in favilla:
Teste David cum Sibylla!

Quantus tremor est futurus,
Quando iudex est venturus,
Cuncta stricte discussurus!

Tuba mirum spargens sonum
Per sepulchra regionum,
Coget omnes ante thronum.

Mors stupebit, et natura,
Cum resurget creatura,
Iudicanti responsura.

Liber scriptus proferetur,
In quo totum continetur,
Unde mundus iudicetur.

Iudex ergo cum sedebit,
Quidquid latet, apparebit:
Nil inultum remanebit.

Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
Quem patronum rogaturus,
Cum vix iustus sit securus?

Rex tremendae maiestatis,
Qui salvandos salvas gratis,
Salva me, fons pietatis.

Recordare, Iesu pie,
Quod sum causa tuae viae:
Ne me perdas illa die.

Quaerens me, sedisti lassus:
Redemisti Crucem passus:
Tantus labor non sit cassus.

Iuste iudex ultionis,
Donum fac remissionis
Ante diem rationis.

Ingemisco, tamquam reus:
Culpa rubet vultus meus:
Supplicanti parce, Deus.

Qui Mariam absolvisti,
Et latronem exaudisti,
Mihi quoque spem dedisti.

Preces meae non sunt dignae:
Sed tu bonus fac benigne,
Ne perenni cremer igne.

Inter oves locum praesta,
Et ab haedis me sequestra,
Statuens in parte dextra.

Confutatis maledictis,
Flammis acribus addictis:
Voca me cum benedictis.

Oro supplex et acclinis,
Cor contritum quasi cinis:
Gere curam mei finis.

Lacrimosa dies illa,
qua resurget ex favilla
Judicandus homo reus.
Huic ergo parce, Deus:

Pie Iesu Domine,
dona eis requiem. Amen.


O day of wrath, that day
when the earth will be reduced to ashes,
as David and the Sibyl both testify!

What great fear there will be,
when the judge comes
to judge all things strictly.

A trumpet casts a wondrous sound
into the realm of the tombs,
calling all [to come] before the throne.

Death and nature will both marvel
as the [human] creature rises
to answer its judge.

A book will be brought forth
in which all things are recorded –
all that for which the world will be judged.

When, therefore, the judge appears,
all that is hidden will appear,
and no ills will remain unavenged.

As miserable as I am, what am I say?
whose protection may I invoke,
when even the just lack security?

O most majestic King,
who freely saves those to be saved,
save me, source of mercy!

Remember, merciful Jesus,
that I am the one for whom you came:
may I not be lost on that day!

Seeking me, you sat down tired:
to redeem me, you suffered the Cross –
may your toil not be in vain!

Just and avenging judge,
may you grant remission [of sins]
before the day of reckoning.

Guilty, now I sigh,
my face red with shame:
save thy petitioner, o God!

Having absolved Mary [Magdalene],
and heard the plea of the thief,
may you give me hope as well.

Though my prayers are not worthy,
be kind to me, o Good One,
that I may be spared the eternal fire!

Place me among the sheep,
and separate me from the goats,
setting me at your right hand.

When the wicked are confounded
and given over to bitter flames:
call me among the blessed.

Meek and humble, I pray,
with a heart contrite as ashes:
Help me reach my final end.

How tearful that day will be,
when from the ashes will arise
the guilty man for judgment.
Therefore spare him, O God!

Merciful Lord Jesus,
grant them rest. Amen.

To some modern ears, some of the above lines may seem a bit harsh; the familiarity of the Latin text and the beauty of its poetic form can easily distract us from the admonitory content of the Dies Irae. As stern as these words may be, though, they also remind us that God is merciful - indeed, the very source of mercy - and they call on us to pray: first for our beloved dead and for our own repentance, but also that we may offer to others the same mercy that we seek for ourselves. May all of us who celebrate this Feast of All Souls take these words in the right way, and take them to heart. AMDG.

Friday, October 31, 2014

"The Exorcist" on Halloween.

I have had a fairly busy month, one that has made it difficult to spare much time for this blog. There have been things that I would have liked to have written about here (like the outcome of this week's Toronto mayoral election), but I simply couldn't find the time to do so. That being said, I would find it difficult to let this month end without saying something about The Exorcist, a great Georgetown and Jesuit Halloween tradition, so here are some reflections adapted from a post first shared here in 2008.

Georgetown has at least two great Halloween traditions. One of these is the "Healy Howl," a midnight gathering of undergraduate students for the purpose of howling at the moon like wolves. When I was on the Hilltop, the Healy Howl took place at the gates of the Jesuit cemetery on campus, an appropriately spooky setting under the circumstances. As an undergrad, I used to wonder what the Jesuit priests, brothers and scholastics buried in Georgetown's cemetery would make of this yearly ritual. I finally came to suspect that, given their centuries of accumulated experience teaching undergraduates, most of the Jesuits buried at Georgetown probably had good senses of humor and would chuckle amusedly at a superficially transgressive but ultimately harmless ritual like the Healy Howl.

Georgetown's second great Halloween tradition is the screening of The Exorcist in Gaston Hall. Scripted by Georgetown alumnus William Peter Blatty and shot on and around the university campus, The Exorcist is the Georgetown movie - and in my experience, Gaston Hall viewings of The Exorcist could take on a sort of Rocky Horror Picture Show quality, with many students applauding whenever the Georgetown campus appears in the film and some coming in costume and offering shouted responses to the film's dialogue. Hoyas viewing The Exorcist would respond to the film as only Hoyas could: for example, a scene in the film in which dialogue between two characters is drowned out by the sound of plane flying overhead was greeted with uproarious laughter by the Gaston Hall audience for the simple reason that Georgetown students could relate to the experience given that their university sat below the flight path for airliners taking off and landing at Washington National Airport.

The Exorcist is also a quintessentially Catholic film that takes a sober look at the reality of evil and offers a challenging representation of sacrificial love. The heart of the film's message comes in a quiet scene between Jesuit priests Damien Karras (Jason Miller) and Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow), who have been called upon to perform an exorcism on twelve-year-old Regan McNeil (Linda Blair). Having wrestled throughout the film with a deepset crisis of faith, Father Karras ponders a profound question and gets a sage answer from Father Merrin:
KARRAS: Why this girl? It makes no sense.

MERRIN: I think the point is to make us despair - to see ourselves as animal and ugly, to reject the possibility that God could love us.
This exchange was cut from the film's 1973 theatricial release by director William Friedkin, who regarded it as "a commercial for the Catholic Church." Restored to the film nearly thirty years later, this brief bit of dialogue gives The Exorcist a crucial context that is missing from most contemporary horror films. The possession of Regan McNeil isn't a random event, but a contest in a larger battle between good and evil. As Father Merrin realizes, the presence of evil in the world tempts us to deny the essential truth about ourselves - that we are human beings with a transcendent destiny, made in the image and likeness of the loving God who desires eternal union with us. The Christian response to despair is to reaffirm our belief in the loving God and to follow the example of self-sacrificing love offered by Jesus Christ. Father Karras does this in a particularly striking (and even shocking) way, giving up his life to save Regan's.

Faithful to Georgetown tradition, I will watch The Exorcist again this evening at home in Toronto. Though I'm viewing the film on Halloween, I'm conscious that the struggle between good and evil reflected in the film isn't limited to this or any other single day. Though the evils we encounter in the world may tempt us to despair, we must always be mindful of the joy and love offered by the God who is with us even in the darkest hours of night. AMDG.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Penrose Fish and Chips closes after 64 years.

Today's Toronto Star brings the sad news regarding a venerable city eatery, Penrose Fish and Chips, which closes this week after 64 years in business:
"You've gotten good at that," Tim Johnston tells the takeout girl, as she wraps his French fries in newspaper.

Without pausing, she quips back: "A couple thousand times and you’ll get good at anything."

That may be the secret to success at Penrose Fish and Chips, which has been deep-frying filets and thick-cut potatoes in more or less the same way for 64 years. It is now considered the city's best.

And now, it is closing. The north Toronto institution will shut its doors for good on Wednesday afternoon.

The place has been packed since early September when the owner announced it was closing; they keep running out of fish before the day’s out. A visitor’s book near the checkout is filled with handwritten dismay.

"Can't believe it’s my last visit! Thanks for being a big part of my life!" read one message. Another, more pithy: "DON'T CLOSE!!!!!"

But close it must, says owner Dave Johnston. "Forty years of sixty-hour weeks," he says. "It takes its toll."

Johnston inherited the business from his father, a Second World War tank driver who fell in love with fish and chips while stationed in England. His first storefront was at Dundas and Gladstone; the current location, on Mount Pleasant Rd. just south of Eglinton Ave., opened in 1950.


It has been consuming. A police officer bidding Johnston farewell looked incredulous. "You ready for this?" the cop asked.

"Absolutely not," Johnston replied.

However, at 59, standing behind a deep-fryer all day is too much for his bum knee. He plans to sail and travel in his spare time.

There are parts of the job he will miss, though. "It grows on you and wears you away at the same time," Johnston said.

His favourite part? "The people." Well, he adds, laughing, "most of the people."

"You see them grow up and you see them bring their kids in," he said, his eyes moistening. "It's really quite neat."
To read the rest, click here. A bit like Steven Temple Books, Penrose Fish and Chips was a Toronto fixture that I never experienced firsthand. I nurtured hopes of visiting Penrose for a long while, having learned of the place shortly after I moved here and putting the restaurant on my list of places to visit; I never quite got around to it, and I regret that. Having eaten fish and chips just about every week when I was growing up in Southeastern Massachusetts, I still seek them out from time to time and I have a very specific idea of what I like (particularly with respect to the batter, which ought to be brown and crunchy). I have been generally satisfied with the fish and chips that I've had in Toronto - perhaps there is just enough lingering British influence here to ensure authenticity - but I usually get them in pubs and not at old-school fish-and-chip places like the Penrose, which are getting to be hard to find. That being said, the closing of this local institution may strengthen my resolve to visit similar places on my 'to do' list before they ride off into the sunset. AMDG.