Into Great Silence.
Sownynge in moral vertu was his speche, and gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche.
Like many others, I often think of Lent as a time for giving things up. Every year, I spend the last few days before Ash Wednesday reflecting on what exactly I will resolve to forego for the season, trying to think of a Lenten resolution that I can realistically stick to for forty days while still retaining a sense that I've actually sacrificed something. Normally - and this year is no exception - this line of thought leads me to give up something edible, either a specific item (like chocolate) or a whole class of items (like sweets in general).
Ash Wednesday is a day when you can tell who the Roman Catholics are. This is a day when many Catholics pack the pews - including quite a few who seldom go to Mass otherwise - in order to acknowledge that they are sinners redeemed by a loving God. Bearing the distinctive smudge of ashes on their foreheads, Catholics go forth on Ash Wednesday to subtly announce to others that they recognize themselves as sinful people in need of God's compassionate help and forgiveness. Despite being a cradle Catholic and having spent most of my life in places where Catholics are numerous, I still experience a kind of shock at the multitude of ash-smudged foreheads I encounter each year on Ash Wednesday. The shock, I believe, comes in seeing so many people who typically live out their faith somewhat anonymously make a very public and visible (albeit silent) declaration of how they see themselves before God. Ash Wednesday comes as a kind of rude awakening - an anticipation, perhaps, of the scandal of the cross and the joyful paradox of Christ's triumph over death which the Lenten season prepares us for.
The (Montreal) Gazette has a story today looking at the lives of some of the fifty or so men studying for the priesthood at the venerable Grand Séminaire de Montréal. Veteran Gazette religion reporter Alan Hustak writes on the diverse backgrounds of some of Montreal's second-career seminarians, including one Michael Leclerc:
He was a blackjack dealer in a casino, a bouncer in a Dawson City bar in the Yukon and a successful broker in charge of mutual-fund operations at Laurentian Bank Securities in Montreal. Then last week, Michael Leclerc took the first major step on his way to the Roman Catholic priesthood when he was accepted as a minister of acolyte [sic - should be "accepted for the ministry of acolyte"] at a service in the chapel of Montreal's Grand Seminary.
Leclerc, 36, is one of about 50 candidates studying for the priesthood at the seminary, a vast, sepulchral building hidden behind stone walls on Sherbrooke St. W.
. . .
Leclerc admits his route to the ministry was a circuitous one. "I would go to church on Sunday, but my religion had little effect on what I did the rest of the week," he said. "But my job as a financial analyst consumed me - I found it taking over who I was. The whole idea of shifting numbers from one column to another and worrying about decimal points started to seem empty."
To deal with the stress, Leclerc often found himself dropping into St. Patrick's Basilica on Rene Levesque Blvd. W. "My mind started focusing on the notion that maybe I should do something more with my life," he said. "Slowly I came to the conclusion I shouldn't be working with finances, that I should invest in something else - maybe along the lines of becoming a priest."
Although the numer of seminarians has been shrinking, it seems to have levelled off. Each year, about 15 candidates like Leclerc enter the seminary, according to a recently appointed auxiliary bishop of Montreal, Lionel Gendron, who was rector 20 years ago and recently returned to the job.
Last night, while we were both cleaning up after dinner, I got talking with my fellow Domer and brother Ciszekian Peter Folan about G. K. Chesterton and his association with the University of Notre Dame. Chesterton has a fair number of admirers at the Dome, including the people who run the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture. Chesterton made a celebrated visit to the Notre Dame campus in 1930, an event you can read about in Father Arthur Hope's episodic history of the university and (in much greater detail) in a 2002 talk given by Ralph McInerny. The most enduring legacy of Chesterton's time at Notre Dame is his poem "The Arena," my favorite lines of which are the following:
I have seen, where a strange country
Opened its secret plains about me,
One great golden dome stand lonely with its golden image, one
Seen afar, in strange fulfillment,
Through the sunlit Indian summer,
That Apocalyptic portent that has clothed her with the Sun.
O God, what will you do to conquer
The fearful hardness of our hearts?
Lord, you must give us new hearts,
Tender hearts, sensitive hearts,
To replace hearts that are made of marble and of bronze.
You must give us your own Heart, Jesus.
Come, lovable Heart of Jesus.
Place your Heart deep in the center of our hearts
And enkindle in each heart a flame of love
As strong, as great, as the sum of all the reasons
That I have for loving you, my God.
O holy Heart of Jesus, dwell hidden in my heart,
So that I may live only in you and for you,
So that, in the end, I may live eternally with you in heaven.
First off, special greetings to any readers who may be coming to this site for the first time on account of the recent Q&A in the Chicago Province magazine Partners on new approaches to Ignatian spirituality. The words attributed to me by Partners are accurate - especially the part about how I contribute "in a small way" to the work of the Society with this blog. My accomplishments are very few compared with the other Chicago Province Jesuits profiled in the same piece, and I'm honored and humbled to be included in such distinguished company. Once again, though, I'm pleased to welcome any newcomers who may have discovered this blog on account of the Partners piece. I hope you like what you see and that you'll come back often.
Since the beginning of this academic year, a small group of Jesuit scholastics here at Ciszek Hall has been meeting on Monday evenings for what we informally call "praying with film." The format for our gatherings is pretty straightforward - every week, we watch a movie and then seek to analyze it from a spiritual perspective. The inspiration for this project comes from Finding God in the Dark: Taking the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius to the Movies, a book written by two Jesuits who teach at Regis College in Toronto, John Pungente and Monty Williams. Finding God in the Dark takes the meditations of the Spiritual Exercises and pairs each one with a particular film, the idea being that an individual or group using the book would pray each meditation as they would during a retreat, watch the film keyed to the meditation and then consider how the two fit together. Some of the films chosen by the authors of Finding God in the Dark easily lend themselves to comparison with the material of the Exercises - for example, Pungente and Williams effectively use films like Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance and Requiem for a Dream to demonstrate the reality of sin and its effects. Another particularly good choice on the part of the authors was to suggest watching Mystic River in conjunction with Ignatius' meditation on the Three Classes of Persons. Some of the other films suggested in the book fall into the "loose-link" category or, in a few cases, seem to present a message contrary to the one that Pungente and Williams intend. (Pleasantville, possibly my least favorite of the movies presented in the book so far, appears to twist the fall of Adam and Eve around in such a way as to endorse sin - this clearly isn't what Pungente and Williams want us to get from the film, but it's hard to ignore the apparent intentions of the filmmakers.) Pungente and Williams offer more films for viewing than most people have time to watch, but one can easily omit a few (as my cohorts and I have done) while remaining faithful to the dynamics of the Exercises.
Today's New York Times includes an intriguing piece entitled "In Search of Flannery O'Connor," offering an account of NYT writer Lawrence Downes' visit to O'Connor's hometown of Milledgeville, Georgia. Visiting sites associated with O'Connor's life, Downes seeks to better understand a quiet Southern woman who died at 39 and in death won recognition as one of the greatest American Catholic writers of the 20th century. Here's how Downes explains O'Connor's appeal:
O'Connor's short stories and novels are set in a rural South where people know their places, mind their manners and do horrible things to one another. It's a place that somehow hovers outside of time, where both the New Deal and the New Testament feel like recent history. It's soaked in violence and humor, in sin and in God. He may have fled the modern world, but in O'Connor's he sticks around, in the sun hanging over the tree line, in the trees and farm beasts, and in the characters who roost in the memory like gargoyles. It's a land haunted by Christ - not your friendly hug-me Jesus, but a ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of the mind, pursuing the unwilling.I regret to say that I've never read anything by Flannery O'Connor, though I've been aware of her since I was in college and numerous people have recommended that I read her work. In my room I have two of O'Connor books (The Complete Stories and The Habit of Being, a collection of her letters) waiting to be read, and with their aid I hope soon to remedy a grave deficiency in my education. Reading Downes' account of his visit to Milledgeville also makes me want to see O'Connor's hometown for myself. God willing, perhaps I'll do that some day too. AMDG.
Many people - me for instance - are in turn haunted by O'Connor. Her doctrinally strict, mordantly funny stories and novels are as close to perfect as writing gets. Her language is so spare and efficient, her images and character's speech so vivid, they burn into the mind. Her strange Southern landscape was one I knew viscerally but, until this trip, had never set foot in. I had wondered how her fictional terrain and characters, so bizarre yet so blindingly real, might compare with the real places and people she lived among and wrote about.
Just in time for Groundhog Day, today's New York Times marks the annual southward migration of Snowbirds with a report on the striking pattern of "chain migration" in Florida:
It's not exactly regimentation, and there are plenty of exceptions to be found, but Florida's winter arrivals clearly like to settle in clumps. Even in the sunny South, they seem to want to be among their own - occupying turf in the company of their clans, their neighbors, their golf buddies and, in general, people who share the cadences of their accents and the colors of their license plates.
That's why the Miami area is called the Sixth Borough - and why Palm Beach County voters lamenting the weaknesses of the butterfly ballot in 2000 so often sounded like Long Islanders.
It's why Memphis families returning from spring break will be walking around with white sand from the Panhandle town of Destin (not Fort Myers, certainly not Miami) between their toes.
It's the reason two newspapers in French, with a Québécois tilt, are published in the Fort Lauderdale-area city of Hollywood and a big Quebec bank, Caisse populaire Desjardins, has started three branches nearby, complete with French-flashing A.T.M.'s.
New Englanders settle around Sarasota, and Philadelphians camp out nearby in Clearwater. Minnesotans congregate on Sanibel Island; Ohioans on the Gulf Coast east of Panama City. Carolinians find their own in Daytona.
In the beginning, all of this segmentation was a function of the Interstates. From the Midwest, the most direct route to Florida, I-75, goes to the West Coast. From the Northeast, I-95 follows the East Coast straight down to Miami. From Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia, it's a comfortable drive to the Panhandle.
Now, of course, you can board a flight to just about anywhere in Florida. But Northerners cling to the old patterns anyway.
"They're like birds," said John Tuccillo, an economist in Arlington, Va., who serves as a real estate consultant to businesses and government agencies. "They keep to their flyways." Demographers have a name for it: chain migration. "People who live near each other share information about where to retire, where to vacation," said Lance deHaven-Smith, a professor of public administraton at Florida State University in Tallahassee. "They tell their friends and neighbors, and then they end up in the same place."