Thursday, August 30, 2007

From Jesuit Review to The Cloisters.

Depending upon your philosophical, religious or political bent, you've probably read or at least heard of publications like National Review, the New Left Review, the New Oxford Review, or World Press Review. You may even have heard of the Downside Review, a venerable Catholic quarterly published by the Benedictine monks of Downside Abbey in England, or the Dublin Review, another venerable (and now defunct) Catholic journal which was published in London and had remarkably little to do with Dublin. By contrast, you probably haven't heard of Jesuit Review - unless, of course, you read some of the other blogs that have been talking it up.

Jesuit Review is a video series available online on Companion of Jesus, a website produced by John Brown, a Jesuit scholastic of the New Orleans Province. John was kind enough to favor me with a link on his site, and now I'm happy to return the favor by writing about Jesuit Review. This series of ten videos is the fruit of a collaborative effort between John and my friend and fellow Ciszekian Carlos Esparza. In each installment of Jesuit Review, Carlos and John introduce key elements of Ignatian spirituality, provide short biographical profiles of major Jesuit saints, and interview a range of Jesuits on various aspects of life in the Society of Jesus. The first five installments of Jesuit Review are already online, and another five are slated for release next month. Well-conceived and exceptionally well-produced, Jesuit Review offers a fine introduction to both the spiritual charism and the contemporary work of the Society. If you want to know more about the Jesuits - even if you know a lot about us already - you would do well to check out Jesuit Review.

While I'm on the general topic of introductions, I should say something about the past couple weeks at Ciszek. Fordham's academic year starts unusually late this year - classes don't begin until after Labor Day - so the scholastics here have spent the last ten days getting reacquainted after a summer in diaspora and getting to know the new men in our midst. The new first-year guys are a good group, and I'm looking forward to getting to know each of them better over the course of the coming year.

As part of a larger community effort to introduce the new scholastics to New York's considerable cultural offerings, I joined some of them on trips to some of Manhattan's many museums. In the process, I got my first look at the outstanding new Greek and Roman galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. On the same day I visited the Guggenheim Museum, an experience that served to remind me that modern art generally isn't my thing. That said, I do like the Guggenheim's distinctive building, which is sadly concealed by scaffolding on account of a multi-year restoration process.

This morning I made my maiden visit to another of New York's most architecturally striking museums, The Cloisters in Upper Manhattan. Situated in the middle of lushly wooded Fort Tryon Park, The Cloisters is home to much of the Metropolitan Museum's considerable collection of art from Medieval Europe. The Cloisters' holdings include the famous Unicorn Tapestries, a lot of stained glass, numerous illuminated manuscripts and wood carvings, and a fair number of chalices and monstrances. All of these works of art are displayed in a building constructed from portions of several Medieval monasteries, which were purchased, disassembled and shipped across the Atlantic at a time when Europeans were apparently more willing to sell off their cultural patrimony to wealthy Americans. A unique blend of beautiful religious art and breathtaking monastic architecture make The Cloisters as evocative and enchanting a spot as you're likely to find in the middle of a major American metropolis. I'm sure that I'll be stopping there again during the coming year. AMDG.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Ingmar Bergman, Theologian?

The above image comes from Ingmar Bergman's 1962 film Winter Light, a brief look at an afternoon in the life of a Lutheran pastor (played by Gunnar Björnstrand, pictured) facing a crisis of faith. As I've noted already in a number of recent posts, the religious themes that permeate Winter Light are present to one degree or another in nearly all of Bergman's films. In recent days, journalists and scholars alike have taken the opportunity to revisit the question of Bergman's "theology" and to explore the qualities of his work that appealed to people of faith. Following the likes of Peter Steinfels and Marc Gervais, American Jesuit and Boston College film professor Father Richard Blake chimes in on the theological dimensions of Bergman's work with an article in the latest issue of America. Blake did his doctoral dissertation on the role of Lutheranism in the Bergman canon, so his qualifications are hard to dispute. Here is some of what Blake has to say about "Ingmar Bergman, Theologian":
In a flurry of obituary notices, [Ingmar Bergman] has been universally praised as one of the great artists of his time. I would like to add a note of appreciation for Bergman the theologian, or at least, Bergman the religious thinker. No doubt he would reject both terms. He uses images where theologians use words. He crafts dialogue where they construct concepts. He exposes the messiness of the human condition, where they seek clarity. He focuses on the struggling, solitary human figures reaching outward, where they begin their inquiry with a God reaching down, revealing himself. But looking at the films, one sees a congruity in their tasks.

. . . [The Seventh Seal] began a series of seven films that explored the possibility of faith in a post-Holocaust, nuclear age. In The Virgin Spring (1960), Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1962) and The Silence (1963), he poses traditional faith questions in identifiably religious language. The characters struggle self-consciously with their inability to believe in God and form relationships with one another. In Wild Strawberries (1957) and The Magician (1958), the issues are veiled in layers of metaphor. The theological questions become apparent only by placing them in the context of the other films of the period. With The Silence he concludes that God is unknowable, and the human person must simply continue life's journey seeking understanding and happiness however one can. At that point, God-questions drop out of his films altogether.

Or do they? For the next 25 years, his self-centered and self-destructive heroes squirm in their own loneliness, unable to find salvation in human terms through their own efforts. In keeping with good Lutheran tradition, Bergman supplies redemption from without, inevitably in the form of a life-giving woman. . . . [Bergman's] later films of relationships can legitimately be read as a continuation in metaphorical terms of the theological questions he explored in his seven "God films." In other
words, I'm suggesting a unified rather than disjunctive reading of his work. . . .

. . . I'm suggesting something more than parallel narratives or interlocking themes in Bergman's work - that is, a cohesive unity in his divine and human quests. The search for love in the later "post-God" works at the very least reflects the strong influence of his earlier theological concerns. Ingmar Bergman expresses the human search according to a religious template. But I would dare to go further: these troubled human relationships also reflect in metaphorical and poetic terms our contemporary, ongoing struggle to discover an authentic relationship to God.
The rest of Father Blake's article is definitely worth reading, though the entire text is unfortunately only available to registered readers of America. Like Blake, I suspect that Bergman "won't be widely mourned by today's movie audiences" given aspects of his filmmaking that many contemporary viewers are likely to find dated or merely challenging. Nonetheless, I hold out a hope that the attention Bergman is getting now will win him new fans. Perhaps you, reader, will be one of them. AMDG.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Marc Gervais on Ingmar Bergman.

Given that I spent the early part of this month in a place where I had only sporadic access to the Internet, I shouldn't be surprised that it took me three weeks to come across this article from the Montreal Gazette in which Jesuit film scholar Marc Gervais reflects on the death of Ingmar Bergman. Though it's old news, I feel compelled to post on this item because of the role that Bergman and Gervais have played in my own Jesuit vocation. I've written a few times before (to be precise, here, here and here) on my appreciation of Ingmar Bergman's films and on the small "cameo role" that Canadian Jesuit and Bergman expert Marc Gervais played in my vocation story. I finally got a chance to meet Gervais while I was in Montreal in March, and as it happens I saw him again when I was back in the city in late May and early June of this year.

I'm not going to rehash what I've already written about Bergman and Gervais, so you'll have to refer to the links above if you want more of a backstory for this post. For now, here's what the Gazette has to say about Gervais' reaction to Bergman's death:

Marc Gervais, a leading authority on Ingmar Bergman, got quite the shock Monday evening [July 30th] on his return from a brief vacation in Maine. News of Bergman's death hit the airwaves Monday morning but the Montreal writer and scholar didn't learn of the passing of the iconic Swedish film auteur until he arrived home to a slew of telephone messages that night after driving home from Goose Rocks with his brother and [his brother's] wife.

"It was a blow, like (a death in the) family," said Gervais, on the phone Tuesday. "I felt like some of my past was dying. He was so central to my life."

Gervais, a Jesuit priest, has been obsessed with Bergman ever since he caught a double bill of Bergman's atypical romantic comedy Smiles of a Summer Night and the wild Biblical allegory The Seventh Seal while studying in Washington, D.C., in the late 1950s. He hasn't stopped analyzing, teaching and writing about the Scandanavian film master ever since.
After talking about his own "cordial, if distant" personal relationship with Bergman, Gervais refers to the curious phenomenon of the "Bergman priests" and reflects on the influence that the Swedish director had on the course of his Jesuit life:

Bergman was raised by a strict Lutheran clergyman father, and Gervais believes that dour strain of Lutheranism was central to Bergman's films. But for reasons even Gervais doesn't fully comprehend, there was, for quite some time, a number of what he calls "Bergman priests" scattered across the globe. These Catholic men of the cloth were all fascinated by the religious themes at the core of so many Bergman flicks.

"I was the official Bergman priest for Canada," Gervais said.

. . .

[Gervais] still vividly recalls the night in Washington almost 50 years ago when he first encountered Bergman's unique big-screen vision. Gervais's life changed the moment he laid eyes on these films that didn't shy away from tackling tough questions about faith, spirituality, sexuality and mortality. On the spot, he knew he could make a career of delving into Bergman's work, and that his Jesuit superiors couldn't possibly object to that choice.

"I was just knocked out," said Gervais, now 77. "I said - 'Oh my gosh, this is just perfect.' When I saw Bergman's films and the kinds of topics he was covering, I knew it would be smooth sailing. With the Jesuits and in Catholic universities, if you taught Shakespeare, you'd look at the aesthetics and all that, but there always had to be a side that was heavily spiritual. So when I saw Bergman, I thought that will solve any problem. I won't have to sweet-talk anymore."

In fact, his Jesuit colleagues were mostly delighted by his Bergman infatuation.

"The Jesuits were very good. Most of them were very interested, and, besides, I was doing them a big favour, by bringing a lot of his movies up to the seminary."

Gervais' career as a Bergman scholar stands in a great Jesuit tradition of humanistic inquiry and engagement with contemporary culture. Gervais' reflections on how he first became interested in Bergman's work display a sort of intellectual curiosity that is distinctively, integrally Jesuit. There have been great Jesuit philosophers and theologians, but the Society has also produced great biologists, linguists, mathematicians, poets, and even film scholars. By my lights, this kind of variety is an essential part of who Jesuits are as a corporate body. For me, the breadth and diversity of Jesuit scholarly endeavor bears witness to our charism and mission of finding God in all things. I pray that we always retain this sense of ourselves, and as long as we have men like Marc Gervais in our ranks, I'm sure that we will. AMDG.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

No longer lost, a refugee accepts call to leadership.

Yesterday, I returned to my digs in Ciszek Hall after three months away from New York. I'm still tired and kind of disoriented, so I'm going to postpone my official "back to school" post for a couple days. In the meantime, I do want to call your attention to an article in today's New York Times about a 26-year-old Sudanese refugee, one of the celebrated "Lost Boys," who was recently ordained an Episcopal priest in, of all places, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Here is some of what the NYT had to say the young cleric and his ministry:

About 7,000 miles separate Grace Episcopal Church [in Grand Rapids], where the Rev. Zachariah Jok Char preaches most Sundays, from the small town of Duk Padiet in Sudan, where he was born.

The tally of the miles started about 21 years ago when Mr. Char was 5 and militias backed by the Sudanese government attacked his town during the civil war in the south. He saw the explosions from the field where he was playing, and he fled. He met other boys who had escaped similar attacks, and they started walking.

. . .

The orphans, mostly boys, walked more than 1,000 miles to Ethiopia from Sudan over three months, Mr. Char said. Later, they were forced to walk to Kenya. Thousands died. The West called them the Lost Boys.

Those boys are men now, and here and in cities like Atlanta and Burlington, Vt., the 3,800 who were resettled in the United States beginning in 2001 are trying to build lives and weave communities. For many, their Christian faith, often Anglicanism, is at the heart of their efforts.

Even as they struggle with school, work and frequent bad news from home, recent Sudanese immigrants have moved rapidly to establish congregations, often with the help of local Episcopal parishes. For the Sudanese, church is a place where they can be themselves after being Americans all week, where they can hear Scripture in their native language and where they can reconstitute a culture they only began to know as children.

"We want to pray to God, God who brought us here," Mr. Char, 26, said of the formation of the congregation at Grace Episcopal. "It was not a human decision but a God decision that we are here."

The Sudanese want their own to lead them. So at a ceremony on June 16, the bishop and clergy members of western Michigan laid their hands upon Mr. Char and welcomed him as a priest in the Episcopal Church, among the first of the Lost Boys to be ordained.

Mr. Char has taken on a burden, as he ministers to his people while attending college and working at a meat-processing plant, both full time. His work as a priest makes it possible for the Sudanese church members to receive communion and have their baptisms, weddings and funerals in Dinka, their language.
To read the rest of the article, click here. Reading about Father Char inevitably made me think of own work with refugees this summer and during my time as a novice. Though very few of the refugee clients I served in San Jose were Sudanese, during my time at Catholic Charities I met many people from southern Sudan who came to the United States as refugees and who have had to work hard to rebuild their lives and to learn how to survive in a new and sometimes threatening social and cultural environment. Though none of the Sudanese refugees that I got to know in California have followed Char's path into ordained ministry, all were individuals of deep and genuine faith. Their struggles mirrored those of Father Char and his congregants: trying to support themselves and their families by working low-wage jobs, putting themselves through school, learning a new language and adjusting life in America while dealing with the trauma of the refugee experience.

I feel very blessed to have had the opportunity to provide help and companionship to African and Asian refugees going through the difficult process of resettlement, and I continue to pray for the individuals and families I worked with and for all refugees. I hope that you will join me in praying for refugees. If you'd like to do more, you may want to think about volunteering with Catholic Charities or with other refugee resettlement agencies in your area. AMDG.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Notes on the Dormition of the Theotokos.

In liturgical and spiritual terms, August 15th is a date on which the Church breathes with both lungs. In recognition of this fact, I'm going to church twice today. This morning, I walked a few blocks down Sheridan Road from Loyola University Chicago (where I'm staying for the week) to attend a Divine Liturgy commemorating the Dormition of the Theotokos at St. Andrew's Greek Orthodox Church. This evening, I'll be at St. Benedict the African (East), home parish of my brother Jesuit and novitiate classmate Eric Styles, for a Mass commemorating the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Today Christians of East and West, Orthodox and Catholic, commemorate one and the same event - Mary's departure from earthly life and appearance, body and soul, in the heavenly company of her son.

The fact that the Dormition of the Theotokos and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary are one and the same feast has been lost on many. Indeed, I've even heard some Roman Catholics argue that one cannot believe both that Mary died - an idea inherent in her Dormition or "falling asleep" - and that she was bodily assumed into Heaven. The basis of arguments for what I'll call the 'Marian incompatibility thesis' seems to lie in a misunderstanding of Catholic dogma on the Assumption combined with insufficient knowledge of Eastern belief regarding the Dormition. Guided by a popular tradition maintained by centuries of Western religious art, many Roman Catholics believe that the Assumption took place while Mary was still alive. The Church neither endorses nor condemns this view. Defining the dogma of the Assumption in the 1950 apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus, Pope Pius XII stated that "having completed the course of her earthly life, [Mary] was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory." Whether or not Mary underwent physically death before her Assumption is pointedly left undefined by Munificentissimus Deus, recognizing divergent beliefs and traditions on this point. By contrast, the key element of belief in the Dormition is the idea that Mary, like her son, died in the flesh and was bodily resurrected three days later. Following her resurrection, Mary joined her son in Heaven. In this regard, belief in the Dormition of Mary is entirely consistent with acceptance of the dogma of the Assumption. Though many Catholics still hold to the belief that Mary never died in any sense, no one is bound to accept this view as a matter of faith.

Over the course of my "two-lunged" celebration of the Dormition and Assumption of Mary, I'll be praying in a special way for the monks of Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. This century-old Benedictine monastery is located on what is traditionally held to be the site of Mary's death. I had an opportunity to visit Dormition Abbey when I was in Jerusalem seven years ago, and I've often reflected back on my experience there (in fact, the monastery even came up in a dream I had during the Long Retreat I made as a novice). If you would like to learn more about this beautiful place and the monks who make their home there, I highly recommend that you visit the Dormition Abbey website. Whether or not you ever visit Dormition Abbey in person or online, I ask you to join me in praying for the monks there and their witness for peace in a land torn apart by violence. AMDG.

Monday, August 13, 2007


I professed First Vows in the Society exactly one year ago today. I recall some moments of the day with crystal clarity - in my mind's eye I can instantly picture myself kneeling on a marble step in the sanctuary of Detroit's Gesu Church to profess my vows, and I can just easily conjure up an image of myself signing papers in the sacristy afterward with my fellow vovendi. I can see my parents sitting in a church pew in their finery, and I can see my friend and fellow Hoya Cory Meltzer walking up the center aisle of a now-empty church after the Mass to congratulate me. At the same time, my recollections of the day remain somewhat blurry. There's a lot about the day I can't remember - what time I got up, for example, or what I ate, or when I went to bed. More importantly, though, I vividly recall the mix of excitement, joy and uncertainty I felt as I took vows. I feel the same emotions today, and as I have each day of the past year I awoke this morning grateful for the gift of being called to follow Christ in the Society that bears his name.

I had ample opportunity to reflect on the gift of this vocation yesterday morning as I watched my erstwhile primi Richard Beebe, Tim McCabe and Chris Staab profess perpetual vows of poverty, chastity and obedience at SS. Peter and Paul Jesuit Church in Detroit. I'm very proud of Rich, Tim and Chris, and I'm very happy that I was able to witness their profession of First Vows. Rich has posted some of his own thoughts on the event on his blog, and I commend his words to your attention. Newly-minted second-year novice Christopher Gagnon also has some reflections on the vow weekend online, and I suggest you read these as well. Christopher and his classmates did an outstanding job singing and serving at the Vow Mass, and they also showed considerable creativity and skill in organizing the traditional vigil service the night before vows. I commend the new secundi for their fine work, and I'm confident they'll do great things in the future. As I give thanks today for my own vocation, I am thankful also for all those whom God has called into the Society of Jesus. I pray that we may all be faithful to our common call as sons of the Church and Companions of Jesus. AMDG.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Bergman, Antonioni and the Religiously Inclined.

Even though I'm on vacation, I wanted to call your attention to this piece by Peter Steinfels in today's New York Times, commenting on the deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni. Here's a snippet:
It is an interesting question why so many people serious about religion, believers in particular, feel such a loss at the death of Bergman. His view of religion was anything but benign. He recalled his ultimate loss of faith with great relief. His personal life was not a model. Nor did his films respect proprieties.

One explanation was captured in a phrase appearing in some obituaries and echoed in most. He took on the "big questions" about the human condition: God, faith, desire, doubt, despair, death and, above all, love and its fragility. He did this with a vocabulary of images and language that were often explicitly religious and, when not, were still resonant with implied religious references.

There is an interesting contrast here with Michelangelo Antonioni, the other major filmmaker who died Monday. Of all the other great Italian directors, probably none were so unremittingly secular as Antonioni. His world is severely postreligious, a circumstance that made reflective believers intensely interested in his work, too. For Antonioni, however, the passage from religion was simply a fact; for Bergman it was a struggle.
To read the rest, click here. On the theme of the "big questions" and film, Steinfels concludes that "[i]t was the unflinching seriousness of Bergman's struggle with these questions - regardless of the answers he reached - that made him so important for the religiously inclined. This is especially so because his probing, unlike Antonioni's, recognized the continuing power of the Christian and biblical heritage and the deep resonance of its words and images." Amen. AMDG.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

We'll meet again.

Last Friday, I finished my summer ministry at Catholic Charities. In a few minutes, I'll be on my way to the airport to once again leave San Jose. As I prepare to depart, I feel some of the sadness that I felt a couple years ago when I finished my Short Experiment here. At the same time, the end of this experience feels significantly different from the end of the time I spent at Catholic Charities as a novice. Two years ago, I felt sad in part because I didn't know when I would ever return to renew the relationships I had forged during my time in San Jose and to spend more time in a place I had come to love. Now that I've made it back to San Jose, I'm confident that I'll be able to maintain my ties to the Bay Area in the years to come. Feeling certain that I will someday find my way back here, I also feel oddly at peace with the fact that I don't know when my next visit will be or how long it will last. At the very least, I can say that I look forward to the day when I find myself back here again.

I'll be on the road for the next weeks, so blogging will likely be sparse (as admittedly it has been this summer - I'll definitely post more regularly when I'm back in New York). For the next week, I'll be up at Omena for the formation villa. Then I'll be in Detroit for First Vows, then I'll have a week in Chicago before returning to Fordham. My prayers are with those readers who will also be traveling this August, which tends to be a busy month (the busiest, perhaps, though I don't really know) for vacationers. Happy trails to you, until we meet again. AMDG.