Sunday, November 29, 2009

Awakening to Advent.

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.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

On Thanksgiving Day.

For the first time since I entered the Society of Jesus, I'm spending Thanksgiving Day with my family in Massachusetts. The fact that I'm usually far from my family on this holiday makes me additionally grateful that I'm able to spend the day with them this year. I'm also grateful to be in Massachusetts on what I still think of as the quintessential New England holiday.

For common reflection on the meaning of Thanksgiving Day, I offer some words from 19th-century writer and editor Sarah Josepha Hale, who did much to popularize this holiday:
Our good ancestors were wise, even in their mirth. We have a standing proof of this in the season they chose for the celebration of our annual reflection, the Thanksgiving. The funeral-faced month of November is thus made to wear a garland of joy . . .

There is a deep moral influence in these periodical seasons of rejoicing, in which a whole community participate. They bring out, and together, as it were, the best sympathies of our nature. The rich contemplate the enjoyments of the poor with complacency, and the poor regard the entertainments of the rich without envy, because all are privileged to be happy in their own way.
Happy Thanksgiving to all readers. AMDG.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Remembering the Martyrs of the UCA.

Earlier this week, I posted some reflections on the Martyrs of the University of Central America. As a kind of addendum or follow-up to that post, I wanted to write something about how Jesuit universities in the United States are marking the twentieth anniversary of the murder of six Jesuit priests and two Catholic laywomen at the UCA in San Salvador. National Jesuit News has a list of some commemorative events being held at Jesuit institutions throughout the country. Saint Joseph's University has marked the anniversary with a number of events, including public lectures on aspects of the legacy of the Martyrs of the UCA and a Memorial Mass celebrated on campus earlier this afternoon.

Some photos of today's Mass are presented above. The principal celebrant, Father Edil Calero, is a Bolivian Jesuit spending the current academic year at SJU. Having spent four years of his Jesuit formation in El Salvador, he can count himself as an eyewitness to the country's ongoing experience of poverty and social division. Appropriately enough, Father Calero offered the Mass not simply for the memory of the eight individuals killed at the UCA in November of 1989, but also for the seventy-five thousand Salvadorans who lost their lives in the country's long and brutal civil war.

During the homily at today's Mass, SJU's own Father Dan Joyce described how the Jesuits martyred in El Salvador lived out an approach to Christian discipleship with roots in the Spiritual Exercises. A similar concern for discipleship motivates the SJU students who have chosen to travel to Columbus, Georgia this weekend to take part in the annual prayer vigil at the site of the SOA/WHINSEC as well as the associated Ignatian Family Teach-In. Special prayers were offered for these students at the conclusion of today's liturgy (see bottom photo), and I will continue praying for them over the next few days. May their experiences this weekend deepen their faith in Christ, and may they return to campus with greater zeal for the values of the Gospel. AMDG.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The heroism and humanity of "very ordinary saints."

Today is the twentieth anniversary of the murder of the Martyrs of the University of Central America, a group that includes six Jesuits - Ignacio Ellacuría, Amando López, Joaquín López y López, Ignacio Martín-Baró, Segundo Montes and Juan Ramón Moreno - and two Catholic laywomen, Julia Elba Ramos and Celina Mariset Ramos. If you've never read these names before and know nothing of their story, a good place to start to learn about the Martyrs of the UCA is this article written about them by Jesuit Father Charles Beirne on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of their assassination.

There is little that I can say or write about the Martyrs of the UCA that has not been expressed more eloquently by others. Nonetheless, I can say that their example of heroic Christian witness in the face of oppression and violence reminds us that martyrdom remains a reality in the contemporary world. The eight people who were killed twenty years ago today by Salvadoran soldiers died because their commitment to the Gospel forced them to take a collective stand against a regime that was hostile to the Church and to the poor. For Ellacuría and the other Jesuits, this stand was made manifest in preaching, teaching and scholarship. For Julia Elba Ramos, who served the Jesuit community at the UCA as a cook and housekeeper, and for her sixteen year-old daughter Celina, this stand was expressed in simple deeds of service and accompaniment. In death, these eight were united with Christ and with the many thousands of innocent civilians who lost their lives in the senseless violence of El Salvador's brutal civil war.

Some of the best commentary that I've read regarding the events that occurred two decades ago on this date comes in this piece by Hugh O'Shaughnessy in the Guardian. A veteran foreign correspondent with forty years' experience in Latin America, O'Shaughnessy notes that the murders at the UCA coincided with the fall of the Berlin Wall and wonders whether the world has made much progress since:
The 20th anniversary last week of the fall of the Berlin Wall - attended by well-known political leaders, Lech Walęsa and a long line of toppling dominoes - is being swiftly followed today by the 20th anniversary of the massacre of six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter by a Salvadorean army death squad.

This awkward juxtaposition will - or at least should - give pause to those who were rejoicing about the end of the Cold War and proclaiming hubristically that it had brought on an era of peace and light and liberty under the kindly aegis of the "free world," i.e. the Western powers.

Neither peace nor liberty was to be found in El Salvador and in many other parts of Latin America which [were] inaccurately termed part of the "free world" in 1989. Progress has been made recently and a new generation of leaders has arisen with Correa of Ecuador and Lugo of Paraguay standing out as avowed Christians in a constellation of determined reformers which goes from Lula in Brazil, Chile's Michelle Bachelet and Cristina Kirchner in Argentina to Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia. But there is still a long way to go before decent and just societies of the sort we were promised in Berlin two decades ago are established elsewhere.
Though I have my own doubts and reservations regarding some of the "determined reformers" that O'Shaughnessy mentions, I think that it's impossible to deny that Latin America has made great progress in the last twenty years. Though challenges to the consolidation of democracy still remain, fair and free elections are now held regularly in most Latin American countries. Respect for human rights is also growing, as more and more effective efforts have been made to shed light on past abuses, bring justice to the victims, and reliably protect basic civil liberties. Even so, as one article that I've read on today's anniversary reveals, Salvadorans still struggle to realize the dreams that the Martyrs of the UCA gave their lives for.

As O'Shaughnessy rightly reminds us, the gains that have been made in much of Latin America have not been made in many other parts of the world. People who live in countries that are menaced by war or oppressed by unjust governments still wait for the era of freedom and peace which seemed to some Westerners to be in easy reach at the end of the Cold War. On this day on which we remember the Martyrs of the UCA, may we also be mindful of the challenges that still lie before us.

On a very different note, another aspect of O'Shaughnessy's piece that I appreciated is the author's recognition of the very real foibles of the individuals that many of us now regard as martyrs:
. . . one could do worse than ponder on the legacy of the eight men and women butchered that terrible night on the campus of the Central American University in San Salvador. It's heartening, for instance, to hear from one of their companions that some of them were - how can I put it? - less than perfect human beings.

I myself knew one of the martyrs slightly, the immensely intelligent Ignacio Ellacuría, and was already aware of his reputation for not suffering fools gladly. Thus when it fell to me years ago to chair a long session at a conference in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, which was running late, I was mortified - but not really surprised - when he protested aggressively that I hadn't given him the right of reply which he considered was his due.

Now in The Tablet, the Catholic weekly, Michael Campbell-Johnston, the English Jesuit who used to work for justice in a country run for the benefit of the rich, tells of two of the other martyrs whom he calls "very ordinary saints." Father Amando López, he says, used to fall asleep in an easy chair watching appalling Hong Kong martial-arts films while Father Juan Ramón Moreno was known as an exceptionally boring teacher.
I'm sure that some think that the revelation of such details dishonors the memory of Jesuits who gave their lives in the service of the Gospel. For my part, I find that such information can only make holy people all the more admirable. If eminently "ordinary" individuals with their own share of flaws and shortcomings can do great things for God, we certainly can as well.

As I see it, the line of thought considered above can be comforting as well as challenging: it may comfort us to think that the saints and martyrs we admire were people much like us, but this knowledge should also lead us to consider whether we use our natural and inevitable shortcomings to excuse our failures in discipleship. On the anniversary of the killing of the Martyrs of the University of Central America, I pray that their example may give us greater courage to follow Christ more faithfully. AMDG.

Friday, November 13, 2009

"What is it all for if there's no Spooky?"

The above question was posed recently by Rome-based Anglo-Canadian Catholic writer Hilary White on her provocative and often very interesting weblog Orwell's Picnic. In this post from earlier in the week, Miss White observes that contemporary Christian apologists seldom respond adequately to the glib posturing of the "New Atheists" and other ardent secularists because they seek to justify belief in secular and 'worldly' terms and fail to address "the religious part of religion." In yesterday's post, Miss White quotes an English priest-blogger who notices that "[w]hat most religious people are badly prepared to discuss are those things the non-religious want to discuss, those fundamental questions that science just can't answer or where science merges into religion."

What is the "religious part of religion" that believers often fail to discuss? Orwell's Picnic provides a shorthand term for it - "the Spooky." In another recent post, Hilary White explains what she means by "Spooky Catholicism" and considers how pop culture betrays a hunger for it:
I have often thought that there seems, at least in the way most people practice the faith, two kinds of Catholicism. What I have arbitrarily designated "The Rules" and "Spooky Catholicism."

Of course, a balanced Catholic lives his life according to The Rules because he knows that Spooky Catholicism is real. This is the correct way of looking at it. The supernatural really actually exists in the really real world and therefore things like the difference between good and evil [are] not merely the subject of dry academic debate but an urgent and immediate reality to be contended with daily.

The reality of the supernatural is something that seems quite difficult for modern people to understand. And this despite the vast and growing proliferation of the occult in popular culture, which seems odd.
In the paragraphs that follow, Miss White considers how the Harry Potter books, Twilight and Buffy the Vampire Slayer cater to enduring fascination with the supernatural by providing what amounts to a muddled naturalism. This kind of thinking has rubbed off on many Catholics, while what is really supernatural - "the Spooky" - has often been neglected:
Whether we like it or not, we live in a culture that has, for 400 years or more, been rejecting the existence of the supernatural. And now that we're looking for it again, we don't know it when we see it and think we see it when we really don't.

I think that our modern obsession with the occult is not in fact a result of an innate human fascination with the supernatural. Or perhaps the purveyors of the occult pop-culture are so unimaginative that what they are peddling is merely naturalism dressed up in sparkly GCI costumes.

As a result, we Catholics seem to have a hard time understanding what the actual supernatural is. We have popular Catholic literature that talks about things like birth and sunsets and butterflies as "miraculous." Well, it might be a poetic way of speaking about how great nature is, but it is misleading too. Natural things are not, by definition, miraculous. The supernatural is not just the natural with superpowers.

We really have a hard time with the idea of something that is real, has a will and an intellect and the ability to do things in the natural world, but no body at all. A spirit, in the strictest sense.

We have a heck of a time understanding the thing about God being outside, above and preceding time and space.

Now that the Church has more or less given up talking about the supernatural and continues to justify its existence based on its record of social work projects in the third world, we Catholics have fallen into the habit of thinking naturalistically. So much so, I think, that things like the "Catholic charismatic movement" have sprung up in reaction.

People who are interested in religion are really interested in the Spooky parts. They want to know about the grand movements of Heaven and Hell, of angels and demons and the Great War between them. They want to know that their own moral struggles are about something greater, taller and more grand than global warming or the dangers of smoking. Something better, that is, than what the secular world offers.

It's the real reason movies and books like The Da Vinci Code are so wildly popular. Why Hollywood always dresses its pretend nuns to look more like real nuns than the real nuns have looked in 40 years. And why the Godfather movies all have depictions of the brocade and velvet, pointed arches, gold-curliqued and marble-columned Catholicism of the pre-Vatican II era. No one who is looking for the real, Spooky, Supernatural version of religion wants a priest to dress in a polyester poncho and sing folk songs.

There's the Rules, yes, and we give intellectual assent to the doctrines of the Faith (which is what "The Rules" is shorthand for). But what are The Rules guiding if not the supernatural life of the soul?

What is it all for if there's no Spooky?
To read the rest, click here. In my own way, I agree with Hilary White that the mysterious, numinous, "Spooky" element is at once what is most real and most essential in religion. The "Spooky" element of religion is also one that many intellectuals - including many Christian intellectuals - have tended to dismiss, suggesting that belief must have a rational grounding in the here and now to be worthy of consideration. The implication seems to be that if religion is to have a place in the post-Enlightenment world it must be defined on the Enlightenment's terms. Acceptance of this line of thought may invite problems, for when the 'usefulness' or 'value' of religion is debated, the defenders of religious belief may find themselves crippled by a reliance on terms and categories that effectively stack the deck against religion.

At the very least, it strikes me that some religious believers' tendency to dismiss the "Spooky" element of faith is rather unhelpful. I've witnessed manifestations of this tendency any number of times, but at the moment one particular instance stands out in my mind. I once attended a seminar at which a Roman Catholic liturgist cavalierly dismissed a college student's statement that she liked to attend a particular on-campus liturgy because it was, in her description, "spooky" - conducted solely by the light of candles, punctuated by Gregorian chant, celebrated with a stylized formality that was at once austere and inviting. In the eyes of this liturgist, to say that one was looking for "spooky" suggested that one wasn't really looking for God. I didn't offer a challenge to the liturgist's statement at the time, but I wanted to reply that it was precisely within the realm of the "Spooky" that many find God.

Contrary to the views of that liturgist and others like him, I would suggest that the widespread hunger for mystery must be accepted and respected. I would suggest, too, that Miss White's question - "What is it all for if there's no Spooky?" - is one that believers of all stripes ought to take seriously. Among other things, asking this question might help us to understand why so many people identify as "spiritual but not religious." To be very frank, people who consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious are wrong - if you describe yourself this way, you're relying on the mistaken premise that "spirituality" and "religion" are two distinct phenomena that can be separated rather than aspects of the same experience. Nonetheless, I suspect that not a few of the "spiritual but not religious" crowd may have trouble with "The Rules" (which is what they often take religion to be) but still seek the "Spooky" in some form or another. If we wish to convince an increasingly skeptical society that religion and spirituality are inseparable, we would do well to recognize that "The Rules" and the "Spooky" are inseparable as well. AMDG.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Remembrance Day is a bit quieter this year. As the world marks the 91st anniversary of the end of the First World War, only three veterans of the conflict are believed to survive: British seaman Claude Choules, Canadian serviceman John Babcock, and American doughboy Frank Buckles. The last surviving British veteran lives in Australia, so this will be the first year that official commemorations of Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom have not included any veterans of the Great War. To learn more about today's events in Britain, read these stories in the Times, the Independent, and the Guardian.

As the silence observed on Remembrance Day grows slightly more profound, I pray that the world will not forget the lessons that those who fought in the First World War and the other conflicts of the past century have to teach us. As we pause to remember all who served in these wars - both those who died in the midst of conflict and those who survived - I hope and pray that we who remember may also commit ourselves more strongly to the task of working for peace in a world that remains torn by conflict. AMDG.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Two Walls.

On this anniversary, the images can speak for themselves. AMDG.

(Information about these photos is available here, here, here, here and here.)

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Sister Rosemary Statt, R.S.C.J., 1937-2009.

As some longtime readers of this blog know well, I spent some months as a novice and one of my summers in First Studies doing refugee resettlement work with Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County in San Jose, California. Early on my first day at Catholic Charities, my supervisor took me around the office to introduce me to my new coworkers. Along the way, we passed an empty office with "Sr. Rosie Statt" printed on the open door. Though she was out of the office, my supervisor assured me that I would encounter Sister Rosie later on. "You'll remember meeting Sister Rosie," she said, "and you'll remember that I said that."

Meeting Sister Rosie Statt was certainly a memorable experience, as was sharing a workplace with her. Sister Rosie's work was very different from mine: she spent her time finding places for poor people to live and negotiating with landlords, while I tutored African and Asian refugees in English and helped them adjust to life in the United States. Even so, I often crossed paths with Sister Rosie in the hallway or the lunchroom, and she sometimes stopped by my office to impart words of encouragement or support. At first I thought she was looking out for me, until I found out that she did the same with almost everyone in the office.

Sister Rosie demonstrated a commitment to cura personalis that extended to clients and coworkers alike. She cared not only about what people were doing but about how they were doing, showing an active concern for the emotional and spiritual well-being of all the people she spent her days with. Her good cheer and infectious sense of humor remained undiminished even as she began to suffer the effects of the cancer that would ultimately take her life. As Sister Rosie's health faltered, she continued to work to serve others in a manner that suggested that her ministry gave her the strength and energy that she needed in her battle with cancer. Though that battle that ended last Saturday when Sister Rosie died at the age of 72, her example of service will surely live on in the memory of her clients and coworkers.

Since I learned of Sister Rosie's death earlier this week, I've been praying not simply for the repose of her soul but in thanksgiving for the gift of having met and worked with her. As a member of the Society of the Sacred Heart - the fabled "Madames" of yore - Sister Rosie was proud to follow one of the great spiritual charisms in the Roman Catholic Church. For me, Sister Rosie also served as a fitting representative of the many religious women who have given their lives in generous and often little-noticed service to the Church and to people in need.

As I join my prayers with those of Sister Rosie's friends, family, fellow sisters, clients and coworkers, I also pray that her work and example may continue to inspire all who knew her. AMDG.